Nature Sanctuary Politics

Invasive species: Politics and the South Shore Nature Sanctuary

When the Chicago Park District dedicated the three-and-a-half acre South Shore Nature Sanctuary in 2002, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) was eager to keep the credit for the space local—and to show that she knew the ins and outs of her ward.

“This is an area that has always been here, that has always been utilized—only now it has been given some of the attention it deserves,” Hairston said at the time, according to a report in the Hyde Park Herald. 

Fast forward to last week, when Hairston, now advocating for a PGA course in Jackson Park that will destroy the nature sanctuary, has begun making wild claims about the spot, which has over the years only become more beloved and well used. 

“…it’s actually all dead. And it’s been dead for some years,” Hairston told a reporter at the Medinah Country Club, which was hosting the BMW Championship, one of the tournaments that the investors in the redevelopment of the public golf courses in Jackson Park hope to lure there. Tiger Woods has designed a replacement course for the park, a PGA-level green that will draw all the advantages of elite golf. The context of the conversation was that Hairston said she wants to give Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot a tour of the nature sanctuary, which would, Hairston asserts, convince her that there is no value to the place.

As a 19-year-long resident of the South Side, living alongside Jackson Park just south of the proposed Obama Center, I am not surprised to hear this sort of language. Over and over, I have heard parts of the park described as worthless and underused by private groups that want to take them over. I and my neighbors with our own eyes see the lie in their statements every day, and continue to be stunned by their calumny. The Obama Center will replace what is perhaps the most actively used part of Jackson Park, a strip that hosts reunions, barbecues, church services, sporting events, and any number of other, less formally organized activities. It is the one place in the park you can be sure is always in use. The South Shore Nature Sanctuary is a place that is not only popular but rare—and all-the-more precious in the rarity of its existence. It is a truly beautiful, natural habitat right on the lake. It is a tiny ecosystem that protects all sorts of life in an exquisite balance.

It’s hard to believe that places like these are described as disposable by public officials, but that tells you everything you need to know about the people we are dealing with. Chicago politics is fond of the big lie, and even beloved former presidents appear to be disinclined to stop Chicago pols from doing things in such an unsavory way. But this sort of bully-boosterism is ugly, and the ugliness is sometimes called out. And sometimes backfires.

Snapshot activism

When Hairston tried to dismiss the value of the nature sanctuary, advocates for the space responded with alacrity. South Shore resident Susannah Ribstein immediately posted inviting pics of the sanctuary and encouraged people to come out and see for themselves what it looks like there. Eric Allix Rogers, who also lives in South Shore and has been known to speak up for sensible planning priorities and processes, went further and launched a series of photos on Twitter with the hashtag #alldead and variations thereof:

Rogers published tweet after tweet documenting the very alive nature of the sanctuary. His damning documentation was perhaps the most effective first-wave reaction to Hairston’s absurd claims. (The Sun Times statements quoted above were not the only ones: She also told another paper that nothing was going to be removed for the development of the golf course—“We’re not taking anything”—to rebut complaints about the long list of amenities that will be torn up and which the developers promise to replace.) 

In response to a related claim made by Hairston, that no one maintains the site, Ribstein tweeted yet another vivid photo of the sanctuary, bursting with life.

Hairston’s best efforts to use the press to advance her specious claims about the sanctuary ultimately led to a counter-narrative bubbling up in the press, one that was more extensively documented than the coverage she got. Her mentions in a golf article in the Trib and a Sun Times piece about Tiger Woods were eventually answered by stories in the Sun-Times, South Side Weekly, Block Club Chicago, the Chicago Reporter, the Hyde Park Herald, and probably other publications, as well as letters to the editor. The consensus was that the alderman was propagandizing for a group of rich and powerful people, unconcerned about the veracity of her statements. People were very angry. People are still angry.

Enter the Royal Catchfly

Because the weekend following the alderman’s unfortunate comments was forecast to be beautiful, because there was a Monarch butterfly celebration planned at the nearby South Shore Cultural Center, because an environmental group was holding a press conference in Jackson Park in response to Hairston’s statements, and because people go to natural areas on weekends when the weather is beautiful, a motley crew of locals and advocates and journalists and others were in Jackson Park and around the nature sanctuary that following weekend. Among those numbers was Marc Monaghan, a professional photographer who lives in Hyde Park and who happens to have had a successful career as a scientist before deciding to take photos for a living.

Herald coverage that weekend included a snapshot of a nature enthusiast snapping a shot of the Royal Catchfly.

I have worked with Marc and can attest to the thoroughness of his captioning. When he saw a local shutterbug taking pictures of a flower at the sanctuary, he took her photo for the Herald and proceeded to identify the plant she was photographing. After a little bit of work, he determined that it was the Royal Catchfly, a flower that turns out to be on the endangered species list in Illinois.

According to state nature preservation information online, as of 2013, the flower has just 18 element occurrences in the state of Illinois, meaning there are just 18 places it appears, and some of these locations have just a handful of plants. The principle cause of its threatened status is the eradication of prairie in the state and in the Midwest. Prairie, one of this region’s principal natural ecosystems, has been relentlessly destroyed for commercial and other purposes, including golf courses—google “prairie golf course” and behold the number of courses that have torn up prairie for the sake of artificial rolling greens. It has reached a point of “functional extinction,” according to the Federal Department of Fish and Wildlife Service. What remains is restoration and preservation of the species that remain, that have not been wiped out along with their habitat. The Royal Catchfly is one of those species, and the South Shore Nature Sanctuary is one of a handful of locations across the state where it can be found.

The politics of negation

One might expect a Chicago pol to bend the truth here and there to get what she wants, and certainly an endangered flower won’t typically get in her way, but the latest claims by Hairston are wild declarations of untruth and follow a growing pattern of disregard for constituents that we have seen across the country but which are done here with a local flair. (Warning: mini-rant ahead.) Whether it’s climate change, gun control, or even our military budget, Americans articulate a vision of how we ought to organize our society that politicians routinely ignore. Chicago, which is in some ways the most American of cities (with its entrenched segregation and baldly transactional politics), has in recent years taken this trend to a disturbing level. Nowhere is it more apparent than in land use and privatization, and those projects which combine the two, such as the selloff of Jackson Park, seem to redouble the attendant mendacity.

Yet this is not at all the South Side’s political tradition. The neighborhoods along the city’s South Lakefront all have vibrant histories of activism grounded in equity. People grimly joke about Hyde Park as the place where Blacks and whites are shoulder-to-shoulder against the poor, but when Urban Renewal rolled through, the neighborhood’s alderman insisted on building public housing alongside the middle class townhomes replacing cold water flats, and there has been a very public conversation about its recent appreciation in value forcing out poor folks—and a modest amount of action. Woodlawn, too, has its elitists, but there is a strong tradition of service that can be seen in such places as the Woodlawn Resource Center and Parkway Gardens Christian Church. It was Woodlawn activists who formed the backbone of the organizing group that opened the South Side Community Federal Credit Union 15 years ago. South Shore has a robust intellectual heritage that has a rich history of civic praxis and civil discourse, from the presence of the Black United Front of Illinois to the Nation of Islam to the strong elements of the Pan-African Movement there.

And here, in the push and pull related to the nature sanctuary, and precisely manifested in the form of the Royal Catchfly, we see these competing interests fighting over our community on the lakefront. Put simply, this flower, like most of the South Lakefront, is an inextricable part of an intentionally established ecosystem, built and defended by people who believe in self-determination and who have collectively fought such battles as preservation of the historic character of Promontory Point from the city’s pavers and stopping the South Shore Cultural Center from demolition. There are endless examples. And there is a tradition of open discourse that is equally entrenched—and equally ignored by the politics that have taken hold in Jackson Park.

The politics, in plain language, in Jackson Park

South Siders have fought hard to keep the South Lakefront a beautiful place that is available to all and serves us as we see fit. The North Side has been less successful in this effort, and although there are more city-built amenities, there is less space and less nature there. Some would argue that, for all the investment the North Side enjoys, their most important lakefront battles have all been lost. 

That makes the South Lakefront the prize, and everything we value about it is seen by some in terms of its market value.

And what is the market value of a Royal Catchfly?


The conversation gets a little murky when discussing the golf course—intentionally so. Neither the investors nor the city nor the alderman want to tell you what the real conversation is, what they are actually talking about behind closed doors. No matter what they say, the prospective developers don’t care much about how pretty the view from the nature sanctuary is or how nice it is to be by the lake or anything else nature-y except to the extent that it is photogenic—what matters is how it all looks on TV. And even that is not the main point, although it is essential to the main point. The main point is licensing rights. That’s right, what all these nice people who want to build you a nice golf course really are interested in is how much they can sell the right to advertise, and when it comes to advertising dollars, vistas and the Chicago brand matter. This is a PGA golf course they want, and the PGA tournament circuit brings in a billion dollars a year. One billion. That is what this is about. And Leslie Hairston will really be speaking out of turn if she admits that. So a lie about some flowers doesn’t mean much to her—she and her handlers are having a whole different kind of conversation with the people who really matter, in their estimation.

City for sale, Jackson Park edition

There are two competing systems of municipal management at work in Chicago—and across much of the country. One has been extremely successful, the other not so much. One attempts to provide a functioning safety net, high-quality services for residents, and a safe environment for everyone. This approach has struggled, for a variety of reasons that are mostly beyond the scope of this essay. It’s the other approach that has done well. That’s the one which has given up on providing anything but a ton of police officers and some maintenance and otherwise focuses on selling off the rest of the city. Richard M. Daley, whose primary interest eventually became the legacy of Richard M. Daley, began to go down this road toward the end of his tenure, but it was Rahm Emanuel who aligned the function of Chicago’s government with privatization, an effort capped by his closure of 50 public schools—the largest feat of its kind in American municipal history—even as he opened charter schools at a record pace. 

The plans in place for Jackson Park might not outstrip Rahm’s school closings in terms of their harm to poor families and people of color, but they do rival that act in terms of the number of people affected and their overall audacity. In addition to the major components of the privatization of Jackson Park—which are the selling of one of its most popular sites to the Obama Center and the redevelopment of the two public golf courses in the park into one private PGA course—there are smaller slices of the park involved. A sculpture by Yoko Ono was the first actual expropriation (sculptures on the lakefront prior to that one were temporary, a nod to the enduring principle of keeping the lakefront “forever open, clear, and free,” as the founders of the city intended). There are also blueprints in the city’s planning department for a music pavilion in Jackson Park, perfectly designed for golfers in the mood for smooth jazz or Fleetwood Mac after a day of strenuous sport.  

And how do we, the residents of the South Lakefront, feel about this? The answer seems clear: Who cares? You and your culture of democratic consent and participation mean as much to these people as the Royal Catchfly. Jackson Park is for sale, and if you don’t like it, you can plant yourself elsewhere. And take your pretty little flower with you.

A conclusion, and a lesson from local history

None of this is written in stone, to make a lame Promontory Point pun by way of transition. When Richard M. Daley wanted to give his buddy Tommy Walsh (and his company Walsh Construction) a contract to pave the lakefront, the South Side erupted in defiance once the plan reached the Alfred Caldwell-designed ring of limestone around the Point. Folks got nasty. People hollered until city officials left community meetings. An endless stream of letters were sent to the Trib, Sun Times, and Herald, the latter of which printed them all. An ad-hoc group met endlessly and drove opposition. And the mayor backed off. 

In the beginning, Leslie Hairston was ambivalent at best about the Point protesters and was often downright rude to them. But times changed. Most importantly, they won. And so, just a few weeks ago, a stone with a plaque marking the lakefront park’s historic status was dedicated and there was Leslie, taking bows and telling stories about how important the Point was to her.

In any struggle to fight monied interests and protect the public good, elected officials tend to skip out altogether or be pretty self-serving.  They must be recognized for what they are—useful instruments of change or obstructionists.  Hairston is in the way, but the real problem is the giant pile of money behind her. We solve our problem at the nature sanctuary—and elsewhere—when we somehow remove the possibility of massive profit from Jackson Park.

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Gabriel Piemonte