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Dream of Fields? LISC Helps It Come True at Kelly Park

Patrick Brosnan, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council's executive director, on the phone with colleague Sara Reschly, who did much of the organizing around getting a new synthetic turf football field in Kelly Park near 41st Street and California Avenue.

Photos by Gordon Walek

What started four years ago as wishful thinking among residents meeting in a church basement in the Brighton Park neighborhood has blossomed into a dream-come-true this fall with the dedication of major improvements at Kelly Park.

“Our park had been passed-up and forgotten,” said Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BNPC). “So we began to organize.”

More meetings followed like that first one that drew 350 to St. Pancratius; then a series of strategic phone calls to public officials; then crucially, an outreach to LISC Chicago, which has been working with the Chicago Bears and Cubs Charities to identify and assist neighborhoods in need of improved playing fields.

LISC Chicago Deputy Director Keri Blackwell was impressed with the way BNPC gathered community support and developed a grassroots wish list of needed improvements.

“Good parks are an essential part of every neighborhood,” said Blackwell, noting that Kelly High and Brighton Park had worked with LISC in the past on a student teaching program in cooperation with Illinois State University. “So here was a chance to benefit both high school students and neighborhood residents with a safe, open space to play … or just to enjoy the outdoors.”

Richard Marchan, a Kelly High School senior who was a defensive end on the football team, described the experience of playing the homecoming game on a brand new field in front of a thousand fans. Pror to construction of the new field across the street from the high school, Kelly teams had to play their home games elsewhere.

All-star fix-up

The need was obvious. This largely Mexican-American neighborhood – stretching south of Archer Avenue halfway between downtown and Midway Airport – is notoriously short on public open space. Yet Kelly Park, a modest seven-acre “school park” across California Avenue from Kelly High School at 41st Street, had deteriorated badly. So badly the school’s soccer and football teams had to move their home games elsewhere. That turned into a serious problem, according to BPNC organizer and chair of the Kelly Park advisory council Sara Reschly, when street gangs operating east of Western Avenue began “jumping” Kelly players at the larger and better-equipped McKinley Park.

An all-star fix-up team came together including the city, the Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Park District, local public officials, LISC, and the Chicago Bears. It didn’t hurt that the National Football League and LISC operate something called the NFL Grassroots Program, through which more than $40 million has been donated to create or refurbish some 306 playing fields nationwide.

Here in Chicago the Bears have invested $2 million to redo 12 school and park district playing fields – the latest being Kelly Park – thereby leveraging another $28 million in fix-up funds from other donors and public agencies.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was on board from the get-go, predicting at the July 2014 groundbreaking that Kelly Park will be for Brighton Park “what Millennium Park has been for downtown,” and a place "where families and friendships are built.”

Weather at the field's grand opening ceremony wasn't conducive to an outdoor celebration, but that didn't prevent the Kelly High School football team from briefly stepping onto the field.

Bear weather

Only an important trade mission to China kept the mayor from attending the dedication ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015 at the Kelly High gym. Bears’ board member and director of special projects Patrick McCaskey along with parks General Superintendent Michael Kelly and Brighton Park resident leader Silvia Torres took over as featured speakers.

More than 150 neighborhood residents attended, along with the Kelly High varsity football team and marching band, the latter tuning up for a New Year’s trip to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Feliz Navidad came across a bit loud, sure, but nobody was complaining about moving the ceremony indoors, what with those new synthetic fields across the street being pelted by the season’s first snowstorm.

“We greatly value our longstanding relationship with LISC Chicago,” Pat McCaskey saluted in his speech, pausing after every few sentences so a translator could repeat his words in Spanish. “Especially for the vision, expertise, knowledge and resources they bring to the process.”  

Senior defensive end Richard Marchan, wearing his No. 84 Kelly football jersey, spoke next for the team, explaining how proud they were a few weeks ago playing their homecoming game on a brand new field in front of a thousand fans overflowing the brand new bleachers.

Patrick McCaskey, a Chicago Bears board member and director of special projects, addressed more than 150 Brighton Park residents in the Kelly High gym about the LISC/NFL partnership that helps fund community football fields. 

Baseball next

The biggest cheer of the afternoon, however, was when BPNC’s Brosnan announced that Kelly Park will be included in the 2nd round of the LISC-administered Cubs Charities Diamond Project. That means $75,000 worth of improvements to the park’s main baseball diamond, including resizing the infield; grading, aerating and reseeding the outfield; and installing benches as well an ADA-compliant drinking fountain in cooperation with Chicago Park District.

Cooperation was key, surely, in securing the $2 million football/soccer improvement. Besides $200,000 contributed by the Bears via NFL Grassroots, significant investments came from the Park District, the Public Schools, the State of Illinois through the efforts of Sen. Martin Sandoval, the U.S. Soccer Federation, the City of Chicago via Ald. George Cardenas (12th) and the Pritzker-Traubert Family Foundation.

Maybe the most satisfying aspect for LISC Chicago was helping a working-class neighborhood such as Brighton Park – a neighborhood too often “passed-up and forgotten” as was Kelly Park – make solid gains using basic planning and organizing techniques.

“This is what we do best,” said Caroline Goldstein, LISC Chicago’s interim executive director. “When communities come up with a vision, when they commit to making it happen, we can help.”

More information:

LISC’s Keri Blackwell,

BPNC’s Sara Reschly,

Posted in Placemaking, Brighton Park


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