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How Humboldt Park Built Chicago's Only Inland Beach

By Darryl Holliday | May 22, 2015 12:56pm | Updated on May 26, 2015 8:42am
 As beaches open across the lakefront Friday, one remains closed — but where did it all begin?
As beaches open across the lakefront Friday, one remains closed — but where did it all begin?
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DNAinfo/Darryl Holliday

HUMBOLDT PARK — As beaches open across the Chicago lakefront Friday, one remains closed despite mounting public pressure.

For more than 40 years, the Humboldt Park Beach has been a staple of the neighborhood, a place for residents to cool off and play. This year it's dry — forcing the community to confront the same obstacles that motivated its construction in the early 1970s.

Bucktown resident Ada Nivia Lopez, 68, says her father was one of a handful of Puerto Rican civic leaders instrumental in advocating for the installation of the beach near Kedzie and North Avenues in Humboldt Park.

“Many of them were veterans and they settled in Chicago," she said. "They were part of the great migration from Puerto Rico to this part of the world and, at a time when there were very few resources, they took it upon themselves to advocate for the community.”

Digging Through 'the Soup'

Crews completed the first stage of work on the beach by 1973, according to a Chicago Tribune article from the same year.

Early stages of construction on the Humboldt Park beach were detailed by the Chicago Tribune in 1973.

The first step involved draining 6.2 million gallons of water from what was, at the time, a 20-acre portion of the Humboldt Park lagoon used for sailboats and rowboats during the city’s warm months.

The excavation process had made it to “the soup” — “a thick, mushy layer of silt deposits” along the lagoon’s bottom — by June 10, 1973. Two more feet would need to be dug out before a layer of sand could be laid on top of the clay, city architect Jerome Butler said at the time.

“Humboldt Park beach would have “everything Lake Michigan has — plus cleaner water,” Butler told the Tribune that same year. “I don’t know why anyone would want to go to the beach with something like this in their neighborhood.”

The Humboldt Park Beach remains empty for this year's beach season — May 22 to Sept. 7. (DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser)

The new beach was eventually announced by Mayor Richard J. Daley as a means for Chicago residents to avoid a long drive to the lakefront and still keep cool in the summer — but there was more behind the curtain, Lopez said, noting that racial tension, clashes with police and classic political maneuvering came into play.

The Humboldt Park Beach Becomes A Neighborhood Staple

Without a body of water to cool, Humboldt Park youths, like many non-Lakefront neighborhoods across the city of Chicago, had taken to opening fire hydrants during the intense summer seasons, which quickly resulted in complaints and crackdowns from police and fire officials, Lopez said.

“I think those conditions, during the civil rights era, motivated the civic leaders to figure out what to do. They envisioned improving the community. It was a vision that was more inclusive, it was bigger than just dealing with the mechanical problems with a lack of access and tensions with the police. It became something bigger and it took on its own life,” she said.

And the grand opening was no less spectacular.

“There was a lot of fanfare,” Lopez said, recalling memories of her father, Graciano Lopez. “So, you see, even then the vision was a big one and it was an exciting one. And although it was initiated by the leaders in Humboldt Park, the mayor was excited about it and announced that he wanted to provide it to other communities."

And he did, sort of. A slightly smaller beach was installed at Douglas Park two years after Humboldt Park, which, by 1995, was attracting 20,000 people on peak days and during heat waves.

A bill providing $4.2 million in funds for 17 similar beach projects across the city was shepherded to approval earlier that year by then state Senator (and future mayor) Richard M. Daley, according to the 1973 Tribune article — but it would seem the funds stopped there as Chicago’s two inland beaches are currently down to 0.

The Humboldt Park beach has, in years past, been the only beach open for swimming citywide as contamination bans hit every other public waterway.

Jaron Rowe (l.) and his daughter Ruby (pink top) build a mushroom out of sand with neighbor kids at Humboldt Park Beach in 2014, it was the only beach not affected by the park district's swim ban. (DNAinfo/Mark Konkol)

Humboldt Park Advisory Council President Amy Vega got a standing ovation when she scolded the Park District for closing the Humboldt Park beach. [DNAinfo/Darryl Holliday]

'We Want Nothing Less Than That'

As Chicago Park District officials threaten to replace the lake with a water park — due to budget cuts — and mounting costs (the beach costs $1 million a year to operate, according to one Park District official), Humboldt Park-area residents are demanding answers and solutions in light of the beach’s communal history.

Two petitions have begun circulating since the closure was announced a week ago, garnering a total of nearly 2,000 signatures as of Friday.

“If it was important then it’s even more important now,” Lopez said. “All of this began as an idea and the idea became a vision — and not just for one group — a vision for the whole community and that vision is still relevant and the need is still great.

“The city says it’s looking to empower communities and allocate resources that reach a community and the community is asking for their share,” she added. “It’s a question concerned with equity. If we have parks that respond to different communities that’s a good thing."

"We want nothing less than that, that’s all.”

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