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It’s funny, as Homer Simpson would say, because it’s true. Or nearly. O’Neill is lobbying overtime to build a new Chicago Children’s Museum in Grant Park—the same Grant Park that, a century ago, A. Montgomery Ward fought a long, bruising, ultimately successful battle over. Ward was defending the 1836 mandate to keep Chicago’s lakefront public ground, “a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever.”
The Children’s Museum is but the latest in a long procession of hustles seeking to circumvent that mandate. It’s looking to replace free access to open land with new construction and stiff admission charges, and Bob O’Neill is doing his part to keep those who don’t think it’s a very good idea safely on the sidelines.
O’Neill is a tireless advocate for Grant Park and a genuinely nice guy, but the way he runs the advisory council’s public meetings is a throwback to a time when most community organizations were little more than appendages of the Democratic machine. His sessions are stacked decks masquerading as public forums. They derail effective dissent.
The Warmup - Queen's Crossing
Consider the case of Queen’s Crossing, the crosswalk linking Buckingham Fountain to the lakefront promenade. In 1995 the city spent over $9 million to restore Congress Plaza to its original Burnham Plan status as a grand pedestrian gateway, framed by Ivan Mestrovic’s majestic twin sculptures the Bowman and the Spearman. The gateway would draw visitors from Michigan Avenue along an axis proceeding to the fountain and then the lake.
But in the fall of 2005, without notice or discussion, the city erected storm fencing to shut down Queen’s Crossing, saying it needed to improve the flow of traffic on Lake Shore Drive. The promenade from Congress Plaza now ends abruptly at a barrier of chained bollards at Lake Shore Drive, beyond which the lake beckons inaccessibly.
At the advisory council meeting O’Neill called soon after the shutdown, O’Neill talked past the outraged. “We want to stay positive,” he said.
In the dog-and-pony show that followed, a young and eager Chicago Department of Transportation engineer dragged out a spectacular design for a bridge over Queen’s Crossing by Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect of the 2,000-foot-high Chicago Spire. It was the same bridge design the city had mothballed several years earlier.
By the city engineer’s estimate, it would take four to five years for the bridge to be constructed and the pedestrian crossing restored. But there was no actual commitment from the city to build the bridge, no new funding source to cover the estimated $30 million or more cost. The proposal was a phantom, but it served O’Neill’s purpose—it derailed dissent. (Lately newly elected 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly has been talking about reopening the crossing again.)
The Main Event - the Chicago Children's Museum takes charge
Now O’Neill is working his magic for the CCM’s move from Navy Pier into Grant Park. A massive PR campaign that has to be costing the museum a pretty penny began with the March 2006 hiring of a stage manager, Jim Law, a 16-year City Hall veteran and long-time executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events.
You may already have heard the warm and fuzzy radio spots. “Daddy, how do airplanes fly?” a child asks as an announcer talks about a museum that will be “friendly to the environment” and “let our children’s imaginations soar.” The spot directs listeners to the plans on the museum’s Web site, where the only rendering is from so wide a perspective that the new CCM building almost disappears within several blocks of surrounding parkland. Think Dustin Hoffman’s screen test in Tootsie:
This bird’s eye view is from so high that even the soaring sails of the Gehry bandshell look flat. The Web site offers preaddressed e-mail to Alderman Reilly urging him to support the move. You can’t change the text, and Reilly’s address is hidden - if you want to write him with anything besides the CCM party line, you need to find it on your own.
Soon we should be seeing the release of a survey of area residents, which I predict will show overwhelming support for putting the museum in Millennium Park. How do I know this? Well, as an area resident, I was one of those surveyed. The questions offered a choice of opposing points of view: arguments against the museum stated tersely and arguments in favor that overflowed with positive buzz words—“not for profit,” “beautifully designed,” “great museum.”
The Irresistible Pull of Millennium Park
Wouldn’t the new CCM be a better fit for the museum campus, by the Field, the Shedd, and the Adler? “We had suggested that area to them,” said O’Neill, “to see what their reaction would be, and they weren’t even considering it.” Of course not. Millennium Park is a smash hit, and CCM is looking for a way to tap into the three million people who visit it each year.
First up was the Art Institute of Chicago, with its plans to build, as an offshoot of its new Modern Wing, a 700-foot bridge designed by architect Renzo Piano that runs from Millennium Park to the museum. (When you get to the end of the bridge, your only real choices will be to visit the museum or make the nearly two-block hike back where you came from.)
Art Institute President James Cuno, in a March 2006 talk sponsored by Friends of Downtown, had the calculations at his fingertips. “If 3,000,000 people come to Millennium Park, if 20 percent of those go across the bridge to the museum, that’s 600,000. If half of them come to the museum, that’s 300,000. I think it’s a very conservative estimate.” That 300,000 would be 20 percent of 2006’s 1,441,000 total visitors.
Undoubtedly the Chicago Children’s Museum has made similar calculations and wants to get on the gravy train. The other park attractions are free—the Pritzker bandshell, the Lurie Garden, Cloud Gate, Crown Fountain—but it costs $7 for kids over 12 to get into the Art Institute, and the current fee for adults and children alike to get into CCM is $8.
The new museum alone would impose 100,000 square feet of new construction on the park, and an attached field house, replacing the Daley Bicentennial Field House at 337 E. Randolph, would add another 20,000 square feet. The museum is quick to assert that most of the footage would be below grade, but in a model of the design shown to community groups this summer an astounding amount was not.
There was an above-grade entry pavilion along Randolph Street, and behind it a series of pavilions extending into and soaring above the park, which is a story lower than Randolph. East of the museum was the new field house, tall enough to have a “viewing terrace” looking down on the park.
O'Neill Spins the Critics
When the Grant Park Advisory Council held a public meeting on the museum’s move in May, O’Neill presided over it as if it were a personal press conference. He calls on every questioner, but his responses often turn into rebuttals several times the length of the original question.
O’Neill desperately wants a new field house. “I believe we are disgraced by the condition of this field house,” he says. “This is not a personal issue. I have gotten complaints ad nauseam for a decade about this building. When it’s raining, it’s leaking. Where people are having birthday parties for their children, and water leaking on the birthday cake.” The CCM has offered to build it for him free of charge. To O’Neill, the offer makes the CCM deal a prime example of the virtues of public/private partnerships at a time when governmental units like the Chicago Park District are often short on funds.
A local resident attending the meeting felt otherwise. “I don’t think the Children’s Museum and the new field house should be talked about in the same breath. This is blackmail. If you don’t say yes to the Children’s Museum, I don’t get a field house.”
“It’s not blackmail,” responded O’Neill. “It’s an example that has been set in the success of a lot of public improvements [such as] those pavilions that are around Buckingham Fountain. There is a balance between commercialism and its impact on the park, both negatively and positively. The most visible is Millennium Park.... You’ll notice the BP bridge says BP very tastefully. Yes, that is commercialization. The Jay Pritzker Pavilion says Pritzker on it. Boeing Plaza. [McCormick Tribune] skating rink. But it’s done tastefully.”
“The difference between Millennium Park and the Children’s Museum,” said someone else in the audience, “is that I don’t have to pay $8 to go down and enjoy Millennium Park.”
“I’d really like to understand,” someone else challenged O’Neill, “where do you stand in all this? I’m not certain that you are really listening to people.”
“I am listening,” responded O’Neill. “I’m a good talker, but I’m also a good listener. This information will go back to the museum, early. It’s their museum. It’s not mine.”
“Seems to me you’re advocating the Children’s Museum,” countered an audience member. “No,” O’Neill answered. “I don’t make a decision before an audience. I don’t make knee-jerk decisions.”
But on August 20 Crain’s Chicago Business published a letter from O’Neill that began, “The Grant Park Advisory Council has supported the proposed move of the Chicago Children’s Museum from Navy Pier to the north end of Grant Park for almost two years.” O’Neill's organization, whose board, shared with the Grant Park Conservancy, is a who’s who of corporate and institutional heavy hitters, had made up its mind even before the debate began.
This Public/Private Partnership Thing is Trickier Than we Thought
Millennium Park aside, past private-public partnerships in Grant Park have been a mixed bag. According to Lois Wille’s invaluable history of the battles over Chicago’s lakefront, Forever Open, Clear, and Free, the first questionable deal came in 1851. The city, as usual, was broke, and needed a breakwater to protect the homes along Michigan Avenue. Across the street, what was then Lake Park was little more than “marshy rubble.”
After railroad lobbyist John Wentworth, a future mayor, argued for the benefits of “jobs for the jobless, lower prices for fruits and vegetables, [and] a saving in property taxes,” the city accepted a deal giving the new Illinois Central Railroad a 300-foot-wide strip of land along the lake from 22nd to Randolph, on which it’d be allowed to build a trestle in exchange for constructing a breakwater and creating landfill that would eventually become the site of structures like the Aon Building. In a short time the lakefront became a tangle of freight yards, depots, and debris. The curse of this deal persists to this day in the open ditch that carries the rails south of Monroe.
A. Montgomery Ward - the human icicle who saved the lakefront
By 1890, mail order king A. Montgomery Ward was gazing out the window of his new building at Michigan and Madison, which is today being converted into condominiums. According to Wille, “The view across Michigan, towards the lake, turned his stomach: stables, squatter’s shacks, mountains of ashes and garbage... railroad sheds, a firehouse, the litter of one of the circuses that continually moved in and out.”
“Merrick,” Ward exclaimed, “this is a damn shame! Go and do something about it.” Merrick was Ward’s attorney. On October 16, 1890, Ward filed a lawsuit to clean up the lakefront. A battle lasting a dozen years pitted him against just about everyone else, because just about everyone had something they wanted to dump alongside the lake: a new civic center, a power plant, stables. Daniel Burnham wanted to put the Field Museum there, right about where Buckingham Fountain is now. When Sarah Daggett, a Michigan Avenue resident, blocked the building of the Art Institute in the park by refusing to sign her consent, her husband did it for her. Men could do that in those days.
Other businessmen lobbied Ward relentlessly, then shunned him when he wouldn’t yield. The Tribune reviled him, calling him “a human icicle.” It predicted anarchy if Ward were allowed to stop the building of an armory in the park to protect the city from labor agitators. Ward said he’d agree to the Field Museum if there were guarantees no further structures would be erected. His compromise was spurned. It wasn’t until 1912 that his victory was finally secured, and by that time he was an old and broken man.
“I fought for the poor people of Chicago, not the millionaires,” Ward said in the only interview he ever gave to a newspaper, in the Tribune. “Had I known in 1890 how long it would take me to preserve a park for people against their will, I doubt if I would have undertaken it.” After his death in 1913, the Tribune grudgingly acknowledged his contribution, publishing headlines that called him the “lake watchdog” who “won fight to save park” but putting the words “watchdog” and “save” in quotation marks.
Ward's latest adversaries - Fighting over the Lakefront Ain't Beanbag
Today another set of millionaires is supporting building the Children’s Museum in the park. It's understandable - you can’t put a donor’s wall on a tree.
But more people have learned Ward’s lesson. Even the Tribune has come full circle. A September 2 editorial was headlined, “A museum in Grant Park? No.” Alderman Reilly has been holding a series of community meetings, at which he estimates opposition to the museum has been running at about 85 percent. The most recent was this past Monday evening at the field house.
“For neighborhood residents only,” the invitation read. “Please bring this postcard (or a photo I.D. with your current address) to serve as “your admission ticket” for this important meeting.”
The museum had other ideas. The morning of the meeting, Bob O'Neill sent out an e-mail asserting, “Grant Park’s success and international status are at stake. Grant Park is all of Chicago’s park, it is our front yard! It does not belong to any one community but to all of Chicago’s communities . . . Grant Park is also an international park and we need to show the world that we have the vision and leadership that will help us attract the 2016 Olympics.” (The spector of the Olympics is becoming the universal catch-all that can be made to justify just about anything.)
As reported by the Chicago Tribune, the museum made a last-minute booking of the space for the hour before Reilly's meeting was scheduled to begin, and brought down families supporting the move to make them available for media interviews.
Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina's was also on hand to not so subtly suggest that opponents of the move were racists seeking to keep non-white kids out of the park, (as if he's never been to Crown Fountain to see children of all races and nationalities joyously playing together there.)
Residents were largely exiled to the fieldhouse's side hallways, where chants of "Reschedule! Reschedule!" soon erupted. Eventually sound was piped into the hallways, and the crowd, amidst not infrequent bouts of booing and catcalls, tried to follow the meeting as best they could.
“This was billed as a neighborhood meeting,” Reilly said when the noise of the crowd subsided. “Tonight you can see around the room, it’s not. . .” (Reilly has said he will announce his decision on the museum's proposed move Monday, September 17th.)
Krueck’s partner, Mark Sexton, presented a revised design that moved the project westward, with the new field house abutting Columbus Drive. The multiple pavilions and viewing terrace had disappeared. “Eighty percent of the museum is now dedicated to rooftop gardens,” he said. “There’s terraces that are part of the continuum of the park.”
Remaining was an enormous central courtyard lined by sometimes soaring skylights required to bring daylight down into the museum. Sexton sold them as “sculptured skylights,” bringing to mind the subterfuge that circumvented legal height limits in the park by labeling the metal billows of Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion “sculpture.”
(It's indicative that the renderings of those elements, presented as slides at the meeting, were not among those given to the Chicago Reader for this article.) There's also a 20-foot-high entrance pavilion along upper Randolph, where today no such structure exists.
Willie’s wording made it sound like her stand was as much about feeling snubbed by her former employer as it was her approval of the museum (The Chicago Reader's Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites, has a great post on the story behind Wille's repudiation.)
Richard Ward was the only person allowed to make a presentation opposing the museum. Ward, the president of the New Eastside Association of Residents, or NEAR (and no relation to the captain of industry), zeroed in on the sections of the old Montgomery Ward court rulings most relevant to the current controversy. In particular, there was an 1897 ruling forbidding the “placing thereon anything... to which the public will not be admitted free” and one from 1902 decreeing that the area be held “in trust for the people of the State that they may enjoy... freed from the obstruction or interference of private parties.”
Using Children as a Baseball Bat to Silence Opponents
If, as proponents ceaselessly emphasize, the Children’s Museum project were actually “about” the children, it would be building in the museum campus to give visitors ready access to Grant Park’s other family attractions, and not a mile way, in a lazy monopoly without competition from the wonders of the Field, Shedd and Adler. If it were really about the children, it wouldn’t be making them burrow like moles. “I can’t understand why you want to put the children underground,” a resident commented back in May. “They should be outdoors.”
The debate isn’t about the architecture. Krueck and Sexton, whose stunning new building for the Spertus Institute is set to open in November, are among the best Chicago has to offer. It’s not about whether Grant Park is a park for the neighborhood or the city. It’s only tangentially about parking, pollution, and congestion. In the final analysis, it's not even about the placation of local neighborhood groups.
The question comes down to this: are we still committed to open land? Or will Grant Park be allowed to be carved up among clouted private interests? Consider the history of just the last five years—the Harris Theatre, the Pritzker Pavilion, the Art Institute bridge, and now the Chicago Children’s Museum. If Wille doesn’t think that, should the CCM prevail, there won't be a parade of other interests avidly waiting in the wings to seize on the precedent to get their own piece of the Grant Park pie, she’s lost the tough reporter’s instincts that made her book such a marvel.
As the area around the park becomes even more dense, with soaring skyscrapers rising both to the north and south, and with Millennium Park to the east filled to overflowing with adoring crowds, the kind of open landscape that exists where the Children’s Museum seeks to build becomes even more precious. In an increasingly hyperactive, commercialized city, the need for unadulterated nature, places of beauty for rest and contemplation, is ever more essential.
But don't take my word for it. Take it from Daniel Burnham. Even at a century’s distance, writing in his 1909 Plan of Chicago, he said it best:
[Friday, September 28] - Chicago's Children Museum "fundamentally misconceived" - Blair Kamin
[Tuesday, September 25] - A Portrait of Mayor Daley's "Nowhere"
[Saturday, September 22nd, 12:00 A.M.] The World Class Chicago's Children's Museum: We're Number 31! - "World Class Institution?" - Chicago Sun-Times and Parents Magazine beg to differ.
[Friday, September 21st, 12:00 A.M.] Gigi Pritzker crawls into Richard M. Daley's gutter - if it's not really all about race, why can't the Chicago Children's Museum Board President stop talking about it?
Tuesday, September 18th, 9:00 P.M.] Why is the Chicago Children's Museum Withholding Renderings of its New Building? - what is the CCM hiding?
[Tuesday, September 18th, 6:00 P.M.] Daley the Demagogue
[Tuesday, September 18th, 5:00 P.M.] Alderman Brendan Reilly's statement on the Chicago's Children Museum
[Tuesday, September 18th, 11:00 A.M.] Reilly opposes Museum, risks ruin. Daley diverts discussion and grabs headlines with the Big Lie
[Monday, September 17th] Daley Plays the Race Card on CCM
© Copyright 2007 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.