The Sherman Park lagoon and field house Credit: Rich Chapman

Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.

The great thaw happened earlier this week. Perhaps you took advantage of the spring-like temperatures and spent some time in your neighborhood park getting some exercise or maybe just sitting around and inhaling the fresh air. Perhaps it occurred to you to wonder why your neighborhood has a park in the first place (and why so many neighborhoods are named after parks). In a long feature in 1990 called “Why We Have Parks,” Harold Henderson, a writer who was interested in both the environment and in Chicago history, explained.

Originally, in 1869, the city had allotted 1,800 acres for parks. That seemed sufficient for a population of 300,000. But by the turn of the century, the number of Chicagoans had grown—exploded, really—to 1 million, thanks to an influx of migrants from other countries and also from the southern states. But the new Chicagoans weren’t making use of the parks.

What the other 626,000 south-siders—most foreign-born and new to city life of any kind—might be doing instead weighed heavily on the minds of the city’s elite and upper middle class. Drinking and brawling in saloons? Gambling in stuffy alleyways? Listening—God forbid—to anarchist or socialist labor organizers? Their children hitching rides on streetcars, fishing for rats through the wooden sidewalks, running in gangs, and taunting policemen? Probably all that and more. . . . The availability of parks elsewhere wasn’t making a lot of difference . . . the new crowded neighborhoods needed parks and playgrounds of their own.

Such sentiments did not necessarily stem from compassion so much as fear. It may be no coincidence that the country’s first urban playgrounds—piles of sand deposited at strategic locations by the city of Boston—were placed in 1886, a few months after Chicago’s Haymarket affair excited public hysteria about foreign anarchists.

Conservatives of the day saw the conditions Holland described and called for laws to shut down the saloons on Sundays and more police to knock the boys’ heads. Progressives believed that repression (or at least repression alone) was futile; better were parks and playgrounds (among other reforms) to divert energy. . . .

Parks have never been far from politics. Not only did they in part grow out of prosperous people’s fear of the urban masses, they also appealed to developers who wanted to raise the value of adjoining lots.

Henderson uses Sherman Park in Back of the Yards as an representative of the story of parks in the city: their rise and decline and renaissance. At the time Henderson was writing, Sherman Park had been placed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and the park district had leveraged that into several million dollars’ worth of extensive repairs to the grounds and fieldhouse.

Looking at Henderson’s story now, nearly 30 years after it was written, it’s interesting to think about how Americans once dealt with their fear of immigrants by building parks in their neighborhoods instead of threatening deportation.