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Chicago's Amazing Parks
Kelly Pucci

Even out-of-towners are familiar with Millennium Park and Lincoln Park; these two Chicago parks shine as examples of urban parks at their best. Period. Millennium and Lincoln parks overshadow Chicago’s other public parks—oft-times amazing, unique, and little-known parks. Chances are that you’ve probably at least heard of some of these parks. If you’ve never visited, dig out your walking shoes, pop on your sunglasses, and enjoy the fresh air.

Crown Fountain - Millennium Park
photo: Kelly Pucci
Millennium Park
Much maligned for arriving on the scene four years late with a price tag of $475 million (more than three times the original cost projection), Millennium Park silenced critics when it finally opened in July 2004. Some urban planners compared it to Luxemburg Gardens in Paris, while praising the city for transforming a desolate rail yard into a 24.5-acre, multi-venue green park. The futuristic park includes: the Crown Fountain, two 50-foot tall video screens with water cascades that flow down the projected faces of Chicagoans; “Cloud Gate,” Anish Kapoor’s 110-ton steel sculpture affectionately called the “Bean” for its resemblance to a shiny bean; and the only bridge (to date) designed by Frank Gehry.

Ira Couch Grave - Lincoln Park
photo: Kelly Pucci
Lincoln Park
Lincoln Park’s humble origin as a cemetery for victims of a 19th-century cholera epidemic is betrayed by a mausoleum on the park’s southern side. When citizens complained about potential health risks from graves, the dearly departed were moved away and “Lake Park” took shape. (The park was later renamed for President Abraham Lincoln.) Thanks to Ira Couch’s stubborn relatives, who refused to grant the city permission to move old Uncle Ira, his tomb remains in the park. Officials deny the existence of other graves, but rumors continue to swirl around the city that construction crews unearth the occasional body. And who wouldn’t want to spend eternity in Lincoln Park with its beautifully landscaped grounds and breathtaking view of Lake Michigan?

For the living, Lincoln Park has a nature museum with a tropical butterfly haven, the world famous Lincoln Park Zoo, a glass-domed flower conservatory, a two-story driving range, and a summer theater where professional actors from the critically acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre Company perform.

Pagoda in Ping Tom - Memorial Park
photo: Kelly Pucci
Ping Tom Memorial Park
In the sixth season of the television show The Amazing Race, harried contestants, already frazzled by their 40,000-mile journey, wearily attempted to reach their final destination, Ping Tom Memorial Park. With one million dollars riding on their last clue, teams sought directions from Chicagoans, eager to help but unaware of the park’s location or existence. Recently built to replace Chinatown’s only park, which was demolished in the 1960s, Ping Tom Memorial Park, like Millennium Park, was transformed from an abandoned rail yard. Its Asian-influenced design features a riverside pagoda, columns decorated with dragons, and a children’s playground. As the Chicago Park District acquires more railroad land in Chinatown, the park continues to grow.I love mingling with Chinatown families at Ping Tom Park. In mild weather, it’s a great place to dine al fresco, with carryout foods from nearby Chinatown restaurants. Enjoy unobstructed views of Chicago

During the summer months, the park becomes an outdoor movie theater showing Chinese and family-friendly animated films. Each July, firefighters, police officers, and college students compete in dragon boat races along the Chicago River starting at the park.

Flamingo Island - Lincoln Park
photo: Kelly Pucci
Broadway Armory Park
I have not yet summoned the nerve to participate in activities at the Broadway Armory Park. Before passing judgment, understand that activities in the park go beyond the menu of ho hum after-school sports. At this gymnasium, there is no demon coach with a whistle and a clipboard directing dodgeball games—this is a trapeze school! Five days a week, the Flying Gaonas, a family of circus performers, teach the art of flying through the air on a trapeze suspended 50 feet above a hard, cold floor. Each time I read the trapeze class FAQs, my inner thrill seeker is quelled by the cautions of “inherent risks,” “rips on your hands,” and “minor bumps, scrapes and blisters.” But mostly, it’s the thought of hanging from a trapeze while wearing a skintight cat suit that keeps me away from the Broadway Armory Park. This park is not for the faint of heart.

Northerly Island
What I love most about this park is that it was conceived in typical Chicago style. One night in 2003, without warning, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered city employees to tear up the runways at one of Chicago’s three airports. The next day, 55-year-old Meigs Field was declared Chicago’s newest public park.
Despite its misnomer (Northerly Island is a peninsula, not an island) the setting couldn’t be better. Jutting into Lake Michigan, this 91-acre green space has spectacular views of the lake and the Chicago skyline and is a stone’s throw away from Museum Campus. While the Chicago Park District mounts campaigns to raise money for planting through ticket sales at the park’s summer music pavilion, Mother Nature is working her own plan. She’s already completed Phase I: wild prairie plants native to the Midwest, migrating birds, and coho salmon. Cool.

Palm Tree - Garfield Park
photo: Kelly Pucci
Rolling Meadows Park District Headquarters
Though not technically within the Chicago city limits, this park is located near O’Hare International Airport and I’ve included it because of its unusual entertainment. Walk downstairs to the basement of the cement-block field house and enter the magical make-believe world of “Opera in Focus,” where exquisitely-designed antique puppets perform grand opera on a miniature stage. When the lights go down in the 65-seat theater, the most cynical skeptic becomes spellbound by the voice of the late Robert Merrill emanating from an 18-inch puppet or a grief stricken Cio-Cio-San shaking with lifelike tremors.

After each show, the audience is invited on a backstage tour, where the puppeteers reveal their secrets—secrets that creator Bill Fosser could not reveal for decades because of an agreement with a former employer. Smiling Paul Guerra shows off the little Bob Mackie-like costumes he designs for the puppet cast. And apprentices Justin and Shayne Snyder demonstrate how they maneuver puppets as the brothers roll around beneath the stage like grease monkeys under a jalopy.

Garfield Park
Located midway between the Sears Tower and Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, the gold dome of the Garfield Park field house is visible for miles. The field house buzzes daily with neighborhood kids going to steppers dance club, boxing lessons, and indoor basketball practice. But it is the Garfield Park Conservatory located at the northeast end of the park that draws crowds from across the country. As one of the largest conservatories in the world, there’s plenty to see anytime of year. I love going to the Garfield Park Conservatory on a dreary
cold Chicago day. Shedding my down jacket, gloves, and knit hat beneath a towering coconut tree makes me feel like I’m on vacation in the tropics. And seeing cocoa bean trees and sampling chocolate at the Chocolate
Fest each February is heavenly. Yum.

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