For Wilbert King, a South Side native who works in violence prevention, Washington Park is where he gathers Chicago youth to play in a softball league every Sunday. He believes the existence of softball fields has steered his own life in the right direction, and he wants to do the same for others.
“This is the biggest use of the park,” King said of the softball diamonds. “People come from all over Chicbefore and no incident occurred.”
On Saturday afternoon, King was one of dozens of people to see the Chicago Park District’s proposed framework plan for the future of Washington Park as part of the district’s larger strategic plan for parks citywide.
Bounded by 51st Street, King Drive, 60th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, the 345-acre South Side park connects to lakefront Jackson Park via Midway Plaisance Park, creating a massive parkland covering more than 1,000 acres.
The park district received feedback on six key areas of the site, including bicycle circulation paths, athletic fields, Morgan Drive entrance, field house, pool and plans for the south side lagoon. The areas within the park’s field building are divided into six stations, with a wide visual presentation at each. Visitors were asked to pick up a brochure and stop at each station, then provide a list of things that impressed them during the presentations.
Designed in 1871, changes were made to preserve the historic nature of the park, but also build on the needs of the community and encourage people in the city to use the space, according to the Park District.
“They are in the community, but they benefit everyone,” said Cecilia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council. “It’s up to you to use this or go somewhere else
Park District superintendent Rosa Escareño said attendance at the session was impressive, adding that even though parks are less used in the winter, people may be more excited about what possibilities lie ahead for green space.
“It’s very exciting that people are so passionate about their parks,” Escareño said. “Our framework plan provides the direction we need to take the park district, and when that direction is fueled by the people who live in these neighborhoods, it really becomes an important part of that process.”
The softball fields were one of the most talked about features of the park, with several post-it notes advocating for their preservation. “We need them all,” King said.
Donald Hendrix also runs a softball league in Washington Park for the Chicago Transit Authority, where he worked as a mechanic before retiring. He said more than 1,000 people play in the league every Sunday morning, spread out among at least five diamonds.
“We get the players and their families to come watch, too,” Hendrix said.
The park district last introduced a framework in 2002. A new framework would build on the previous plan and continue to evolve the park over time based on how neighborhood needs, city finances and fundraising efforts change.
Donna Hampton-Smith, who has owned a home in Washington Park for 33 years, said she sees many unfulfilled promises in the decades-old framework plan, making her skeptical of the upcoming redesign.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful park, a gorgeous park, but it’s hard to be positive about it,” Hampton-Smith said of the proposed plan for improvements.
At the open house, Hampton-Smith reviewed illustrated option maps for future use and filled out a feedback card on her way out, but said she ultimately didn’t think the event was a productive way to get information from neighbors in the community. .
“They’re hearing from a lot of people here who don’t live in Washington Park,” Hampton-Smith said, noting that many people she knows nearby haven’t heard of the incident. “I hope there is a way to listen to the people who live in Washington Park.”
Escareño said the city is listening to the opinions of everyone who uses Washington Park.
Butler admits he’s seen “almost no change” in more than 20 years, but he’s hopeful that stronger communication with the city could lead to the changes residents want.
“Chicago has one of the best park systems in the world, and it’s all about bringing joy to the community,” Butler said.
Once feedback is gathered, the city will determine which projects can be funded first and how much funding is available to meet the park’s needs, Escareño said.
“This is an opportunity to refocus ourselves, identify with the community and say, ‘Where are we focusing the money, how much is available and can these help us?'”