LINCOLN PARK — One of Lincoln Park’s most-visited themed parks is getting a makeover this month.
It’s the first time the whole baseball field is getting redone in about 20 years, according to Judy Johanson, president of the Oz Park Advisory Council.
The majority of the $161,000 project was funded by the Cubs Charities Diamond Project, which aims to support baseball through field grants and maintenance, baseball program expenses and equipment funding to nonprofits like the OPAC. The Chicago Park District also helped fund some of the renovation, but the Cubs project was the driving force for the new green.
The organization has supported 45 capital projects and 28 youth leagues since it started in 2014. Johanson said the council applied for the grant in 2017 after hearing about it from the Chicago Park District.
The renovation work on the park’s field began Sept. 8 and should be completed within six to eight weeks, Johanson said.
“We are very grateful to the Cubs Charities for the grant we got and enabling us to redo our fields for everyone to enjoy,” she said.
Before the renovation plan, the park was getting worse and worse and the park council didn’t know where to look for funding to replace it. Johanson said she is grateful to the grant partnership and community groups like the Oz Park Baseball Association. These connections are how the park’s beautification has thrived. The Emerald Garden, the playground, all the statues and personalized bricks were made possible thanks to community funding and private donors, Johanson said.
“[The Park District said] if you want to fix up the park, do it yourself. That’s why we formed the advisory council and started raising the money,” she said, adding they have raised $1.6 million since its founding in 1995. “We are lucky that we live in an affluent neighborhood where everyone has been very generous donating to all our projects in the park.”
T.J. Tzur, one of the Oz Park Baseball Association directors, said he is thrilled about the new fields, although they affected the organization slightly. The baseball group, which serves 1,300 kids, uses about a dozen other fields nearby but will have to wait extra weeks to be back at Oz. But the park upgrade will make a big difference to the players, he said, improving safety and drainage dramatically.
“There were times we couldn’t play games because the outfields were flooded even though the infields were in decent shape,” Tzur said.
In addition to resodding work, the playground, called Dorothy’s Playlot, will be getting a security camera because it regularly gets vandalized at nighttime, Johanson said. Although the park is generally safe and always populated, she finds graffiti on the play structures and tables, beer bottles in the Emerald Garden and even found some undergarments there recently, she said.
The playlot was built in 1988 in just three days after a group of parents assembled. It not only relates to the park’s name, but also to that of its donor, Dorothy Melamerson, said Johanson, who was part of the lot’s building team. Melamerson was a retired local teacher whose savings paid for a number of park improvements, which was in her will when she died.
As a Lincoln Park resident for 37 years, living right across from the park, Johanson said she has seen the neighborhood change over the years from violent to wealthy and knows everything about the park’s history. Before the Park District bought the park in 1974 — for only a dollar, Johanson said — the area was a mix of residential and commercial buildings. Some of their remnants can still be found when working in the garden, she said.
Contrary to what some might think, the surrounding neighborhood was not home to Lyman Frank Baum, author of “The Wizard of Oz.” He lived in Humboldt Park but Oz Park was named in his honor after a local bookstore owner and Oz fan asked the Park District to name it after the book. The park has statues of the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, Dorothy and Toto.
“Because of the sculptures, we are in guide books all over the world,” Johanson said. “I don’t care, it can be a cold winter day and snowing — there’s not one day that goes by that someone isn’t standing in front of those sculptors taking pictures.”
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