What do a tea restaurant and a miniature bank have to do with George Lucas's plan for a narrative arts museum?
Of all the things Chicago is known for, one of the most praiseworthy is the protective grip it has over its public parks and lakefront. It's not a hard sentiment to understand, really. The lakefront, unblemished by private development, is one of the city's most beautiful aspects, inherited by each generation from the one before it with one solemn oath first etched into history in the midst of the 19th century: "forever open, clear, and free of any buildings".
It was this principle, decided by the Canal Commission in 1836 while drawing plans for the I&M canal, and carried through history by Daniel Burnham, A. Montgomery Ward, and countless city and park planners since, that has allowed the creation and preservation of Grant Park and the lakefront as a public space belonging to the people, rather than private development. It's why there's no private beaches on Lake Michigan within the city, nor any tall hotels or condos straddling Lake Shore Drive to offer private dwellers so-close-you-can-touch-it views of the lake. Consider Niagara Falls, for instance, one of North America's most amazing natural wonders, and how it is now completely ensconced with hotel towers lit with neon signage like architectural graffiti detracting from the natural spectacle of the very falls for which they clamber above each other to offer superior views. Imagine if Niagara had the same preservationist attitude that Chicago has.
But despite being a decision made before Edison patented the light bulb, Chicago's lakefront and park protectionism isn't simply a matter of course any more than is America's idea of individual liberties or a free press. Rather, these are ideas that are fought over on a daily basis to redefine what is acceptable and what isn't.
Retail and mail-order magnate A. Montgomery Ward is considered to be responsible for the preservation of Grant Park as it exists today because he fought fiercely in court to prevent the city from building new structures on the park land. Daniel Burnham had a vision of a Grant Park filled with regal, neo-classical museums and a victorian promenade connecting them all, an echo of his White City at the World's Columbian Exhibition he oversaw earlier. Because of Ward's legal blockade, the Field Museum was built south of the park, on what is now known as Museum Campus due to the Shedd and Adler built around it.
Even today, small battles are being fought around what is acceptable use of public land.
Since late Spring, a small "pop-up bank" operated by PNC Bank has sat in Grant Park. It's a bright orange and blue shipping container with doors and windows and an ATM. The park district earns $120,000 annually from the small structure, but many folks are not happy with its location in the park. DNAInfo has reports of numerous complaints about the very idea of a bank opening "It seems to go against the nature of the park itself," a citizen tells DNAInfo.
The Park District is okay with it, obviously, in part because of the payola but also because, according to them, it's not a permanent structure. In their mind, it's a temporary vendor like you might find several dozen of in the park during Taste of Chicago. But is it the same? And where are the limits? What if Starbucks wants to open a mini-cafe right next to the PNC to capture the millions of visitors Grant Park will receive this summer? Why wouldn't they?
And consider Connors Park, to the north of downtown a few blocks from John Hancock tower. The squat little park is now home to an Argo Tea pavilion which just celebrated its one year anniversary of the location. Initially there was confusion about whether the park was still a park, and if it was okay to sit and enjoy the park without buying a tea. At a celebration for the one year anniversary, staff told us that with recent changes to the signage that confusion has dissipated and that neighbors know they're welcome.
To its credit, Argo Tea is a local company and now pays for the landscaping and upkeep of the park itself and their beautiful and custom-designed pavilion. But it makes one wonder too where the line is. Is the Argo Tea in Connors Park a special circumstance where tight integration into the park and community makes a one-time exception to the well-held belief that public parks should be public? If Al's Beef wanted to take over a park in the same way, would we let them? Like all things, time will tell.
But the fact that these two issues are even issues at all speaks to the city's constant vigilance against abuse of the parks, and it explains why despite being a seeming "slam dunk," the Soldier Field parking lot location chosen for the Lucas Museum won't come without a fight. This isn't a quarter-block tea house or a 160 square-foot mini-bank, it's a massive, multi-million-dollar development that has already captured the attention of the nation. As Chicagoist puts it, The Debate Over The Lucas Museum Has Only Started.
Agree or disagree with the location, it's a good sign that Chicago is paying attention, and hopefully always will.