Black, brown, green - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Black, brown, green

In preparation for "Black and brown lives in green spaces: Race and place in urban America," our July 25 Think & Drink at the DuSable Museum of African American History, our panelists weighed in on vacant lots, overpolicing, gentrification, the Great Migration, the Obama Center, and today's quiet and public activism in reclaiming public space

Image courtesy University of Illinois Springfield

Tonika Lewis Johnson (TJ) is a photographer and social justice artist well-known for the Folded Map Project. Juanita Irizarry (JI) is Executive Director of Friends of the Parks. Brian McCammack (BM) is Chair of Urban Studies at Lake Forest College. They'll unite later this month for a public discussion at a new venue for an MPC Think & Drink, the DuSable. A limited number of tickets are available for "Black and brown lives in green spaces: Race and place in urban America." Register now to join us on July 25th. 

How would you characterize the relationship between people of color to green and public spaces in the Chicago region today?

  • Brian: Because people tend to most frequently recreate in public green spaces close to where they live, black Chicagoans’ relationship to those spaces is inextricably tied to the segregation of the city’s neighborhoods. That means that all the issues of concern in black neighborhoods—systematic public disinvestment, crumbling infrastructure, unequal schools, police accountability, and so on—inevitably spill over into those public green spaces and shape the black experience there.
  • "Black Chicagoans have been dogged in their pursuit of equal access to existing public green spaces and the creation of new green spaces in black neighborhoods."

    —Brian McCammack, Lake Forest College

    Juanita: I will add that in neighborhoods like mine--Humboldt Park--which has been the heart of the Puerto Rican community for decades, the struggle with gentrification and our park are inextricably linked.  While the Puerto Rican community has had a strong sense of ownership of the park itself for a long time and has fought for many of the improvements, it seems the pace of investment in the park has picked up as gentrification has taken over the neighborhood.  That is very frustrating to area residents, even as we enjoy the improved park.These days, the Park Advisory Council meetings are characterized by very high levels of tension over whose park it is--what kinds of uses are appropriate (Puerto Rican cultural uses are really upsetting to some of the newer neighbors), and who gets to decide. 

In other Latino neighborhoods where gentrification is not the issue, disinvestment in the parks is more the norm. But we do see some community organizing groups taking interest in the parks (often around safety issues or need for more recreational space) and coming alongside neighbors to develop and support active Park Advisory Councils. We also send to see families of color that do not have large green spaces in their neighborhoods make a trip to a lakefront park/beach a day-long, intergenerational family affair on the weekends.  Montrose Point is especially popular, even for families from the south side. (We heard that a lot during our Listening Tour meetings on the southeast side; families would drive up Lake Shore Drive to Montrose Beach rather than go to southeast/south side parks/beaches that were underinvested or didn’t feel safe or had inadequate parking.

How has that relationship changed over time?

  • Tonika: Talking from perspective of an adult Englewood resident, black people’s relationship to green space has shifted over the past few decades. People my grandmother’s age used the parks for family reunions--everyone knew that the Dan Ryan Woods would be filled with family reunions a certain time of the year. However, as our predominantly black neighborhoods become ravaged by drugs and the crime that followed, primarily in the mid-to-late ‘80s and ‘90s, when I was a teenager, the parks became less of a space of gathering and more of a place of hanging out. And as the increase of drugs and crime changed how predominantly black neighborhoods were perceived, so that change shifted to park spaces. Residents that normally used the neighborhood or sent their kids to the park program started not to do so, because it didn’t feel safe. 

    "Even as crime’s gone down since the ‘80s and ‘90s, even as our green spaces stabilize, the media narrative and perception of parks have not changed."

    —Tonika Lewis Johnson, artist-activist, creator of the Folded Map Project

  • Brian: I painted a pretty grim picture in my previous response, but history teaches us that, as grim as things are today, they were much grimmer a century ago (or even 35 years ago, when the Justice Department issued the consent decree). And it’s only changed because black Chicagoans have been dogged in their pursuit of equal access to existing public green spaces and the creation of new green spaces in black neighborhoods; from the very beginnings of the Great Migration in the early 20th century, black Chicagoans have actively sought out connections to nature in parks and forest preserves.
  • Juanita:  Friends of the Parks’ 2018 State of the Parks report unfortunately lifts up the reality that the situation hasn’t changed all that much since the consent decree 35 years ago.  Many Park Advisory Council members from communities of color had been telling us that the inequities were quite severe and were encouraging us to pursue a new lawsuit. So we decided to do some research.  Our report indicates that African-American communities receive the least investment in programming and Latino communities have the least park acreage and capital investment in parks. The disparities are stark across the board.

What’s unique about green and public space in Chicago, especially for people of color?

  • Brian: For many black Chicagoans, the understanding of these spaces is inextricably linked to southern folkways—southern ways of using and experiencing nature—passed down from ancestors who migrated to Chicago from the South (in the 1930s, roughly ¾ of black Chicagoans had been born in the South). In terms of geographical distribution of these public green spaces across the city, even though many black neighborhoods have come to encompass large landscape parks (like Washington and Jackson Parks on the South Side), there’s still a relative lack of green space—and especially well-maintained green space—in many black neighborhoods; the Consent Decree was supposed to address many of these inequalities and fell short.
  • Juanita:  Interestingly, relative to some other cities, Chicago has more parks distributed across the city, and we have field houses all over the place, which was actually a Chicago innovation.  But as suggested above, these are often disinvested in communities of color. However, Chicago’s parks can also be very vibrant centers of community and cultural organizing and pride (i.e. Humboldt Park, Ping Tom Park, Hamilton Park)

What is the most exciting activism you’re seeing today, related to these issues?

  • Brian: Since my focus is on the history of these spaces, I’ll leave most of this to Tonika & Juanita, but it seems to me one of the most high-profile instances of activism related to public green space is community activists’ role in determining the contours of the Obama Center in Jackson Park. Who is that space for? What will accessibility look like? What is the community impact—in terms of gentrification, land values, community investment—in that change of land use?

    "Safety issues--whether real or perceived--are an invisible barrier."

    —Juanita Irizarry, Friends of the Parks

  • JI: While we’re excited about some of the things noted above, we would argue that there was relatively little genuine community engagement in what the actual park investments in Jackson Park related to the Obama Center should look like.  That was mostly decided by the Obama Foundation. The visioning for the greater South Lakefront Framework Plan--a process which we advocately strongly for--actually offered relatively few opportunities for deep community engagement. It was mostly a very standard Chicago process of looking at pre-prepared designs on boards on display at public meetings and chatting with staff and consultants to have questions answered. The process was not designed to have the community truly have public conversations with one another or the park district.

And there have been no public conversations that the Obama Foundation or the Chicago Park District have had about whether they should replace the green space and amenities they are taking up by creating new parks and playgrounds in the nearby Woodlawn neighborhood.  The Obama Foundation has simply informed the public that their proposed conversion of the existing roads in the parks into green space is sufficient to replace the land they are taking up. And in the case of the Park Advisory Council at Jackson Park, it is dominated by a white woman who runs a very undemocratic process. So even though she is very supportive of the Obama Center locating in Jackson Park, there is nothing about that Park Advisory Council that represents active, democratic engagement around park issues by the African-American community.

There are lots of good examples, though, of active Park Advisory Councils where neighbors of color are deeply engaged in the health of their park. Tonika can say lots about that re: Englewood. Also, a different approach to this is the exciting organizing being done around the future DuSable Park.  Though it’s a downtown park (at the confluence of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan), it’s named in honor of Haitian explorer/trader Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, Chicago’s first non-native settler--a black man. With Friends of the Parks’ support behind the scenes, Chicago’s Haitian community and bearers of the late Harold Washington’s legacy (because Washington dedicated the park in DuSable’s honor) continue to fight for the completion of that park--which now seems within view.

  • Tonika: Through So Fresh Saturdays, the Resident Association of Greater Englewood has been going to parks throughout Englewood on summer Saturdays for over seven years. We have food, tables--it’s a way to show the community that the parks are ours. 

Talk to me about invisible barriers. Where are they? How and why are they enforced?

  • Brian: Just one example: almost every time I give a talk on my book, white UChicago affiliates will bring up the fact that they were—and continue to be—unofficially told to not go west of Cottage Grove Ave (toward Washington Park, which effectively became a segregated park in the 1930s, primarily used by black Chicagoans); black parents warned their children to not go east of that same dividing line for fear of being subject to white mob violence or police harassment. These invisible barriers move over time, but almost never without a fight—they’re continually contested.

When the African American teenager Eugene Williams was killed by a white man in 1919, precipitating the riot that roiled the city a century ago, it was because he unknowingly floated across one of these invisible barriers that divided black space from white space at 29th St beach. A decade later, 29th/31st St beach had become a de facto black beach, but the invisible barrier had just moved south to Jackson Park beach; in the post-WWII era it moved still further south to Rainbow Beach Park. White violence and discrimination met African American recreation-seekers every step of that way, but it was their refusal to back down in the face of that violence that won access to those green spaces.

  • Juanita: Ditto. And again, the gentrification thing. And safety issues--whether real or perceived--are in invisible barrier.  (Our State of the Parks report data showed that crime rates (reported crime) in parks is relatively low. But security and safety in parks is often mentioned as a concern when we talk to actual and potential park users.  Also, currently, the Chicago Park District prioritizes revenue generation above most else. So more and more things in parks have cost barriers for people who might otherwise want to participate in that activity as well as privatized events that one may not want to attend but they take up the space or leave damage behind in your local park.
  • Tonika: Even as crime’s gone down since the ‘80s and ‘90s, even as our green spaces stabilize, the media narrative and perception of parks have not changed. People’s fears of crime are outsized, compared to what actually exists. If you’re only getting your information from the news, then you will start to think your park is dangerous--even if your reality doesn’t match that perception. Also, culturally speaking, the policing of traditionally black neighborhoods and public spaces has resulted in residents not feeling comfortable or safe: Not only do you have to worry about people being crime-involved using those spaces, but also overpolicing. On top of that, accessibility is a barrier: How do you get a permit to have an event at a park, for example? 

What do we mean by green space?

  • Brian: To me, it’s virtually anything that offers an experience that’s a change of pace from the bulk of what constitutes city life, governed by the built environment. Obviously trees, grass, shrubs, sandy beaches, etc., are all part of that, but urban parks are landscaped places that aren’t completely devoid of elements of the built environment. It’s important to recognize, too, that different communities may have different priorities when it comes to what green space should look like, and it’s important that city officials are receptive to those wishes that may change over time. Where one community might want native plantings and walking trails, another may prioritize childrens’ playground equipment or basketball courts. Both are legitimate landscaping alternatives with the same objective: providing for the recreational / leisure needs of the community.
  • Juanita: Ditto
  • Tonika: Alternative to parks, residents have created their own green spaces. Even though they’re not traditional green space, your front porch and your block become your green space… even vacant lots. It’s not unusual to see a couch and chairs on a vacant lot in Englewood.  In Englewood, block parties are a thing. They're used to block clubs. 

How did the Great Migration shape African-Americans’ relationship to green and public spaces in the Chicago region?

  • Brian: The southern folkways I mentioned above still persist; fishing in the lake or park lagoons, church picnics, and the like are deeply indebted to the Great Migration. But I want to emphasize that we’re still grappling with the legacy of racist housing policies—restrictive covenants, redlining, predatory lending, etc.—that met black migrants and segregated them in particular neighborhoods, primarily on the South and West sides, and that those policies inevitably influenced (and continue to influence) black Chicagoans’ relationships to public green spaces. Residential segregation begets recreational segregation: when we don’t live together, we tend not to play together, either.

What’s one thing everyone should know about black and brown lives in green spaces in Chicagoland?

  • Brian: That green spaces matter to black and brown Chicagoans. So much of the history of black and brown lives in Chicagoland’s green spaces is of pain, violence, discrimination, racism, and the like, that it’s easy to lose sight of just how and why those spaces were and are important to those communities, and how those experiences in public green spaces motivated fights for equal access and opportunity. One of the things my book aims to do is bring these spaces to life as places where black Chicagoans played sports, picnicked, fished, rowed, went on dates, hiked, and generally came together as a community over the past century.

    "Even though they’re not traditional green space, your front porch and your block become your green space… even vacant lots." —Tonika Lewis Johnson

  • Juanita:  Also, there are groups like Blacks in Green and urban farmers and Environmentalists of Color and other people of color who care about the environment and parks.  In current battles over park space, some like to say that only white people care about “blades of grass” while black people care about parks for the sake of youth programming.  In our experience, all kinds of people value parks for all kinds of reasons, all of the above included.
  • Tonika: There’s definitely been a shift in the past few decades over how African-Americans have used the parks, there’s definitely been a shift. Most recently, we’ve been reclaiming those spaces--and infusing the alternative spaces that we started into these green spaces. Hopefully we’ll return to the ways in which the older generation used park spaces--family reunions, bridal showers, baby showers, picnics. My hope is that we will return to that, and I think it’s happening. 

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