by Julia S. Bachrach, Chicago Park District Historian
Yes, the Chicago Park District arguably has more historic resources than most park districts in the state. But that should not mean that it corners the market on preserving historic parks. Despite tight budgets, a smaller district may also take on modest (and perhaps even grandiose) projects committed to preservation. Here are some tips.
Make small an advantage: Unlike the Chicago Park District, which seems to regularly uncover historically significant landmarks and artworks amongst its more than 7,200 acres (did I mention the historic documents that remained undiscovered in a Soldier Field basement vault until 1987?), your agency may have one or two easily identifiable historically significant landmarks. Consider contacting a college or university with a historic preservation or history program to determine whether students would be willing to conduct historic surveys or provide intensive documentation for an individual historic building, monument, or site. You may find that the local business community or neighborhood groups will be more than happy to launch fundraising efforts if you can sharply focus on one or two manageable restoration projects. Such projects often enhance people’s sense of memory and connection with their neighborhood and can and make big splashes in the community.
Recruit volunteers: Volunteers can help in many different ways. One of the most powerful methods to educate the public and generate support and interest in a natural or historic park is to have trained interpreters on site. In Chicago’s Lincoln Park, docents give free tours every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Volunteer nature stewards also help maintain parks throughout the city. A network of professionals, known as VCCI (Volunteers of Chicago Cultural Institutions), can help get you started or help you with fresh ideas if you already have an existing volunteer program.
If you can’t do it now, at least make it part of the plan: Don’t let lack of resources stand in your way. If you have a passionate staff or volunteers, and especially passionate park commissioners, encourage them to research and plan preservation and restoration projects as if money were no object. Of course, funds never just fall from the sky, but if you have a plan in place, you will be able to pursue any opportunities that come your way quickly. Also, never underestimate the power of a plan. Once people put a vision on paper they are often inspired to make it a reality. As Chicago’s famous architect and planner Daniel H. Burnham is believed to have said: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.”