LITTLE ITALY — How to best use a nearly 160-year-old park in Little Italy described as a "relaxing oasis" in the city has sparked an ugly fight among neighbors.
Discussion over whether the Chicago Park District should allow organized sports at the tree-lined Arrigo Park on the Near West Side boiled over during a park advisory council meeting last week, leading a board member to curse and tell a neighbor he disagreed with they should take their dispute "outside."
The debate was ignited when the Sheridan Park Advisory Council voted late last year to formally ask the Chicago Park District to allow organized sports teams play at Arrigo Park, which is two blocks away from Sheridan and doesn't have its own governing council or field house, said Doug Bartels, who has served as president of the Sheridan board for three years. The move aimed to spread sports activities among parks in the busy neighborhood, Bartels said.
Right now, the Chicago Park District doesn't allow organized sports teams to use the 6-acre Arrigo Park at 801 S. Loomis St., said Marty Murphy, Sheridan Park supervisor. If the Park District changes its rules, sports teams and camps, including a lacrosse clinic interested in the park, could apply for a permit to use the park, he said.
The lacrosse clinic coaches, who aim to teach 30 6-14 year olds the sport, want to use part of a neighborhood park for about two hours a week during the 8-week clinic, Bartels said. In total, the clinic would use the park for 16 hours over the season.
With 500 children enrolled in Sheridan Park Baseball, a successful private non-profit program that partners with the Park District, the public park is maxed out, Bartels said. Allowing organized sports teams, including lacrosse, at Arrigo Park would help alleviate pressure — and demand — at 4½-acre Sheridan Park, he said.
Baseball teams practice "non-stop" at Sheridan Park through the summertime, and allowing more organized sports at the park would be unfair to neighbors, Bartels said. In an effort to free up space at Sheridan Park, the Park Advisory Council has already banned organized activities at the park on Wednesdays and Sundays, he said.
"We're not trying to steal Peter to pay Paul. We don't want to steal from baseball to give [time] to lacrosse," said Bartels, who lives west of Arrigo Park. "Our overall goal is to expand the pool set" of parks.
But neighbors living near Arrigo Park said allowing organized sports teams to practice at Arrigo Park would be "a disaster."
The park, which has been a green space in the area since 1857, has a peanut-shaped path around it and is ringed by trees. It has thicker groves of trees on its west and east ends, and has no baseball diamonds or other facilities. It's also home to the well-known Christopher Columbus statue from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.
Bob O'Neill, president of the Grant Park Conservancy, has lived on West Lexington Street on the north end of the park since 1982. At the time, Arrigo Park — which was once home to an artificial lake — was "mud, dust storms and a few trees," he said.
"I couldn't believe its condition, it was awful," O'Neill said.
Over decades, Little Italy neighbors, including O'Neill's brother Dennis O'Neill, executive director of Connecting 4 Communities, have worked to plant trees, fix up the park's grass lawn and remove graffiti at the historic park. At times, Bob O'Neill traded six emails a week with Park District officials in an effort to improve conditions at Arrigo Park, he said.
Arrigo Park's grass lawn is easily damaged, neighbor Bob O'Neill said. [Provided/Bob O'Neill]
Today, the passive park is popular with walkers, joggers and dog owners and is often used by children who attend Urban Prairie Waldorf School, a school at the northeast end of the park, for recess and pick-up games. Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii parishioners often use the park, including for an annual fundraiser festival with live music, food and kids games.
Allowing organized sports at Arrigo Park could tear up the park's grass, which is already often in poor condition. Those activities are better suited for Sheridan Park, which has artificial turf fields, a field house and park staff on site, O'Neill argued.
"Different parks should have different uses. The idea is to balance" activity, O'Neill said. "Sheridan Park is designed to be a truly active park."
And for neighbors, Arrigo Park is a "relaxing oasis" in the city, he said.
"People love that park as it is," O'Neill said. "In a dense urban environment, you need greenery, you need a connection to nature. It's essential."
Arrigo Park neighbor Britt Drouet called the park "a sanctuary." She said allowing one organized sports team to practice at the park would create a "domino effect" of activity in the park.
"It would change the neighborhood," she said.
But Joe Esposito, treasurer of the Sheridan Park Advisory Council and son of late Little Italy leader Joseph M. "Joe" Esposito, said that neighbors who oppose allowing sports teams at Arrigo Park are "being unreasonable."
"I support any programs for the kids," said Esposito, who was raised in the neighborhood and now lives west of Arrigo Park. Referring to the lacrosse clinic request, he said "it makes zero sense to not allow [kids] to use the field for 16 hours of the year."
The Park District has not yet decided whether it will allow organized sports teams to play and practice in Arrigo Park, Murphy said.
"They do not have a solution now," he said.
Chicago Park District officials did not immediately comment on Arrigo Park plans Friday.
Last week, neighbors passionately argued at the Park Advisory Council meeting, often shouting over each other. At one point, Esposito told an Arrigo Park neighbor: "Relax. Don't f---ing blink at me, either."
Park supervisor Murphy asked for the swearing and hostile exchange to stop.
"I will not stand for people being nasty at my park," he said.
Later, Esposito apologized.
"I apologize for swearing, I'm sincerely sorry," he said. "But the way certain people talk and act and give you the blink is no better."
"You came at my sister, it's not going to happen," said Esposito, whose sister was also at the meeting. "I'll be outside."
He later clarified, "Outside to talk to you."
Bob O'Neill called the exchange "absolutely intolerable and concerning."
"It was threatening," O'Neill said.
O'Neill said he is in talks with Chicago Housing Authority and Park District officials to convert a vacant Chicago Housing Authority lot near the parks. That would give sports teams, including teams at nearby St. Ignatius and UIC, more open space to practice and play.
Some sports teams, including St. Ignatius' lacrosse team, already practice there on the overgrown fields, and flag-football and ultimate frisbee teams also use it.
"I believe I can work out a compromise," O'Neill said.
The University Village and Little Italy neighborhoods are home to five public parks, including Addams/Medill Park, Fosco Park south of Roosevelt Road, and Sheridan Park, Arrigo Park and Garibaldi Park north of Roosevelt.
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