The moon bridge in the Garden of the Phoenix; in the background is the harbor. Credit: Ted Cox

When I read that the Chicago Park District was pulling down century-old trees in Jackson Park despite a federal lawsuit filed to prevent Obama Center-related construction in the area, a visit there leaped to the top of my must-do list. The 543-acre grounds, part of our inheritance from the World’s Fair of 1893, were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame, and include the Museum of Science and Industry, the 59th Street Harbor, and—the two greatest attractions for me—the Wooded Island and the Japanese-style Garden of the Phoenix (formerly known as Osaka Garden).
Two days after I visited, the city halted construction on a track and field facility meant to replace one that will be displaced by the Obama Presidential Center. Forty trees had already been cut down, but for now the park is safe—as it should be, given that it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by federal as well as state and local laws. Among the potential roadblocks to turning 19 acres of parkland over to the Obama Center are two city ordinances yet to be passed and a federal review that could put the kibosh on the deal. The groundbreaking that was slated to take place this year has been pushed back to sometime in 2019.

That said, no one in her right mind would bet against the Obama Center eventually succeeding in putting its plan in place, so I’d still advise a trip to Jackson Park sooner rather than later, preferably once the leaves are turning and the wooded island is aflame with color. The first thing you’ll see after going past the Museum of Science and Industry and its many pavilions is a huge parking lot, perhaps with some tailgating going on here and there (parking’s $2 an hour). Already under construction is the Clarence Darrow Bridge over the lagoon between the park’s east and west sides, but you can hop the fence and use the ramplike bridge supports to go down, then back up on the other side (careful, they can be slippery). Once you make your way into the Garden of the Phoenix itself, you’ll see signs instructing everyone to use their indoor voices to preserve the peace of the setting—and judging from the few couples and families we saw, it works. The farther you follow the path, the farther removed from the present-day city you feel. That’s how it should remain. v