Garden Park, Evanston, Illinois

(Note–this was originally written in February, 2000–but has been updated and reworked for this post.. )

The climbing tree is gone.

One of my most cherished places is simply gone.  I cannot believe it.

There are pictures of me as a small child on that climbing tree.  It was a giant willow that jutted out from the ground at such a slight angle, that even I, as a four-year old, could clamber up on it alone and without help.  The attachment I have for that tree has never left me.  Through my adolescence and even into adulthood, whenever I needed to ponder something, I would make my way to Garden Park and visit the climbing tree.

And now, it is gone.

The climbing tree was located in a relatively small park in extreme southeastern Evanston.  Only a quarter of a mile from the Chicago border, it is one of the many lakefront parks stretching along Lake Michigan, but unlike many of them, it is rather secluded and off the beaten path.  On many maps, it isn’t marked and many of my friends didn’t even know it existed.  For me, however, it was always something important, something sacred.

Perhaps because of this deeply personal connection, I had never thought about the park in any objective sense.  By that, I mean that I had never tried to put the park in any kind of larger context, to understand the park as the construct of both civilization and nature, which is what it is.  When I last visited the park, I tried to move beyond my subjective attachments and to view it with different eyes.  This park has its own history, its own story.

Perhaps that would console me.

I doubted it.

The History of Garden Park

The plot of lakefront property that is now Garden Park was not always a park.  In fact, it was not even always on the lakefront.  Fifteen thousand years ago, this part of the upper Midwest was covered with ice that was hundreds if not thousands of feet thick.  This had been the state of affairs for tens of thousands of years and only started to change around twelve thousand years ago as the ice age came to a close.  Over time, the ice melted and drained into what would eventually be called Lake Michigan.

At this stage, our plot of land was no longer under ice, but neither was it shoreline.  It was now part of the lake.  Until the last couple of thousand years, the original shoreline was a mile to the west, where it met up with an elevated length of land now aptly named Ridge Street.  As the water gradually retreated, the area between the ridge and the lake became a swamp like much of the southwestern edge of Lake Michigan.

This swampy landscape, along with much of northern Illinois, was to become the home of the Potawatomi Indians.  For a long time they practiced limited agriculture as well as hunting and gathering.  When the first Europeans—the French—arrived in the 1700s, a network of fur trading was established.  This state of affairs continued until the English and then the Americans took “control” of the land.  By the 1830s, the State Government of Illinois needed funds, and they decided that land sales were the way to satisfy this need.  The Potawatomies were first asked to leave. Then they were driven from the land.  A small part of this area became Garden Park.

Former Potawatomi lands were then sold to various farmers and businessmen and were soon incorporated into townships.  Evanston—incorporated in 1863—did not originally contain the area that would become Garden Park.  This land was part of the South Evanston Township, which had been incorporated in 1873.  South Evanston was a different type of community than Evanston.  It had lower taxes, was more densely populated, and had a working class feel to it that was distinct from Evanston’s mix of middle and upper-class businessmen.  This fact is important, because when South Evanston was annexed to Evanston in 1892, much less of the land had been reserved for parks than in the rest of Evanston.  The only significant portion of land that was still available for parks was along the swampy lakefront, and it is probably for this reason that Garden Park exists at all.

By the 1950s, Evanston had become a large and progressive city.  The city government was concerned with the insufficient parkland within its borders and had begun to appropriate more funds towards purchasing plots for park creation.  In 1959, Evanston purchased a 100- by 180-foot plot of land along the lakeshore from Mrs. Donovan Y. Erickson for $30,000.  This plot already bordered one of Evanston’s public parks and together these parcels of land would form the future Garden Park.

Attaining its final borders was the beginning, not the end, of the changes that Garden Park would experience.  In the 1960s and early 1970s, Evanston proceeded to engage in park improvement throughout the city, and playgrounds were added to numerous parks.  It was shortly thereafter that I began to visit Garden Park.  My family lived in one of the apartment complexes in southeast Evanston-over on Hinman St.–and it was one of the few parks within walking distance.  Even after we moved away to extreme northwest Evanston and I had grown into a teenager, I would ride my bike down to the park.  I would find peace by sitting on the rocks, listening to the surf, looking south to the “radioactive orange” glow of Chicago at night, and by climbing up my favorite tree as I had done as a child.

It is now the year 2000, and the climbing tree is gone.

The Structure of Garden Park

Garden Park is located in southeast Evanston along the lakefront.  Specifically, it is at the end of Sheridan Court.  Along the south side of Sheridan court are apartment complexes that are four stories high.  These continue along Sheridan Court as it curves south for a block and rejoins Sheridan Street.  Along the north side are four houses of relatively modern design.  Past these four houses, one comes to the gated entrance of Garden Park.  Here, the sidewalk ends, literally. Only a much smaller gravel path remains for those who wish to proceed further along the lakefront.

Garden Park is roughly rectangular with a small “add-on” in the southeast corner.  The main portion of the park is approximately 300- (N-S) by 180-feet (E-W), while the “add-on” is 120-(N-S) by 60-feet (E-W).  The park is bounded on the East by a line of whitish-gray barrier rocks that protect it from Lake Michigan, on the South by a brown wooden fence, on the West by the various fences of the houses that border it, and on the north by another fence separating it from a plot of land that seems to function as a private park for very exclusive Evanstonians.

Entering the park from the non-gated entrance of the “add-on,” I find a picnic area.  There are 3 tables chained to the ground, 2 built-in grills, and a scattering of young trees.  Otherwise, this area merely contains grass and is fairly empty.  Proceeding north from here, I encounter the playground.  The ground here is elevated in comparison of the rest of the park, most likely designed to keep this area drained of water.  It is bordered with wood planks and is filled with wood chips that certainly have to be replaced each year.  Within the playground, there are 3 apparatuses.  To the west is the metallic swing-set.  To the north is a sandbox formed in the shape of a boat.  In the Southeast is a wooden contraption that is also in the shape of a ship and which contains a slide. North of the playground, the ground lowers again and is fairly empty until the northern edge of the park.  Interesting, however, is the qualitative change that takes place in the barrier rocks at this point.  Up until the playground, the tops of the barrier rocks were rather rough and pointed.  After the playground, they become much smoother, and flatter.  Here, they are easy to climb upon and perfect for sitting upon.  It seems strange to think that they would have been purposely designed this way, but it also seems strange to think that this layout is merely coincidental.

At the northern edge of the park is a metallic chain-link fence that is bordered on both sides by numerous small trees and bushes.  This area, along with the barrier rocks of the northeast corner, form the most secluded area of the park.  As I walk west, the park becomes less and less secluded until one reaches the open space of the northwest corner.  I start to walk back south towards the main entrance, and I cannot help but walk under the great willow tree that dominates the northern area of the park.  Its trunk diameter must be at least 4 feet and it is by far the largest tree in the park.  The ground underneath it is fairly devoid of grass.  Moving further south, there are two items to notice.  On the right, there is a park bench with two streetlights on either side.  On the left is a depression.  It is downhill from the playground, and at the moment, it is filled with water from melted snow.  It is the lowest point in the park and probably becomes a miniature pond every time it rains heavily.

Continuing south, there is open grass until I encounter another old tree.  This one appears to be a maple.  It does not dominate the area as the willow does, and there is grass up to its edge.  Proceeding a bit further to the south, I arrive at the main entrance to the park.  Here, there is the concrete water-fountain that is characteristic to Evanston parks—even if it only functions during the summer.  There is also the standard brown wooden sign with the yellow lettering proclaiming this to be “Garden Park—City of Evanston.”  There are well-trimmed bushes in front of the sign and a small stone path to the closed entrance gate of the park.

Something is missing.

The climbing tree is gone.

The Life of Garden Park

If you think about it, parks are pretty interesting.  For the city dweller, they are supposed to represent a bit of nature, a place where one can escape “civilization” for a tiny while.  They are patches of greenery amongst the asphalt, bricks, and metal of the city.  They are a place for children to play.  They have been—so it might seem–preserved from development.

This is a lie, though.

Parks are constructs and are every bit as “unnatural” as the buildings and streets that surround them.  The parks in Evanston are not spots of nature that are allowed to develop on their own.  They are carefully managed by the Evanston Park District, and each year the park district does its best to make the parks easily accessible to the inhabitants of Evanston.  Furthermore, humans are constantly in the park and contribute to its form.  Their presence adds to, subtracts from, or changes elements within the park.  In this sense, parks represent a fascinating example of how humans perceive and interface not only with nature itself, but more accurately with their preconceived notions of what nature should be.

With regard to the social life of Garden Park, summer is where it’s at. Children are everywhere.  They run around, trample upon the grass, scramble on the playground, throw the wood chips to and fro, and climb upon the rocks.  Their families also picnic, using the grills and filling the trash cans.  At night, the teenagers come out.  They visit the park, perhaps as a means to “escape”  the watchful eyes of their parents.  They, too, play on the playground, climb and write graffiti upon the rocks, and seek out the darker recesses of the park, whether for the purpose of illegal activities or just to ponder their own troubled teenage worlds.

At semi-regular intervals, the park service eventually comes to “beautify” the park.  They cut the grass that has grown despite the trampling.  They add new wood chips to the playground.  They trim the park bushes and try to thwart the “wild” bushes that attempt to grow amongst the barrier rocks.

Occasionally, they cut down trees.

During the cold months, this activity declines, but is not absent.  Walking through the park, I come across other human artifacts. Signifiers of human practices.  Because of the snow, I can see who else had been in the park.  Not only humans have been here, but animals too.  Along the entire edge of the park were the tracks of humans along with the paw prints of dogs.  It seems that the park serves as a perfect area for walking the local dogs.  Not surprisingly, as I approached the secluded northern end of the park, the number of illegal piles of dog feces increased until I had to be very careful of where I was stepping.

But dog walking was not the only activity there.  I saw that the slide had been used from the amount of sand that appeared splayed out at its bottom on top of the snow.  Additionally, in the northeast corner of the park, I found the signs of more adult interlopers: a crushed can of Budweiser beer amongst the rocks and a used condom lying on the ground near the northern fence.  It seems that the park has a healthy nightlife.

Despite the flurry of human activity in the park, the effects of nature are not entirely absent.  They were only a bit more hidden.  Looking over the edge of the barrier rocks–as the surf crashed upon it–I noticed that the rocks at the bottom of the barrier were smaller and smoother.  The water was washing them away, very gradually.  Also on the far side of the barrier were bushes growing amongst the rocks.  Here, they had escaped the pruning of the park service and were allowed to grow to their full capacity.  Nature will reclaim this place, given enough time, and only the constant vigilance of the park service and the money of the Evanston city council will keep the lake from overrunning Garden Park.

Between the enduring rhythms of nature and the conscious constructions of humans, there is tension, but also possibility.  Although I may not want to admit it, death is part of nature and it is likely that the climbing tree was already somewhat old when I was a child.  Willows only live for around 40 years, and most likely, my tree became sick at some point.

Most likely, it began to die.

This is what I tell myself.

This is how it must have been.

This is the reason that my climbing tree is gone.

And, perhaps, it is the reason why they planted a new tree there.

One that hopefully will become a climbing tree for someone else.

About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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