After breakfast, James and I had the joyful burden of deciding what to do with our morning in Chicago. I threw out a list of things I’ve enjoyed doing or want to get to, and we decided to go a bit of the touristy beaten path and go to the Garfield Park Conservatory. If there was time, we could also see a few Frank Lloyd Wright houses and Hemingway’s boyhood home on this El route. It didn’t happen but the nerdy potential was pretty high here.
To get where we were going you have to take the northern branch of the Green Line. This is not an El track that is frequented very often by tourists. It goes west of downtown Chicago, and passes through some of the current most dangerous parts of Chicago before arriving in a very upscale, ritzy part of Chicago. Garfield Park is pretty close to the border of these two areas. One of the most interesting things about exploring a large city is to find out how neighborhoods have changed over the years. How places go from being the upscale, place to go if you have money to a hollowed out shell of a community, to a working class, ethnic community, to an artsy, cheap, hip place to live, to an overpriced pseudo-hip place to live, on and on. Garfield Park is an interesting illustration of this.
The Conservatory that James and I visited was built in the 1920s, when everybody seemed to have money. At that time, Garfield Park must have been this outlying community, outside of all the industrialization and smoke of downtown Chicago. The actual Garfield Park for which the community is named is a beautiful place with lakes and large, old trees, lawns for playing and relaxing, pretty picturesque. The Conservatory is the centerpiece–it’s a gorgeous brick building with a huge glass ceiling. There is a palm tree in this building that is as old as the building itself, and is about 40 or 50 feet tall. If you like plants at all, this is a very interesting place. If you don’t like plants, it’s at least, a peaceful place to walk around in. As I mentioned, though, Garfield Park is on the edge of one of the more dangerous communities in Chicago.
For anyone who knows me who is reading this and thinking that I’m being a naive, country yokel tourist, and the next trip I take to the Windy City, I’m going to be found floating in the Chicago River with my wallet cleared of the $14 I had left, please don’t worry. I am very cautious, especially in neighborhoods I don’t know. I’ve read and asked locals about this place and got the ok all the way around. What’s more, the conservatory is literally steps from the El stop. You get off the train, cross the street and there you are. And, a lot of people from all over the city go here. It’s really not anymore dangerous than crossing the street to go to Jackson First UMC in Tennessee.
But, I did think a lot about how the community has changed so much. I think that’s one of the benefits to the way people move around in cities. Because, I seriously doubt that this neighborhood, as it is, would get a place like the Garfield Park Conservatory based on who lives there now and the amount of money these people pull in yearly. It took it being an affluent community to get something like this put up. But, when they left, they couldn’t move the building with them. And so, now this less financially affluent community gets to enjoy all the wonderful things it has to offer. Some kids who are only expected to work in low paying service sector jobs may end up being botanists because of this place.
But, back to the plants. There is just something about them that gives me peace. I’m fascinated by these things that are alive like us, but alive in such different ways. I love to see plants that have reached a very old age. I love how they grow, how as they get bigger their growth is exponential. I love how they slowly cover a landscape, how they move without us seeing it. Right now, I’m looking out the window, watching a grove of oak trees. Their leaves are waving, gently back and forth with the wind. The Conservatory shows you all types of plants. There’s a tropical plant room, a fern room, a desert plant room. It’s an enormous garden. Even if I didn’t care at all about plants, this would be such a refreshing stroll to take.
In the outdoor garden, there was some sort of festival going on. There were was a band of drummers there. There was some sort of acting group for children. There were lots of booths too. It seemed like a hippie paradise. There were flower, herb, and vegetable gardens with an educational component for children. The kids could come and work in the garden, and I think certain people could even take the vegetables and herbs. If I ever have kids and live in Chicago, I will take them to this place often. It’s so interesting to me how a city can have so many faces. When I see Chicago in my mind, I see all the iconic things: The Willis Tower, The John Hancock Building, Wrigley Field, Buckingham Fountain, Millenium Park. But, this place is also there too. A huge palm tree. An outdoor garden with drummers. I room full of ferns with an indoor fountain that empties into a lagoon. So many faces.
We decided that we wouldn’t have enough time to follow the Green Line farther west to see Frank Lloyd Wright and Hemingway. That will have to be saved for another trip. But, we did stroll off the beaten path and get to know a part of Chicago that most tourists don’t see. As we passed the California and Kedzie stops, on our way to Garfield Park, we saw some of Chicago that gets forgotten expect when it shows up on the 9 o’clock news or in someone’s somewhat uninformed talk about how bad Chicago has gotten. When I looked at these places I saw the tell-tale signs of neglect. Vacant lots. Unmowed grass coming up through the sidewalk cracks. Plywood on windows. But, I saw a lot of people too. People walking everywhere. People who had stories like I have stories. People who want a lot of what I want. I wonder about the people there. I wonder about the Kedzie El stop. I hope some of those people take walks to the Conservatory too. I hope the plants give them some peace. I hope they see the day when their neighborhood doesn’t make the news every night for negative reasons. I pray for them I hope I someday can do more.