Meet our 2024 Library Foundation Award honorees.

From Swamps to Parks: Chicago Public Library Takes Us Through a Historic Journey of the City

What does it take to bring the history of Chicago Parks to life? Chicago Public Library Senior Archival Specialist Johanna Russ tells us.

A Blast from the Past

Walk into the exhibit gallery on the 9th floor of Harold Washington Library and you’re immediately transported to 19th and 20th century Chicago—a city in the early stages of becoming the green metropolis that it is today.

From hand-drawn architectural maps of the parks to historical photos of park goers enjoying activities like ski jumping, running track, or boating, you see how various patches of swampland became the public spaces we know and love.

Not many know (or some have forgotten) that the parks were once just marshy land, though. The latest exhibit from the Special Collections changes that. Titled, From Swamps to Parks: Building Chicago’s Public Spaces, it invites Chicagoans of all ages to learn, engage, and remember the history of Chicago’s parks.

Seeing the Parks through a new lens (literally)

Mt. Green Fieldhouse. Photo Courtesy of Chicago Public Library’s Special Collections and Chicago Park District Archive.

Did you know that fieldhouses were a Chicago-born invention? Or that people used to boat in the lagoon across from the Museum of Science and Industry? What about the fact that ski jumping contests were regularly held at Soldier Field?

The parks and the way they were used may have looked different back then, but their importance to Chicagoans has remained the same. They’re a place to gather and enjoy green spaces, a place for the community. Especially throughout the pandemic, the parks were a haven for everyone to step outside of their homes and gather safely.
But they weren’t always there! They were purposely built for Chicagoans to enjoy, one thing Johanna Russ, Senior Archival Specialist, hopes Library users learn (or re-learn) when visiting the exhibit.

“The spaces have become naturally beautiful, and that still inspires all. But I hope that learning that they were intentionally built gives people a newer and different way to appreciate the parks.”

Bringing the Parks to You

Riis Park (0123) Activities – Ski jumping, 1940-01-11. Photo Courtesy of Chicago Public Library’s Special Collections and Chicago Park District Archive.

Preserving the parks’ history is important and making it accessible to all Chicagoans even more so. “I think it’s really important that we have these kinds of materials available in a public library setting where people of all ages, all abilities, can come and learn,” she says.

Though the exhibit is just an overview of the Parks District, it represents icons and park features across the city – from the beloved lakefront to the oasis that is Garfield Park Conservatory. The Library introduces the Chicago Park District archives available for everyone to view both physically and digitally. “10,000 of the photographs are available on the website to view,” Johanna said. “When selecting those 10,000, we were conscious to include parks from all over the city and made sure we were geographically representative.”

Digitizing the archives is just one of the many ways Special Collections has made these pieces accessible to everyone. Did you know that the Library has behind-the-scenes videos of the exhibit that Chicagoans could interact with remotely, too? In this way, “the videos could certainly live on after the exhibit comes down.”

Beyond the Exhibit

And in true Library nature, there are other ways to engage with the Parks history beyond the exhibit. Library users can access coloring sheets, a parks scavenger hunt, a quiz, a reading list, and attend virtual events to extend the conversation about Chicago parks history even further.

But for those interested in visiting the exhibit, it will be up until December 2021. “Because of COVID, we decided to keep it up longer in hopes that more people would get to see it because a lot of work went into it and we’re proud of the product,” said Johanna.

The story of Chicago’s parks doesn’t end here, though. Johanna hopes the exhibit inspires Library users to visit Special Collections and do their own research.

“There’s enough space for more stories in the future that get into narrower focuses and we’re inviting people to come visit the Collections and help us tell those stories.”

You can learn more about the Parks exhibit here and you can see the exhibit in the 9th floor exhibit hall at Harold Washington Library Center. Masks and social distancing are required. 

Stay up to date with the latest Chicago Public Library and Library Foundation news, stories, and updates when you subscribe to our free monthly newsletter, Bookmark.