After years of jogging through Lincoln Park, Erma Tranter knew that the city’s parks had problems. But she didn’t know how many problems until Friends of the Park, of which she is executive director, completed an exhaustive study of 40 different parks. To do so, the group chose three parks from each of the city’s 13 districts–one small, one medium, and one large–visited them, and recorded their impressions.

The report–a 300-page tome, complete with drawings, charts, and maps–tells the story of the city’s parks with descriptions of glass-filled tot lots, broken benches, locked field houses, open drug dealing, graffiti, and apathetic or hostile employees.

“It gets frustrating sometimes,” says Tranter. She says she’d like to report “more progress” for her non-profit watchdog organization, which was formed in 1975, but adds: “It’s not all bad. There are some good signs. There are some clean, well-run parks, and there are employees who work hard and do a good job. But there are too many parks that are filthy and poorly managed. Sometimes I think we’re taking one step forward and one step back.”

Tranter, who cowrote the report with staff assistant Debra Nelson and intern Anne Ryder, stops short of blaming the mess on Park District executive director Jesse Madison (who could not be reached for comment). Appointed three years ago by Harold Washington, Madison is a man who’s had his critics. And according to newspaper articles, he has yet to meet with his new boss, Mayor Richard M. Daley. Word has it that Daley will replace him as soon as his contract expires, sometime next year. In the meantime, Madison is something of a pathetic–and vaguely sympathetic–figure, a former west-side reformer appointed to an office he did not have the moxie, training, or power to handle.

“I don’t want to criticize Madison, because from what I see in the newspapers he’s on his way out,” says Tranter. “I do think he was better than his predecessor [Ed Kelly]. But Madison’s administration was bogged down so much by crisis management: they always seemed to be putting out fires. Simple things–like seeing to it that the grass in Lincoln Park was mowed on time–got by them all too often. I don’t think he came close to ever really getting the job done.”

Tranter points a finger instead at a bloated bureaucracy that can’t be controlled. There are 563 parks, tot lots included, and roughly 4,000 full-time Park District employees. The annual budget is $300 million. Overall policy is approved by a seven-person board of commissioners. By and large, however, the commissioners are political appointees without the ability, time, or inclination to ride herd on the enormous system. Of the current board members, it’s doubtful whether any of them, other than Margaret Burroughs and Walter Netsch, even use the parks regularly.

This top-heavy system was supposed to change when Madison replaced Kelly in 1986. Legend has it that Kelly, a Democratic ward committeeman, got his Park District position because he oversaw the defeat of 47th Ward alderman John Hoellen, a reform-minded Republican who had been a persistent pest to Mayor Richard J. Daley. During Kelly’s reign, reformers accused him of using Park District employees as his private precinct army.

“When Kelly was boss, the most important day was election day,” says one Park District vendor who begs for anonymity for fear of retribution. “They didn’t clean up. They didn’t give a damn about broken glass or windows. All they knew was that on election day, they had to get out the vote.”

Most alarming was the discrepancy Kelly allowed between the resources allocated for parks in white and black communities. In 1978, Tom Brune–then writing for the Chicago Reporter–ran a computer analysis of Park District services. He discovered that white wards had far more major indoor and outdoor facilities–like assembly halls, recreation buildings, swimming pools, club rooms, kitchens, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, and tennis courts–than black wards had.

Sometimes the discrepancies reflected the attitudes of Park District supervisors. Parks in black wards, for instance, had more basketball courts but fewer ice-skating rinks, tennis courts, and baseball diamonds than those in white wards. Apparently the Park District supervisors had concluded that blacks were born with a preference for basketball.

Brune’s revelations prompted the Sun-Times to run a Park District series. At that point a west-side civil-rights group sued the Park District, arguing that its policies were discriminatory. The group lost its case, but when the federal Justice Department decided to file its own discrimination suit, the Park District gave in without a fight. In 1983, the District signed a consent fit decree with the federal government agreeing to make major capital improvements in parks in minority areas.

“Under the consent decree, the Park District put capital–not operating–dollars into major repairs of minority parks,” says Tranter. “We had horrendous problems with eroding bridges and crumbling buildings in these minority parks. So the Park District agreed to set aside money to make repairs that were essential.”

In addition, in 1988 Madison signed on to a decentralization plan that divided the city’s parks into 13 districts, each with its own manager. The point was to appoint a manager–someone who would be accountable to the community–to a position of authority, to make sure repairs were made quickly and efficiently.

But despite the decentralization plan, which was supposed to make the bureaucracy more receptive to communities, huge disparities between black and white parks remain.

Look, for example, at Portage Park, on the northwest side. Tranter, Nelson, and Ryder discovered a well-kept park without a trace of litter and boasting a pool, tennis courts, and baseball diamonds. At Davis Square Park, a black area on the southwest side, they discovered broken benches, broken glass, graffiti, and baseball fields so choked with weeds they were “unusable,” according to their report.

“The whole story can be summed up by pictures of two different benches,” says Tranter. “The first bench is in Davis Square Park. You can’t even sit on it. There’s no slats, except the back rest, which is covered with graffiti. How can the Park District allow this? How can they not fix it?

“Then you go over to Ridge Square Park in Beverly. There’s a bench–with all its slats intact–with a lovely garden behind it. The flowers are well-groomed. The first park bench is telling people not to use the park. It’s sending out a signal: ‘We don’t care about you.’ No wonder you don’t see people there, except the negative element. Who would go there? You can’t even sit down and enjoy the garden.”

Tranter and her colleagues search for explanations.

“I attribute it to poor employees,” says Tranter. “They set the tone. A good employee sees a broken bench and fixes it. A bad one sees it and says, ‘What the hell.’ We went into some park field houses to ask questions of the managers, and they would ask us for identification. It’s like, ‘Who are you and why are you here?’ The point is that anyone should be able to walk in and ask questions, they shouldn’t have to show identification. These Park District employees are supposed to work for us. But the tone has been set for years and years. The parks are for the staff, and jobs and patronage. A lot of people have worked there for 25 years. They aren’t going to change quickly.”

Maybe so, but no Park District employee–even Ed Kelly–ever made anyone disfigure a park bench, drop trash on the grass, smash bottles in the tot lots, or dump tires, cars, shopping carts–you name it–in the lagoons. Why the inability to drop trash in any one of the dozens of receptacles in almost every city park? What force of nature compels someone to drop a bottle on the ground rather than walk 100 feet or so to a garbage can? Go to almost any park in the suburbs, and you won’t see a fraction of the debris found in just about any Chicago park on any given day.

“I can’t speak for the suburbs–I don’t use their parks,” says Tranter. “But people litter all over the city. They litter in Lincoln Park, which is in a higher-income area. You will find broken beer bottles almost everywhere. Of course, I don’t think people should litter. But the problem is when the glass and trash is repeatedly ignored, when it’s never picked up. That only leads to more trash.

“So I don’t attribute these problems to race or class. There are some good parks in minority areas–I mean parks that are clean and well organized. It leads us to believe that bad parks have problems with bad staff. Someone’s not working. Someone’s not accountable. That has to change.”

She remains hopeful that decentralization will provide the answer.

“The whole point of decentralization is that you have a supervisor who sees the broken glass in the park and does something about it,” says Tranter. “The point is to have someone with the authority to make work crews come out and clean up.”

But decentralization may not prove a complete enough overhaul of the bureaucracy. Tranter says, “Some park supervisors have told us they can’t make basic repairs because they can’t cut through the bureaucracy and get tradespeople to come to the park. Well, either there are not enough tradespeople, or the ones we have are not doing their Job. In Lincoln Park they have some water mains that haven’t been fixed for months because the supervisors can’t get the plumbers out there. That’s ridiculous.

“It’s no secret why parks like Portage Park are so well kept. Their supervisors respond to the residents. They won’t tolerate delays. When something is wrong, they get on the phones and get the repairs done. They know how the system works. That’s the way it should be all over.”

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