HUMBOLDT PARK — The Humboldt Park beach buzzes with life in the summertime: Families picnic in the sand as kids splash around in the man-made swimming hole against the backdrop of the historical Humboldt Park field house.
But this summer, the water never came, and the beach sat dormant.
It’s the second summer in a row Chicago Park District officials kept the city’s only inland beach closed because of a persistent lifeguard shortage that significantly delayed and halted the openings of beaches and pools across the city.
The Park District wasn’t able to hire the 13 lifeguards needed to safely open the Humboldt Park beach this summer or last, the city agency said in an emailed statement.
The shortage meant that the pre-season maintenance and groundwork required to prevent unsafe bacteria levels in the water wasn’t done on time.
“To safely open the Humboldt Park Beach, the District must start work in advance of summer months, but the post-pandemic shortage of lifeguards has made it difficult to predict if we will have the capacity available to assign lifeguards to this location at the start of the season,” the Park District said.
The Park District said it’s actively working on hiring enough lifeguards to bring back the beach, but community leaders and neighbors are growing impatient.
The Humboldt Park beach, first opened in 1973, has for decades served as an oasis for Northwest Siders who don’t have easy access to Lake Michigan, and its absence the last two years has been felt by many in the neighborhood and surrounding area, they said.
“It’s always been a space where our community has congregated to play beach sports, have small picnics and it’s something that’s been missing for quite some time,” Humboldt Park Ald. Jessie Fuentes (26th) said.
“It’s a resounding request when we talk to constituents … One of the top three requests is, ‘Hey, is the beach going to be filled?'”
Neighbor Leah Songer, who frequented the beach with her kids, now 8 and 7, for years, called the prolonged closure “incredibly disappointing”
“It felt so accessible to be able to walk three blocks and be at a beach, and it felt really easy to stay connected to our [neighbors] who’d meet us there at the beach, when sometimes going all the way to Lake Michigan seemed like too much of a trek with little ones,” Songer said.
Gynger Garcia, another nearby resident who frequently bikes around the bike with her kids, agreed, saying it’s unfair families in the area are being denied a city amenity.
“As taxpayers, we pay for those types of resources. Our taxes goes up, but the resources don’t match that,” Garcia said.
Garcia and other neighbors said the beach is one of the most unique and neglected features of the park.
For years, the man-made beach has suffered from poor water quality due to its shallow depth and design. In 2017, the water was too dirty to safely swim in for nearly two-thirds of the summer, with bird feces and algae blamed for driving up bacteria to unsafe levels.
The Park District has tried a number of different methods to bring down bacteria levels, like installing a bubbler and partnering with the United States Dept. of Agriculture on an egg oiling program to reduce the number of newly hatched goslings at the beach.
Levels vastly improved in 2018, but persistent issues have given the beach a bad reputation.
The Park District should roll out a comprehensive plan that ensures better water quality long-term, neighbors said.
“I would rather have a beach that has a good plan to be healthy and safe versus just having it there, just to have it there,” said another neighbor, who asked that her name not be used because she works for the city.
This isn’t the first time the Humboldt Park beach has closed for an extended period of time.
The city shut down the beach in 2015 for the first time in 40 years, saying it was too expensive to maintain. The move sparked protests and public outcry. A year later, the city reopened the beach using taxpayer dollars.
This time around, the closure has largely flown under the radar.
Fuentes said that could be because the volunteer-run group tasked with overseeing the park, the Humboldt Park Advisory Council, was shut down for two and a half years due to infighting and alleged mismanagement. The group has since been revived, and a new board was recently elected.
“It tends to make a difference when an active park advisory council is advocating and complaining and keeping an eye out. Absent that, there may not have been as much push to reopen it,” Fuentes said.
Members of the advisory council didn’t respond to several messages seeking comment.
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