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Chicago’s Best 319 Acres

Millenium Park, which turns ten today, is completely ridiculous and a complete success.


Photo: Raymond Boyd / Getty Images

Chicago’s Millennium Park is perhaps the least subtle urban renewal project since King Louis Philippe I prematurely celebrated the end of French suffering by unveiling the Arc de Triomphe in 1836. The 319-acre western extension of Grant Park, which opened a decade ago today, contains a 219,520-pound stainless steel legume, a maximalist music hall, a $17-million-dollar granite fountain, and a pedestrian bridge that snakes across South Columbus Driver rather than spanning the road in something as pedestrian (and pedestrian friendly) as a straight line. A product of nepotism, reckless spending, and magical thinking, the park has no business being what it is: a massive success. For ten years, the silliest park in America has served as a model of what can be accomplished by a small group of thoughtful, concerned egotists.

There is nothing inherently Chicagoan about the park. Frank Gehry, who built the Pritzker Pavilion, was born in Toronto and lives in Los Angeles. Anish Kapoor, who built “The Bean” is a celebrity in his native Bombay. Renzo Piano, who designed the walkway, is an Italian “Senator for Life." The men who constructed the park had fame, money, and no particular stake in the future of the Windy City. Their work, which doesn’t mesh particularly gracefully, feels right because it is transparently transplanted. Millennium Park is a 13,895,640-square-foot chunk of some utopian, cosmopolitan future dropped on a gang-infested, race-divided city from a considerable height. It doesn’t belong to anyone so it belongs to everyone.

And Millennium Park has been embraced by everyone. On any given summer day, Polish kids from Jefferson Park mix with black kids from the South Side, and professionals headed to work on the Magnificent Mile. There are White Sox hats and Cubs hats.  Entering the park feels like leaving Chicago and visiting a European public garden that – by some crazy coincidence - happens to trafficked exclusively by people from Chicago.

The park is without a doubt the crowning accomplishment of Richard M. Daley’s 22-year career as Mayor. The fact that the former politico is currently the key witness in a trial about the validity of the contract securing the rights to the park’s largest restaurant is more of a tribute to his achievement than as asterisk. You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs and, in Chicago, you can’t make progress without breaking some laws. So it goes. And if the major lingering issue surrounding a project as big as Boston’s “Big Dig” is a bit of verbiage, that’s an unqualified qualified success. This is especially true for Millennium park, which was built with $220 million in private donations as well as $255 million in public funds. Was that number over the projected $150 million cost of the park? Absolutely, but it would be a steal at twice the cost. 

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Millennium Park’s success is that serves as proof positive that ambitious urban projects can still work in America. Planners in Jacksonville and Milwaukee have cited its popularity while arguing for public spaces in cities that desperately need them and postindustrial parks are cropping up all over the West. Ten years later, talking about the pain-in-the-ass construction and cost overruns seems downright petty. Millennium Park works.

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