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Monday, September 24, 2007

Free, clear, endangered by our mayor

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

After all is said, the rationale for relocating the Chicago Children's Museum into Grant Park comes down to this: Nothing's there, something has to go there and it might as well be the museum.

Obviously, that reasoning flunks all tests of logic, but, at base, it's the best that the move's backers can do. Put aside all the red herrings (racism, classism, adultism) raised by Mayor Richard Daley. A Tribune headline succinctly got to the heart of the argument: "Fixing 'nowhere.'" The northeast corner of Grant Park is "underused;" enter it from the serpentine bridge from Millennium Park and you'll find yourself "nowhere." Because large-scale work must be done on the parking garage below, we'll have an opportunity to fix the supposedly desolate park by relocating the privately operated, fee-to-enter Children's Museum from its cramped Navy Pier quarters.

Of course, that's bunk. There is a "there" there. A "there" with a grand view of the park and Buckingham Fountain to the south. The lake to the east. The skyline to the west. In the heart of downtown, it is a rare and valuable place of quietude. It was my favorite lunchtime refuge when I worked downtown, a place to be immersed in the city's beauty and to forget the office lunacy. The wildflower gardens; the expansive lawns; the plunk of tennis balls on nearby courts; the fountain, framed by rows of trees, rising like an exclamation point blocks away. Anyone who doesn't see the something in all this has nothing for brains.

But wait, museum backers say this won't change after the museum moves there. All that you will see of the subterranean museum are some skylights poking through the landscape. The grass, benches, the opportunity for solitude and all the rest will stay, only better.

Museum backers appear to overlook the irony in their argument: We need to fill in that corner of the park with something; after we fill in that corner, nothing will still be there.

Let's leave that aside and get to why the museum should go elsewhere. Let's also put aside all the legalities, the parsing of court rulings about what constitutes the "forever open, free and clear" standard for Grant Park, and the chuckleheaded digressions about the park's racial, social and economic diversity. This is, after all, a park and what goes in there should have some relationship to it being a park. The Children's Museum does not. Its existence does not depend on it being near grass or the lakefront. It can go many other places without it being diminished as a museum. Its existence in Grant Park doesn't add anything to it. Grant Park can do just fine as a lakefront park without a children's museum.

Longtime readers (if there are any) know that I have felt that the lakefront has been an underutilized resource. As a kid growing up in Chicago, the lakefront as a "destination" wasn't for much my life. It wasn't until the Navy Pier revitalization, Millennium Park and other items came along to add some diversity of activity that the lakefront's potential has been more fully realized. But Grant Park is different. It is legacy land. There's enough already on it. More is coming: the Art Institute's new wing for its modern collection will rise three stories above grade. The park doesn't need another precedent for more stuff to be added.

This fight, thanks to Daley's invective, is far out of proportion. It won't be the end of the world if the museum goes elsewhere, or if Daley wins, as he surely will, and the museum goes into the park. Still, the fight is useful in one respect: It is yet another look into the Chicago Way, or in Daley's mind, the Daley Way. We again see the same full-blown arrogance of a mayor who, in violation of the law and common sense, bulldozed at midnight a civic asset that he personally disliked -- the lakefront Meigs Field.

Some folks are puzzled by Daley's blowup last week -- the uncontrolled anger and the hysterical accusations of racism against the museum's opponents. What on Earth, they ask, set it off. Simple. Daley blew his top at the mere challenge to his authority. He takes it personally. Opponents of the museum's move to Grant Park can only be thankful that building takes longer than destroying. Otherwise, the construction crews would have arrived some dark night, and Chicago would have awoken to a fait accompli in the park.

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