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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

This West Side Mini-Golf Course Was Abandoned For Years — Until Local Teens Restored It

Teens designed the 18-hole mini-golf course with a wildlife conservation theme based on the colorful birds that live in Douglass Park.

JB Lewis, one of the teens that helped redesign and revive the Douglass 18 mini-golf course, sinks a putt at the course reopening.
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NORTH LAWNDALE — Neighborhood teens have revived the Douglass Park mini-golf course that had been dilapidated and unused for more than a decade.

Saturday’s grand opening of the Douglass 18 mini-golf course marked a culmination of years of research, planning and designing. More than 40 young people from North Lawndale and surrounding neighborhoods helped rebuild the 18-hole course, which had been defunct for so long that many never before had the opportunity to play there.

The entirety of the mini-golf attraction at the Douglass Park Field House has been remodeled to the young people’s specifications. The worn-out landscaping was updated, the holes were upgraded with custom-made sculptures and obstacles and the decayed putting green was replaced with multicolored turf grass.

“I feel very proud that we made that happen,” said Sabrina Guardado, a teen who worked on the project. “It’s really amazing seeing the whole progress from the start, and seeing everybody being supportive and following us and helping us.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The new mini-golf course at Douglass Park on August 6, 2021.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A great blue heron at Douglass Park on August 6, 2021.

The design of the Douglass 18 course follows a wildlife conservation theme inspired by the birds that live in Douglass Park. More than 200 species of birds migrate through the park each year, making it a destination for Chicago birdwatchers.

Each hole in the course is based on a Douglass Park bird. The hole’s design, the obstacles on the course and the decorations all relate to a bird’s appearance, diet, habitat or behavior. Each hole has an educational placard about the relevant bird.

The Douglass 18 team worked with the Lincoln Park Zoo to design the course as an attraction that would benefit residents while bringing attention to the birds that live in the park and conservation efforts to protect them.

“We are not only helping humans; we are also helping wildlife,” said Lisa Hyatt, community engagement director at Lincoln Park Zoo. “We all have a connection to nature, to the earth. It is so important because that is also very directly connected to our mental and physical health.”

One of the teen designers, Tiffany Tam, created a hole based on barn swallows and another on indigo buntings.

“I got to go birdwatching and learn more about the birds,” Tam said.

For the barn swallow hole, the obstacles are inspired by the bird’s nesting habits, she said.

“The obstacles contain houses and mud nests under the roofs, which is where they primarily build their nests,” Tam said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The new mini golf course at Douglass Park on August 6, 2021.
Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club
The paper mache model designed by Kaleb Deer depicts the grassy habitat where the pied-billed grebe lays its eggs.

A hole designed by Kaleb Deer was based on the pied-billed grebe. Obstacles on the course replicated the tall grasses that make up the bird’s habitat and eggs.

Incorporating wildlife education into the project got young people excited about nature, Hyatt said. The bird theme also encourages visitors playing mini-golf to be mindful of the plants and animals who lived here long before humans did, Hyatt said.

“By doing that education, you become more aware of what’s around you, and you’re more conscientious about your decision-making as it pertains to the environment, especially with climate change,” Hyatt said.

Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago
Paper mache obstacles were created at the golf course in 2019 to prototype and test the local youth’s designs for the new course before permanent structures were created.

The teens started the redesign by making sketches and testing their ideas. They worked with Eric Hotchkiss from the Art Institute of Chicago Homan Square to make miniature models and life-size papier-mâché installations. Over the past three years, the group hosted meetings and showcased their model installations at community festivals to get feedback from residents.

The permanent sculptures and obstacle designs were finalized by Site Design and built by a fabricator.

“It was a great opportunity to be able to bring a whole new Chicago attraction to the Lawndale neighborhood. It’s a great way to bring people from outside the Lawndale area into the area and show people that it’s really fun here and it’s not as dangerous as the media portrays it,” said JB Lewis, a teen on the Douglass 18 team.

All the young people participating in Douglass 18 are paid, and the mini-golf course will be operated by local youth under the supervision of Sheila McNary, chair of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s arts and culture committee.

The native birds at the park and the formerly unused mini-golf course are “a treasure that’s been in our community” that the Douglass 18 project will allow people to appreciate in a new way, McNary said.

“It is not only going to be a big community space for all of us, but I just love how it’s really educated the youth and opened their eyes to other things they could do and spaces that are in our community,” McNary said.

The idea for Douglass 18 started with Lawndale-based artist Haman Cross, who saw the dilapidated mini-golf course as one of the many ways Douglass Park hasn’t gotten the same investments, programs and resources as parks in wealthier, white neighborhoods.

Cross worked with Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) to bring together a group of young people for the project, using art to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.

“It’s a small project, but it points to some huge issues with huge implications and possibilities,” Cross said. “Even though all these resources were put into the project, there are still so many other needs. There’s still so many other things. If this was another community 2 or 3 miles north, their parks look very different from ours.”

Residents know the issues in their neighborhoods best since they experience them regularly, so they are best positioned to find solutions to those issues, Cross said. But locally led solutions need support and partnership to succeed, which Douglass 18 got from the Lincoln Park Zoo, LL Bean, the Trust for Public Land and the Firehouse Community Arts Center, he said.

“We know the issues,” Cross said. “They did it with us. They didn’t do it for us. When you do it with us, we can get a lot more done, and the process builds healing. And it’s healing that heals generational wounds.”

Credit: Provided
Teens and organizers who helped restore Douglass Park 18 mini golf course pose for a photo as the course reopened in August.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The new mini golf course at Douglass Park on August 6, 2021.

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