The Perils of Building Parks on Forgotten Land
This originally ran in Lumpen issue #125, the Placemakers and Takers issue
By Matt David
Chicago has a long, deep memory of itself, with a running documentary and mythmaking machine inside every Chicagoan. Neighborhoods have an identity tied to their place in the city. While a neighborhood is likely to change and move away from its identity, there will always be signifiers reminding us of when Old Town was for artists and not the establishment, when Wicker Park was fraught with danger and not drunkards, and when Pilsen was Bohemia’s hub in North America.
Neighborhoods enjoy this idea of identity, but aside from historic sites, individual lots are anonymous. A park is leveled, a business goes in, an old building goes down, an apartment building goes up, a parking lot appears out of nowhere and the march continues. In seemingly no time the entire neighborhood forgets the old and instead champions or disparages the new.
Wicker Park Bocce Club has been able to note this process through the bocce parks they have built on city owned lots in two Chicago neighborhoods. The project began naively; a small collective of young adults hoping to rehabilitate a lot of land in their area that was overrun with waist-high weeds, foundation rubble, and various layers and levels of trash. The initial park can be qualified as a success, but the path bears little resemblance to what the founders of Wicker Park Bocce Club had imagined. The second park has been its own chapter entirely.
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Wicker Park Bocce Club’s initial park is located on a side street set a stone’s throw from one of the neighborhood’s most notable intersections. The site sees many passersby each day and few have any recollection of what this little slice of land was before the bocce park. Its shabby appearance annoyed some, but to most it was invisible. To be able to turn it into something, however, Wicker Park Bocce Club had to find out who was responsible for this forgotten lot.
Alicia Harvey, a founding member of Wicker Park Bocce Club, was interning at the 1st Ward Alderman “Proco” Joe Moreno’s office at the time. She began by asking anyone that had a free minute about the lot, knowing it had to be owned by somebody. As it turned out, the City of Chicago had owned this blighted lot since the early ‘80s. In fact, the city currently owns over 13,000 vacant lots, each one inventoried on the city’s official website.
So, as luck would have it, Harvey had immediate access to those responsible for the land every day of the week. She took every opportunity to bend the ears of her office mates about the bocce park plans. It didn’t take long for the right person to say, “Go ahead. See what you can make of it.” That was all the permission they needed. At least, that was the impression.
Wicker Park Bocce Club organized a fundraising event, started the process of transforming the lot into a park and began to draw attention from the press. Founding member Ben Tudor had drawn up the plans for two side-by-side courts and a list of necessary materials. Turning the city’s trash into their own treasure was all that the group could talk about and became a positive focus in their lives. Alex Gara, another founding member, recalls meeting with a city official and having the whole endeavor flipped upside down:
“I often tell the same story of how the angry city official locked me in his office with articles and blog posts about me nailed to his corkboard. It was like a CSI parody: ‘Who is Alex Gara and just what the hell is he planning to do with our property? What gives him the nerve to think that he can clean up our streets without permits and permission slips?’ It was intimidating. It made me want to quit. I specifically recall saying over and over that day, ‘I’m doing this for the city. For you. This is not about personal gain.’ They tried to scare us away. And honestly, if we weren’t in for about $15,000 of our own money, we probably would’ve quit.
“But they didn’t entirely slam the door in our face. They said, “Get this signature by Friday. Fax this proposal to that office. Get insured. Get an LLC. Get a fence (we got away without that one). Get workers’ comp. Get this other signature by Monday.” And we did. Well, Alicia did mostly. But there was certainly a collective chin-up, chest-out attitude that had us see our first park to the end.”
The collective that made the first park happen expanded well beyond the three founding members of Wicker Park Bocce Club. The funds raised by the event and the group’s own commitments were complimented by some early donations and partnerships with local businesses. Friends with a background in construction pitched in with expertise and others simply offered their time and effort. The neighborhood was paying attention, too. Passersby started craning their necks, then asking what was being built, and then when it would be ready.
The two courts looked odd in the middle of an otherwise barren plot of land. They were essentially large, long sandboxes with wood boards bearing stripes of paint marking the foul lines and a sand-and-crushed-oyster-shell playing surface. It was an improvement upon the weeds and waste, but it was clear more was needed. Flagstone, mulch, rosebushes and baby fir trees went in the ground and were soon joined by a sign, picnic tables and planter boxes. At the beginning of August, there was a party to celebrate the first bocce balls thrown on the new Wicker Park Bocce Club courts.
Two sets of bocce balls were made available for free rental at a nearby bar. By filling out a release form and leaving a debit/credit card, anyone could go play. In simply walking by the park and collecting these release forms, it was clear that the response to the park had exceeded initial expectations. Reflecting on that first summer with the bocce parks, Gara sees the good, the bad and the drive to move forward.
“We received a letter of approval from the mayor’s office and were regularly being updated by city employees on where we stood. The court wasn’t beautiful. There was no furniture at first. The wood wasn’t treated. Our sign was embarrassing. But right away you could tell that what we were doing meant something – it meant something to the community and it meant something to us. We hosted a few small gatherings there and encouraged friends to toss some stones on the weekend. Of course the weather turned before we knew it and we took our time that winter to plot our next moves. I was pretty public about wanting to open more courts on forgotten about property throughout Chicago.
“We were very optimistic in the spring of 2014. We were getting support from all around. The bocce community in Chicago was growing, begging us for leagues and tournaments and organized events. We were creating relationships with other bocce enthusiasts and even beginning to see value in our passion. The city was behind us now and they had vowed to move more swiftly and less defensively. We picked out a lot in Pilsen and went back to work with shovels and pick axes the next spring.”
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With Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s office behind their efforts and a park’s worth of experience in their pocket, Wicker Park Bocce Club expected to be faced with little more than minor obstacles in their effort to transform another abandoned lot and enhance another neighborhood. Instead, the group was met with harsh resistance. Gara says, “I thought I was doing some good, something with purpose, so you can imagine my surprise when we were met in Pilsen with physical threats, with death threats and lawsuit threats. They were so angry. They were determined to bring us down. We had no idea why.”
It’s time that I bring myself into the story. As the year passed into 2014 and Wicker Park Bocce Club continued to grow, I graduated from being an extra set of hands to officially being a member of the core team. As a bartender at a new Pilsen restaurant opened by Logan Square restaurateurs, I had learned that Pilsen—regardless of the dominant ethnic demographic—is a working class neighborhood with a strong identity tied to individuality and the expression of the arts. I wasn’t surprised we were being met with resistance. I also hadn’t gone through the bureaucratic obstacles of the last bocce park. So, even though I couldn’t agree with the strong resistance, I could understand it. Gara’s response to it came from a different place.
“The reason I lead with that story about the city giving me shit is not to paint Chicago in a bad light but to give a little perspective on how our trek into Pilsen played out. The hoops we jumped through in Wicker Park gave me a chip on my shoulder that I would most certainly need to get through our new set of problems in Pilsen. Maybe I’m guilty of getting caught up in a sense of self-righteousness. On most mornings, I would’ve much rather gone out golfing than digging and leveling. Of course, I would’ve rather spent my money on vacations than on raw materials and business expenses.
“When looking at the past two years, it’s funny how I started developing resentment toward people who hadn’t gone through what we went through. The least severe reactions were always something like, ‘We’ve been trying to turn that into a community garden for years. All of a sudden these assholes from Wicker Park can come here and use our property for personal gain?’ Do you know how many times I heard that somebody else was working on turning that lot into something? Thought it was ‘their’ lot. So my reaction started to become, ‘No you didn’t. You may have had the idea but you didn’t execute it. Executing it is the hard part. Don’t get angry with us because we were committed.’ The shit we went through in 2013 was my defense in 2014.
“And it was impossible for me to not get angry back. One neighbor called the cops on us almost every time we stepped foot on the property of OUR lease! He screamed in Alicia’s face. He prompted a local alliance of citizens who wildly speculated about how detrimental our bocce court would be for their neighborhood. There was so much misinformation spiraling around and we knew the best thing we could do was ignore it. They accused us of chopping down protected trees, of promoting open containers and public intoxication, of having connections with the Mayor’s office, of paying off people to get what we wanted. Of course none of this was true, but we knew better than to engage with them. We also didn’t trust ourselves; what we’d say and how we’d react.”
Looking back and writing about this, I can’t help but think of the Shakespeare quote that all the world’s a stage and our age’s addendum that none of the actors know their parts. The people resisting our efforts were trying to protect their surroundings. To them we were outsiders aligned with the powers that be, the rich that look at them with greedy eyes, that couldn’t possibly understand them or care to engage them.
We wanted to return this lot of land to them by building a bocce court and supplying a set of balls to use for free. That mission hadn’t changed. We had learned that the game of bocce can be enjoyed by anyone and saw how it can engage people in a whole new way. To reference another cliché, bocce levels the playing field. From that core, each bocce park is free to take on its own unique identity reflecting the neighborhood around it. If Pilsen wants there to be a large garden, let there be a large garden.
This perspective only comes with time, though. Gara recalls where the group was by the end of the summer:
“We were exhausted. We had created so many other exciting opportunities for ourselves and it was extremely difficult to find the energy to get down to Pilsen. We didn’t finish the job. We were damn close but fall was looming, we were spread thin, and now I can say we just weren’t receiving the fulfillment we were in Wicker Park.
“We were developing a positive relationship with the neighbors directly next to the lot and we used that momentum and a little time-induced healing to finish the job this spring. Maybe all it took was a pretty sign and some flowers but it’s 2015 and it kind of feels like last year’s pile of problems is behind us. Maybe we’ll draw upon our strengths gained last summer and use them to confront our future obstacles—just like we did the year before. It’s naive to think I won’t be bitching about something by the end of this season but it’s experience that has me unconcerned by it. If what we were doing were easy, it wouldn’t be special. In our own way, we are affecting a culture. We know that. And that’s why no matter what, we can safely say that we are not going anywhere.”