dusable park (photo by laurie palmer)

dusable park (photo by laurie palmer)

“3 Acres on the Lake” is a public art project that solicited speculative proposals for a tiny piece of land called DuSable Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the river in downtown Chicago. Plans have been drawn up since 1987 to develop it into a park commemorating the Haitian/French explorer, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a Black man and the first non-native settler in Chicago, but the park’s development has been mysteriously postponed. It remains an isolated, overgrown meadow, at the tip of a privately owned, commercially developed, peninsula, and is virtually inaccessible except by trespassing on private land. Hanging in limbo, the site presents an irresistible temptation to imagine what could be there.

The project developed in response to the claustrophobic climate of increasingly privatized urban space, and the dwindling of habitats and haunts for opportunistic plants and curious persons. It was also a response to the discriminatory and devastating effects of city policies favoring high-income development. The project proceeded without city sanction or authority; there was no jury, no winner, and no prize. It was an invitation to irony, fantasy, and utopian imaginings, but also an attempt to pry open city planning processes for public scrutiny and participation.

Curiosity about the bucolic neglect in which this land rested revealed a history of disputed ownership, race politics, and radioactive contamination. (Radioactive thorium has a half-life of 14 billion years.) These and other site-specifics inspired the production of 65 proposals submitted from local and international participants. An exhibition featuring all 65 proposals was installed at Gallery 312 in Chicago in September 2001, and again at the Chicago Architecture Foundation in March 2002. The exhibit is online, and a print catalog will be out this spring, May/June 2003.

Between the deadline for proposals and now (spring 2003), nothing has visually changed at the park, other than that there are five small holes ringed with orange sandbags and safety tape signifying the “removal of the radiation problem.”

However, In March 2003, at a community meeting to discuss the future of DuSable Park, the Chicago Park District asserted that the thorium “clean-up” undertaken in the fall was incomplete, and the park remains contaminated.

In spite of the token creation of a steering committee by the Chicago Park District, the development of DuSable Park is not in their 2003 budget and their promised committee has yet to have its first meeting. In 2007, the twenty year “lease” of the land by the Park District will expire, and MCL, the developer with adjacent properties, will have the option to re-acquire the land to build a bar, boat launch, and restaurant. Estimated value of the lot (with contamination, and before development): ten million dollars.

Back to Forum Issue 5: Parks