CHICAGO — One day in 2015, Lydia Milman Schmidt, with newborn twins and an energetic 4-year-old, needed to get her family out of the house. “So all five of us took a walk.”
She, her husband and the kids began strolling with no plan other getting than the babies to nap. They found themselves at Jensen Park, 4650 N. Lawndale Ave., about two miles away from their Lincoln Square home.
Schmidt recalls saying to her older son Elliot, “Look, a brand new park we’ve never been to before. How many new parks do you think we could go to this summer?” He estimated 100. “I was like, ‘A hundred parks: that’s crazy. But maybe we could go to 30.’”
Even without a car and two newborns in tow, that summer the family visited over 30 parks near the Brown Line (their “home” park is Horner, 2741 W. Montrose Ave.) Schmidt then looked up how many official park district parks are in Chicago: over 600. Could they hit every single one?
“I was like, ‘That’s insane,’” Schmidt said. “But it was something to do. And [except for] the cost of public transportation or gas, it’s free.”
And so began the family’s park challenge, documented in the Tumblr/Instagram Elliot in the Parks. “We just hit 364 the other day,” Schmidt reported in July (they now have a car, making more distant parks much more accessible).
Their most recent visit was to Lily Gardens Park, 632 W. 71st St. in Englewood. Someone who lived there before 1957 may remember seeing actual lily ponds at the park, but a playground has long since replaced them.
The Schmidts also recently visited the lakeside Steelworkers Park, E. 87th St. at Lake Michigan in South Chicago. There’s no playground, but old steelworking materials and concrete ore walls left over from a steel complex established in the 1880s are available to climb, along with an actual climbing wall.
Some parks the family visits are much more modest though, practically postage-stamp-sized. “Sometimes if the park doesn’t have a playground and is just a patch of grass, the kids may want to skip it and go to a playground,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Guys, we could just hop out. We could just stay for 10 minutes.’”
Schmidt, a theater teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School, said the park project is a valuable way for their family to learn lesser-known history lessons from Chicago. While Lydia moved around as a child, her husband, Michael, grew up in Mount Greenwood, as did his parents. After seeing photos of the grandkids on the swings at Euclid Park, 9800 S. Parnell Ave. in Washington Heights, Lydia’s mother-in-law reminisced about taking art classes at the park as a child. “I asked [my in-laws] what their home parks were when they were growing up, and we went to those, too,” she said.
The project inspires moments of discovery of hyper-local art and culture. One March, they visited Sun Yat-sen Park, 251 W. 24th Place in Chinatown, as Elliot’s little brother Jacob, was obsessed with pandas at the time. They wandered over to Wentworth, looking for a snack. “We turn the corner, and it was still all decorated for Lunar New Year. Jacob saw the lanterns and the gates and these giant inflatable pandas that lit up and his little face was like, ‘What?!'”
Another time, the family visited Robichaux Park, 9247 S. Eggleston Ave., also in in Washington Heights, and learned about Joseph J. Robichaux, who served as executive director of the Baldwin Ice Cream Company, the country’s first African-American-owned ice cream producer. “Then, of course, we were like, ‘Now we have to get ice cream,’” said Schmidt, “and went and found a local ice cream place.”
The Schmidts hope the project helps discourage their kids from making assumptions about parts of the city less familiar to them. “Parks are for children,” said Schmidt. “You should be able to feel like you can go to any part of the city.”
There have, however, been a couple times when the family decided to scrub a park mission due to weird vibes. Once or twice they’ve arrived at a park and noticed large groups of adults with no kids present.
“I don’t want them to have zero fear,” Schmidt said. “You have to protect yourself a little bit. I told my kids, ‘If you go somewhere that’s for kids, and there’s a lot of people there, but there aren’t any kids, then that’s not a time to go. We don’t need to be there for whatever’s happening, even if it’s nothing particularly dangerous.”
Unlike the National Park Service, the Park District currently doesn’t offer a passport or guide to encourage visiting all the parks, so the family runs their project themselves. “I have a spreadsheet of all of the parks, and then I keep track that way,” Schmidt said.
She adds them to a Google map; unvisited parks get green pins; the ones they’ve hit turn yellow. Sometimes Schmidt hands the phone to her son and says, “Elliot, find a park to go to.” There is no particular goal to hit per week. “Whenever we have time, we usually just go to a park,” said Elliot. “Or five or six,” added Lydia.
The family doesn’t expect recognition from the Park District when they eventually hit all 600-plus. They’re still a little burned from the time 7-year-old Elliot wrote the Park District a letter concerned about the run-down condition of the Kensington Park playground at 345 E. 118th St. They received an unsatisfying reply indicating that the park’s state reflected community interest.
But, once completed, Elliot hopes to submit a record of their achievement to the Guinness Book of World Records.
For those considering their own ultra-marathon park project, Lydia Schmidt has simple advice: “Just start exploring. Don’t be scared to go outside your neighborhood.”
With over 600 parks to choose from, it’s impossible to pick favorites. But here are a few best-ofs from a family who has visited over half of Chicago’s parks (so far):
Best water feature: Fosco Park (1312. Racine Ave., Near West Side). “It has sprinklers and these giant sprayers that you can aim and turn and spray at each other,” Lydia Schmidt said. “It also coincided with when the kids were really into Ghostbusters. There was a lot of ‘Don’t cross the streams.'”
Best splash pad: West Chatham Park (8223 S. Princeton Ave.)
Best for seeing wildlife: North Park Nature Center (5801 N. Pulaski Rd.) on the North Side and Indian Ridge Marsh (11740 S. Torrence Ave.) and Big Marsh Park (11559 S. Stony Island Ave.) on the South Side are all good for spotting deer and other animals.
Biking: The trail through Ronan Park (3000 W. Argyle St.)/River Park (5100 N. Francisco Ave.)/Legion Park (3103 W. Peterson Ave), which sports what Schmidt calls “a real tooth-buster” of an old metal merry-go-round
Best for learning Chicago history: South Shore Cultural Center Park for history and landscape architecture (7059 S. South Shore Drive), Jackson (6401 S. Stony Island Ave.), Washington (5531 S. Martin Luther King Drive), Ogden (6500 S. Racine Ave.), Sherman (1301 W. 52nd St.), Hamilton (513 W. 72nd St.) and Cornell Square Park (1809 W. 50th Street).
Best playgrounds: Walsh Park (on the 606 at 1722 N. Ashland Ave.), Mary Bartleme (West Loop at 115 S. Sangamon St.) and Hadiya Pendleton (4345 S. Calumet Ave., Bronzeville).
Best-smelling parks: Montgomery Ward (630 N. Kingsbury St.) and Fulton River (353 N. Desplaines St.), often downwind from the Blommer Chocolate Company (600 W. Kinzie St.). “Those two parks smell like chocolate, so those are always fun.”
Best Beach: South Shore Beach (7059 S. South Shore Drive) “They have a brand new outbuilding with really clean bathrooms and a real snack bar,” which Schmdit said can be hard to come by on North Side beaches. “And it’s shallow really far out.”
Best Downtown park: Seneca Park (220 E. Chicago Ave.). While the Schdmits are reluctant to say anything negative about any parks, they imply that Maggie Daley Park (337 E. Randolph St.) is great to go to if you want to either lose a child or find someone else’s lost child.
Most picturesque: Columbus Park (500 S. Central Ave. in Austin). “It has three waterfalls and this beautiful 1920s field house; it’s Jens Jensen-designed landscape architecture,” said Schmidt. “If I were going to film something that was supposed to take place in the 1920s at a very fancy party, I would film it at Columbus Park.”
Best wedding venue: The Schmidts actually got married at Promontory Point (5491 S. DuSable Lake Shore Dr.). “There’s a patio outside and it’s on the water. You can see the skyline, and on a Saturday night there were fireworks. It was beautiful. I would highly recommend.”
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