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Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park

An ‘Uptown Coastal Natural Area’ Coming To Lakefront — But It Will Require The Removal Of A Tent Encampment

Crews will this week begin turning a portion of Lincoln Park between Wilson and Lawrence avenues into a natural area. Activists say the city must first house the residents living in tents on the land.

Tents owned by those struggling with homelessness are station on park land set to be turned into a "coastal natural area."
Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
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UPTOWN — A natural area is coming to the Uptown lakefront, bringing coastal-friendly plantings and landscaping to a portion of park land that houses a tent encampment.

Crews for the Park District will begin work this week on the Uptown Coastal Natural Area, which will turn a 6-acre grass lawn into a native space friendly to migrating birds that can also mitigate climate change impacts. The coastal natural area will come to the portion of Lincoln Park west of DuSable Lake Shore Drive between Wilson and Lawrence Avenues.

But to start the work, the Park District will have to remove a 25-person strong tent encampment that has formed in recent years on the park land and whose numbers swelled this summer.

With the camp’s residents facing removal, Uptown activists and housing advocates are asking the city to pause the project until all those living in the park are given permanent housing.

“They tell us we can move somewhere else. You going to push us to the end of the world?” said Ashley, who lives in the tent encampment and asked not to give her last name. “We’re not here to fight. We just want a safe space to move along to.”

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
Adam Gottlieb, organizer with Chicago Union of the Homeless, speaks at a press conference Sept. 6, 2022.

The Park District’s plans call for turning the existing turf lawn into a natural space with native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs. Invasive plant species will be removed from the area, but existing trees and shrubs will stay.

Some of the plan is adopted from a Lincoln Park design from famed landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. The 1930s proposal called for a “naturalistic effect” in the lakefront park that would include meadows and fields of native plantings, according to the Park District.

When completed, the natural area will act as a stop for migratory birds and bring more green space to the neighborhood. It will also help absorb and filter stormwater, according to the Park District. Walking paths will allow neighbors to take in the natural area.

Work is slated to start Friday with construction fencing beginning to go up Wednesday. The fencing will come down in fall 2023, according to a Park District news release.

The project has been in the works since at least 2016, when an advocacy group brought the idea to parks officials. The Park District received a $116,000 grant from the federal government in 2021 to go toward the coastal natural area. The Park District is matching that grant for a total project cost of just more than $232,000.

Much of the park will be closed during the improvements. Sidewalks on the perimeter of the park will remain accessible during the work, according to the Park District.

Park District staff have told residents of the tent encampment they will have to move to make room for the project, residents and activists said Tuesday.

Rather than tell them to move to other open land, tent city residents and their supporters are asking the city to find the residents permanent housing, they said.

“We want natural habitats,” Adam Gottlieb, organizer with Chicago Union of the Homeless, said at a news conference Tuesday. “What we’re against is the harassment of the people who are already using this park as a sanctuary. … What they really need is a stable housing situation.”

In a joint statement Wednesday, Chicago Park District and Department of Family and Support Services officials said notices of pending construction have been in place since Aug. 15. Family and Support Services has been working with the camp residents to connect them with housing and will continue to do so until construction begins.

“It is not illegal to be homeless in the city of Chicago, and [Department of Family and Support Services] keeps the rights of these individuals top of mind while balancing needs of the entire community,” the statement read.

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
About 25 people live in tents on park land set to be turned into a natural coastal area.

People facing homelessness have set up tents in this section of Lincoln Park for years, and the tents are thought of as part of the larger encampment under the Wilson and Lawrence avenue viaducts at DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

But after a series of fires under the Lawrence Avenue viaduct this year, residents of the encampment were told to move to adjacent park land so work could be done to the fire-damaged viaduct.

Residents of the viaduct mostly moved to the park space set to house the coastal natural area. Some of them plan to move back under the viaducts and are waiting for new tents before they do so, said Tom Gordon, known as the mayor of the Uptown tent city.

But some people have lived in open park space for some time and have no plans to relocate to the viaducts, Gordon said.

Seeking to stop the encampment’s ouster, Uptown neighbors and activists are camping in the park to call on the city to house the tent residents. It is the same group who for 11 days occupied the former Weiss Hospital parking lot set to become 314 apartments.

After being removed from the development site last week, the group known as “Rise Uptown” moved to the adjacent park land that is to become the natural area. The development and the park improvements are projects the city has prioritized over housing those on the streets, the group said Tuesday.

“Uptown doesn’t need any more luxury housing,” Gordon said. “We need affordable housing for everyone because Uptown is for everyone.”

The encampment includes people from all walks of life who have fallen on hard times.

One resident has lived there recently after falling into homelessness, which caused him to miss graduating from high school, he said. Another resident, Unique Simmons, is a single mother who is working to start an organization dedicated to helping those who are down on their luck.

“Being homeless, it’s hard to stay in college and raise a kid,” Simmons said. “Being homeless does not mean being lazy or you don’t want to work.”

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