Technically, I guess, I should be profiling Grant Park first, since Grant Park is older, and larger, and more important to the city’s history. But I’ve been researching Millennium Park recently, so I’m going to profile it first while it’s fresh in my mind.
When Millennium Park first debuted, I had been in San Antonio for more than a decade. All of the reporting on it was of the same vein as the official city website’s statement, You might never guess that Millennium Park, recipient of the 2009 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, was once an industrial wasteland. I am well aware that human memory is flawed, but for the life of me, all that I could remember on the site was a grassy area with a colonnade and a row of trees backed by a low wall with some kind of decorative columns on top. Despite articles praising Millennium Park for saving us from unsightly boxcars, I couldn’t remember a single dam boxcar. Additionally, several articles talked about the new colonnade that was in the park, and as I said before, I distinctly remember a colonnade on the corner of Michigan and Randolph.
Finally after one too many articles, I finally went digging through old photographs and realized that the boxcars that people were worrying about were there, but they were below grade, meaning that if you weren’t looking at them from above, you can’t see them. And I wasn’t in the habit of looking out of really high-up windows down at the street level in that direction in that area. From the Sears Tower, yes. From the seventh floor of Marshall Field’s, sure. From the third floor of the Chicago Cultural Center towards Washington Street, even. But I’m hard-pressed to remember a time when I was in the buildings that front on that area (including the Prudential Buildings, the AON tower, or anything of that sort), and could see down into that ditch.
You see, most of downtown Chicago has been raised. When Chicago was founded, the area which is now downtown was on more or less the same level as the lake, which meant that there was nowhere for the water to go, and the city was a swampy mess. In the 1800s, the city decided to put a system of drainage ditches where the current roads were, then build new roads on top of them. Then they would raise the buildings to the new street level. This new higher street level carries through all of the Loop, but farther north, you can still see some buildings that are at the original grade. If you stand at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Illinois Street, you can see what I’m talking about because while I used the term “intersection,” the streets don’t actually intersect. Illinois Street is a good ten feet or so below the level of Michigan Avenue.
So now we’re going to leave this and come at it from another direction. Chicago’s location on Lake Michigan is in large part why it became the major city that it is. Ships would come up the St. Lawrence and through the Great Lakes to Lake Michigan, then would load or unload cargo, or both, then go back out. Because the cargo needed to get to and from the ships, Chicago became (and still is) a major railroad hub. Because of this, there are rail lines and even rail yards in the downtown area. I’m trying to find the article I read where they talked about how the tracks that are meant by the words “industrial wasteland” above, property of the Illinois Central Railroad, were inviolable.
Those tracks, as well as a parking lot, are still there under the park. The city got airspace rights to the area over the railroad tracks and parking lot, and constructed the park there at current street level.
Millennium Park is likely best known for its artwork. The two most notable pieces are the Cloud Gate, which is a large bean-shaped sculpture made of reflective plates of stainless steel and the Crown Fountain, which is a black granite area that has two gigantic glass screens, one at either end. The screens show photographs of the faces of Chicagoans. The faces smile and things, and then mouths of the faces pucker and water emerges in a, well, fountain from the center, making it look as though the water is coming from the mouths. While it was not part of the intended function of the fountain, the Crown Fountain has become a sort of water park, with people (generally, but not exclusively, children) standing under the stream and playing in the basin.
Millennium Park also has the five-acre Lurie Garden, a new colonnade which surrounds yet another fountain, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (a concert and event venue), the BP Pedestrian bridge and an outdoor public skating rink, all within a 24.5-acre space. The City of Chicago website says that all of the amenities of Millennium Park were designed to be handicap accessible.