We don’t typically associate parks with social issues like race and class. But race and class matter when it comes to parks and recreation. Longtime Chicagoans will remember the campaign in the early 1960s to integrate Rainbow Beach in the then white neighborhood of South Shore—one of many examples of the color lines around Chicago’s public spaces.
Parks are where we relax, grill, exercise, walk the dog and watch our kids play sports. What can be more universal than that? But not long ago, race alone determined the quality of neighborhood parks in Chicago.
In 1982, the Chicago Park District was sued by the U.S. Justice Department for lavishing federal dollars on parks in white areas while shortchanging those in black and Latino communities. The district was under a court order for six years to make its parks more equitable.
In the Chicago Reporter’s summer issue, reporter Angela Caputo examines how city parks have fared since then. The court order made a difference. Today, black communities have more money for staff and maintenance than white ones. But a disproportionate number of Latino communities, which are home to the city’s fastest-growing population, don’t have adequate services and facilities. The Park District acknowledges that the communities need more facilities and programs. It will take money to resolve lingering inequities.
Angela writes: “More than half of the $500 million spent on Park District improvements since 2011, the year Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected, went to just 10 of the city’s 77 neighborhoods—seven of them are increasingly white, affluent and have access to outside money.”
A big part of the problem is how park upgrades are financed, Angela reports. Park improvements increasingly rely on grants, capital funds designated for aldermen and special taxing districts known as TIFs. If a neighborhood doesn’t have access to money, it’s tougher to purchase new land and equipment.
A Chicago Reporter investigation of the Park District triggered the 1983 court order. In 1975, reporter Stephan Garnett went to Marquette Park on the city’s Southwest Side to photograph its facilities. The plan was to compare Marquette’s amenities to those in other parks across the city. At the time, the community surrounding the park was a no-go zone for African Americans. Garnett, who is black, was attacked by a white mob that later torched his car. Managing editor Tom Brune picked up the investigation. The Justice Department cited the Reporter’s work in its investigation of city parks.
It feels right all these years later to revisit the status of the parks. Go to chicagoreporter.com to see how your neighborhood park compares to others citywide.
This June marked the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, when nearly 1,000 students, mostly white and from elite universities, descended on Mississippi to help register black people to vote.
Chicago has a significant connection to that summer. James Forman, the executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the summer of 1964, was raised in Chicago. And the Chicago Area Friends of SNCC supported the struggle in the South while bringing the freedom movement to Chicago Public Schools.
In 1963, the friends group organized a boycott of schools and its notorious “Willis Wagons,” named for Superintendent Benjamin Willis. Black schools were overcrowded, but instead of letting students attend less-crowded white schools, Willis ordered that trailers be placed on black campuses to address the problem.
Two archives take us deeper into the events of Freedom Summer and their impact on the civil rights struggle in Chicago. We explored them for our commemoration of Freedom Summer. The Chicago SNCC History Project Archives is at the Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library. To view a guide to the collection, go to chipublib.org.
The Wisconsin Historical Society also has an extensive Freedom Summer digital collection, as well as a list of students who participated in the voter registration efforts in Mississippi. To view the online collection, go to wisconsinhistory.org.