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Altgeld Park, Little Village Gain New Green Fields

Everett Chinn paced the new artificial turf at Altgeld Park’s field as if it were his. It’s not. It’s a Chicago Park District property on the West Side – but he lays claim to an emotional ownership few others can.

Chinn, a photographer, lives a couple blocks east of the field – it’s on the 500 block of South Washtenaw – and played on it as a kid 30 years ago, when it was “patches of grass surrounded by dirt.”

When Everett Chinn played at Altgeld Park as a child in the early 1980s, this field consisted of clumps of grass and dirt.

Gordon Walek

Now it’s a regulation size, artificial turf field, with lights, a scoreboard, bleachers and all the amenities one expects these days from a first-class sports venue.

Chinn was there on a glorious fall morning to celebrate its grand opening, which culminated in a football game between Chicago Hope Academy – where his son, Armon Glenn, a sophomore, is on the team – and the visiting North Shore Country Day School.

“For the school, this is a great opportunity to play on a regulation-style field,” said Chinn. “It’ll prepare guys for college ball. And for the neighborhood, it shows we haven’t been forgotten. In years past, we had that feeling. But this brings hope to the neighborhood. That sign [behind him, the Hope Academy sign] says it all. It brings hope.”

That hope, in part, is the purpose of the tapestry of funders who pulled strings to make the aptly named Hope Field happen. Some of the money came from the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, which is supporting a number of Chicago Park District field rehabs throughout the city. Another $200,000 came from the National Football League’s Grassroots program, a national partnership between the NFL and LISC, which over the last 14 years has helped create or rehab more than 250 fields nationwide, including 10 in the Chicago area (of which LISC Chicago and the Chicago Bears have had a hand).

Other money for the Altgeld Park field came from the sophisticated fundraising efforts of Chicago Hope Academy, its partners, and the City of Chicago, through tax increment financing.

The grand opening for the Altgeld Park field, a project of LISC Chicago and the NFL Grassroots program, was held on a glorious fall morning.

Gordon Walek

For LISC Chicago, the Altgeld field – and the NFL Grassroots program – is of a piece with other local efforts to engage youth, their parents, and their families in activities (such as sports) that not only teach teamwork and cooperation, but also provide exercise, improve public safety and create a setting where young people and adults can interact.

“When all those things happen, the result is a sort of emotional glue that holds neighborhoods together,” said Keri Blackwell, LISC Chicago’s deputy director of programs. “We think that high-quality recreational facilities, coupled with organized, supervised activities led by strong mentors, are essential parts of anyone’s definition of a healthy neighborhood and childhood. They’re as necessary as decent housing, successful businesses, good schools and safe streets.”

For years, Blackwell has been a driving force behind LISC’s Hoops in the Hood program, in which 12 neighborhoods each summer close off city streets or open local gymnasiums so young people can play league basketball, supervised by adults. That program’s been going on for nearly a decade.

Similar to Hoops is PlayStreets, which LISC, Active Transportation Alliance, World Sport Chicago, the Chicago Department of Public Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois and several other organizations began late last summer, in which streets in Pilsen, Little Village, Brighton Park, Woodlawn, Chicago Lawn and South Chicago are temporarily closed to vehicles, allowing residents to use them for recreational purposes.

Soccer Field in Little Village
Another example of a neighborhood getting behind a key recreational facility occurred earlier this year when Little Village, the most park-starved neighborhood in the city, got some breathing room with the grand opening of a new soccer field at 31st Street and Lawndale Avenue.

The synthetic turf field, on the shared grounds of Gary Elementary and Ortiz de Dominguez Elementary schools, replaces an old and worn natural turf field – in such bad shape it was frequently useless. The new field allows nearly year-round play, providing much needed recreational space for students and residents throughout the neighborhood.

American football is not the only kind of futbol played on the new artificial turf.

Eric Young Smith

You wouldn’t think a patch of green would be a tough sell, but in a neighborhood with precious little open space, even improving what’s already there was a tricky business. Like nearly every community development project these days, the new field happened because of the persistence of a few stubborn organizations and people who appreciate the value of a place where kids and adults can safely exercise and have a little fun.

Enlace Chicago, a key LISC partner in Little Village, and Beyond the Ball, which seeks to expand access to recreation and life skills for local youth, generated initial steam for the field, while Ald. Rick Munoz led the effort to get money to pay for it. And that was no small thing. The U.S. Soccer Foundation kicked in $70,000, with Munoz securing the remaining $1.5 million in city funds. Chicago Public Schools managed the project.

Little Village is one of Chicago’s most densely populated working-class neighborhoods, yet has few public recreational facilities. Enlace Chicago, Beyond the Ball, and their community partners have made expanding access to safe parks and open space a priority through a local quality-of-life plan developed in conjunction with LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program, which supports community development and improvement initiatives.

That effort got a further shot in the arm when the Chicago Park District and the city recently announced plans for a new park on the grounds of a former asphalt plant at 31st Street and Albany Avenue. When completed in 2014, it will contain soccer and baseball fields, basketball courts and walking and jogging trails.

Beyond the planning and visioning and public-private partnerships that these projects require, it’ll be the Everett Chinns and their families who write the final chapter on the social and health benefits of local high quality soccer and football fields. An empty park, after all, isn’t much more useful than a vacant lot. But if the early activity at Altgeld and the Little Village soccer field is any indication, residents are embracing the facilities as key neighborhood assets – assets that have the potential to make neighborhoods better and stronger.  

Posted in Health, Placemaking, Little Village


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