“New trees can’t replace old trees.”
The elderly woman spoke quietly but with conviction, eyebrows furrowed and voice brimming with anger as she struggled to be heard over the din of the meeting. The room was packed wall-to-wall with over 60 South Side community members, about half of whom stood around the perimeter of the space, unable to find an empty seat. The woman’s voice was one of a crescendoing chorus of protests; it took several minutes for the meeting organizers to restore order.
The evening was filled with impassioned argument, allegations of voter fraud, and accusations of bad faith among the leadership board. The cause of all this controversy?
Yes, that Midway.
Welcome to the October meeting of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council (MPAC), an organization dedicated exclusively to the park, as the council prepares for leadership elections in November.
When MPAC was founded in 2015, it consisted of a handful of community members mostly concerned with the physical maintenance of the park, including field cleanup and tree maintenance. Recently, the organization has found itself at the center of controversy relating to the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), which is slated to be built in neighboring Jackson Park despite fierce opposition from local activist and preservation groups.
In 2018, MPAC sent a letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Obama Foundation, the Chicago Department of Transportation, and the Chicago Park District expressing its opposition to a parking garage being built on the Midway. This letter contributed to a successful community effort urging the Obama Foundation to relocate the parking garage underground. In September 2019, MPAC sent a second letter to the City and federal agencies involved in the OPC's oversight expressing its opposition to any changes that might threaten the Midway's status on the National Register of Historic Places. Debate is also simmering regarding whether a playground should be built on the Midway to compensate for recreational space lost under the OPC plans. Consequently, attendance at MPAC’s monthly meetings has ballooned, reaching just over sixty people in October.
But the underlying question remains—why do threats to a mere stretch of grass galvanize the community this way?
The Midway: A Historic Landmark
Answers may be found in the Midway’s long history as a locus of urban development. Paul Cornell, a lawyer and real estate speculator, began the story of the Midway in the 1850s when he purchased the land that is now Hyde Park. Its then-rural location several miles south of downtown Chicago enjoyed a climate that was cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter due to its proximity to the lake. Cornell envisioned the infertile, undeveloped area as a resort community of parks and hotels for middle- and upper-class families wanting to escape the noise and congestion of the rapidly growing city. Hyde Park quickly became a suburban retreat for affluent Chicagoans, but the Midway itself remained a marshy stretch of parkland for nearly twenty years.
In 1869, Cornell received rights to proceed with an urban project establishing a complex of parks and boulevards to interconnect the city. This included Jackson Park, situated along Lake Michigan to the east of the Midway, and Washington Park, to its west.
Cornell hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—the mastermind behind Central Park, the US Capitol Grounds, and the network of public parks around the South Side—to design and execute the plan along with his longtime partner, Calvert Vaux. Under Olmsted and Vaux’s plan, the Midway was to function as “a magnificent chain of lakes,” allowing boaters to go from the ponds in Washington Park to the lagoons in Jackson Park. However, after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, funds had to be reallocated toward city reconstruction, preventing these plans from being realized.
Around the same time, the land became known as the Midway Plaisance. The park’s name left a legacy of its own when it served as the primary entertainment grounds of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair; to this day, the word ‘midway’ refers to the area at a fair where sideshows and amusements are located.
Over the course of the Fair, which ran from May through October 1893, 27 million people—when the US population was just over 65 million—visited its exhibition halls, which included inventions from fields as diverse as the liberal arts, mining, and agriculture. Many now-famous products were first unveiled at the Fair, including Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker oats, Hershey’s chocolate, and the Ferris wheel. The Midway also saw the debut of the electric light, whose illumination garnered its buildings the title “The White City.”
But not all of the exhibits at the Fair were as innocuous as its charming veneer would suggest. At the heart of the Columbian World’s Exposition’s shining splendor was a message of American exceptionalism. The majority of the Midway was dedicated to exhibits on the newly emergent discipline of anthropology, and the centerpiece of the display was a living, outdoor museum of “primitive human beings.” These exhibits, portrayed as serious, informative displays of ethnography, were showcases of the exotic and novel Other; they afforded visitors the chance to measure the progress of humankind toward the ideal of civilization displayed in the White City. Ethnohistorian and anthropologist Raymond Fogelson described these exhibits as a “self-congratulatory orgy of ethnocentrism.”
Nevertheless, the Midway was a hit; money-making entertainment and concessions on the Midway alone made over $4 million, equivalent to $108 million today.
Shortly after the fair’s close, a fire swept through the fairgrounds, destroying many of the buildings. A headline from January 9, 1894 read: “THE WHITE CITY IN FLAMES; FIRE DESTROYS THE FAIREST OF THE BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS.”
Once again, the Midway was a clean slate; and once again, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to redesign it. The present-day Midway still resembles Olmsted’s plans: a long stretch of green grass lined with trees, plus the Masaryk monument and Lorado Taft’s iconic “Fountain of Time,” the two statues located on the east and west ends of the park.
The Midway was left largely unchanged until the University of Chicago began to expand southward in 1926. Since then, the University has overseen numerous projects in the Midway such as several botanic gardens, a monument to the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, the construction of a skating rink in 2001, and decorative street lighting.
Nowadays, the Midway hosts club sport practices and other recreational activities for University students. Every week, Najee Ahmad, a third-year at UChicago, participates in Midnight Soccer, an informal tournament organized by RAs. Ahmad appreciates that, despite its unpolished terrain, the park is open and accessible to all. In fact, he suggested, its imperfections complement the activity’s fun, informal atmosphere. “It’s not the best place to actually play soccer, as far as the ground goes... but I think that just contributes to the overall feel of midnight soccer. It’s nice that the Midway is there for us to just use.”
Ahmad also noted that despite being located on campus, the Midway is owned by the Chicago Parks District. This establishes a connection between the University and the surrounding neighborhoods, Ahmad said, which “makes you feel a little more integrated with [the community].”
Due to its rich history, the Midway is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places; however, this status is conditioned upon its adherence to Olmsted’s architectural vision. So when the City published a report in July of 2019 stating that the arrival of the Obama Presidential Center would have an “adverse effect” on the area’s historic integrity, interest in Olmsted’s legacy surged.
The Architect’s Vision
Urban parks may now seem commonplace, but in Frederick Law Olmsted’s day, the very idea of a large park in a city was innovative. Olmsted considered himself first and foremost a social reformer. In his essay “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” he expounds the value of parks as spaces for “social mixing” as a measure to increase social cohesion. In public parks, he writes, “you will find all classes largely represented, with a common purpose… each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others.... You may thus often see vast numbers of persons brought closely together, poor and rich, young and old.”
Another central tenet of Olmsted’s artistic vision was public health. He believed that while parks did hold aesthetic value, their primary and overlooked importance was to be found in their soothing and stress-relieving qualities. “Is it doubtful,” he wrote in his essay, “that it does men good to come together in this way, in pure air and under the light of heaven?…The enjoyment of scenery gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system.” In response to an outbreak of cholera infantum, Olmsted and Vaux designed a dairy building on the premises of Central Park where any child could get a glass of milk from a cow tethered outside. This dairy building remains, to this day, one of the few buildings situated on Central Park itself.
OPC Protest and Counter-Protest
Olmsted’s legacy is being re-litigated as discourse surrounding the Obama Presidential Center intensifies. Just last month, the environmental activist group Protect Our Parks filed its brief with the federal appeals court in its suit to block the Obama Foundation, a private entity, from constructing the OPC on public parkland. One plaintiff describes the OPC as “completely and 100 percent contradictory to Olmsted’s vision for our beloved Jackson Park.”
However, Olmsted’s vision is invoked to defend both pro- and anti-OPC viewpoints. Mary Anton, a supporter of the OPC and member of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, believes that it could help to restore Olmsted’s vision. “Olmsted considered parks a democratic space,” she told me. “I understand that [opponents of the OPC] are trying to preserve the Olmsted legacy. But if they actually look at the park, and how it’s used, and who uses it, parts of the legacy are dying,” she said, stressing the poor quality of soil and the number of diseased trees in Jackson Park.
Anton said that anti-OPC activists underestimate the positive effects the Center could bring, mentioning the Obama Foundation’s efforts to restore biodiversity to the park and replace removed trees with new trees. “Some people focus on ‘400 trees gone,’” she said. “They’re not focused on this whole area being re-landscaped.”
Anton added that adhering to Olmsted’s vision does not necessarily mean keeping the park identical to its original construction. “There are some people who would prefer to see this park preserved as a mausoleum,” she said. “This park is not well-maintained.... At the end of the day, that's part of what the Obama Center [will do]; they will maintain this parkland.”
But not all community members are open to the loss of the park’s current trees. During October, anti-OPC protestors tied red ribbons around the nearly four hundred trees threatened by OPC—those “old trees” the woman at the MPAC meeting alluded to. The group called themselves a revival of the Burnham Brigade, a reference to the 1965 protest group that used the same strategy to confront the widening of Cornell Drive.
Ross Peterson, the main organizer of the Burnham Brigade, was president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council from 1993-2010, and he came out of retirement when he heard that the OPC was slated to be built in Jackson Park. Peterson resents the fact that the OPC will be situated in a public park despite numerous alternative sites, a decision that he believes is informed by a broader deprioritization of the South Side. “For [the Obama Foundation] to come along and just say, ‘We’re gonna plop this here in this open park, because it’s an open space,’ smacks of the second-class, South Side relegation of assets which we’ve seen real frequently,” he said.
When contacted for comment, an Obama Foundation spokesperson referred to a federal judge’s ruling that the city of Chicago was within its authority to approve the OPC’s construction in Jackson Park. The decision to build in the park, they stated, “is in line with Chicago’s rich history of placing museums in parks along the lakefront,” viewing the Center as “a way to celebrate [the South Side] community.”
But Peterson views these developments as part of a broader history of capitalizing on public land, referencing recent attempts by the city to privatize the shore of Lake Michigan. “You’re commodifying, you’re privatizing, you’re trying to squeeze some more money out of these things,” he says.
Trailing along behind the Burnham Brigade, however, were pro-OPC counter-protestors, who cut down the ribbons the Brigade had just put up.
Louise McCarthy, President of the Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC), was one of the pro-OPC counter-protestors. She views the OPC as a privilege to the community and a positive economic stimulus. “To get funders to bring money, to do anything in the parks in the South Side, is like pulling teeth,” she said.
McCarthy also believes the OPC will have a net positive environmental impact, citing the Obama Foundation’s commitment to restoring biodiversity in Jackson Park. “The idea that you’re going to preserve a tree from the World’s Fair just makes no sense. New trees grow faster and use up more carbon dioxide... the old trees don’t do us any favors,” she said.
Still, other activist groups, such as the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, are concerned less about the ecological results of the Center as they are about the potential displacement that could result from increased tourism and business to the area. “[The OPC] can help build the kind of communities that Obama fought for, or it could displace longtime residents. Let’s push back on being pushed out by outlining a Community Beneﬁts Agreement around the Obama library,” their website reads.
Many believe that the OPC has had a fracturing and polarizing effect on the South Side community in general. Aaron Gettinger, a reporter for the Hyde Park Herald who covers local parks, observed a lack of communication even between groups with similar goals. “It strikes me that there’s not ever been any degree of dialogue, as far as I’ve seen, between the Protect our Parks lawsuit backers and the people on the South Side who don’t want the Obama Presidential Center there.”
Radiah Smith-Donald, the secretary and treasurer of MPAC since its founding in 2015, believes that the OPC’s perceived opaqueness is the primary cause of tension and distrust in the community. “Feeling that things are happening secretly is the most damaging piece of this.... Sometimes, it feels like there’s a show of ‘yes, community input is being sought,’ but then there’s no evidence that it’s actually being listened to,” she said.
While the Midway is physically on the margins of the Obama Presidential Center affair, it has taken center stage in some facets of the debate, giving MPAC newfound political sway. According to Smith-Donald, the politically charged nature of their recent endeavors, such as the letter which succeeded in relocating the OPC’s parking garage and the ongoing debate over whether to construct new recreational space on the Midway, has fostered unprecedented division and skepticism within the ranks of MPAC. “All three of the current officers have been surprised by people’s mistrust… I really think [this feeling of polarization] is a contagion.”
But MPAC’s recent polarization has not detracted from Smith-Donald’s admiration of the Midway. She expressed that the park is beautiful precisely because of what it lacks; it’s a big, green space, untarnished by city clamor and smog. “Having amazing cultural institutions is important, and having cool skyscrapers is important, but protecting those pockets of green space is also really important,” she said.
“I just really love being able to go out and see a lot of sky without buildings in the way, and have space to run.... It took me a while to realize how brilliant that is.”