Enjoying Chicago's Parks

Check out some of Chicago's many grand, sprawling-green parks.
By: Alan Solomon

The city of Chicago has more than 500 parks. Some are no more than corner play lots with a sandbox and a few swings -- but many are grand, sprawling green spaces with ball fields, golf courses, gardens, lagoons and zoos. 


What follows is a sampling of some of the best.

Along five miles of North Side lakefront between North and Hollywood Avenues, the city's largest playground (1,208 acres) is home to a nine-hole golf course, a conservatory, ball fields, beaches, marinas, nature preserves, gardens, lagoons, bicycle and jogging paths, a golf driving range, a summer theater, sculptures (among them: Grant, Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen and, of course, Lincoln), museums and one of Chicago's great treasures, Lincoln Park Zoo. It's also home to one small mausoleum (circa 1857), a reminder of its first life as a burial ground.
About a half-mile west of Lincoln Park along Webster Avenue, this neighborhood 13-acre green space boasts a lovely playground for children -- appropriate for a park honoring ex-Chicagoan L. Frank Baum. Four of Baum's characters from his "Oz" books are memorialized in statues: Scarecrow, Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and Dorothy (with Toto, too).
One of the city's newer parks, a 24.5-acre chunk of downtown's Grant Park, has been a tourist draw since its 2004 opening along Michigan Avenue north of the Art Institute. Here can be found the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Music Pavilion, multilevel Lurie Garden, the Crown Fountain (which combines a video sculpture with schpritzing waters) and most irresistible of all: Cloud Gate, familiarly "The Bean," a kidney-shaped, polished-metal sculpture that mirrors architecture and visitors, and challenges photographers of all ages with its unlimited possibilities.
Festivals happen here: Taste of Chicago, Jazz Fest, Blues Fest, the Lollapalooza music festival and more. Also, one notable riot: Police and demonstrators battled here during the 1968 Democratic Party convention. Large enough to hold 13 Millennium Parks (which is officially within it), this downtown park along Michigan Avenue from Roosevelt Road to Randolph Street is home to iconic Buckingham Fountain, expansive gardens and, south of the fountain, a multitude of fields for 16-inch softball, a game (played without gloves) rarely seen outside Chicago.
Most famous internationally as home of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, one of the fair's buildings (much reinforced from its plaster beginnings) survives today as the Museum of Science and Industry. Another reminder: a gilded and reduced but still impressive replica of the fair's "Statue of the Republic" by Daniel Chester French, who also gave us the great Lincoln statue within the Lincoln Memorial. The Osaka Japanese Garden, on the 500-acre park's Wooded Island, is a beauty; the 1919 beach house at 63rd Street and the lake is another.
Steps from Rush Street's nightlife district, the 3-acre square is among of the city's oldest parks, dating to 1842. Into the late 1900s it was nicknamed "Bughouse Square" -- a reflection of the neighborhood's now-gone flophouses -- and was known for its practitioners of impromptu free speech, some politically extreme, some poetic, and some just buggy. Scheduled reenactments, usually minus the passion, take place here from time to time.
One of several parks intended by early planners to be linked by grand boulevards,(the plan was eventually scaled back) Garfield Park and its 185 acres remains a fine example of reserved green space in what was, at the end of the 1800s, a rapidly urbanizing Chicago. Its most prominent features are a gold-domed field house and the Garfield Park Conservatory (1908), a remarkable series of rooms under glass featuring a variety of botanical habitats.
Another relatively small (13 acres) neighborhood park, this one, at Lunt and Rockwell Avenues on Chicago's North Side, is notable for having the only other zoo within the city limits. It's not much of a zoo -- the resident bear was liberated years ago -- but little ones will enjoy the chickens, goats, ducks and sheep. The 1929 Tudor-style field house is on the National Register.
Long the 300-acre recreation center of a dynamic Southwest Side community, many generations played their first golf game on its nine-hole course. Though the neighborhood culture has changed from largely Eastern European to largely Latino, soccer has been the constant, and warm-weather weekends feature a multitude of matches and cookouts. Alert "Blues Brothers" fans will spot a bridge and lagoon used in the movie.
Travel writer Alan Solomon's quintessential Chicago experience was playing 16-inch softball in Grant Park as Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko's catcher.

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