By Ben Joravsky

The Park District is in a pickle in Hyde Park. The immediate issue is a plan to repair the seawall at Promontory Point, the lovely landscaped peninsula at 55th Street. “But there’s a larger issue here too,” says Kay Clement, a longtime Hyde Parker who’s battling the plan. “You have to wonder about the state of the city where such a crazy, absurd plan could get this far.”

Park District officials are acting a little surprised by all the opposition. As they see it, they’re doing a great public service by shoring up the Point’s seawall. “If nothing were to happen,” says Angelynne Amores, spokeswoman for the Park District, “it would fall into the lake.”

The work on the Point is part of a well-publicized effort to fortify several sections of seawall along the lakefront, from Waveland Avenue to 57th Street–a $310-million initiative financed and overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers. “We’ve kept the community informed,” says Amores. Indeed, Park District and city officials first met with south-siders to talk about the need to fortify the Point in January 2000. At that meeting, attended by more than 100 people, residents made it clear how important the Point is to the area, saying it’s a popular landmark that draws people from all over the south side.

Designed by landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, the Point stretches east from 55th–a long promenade of grass, trees, and plants rimmed by limestone blocks that allow people to wade or jump into the water. “The beauty of the Point is not just the trees and the meadow–it’s the water access,” says Clement. “You can launch little boats from the rocks. You can dive or wade in and take a swim. You can just sit on a rock and dangle your feet in the water.”

The residents told Park District officials they’d seen some of the lakefront fortification projects that are under way–such as the one at Waveland–and they didn’t want anything similar at the Point. “We didn’t want the big slabs of concrete,” says Clement. “We didn’t want them to construct a concrete wall against the lake. We let the Park District know at that early meeting how important the Point is–how upset people would be if they were to seriously change it.”

The officials responded that there was nothing they could do to save the limestone. “They told us that in their experience at the Field Museum, limestone crumbled when you removed it,” says Clement. “They said that limestone’s hard to find. I remember they said, ‘It’s not made in Indiana anymore.'”

But the officials promised to be accommodating on other matters, even permitting swimming from the new seawall–a promise that drew cheers from the crowd. The residents also promised to make concessions. “We were willing to go along with the loss of limestone, but we had three major conditions–aesthetics, access to the water, and staging,” says Clement. “We wanted the new design to look as much as possible like what we have. We wanted people to be able to get right to the water to launch their boats, or dangle their feet, or take a dip. We didn’t want a big wall that blocked a view of the lake from the bike path. And we did not want a major construction project that went on for years. We saw what was going on at Waveland–that area’s been fenced off for about three years. The project should be staged in such a way that the full point is never closed, and they should get it done as quickly as they possibly can. They seemed very receptive. They listened to what we said. They took notes. They promised to get back to us.”

A year passed. A few other meetings were held. Residents and Park District planners exchanged calls. But no official plans were released. Then on January 17, almost exactly a year after the first meeting, the Park District unveiled its plans at a meeting room in Hyde Park that was jammed with south-siders.

“They made no concessions–none,” says Clement. “It was excruciating to sit through. It was horrible.”

Park District officials said they planned to replace the limestone rocks with three levels of concrete that sloped to the lake. They said there would be no access to the water, because the lowest level of concrete would be about eight feet above the lake. And they said the Point would be fenced off for at least two years.

“Essentially,” says Clement, “they were going to fence off the Point for two years–and probably longer than that, ’cause you know how these construction projects go overtime–and then destroy it.”

The room erupted, then one by one, residents rose to vent their outrage. They had, they said, been led to believe that their concerns were being heeded, but the city and Park District hadn’t been listening at all. “We talked for a year,” says Clement, “and then they did nothing–nothing.”

One resident, Peter Rossi, declared, “We will go to war over this design.” The alderman, Leslie Hairston of the Fifth Ward, vowed to battle the plan in the City Council. Congressman Bobby Rush claimed he would fight it in the halls of Congress.

The January 31 issue of the Hyde Park Herald blasted the Park District with a full-page editorial headlined “Parks people are missing the Point.” It also ran an editorial that said, “Residents regard the park district with some suspicion; a suspicion that is historically justified–witness the decades-long battle over the unequal distribution of resources between the North and South Sides….Lack of trust is compounded by the park district’s characteristic aloofness, illustrated by the habit of sending officials who cannot answer questions to community meetings like the one held this month on the Point.” Indeed, the Park District regularly sends only a few low-level officials to such meetings, people who are nice and attentive but have little authority.

On February 7 Hairston gathered a group of residents to meet with Park District officials at her south-side office. The officials never showed up. “They said they were coming, and then they didn’t because of a budget hearing or something,” says Clement. “It only made people more upset.”

By March the opposition was coming from all corners of the community–swimmers, sailors, dog walkers, bird-watchers, even brides. “The Point has always been a very popular place to get married,” says Clement. “There were prospective brides showing up to meetings to ask how they could have their weddings in a construction zone. They wanted to know why the Park District had allowed them to reserve the field house if the Point was going to be under construction. I didn’t think things could get worse.”

But they did. On March 6 Park District and city officials returned to Hyde Park to discuss the project. It was then that they revealed the city was also intending to build a 50-foot-wide underpass at 57th Street. This tunnel under Lake Shore Drive would require them to build a 226-foot concrete drainage ditch just south of the Point to channel storm water into the lake–and to accommodate that, they would have to lop off about a third of the 57th Street beach.

Then the officials went back on their promise to allow swimming at the Point. “They let it slip,” says Clement. “Boy, did that enrage the swimming community.”

As the residents see it, Park District officials were either grossly ignorant of the value of the Point to the south side or they didn’t care. “I suspect that they just screwed up,” says Jack Spicer, a Hyde Park resident. “They just went with the army corps’ one-size-fits-all scheme. It has nothing to do with preserving the Point or accommodating park users or anything like that. This is just how the army corps does its developments–and the city went along.”

And the underpass? “I think that’s more of the same,” says Spicer. “It’s the same basic model that they used at the museum campus. Someone probably said, ‘Hey, it worked there. Let’s do it here.’ Never mind if the two sites are different.”

Like many other residents, Spicer believes it’s possible that the limestone could be preserved if the city wanted that. “Here’s the deal with the Point,” he says. “It’s deteriorating. It needs some repairs. Now what? Is it feasible to rebuild it with limestone? Let’s do some planning. We’ve tried to get IIT to come in and offer an alternative engineering voice. But the city just throws numbers at us–oh, this is going to cost millions of extra dollars if we keep the limestone. Who knows if it’s true?”

The residents’ latest strategy to save the Point is to bypass the Park District and put all their hopes in Mayor Daley–who, after all, has the power to tell Park District general superintendent David Doig what to do. Even as they embrace that strategy, residents acknowledge that they’re buying into the way things are done in the age of Daley. The mayor has so much political power that his acolytes act as though they can do whatever they like–which may be why they came up with a plan to, as Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin put it, save the Point by destroying it. Politically, Daley can’t lose. If he tells Doig to back off and appease the residents, he will win their eternal gratitude–they’ll probably even overlook that it was his administration that caused the problem in the first place.

“This is not the first time something like this has happened,” says Spicer. “The city has gotten away with this a thousand times–that’s what happens under a hereditary monarchy.”

Hairston has already made her plea to Daley, inviting him to walk with her around the Point. So far Daley hasn’t taken up her offer, though he did send an aide to visit the site. Hairston, Clement, Rossi, a few other residents, and the aide hiked about in the rain on April 6. “The aide was very sympathetic,” says Clement. “He promised to take our message to Mayor Daley.”

Of course Clement has heard such reassurances before. But Daley probably wants to find a way to finish the project without going down in history as the mayor who paved over the edge of the Point. Most likely, his planners will come up with some face-saving concession–such as restoring swimming rights–that will divide the opposition and take off some of the heat.

But the residents say they won’t be easily fooled. “There’s a great legacy here,” says Clement. “The Point’s too valuable. We can’t allow the city, the Park District, or the army corps to messit up.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.