WOODLAWN — After-hours visitors to Jackson Park will be blocked from entering Wooded Island and the Garden of the Phoenix starting this weekend, as crews install gates at both entrances to the island.
Gates placed at the north and south bridges to Wooded Island will “help secure the area and protect these historic and valuable assets from criminal activity,” Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons said.
The south gate was installed Thursday, while the north gate will be installed Friday. The city didn’t notify the public of its plans until Wednesday evening, when officials posted to social media and updated the Park District website.
“Once fully installed, the area will be closed in line with existing [island] hours, from dusk to dawn,” Lemons said in a statement.
Park District spokespeople did not say what specific “criminal activity” the gates would deter, nor did they answer why plans were not announced until the evening before installation began.
There have been “myriad” after-hours crimes and safety issues at Wooded Island recently, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said. She supports the gates.
“Open, blatant sexual acts; damage to the Wooded Island — people have stolen the koi fish out of the pond,” Hairston said. “They’ve damaged the stage area, the performance area. There’s been graffiti.”
Damage has been caused by motorcycle riders driving across the island, as well as visitors pulling up plants and vandalizing the Ho-o-den, or Phoenix Palace, said Louise McCurry, Jackson Park Advisory Council president.
Jackson Park Advisory Council volunteers frequently clean the park’s messes and have started a docent program, but that hasn’t slowed down the damaging incidents, McCurry said.
“Everything we’ve tried throughout the years works for a little bit, and then it doesn’t work,” McCurry said. “The only thing that makes sense is to keep people out at night.”
Though Wooded Island technically closes at dusk, that hasn’t historically been enforced, said Steven Lucy, a Hyde Park resident who visits the park several times a week and Wooded Island about once weekly. The gates will mark a substantial change in how people can use Jackson Park, Lucy said.
The island, which hosts one of the main north-south pedestrian routes through the park, closes at dusk. The park as a whole closes at 11 p.m.
That’s less significant in the summer, when the sun sets after 8 p.m., but could be a big deal in the winter as the sun starts setting in the early evening, Lucy said. If motorcycles are a problem, bollards could be installed instead of gates to maintain pedestrian access, he said.
Trash can be resolved through volunteer programs like Jackson Park Advisory Council’s, while vandalism and property damage “happen in the park like they happen everywhere, but I don’t believe the solution” is to limit access, Lucy said.
The gates arrive one week after construction began on the Obama Presidential Center just across the park’s West Lagoon from Wooded Island.
Officials denied any link between the gates and the center’s arrival.
“This is definitely not related to the Obama Center construction,” Hairston said. “These requests have been ongoing even before Obama got in office.”
Limiting after-hours access to Wooded Island “is a long-standing issue,” Hairston said. “Residents and neighbors saw that as being important” during the formation of the South Lakefront Framework Plan, she said.
None of the 2018 framework plan’s 65 recommendations involve Wooded Island or cracking down on after-hours access. Its 1999 predecessor only recommends improving Wooded Island’s landscape.
Hairston and the Park District declined to comment on why gate installation began so soon after the Obama Center’s groundbreaking.
“No one knew when the gates were coming,” and the advisory council gave notice “as soon as we knew,” McCurry said. She laughed when asked if the gates are being installed in preparation for the Obama Center’s arrival.
“We have been trying to get gates up there for years,” McCurry said. “It takes a long time to get the gates [ordered]. The Obama Center was totally unrelated. We’re so happy we got lucky and they managed to come in this week.”
“It seems to strain credulity to say that [the gates have] nothing to do with the Obama Center,” Lucy said. “If it really doesn’t, it’s extremely convenient timing.”
The Obama Foundation was not consulted about the plans, nor does the foundation believe limiting access to Wooded Island is necessary to secure the Obama Center site, spokesperson Courtney Williams said.
The foundation “is not doing anything to restrict access or use of the park other than securing our own site,” Williams said.
Safety concerns in recent years have been driven by large crowds in the park, Hairston said. The Obama Foundation has long argued Jackson Park is underused.
“It might be protected and loved by its friends, but it’s not used by the community,” former First Lady Michelle Obama said at the foundation’s 2019 summit.
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