Why save the South Shore Nature Sanctuary?

Eric Allix Rogers 17 comments

South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Every inch of Chicago’s lakefront has been shaped by human hands. Transforming a swampy scrub into terrain suitable for a major metropolis is no small project, and the contours of the shore have been aggressively adjusted to make space.

South Shore Cultural Center [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

South Shore Cultural Center [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

The South Shore Country Club was established in 1905 as an exclusive enclave for the wealthy. The story of its complicated relationship with the neighborhood that grew up around it is well-documented.

South Shore Cultural Center [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

South Shore Cultural Center [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

It had a happy moment when, in the 1970s, community advocates won the fight to preserve it as a public park and cultural center. The beautiful main building is well-known, but the rest of its grounds are less so.

South Shore Cultural Center [Steven Vance]

South Shore Cultural Center [Steven Vance]

At least 38 acres – about 57% of the park – is golf course, unsurprising given its country club past. But northeast of the building, accessible only via a circuitous route through driveways and parking lots, is a quiet beach. And on a spit of land extending out beyond that beach is a small slice of heaven: the South Shore Nature Sanctuary.

Boardwalk through the South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Boardwalk through the South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

There is nothing historic about the nature sanctuary. Its creation was championed by community groups and environmental organizations, who wrote it into the 1999 South Lakefront Framework Plan. It was designed by Wolff Clements and Associates and constructed in 2002 at a reported cost of $500,000. It has won several awards and grants since.

South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Steven Vance]

South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Steven Vance]

In a sense, there is even something fundamentally unnatural about it: it sits atop a massive mound of rubble, a decades-long archive of busted sidewalks and broken street lamps placed to keep the beach from migrating to Indiana. And yet, what has grown on these three acres over the past 15 years of careful stewardship is as close an approximation to nature as you might find within the city limits.

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

A path leads from the beach into a series of dunes, their sands restrained by the roots of tenacious grasses waving in the breeze. The trail loops gently through the full range of northeastern Illinois’ native ecosystems. Dunes cascade down to a small wetland, where ducks swim beneath the picturesque boardwalk.

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Native trees ring the perimeter, screening out the city beyond. And in this refuge grows a prairie whose native grasses and wildflowers welcome the myriad birds that migrate along the lakefront.

Fire circle at South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Fire circle at South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

At the distal point of the peninsula, two fire rings emerge, limestone outcroppings from the prairie. Built in the organic style of the famed Jens Jensen, they are the welcoming hearths on which the bonds of community are forged. It is not uncommon to find both in use on a pleasant evening, playing host to gatherings of friends and neighbors, from quiet reveries to lively parties.

Fire circle and skyline view at South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Fire circle and skyline view at South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

All along the northern edge of the peninsula, an ever-shifting palette of vegetation alternately obscures and frames the most dramatic of skyline views.

Skyline sunset from the South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Skyline sunset from the South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

There is no better vantage point to take in the rich colors of a sunset, or the shimmering fireworks whose staccato rhythms demarcate Chicago summers.

Fireworks from the South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Fireworks from the South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

But what the Chicago Park District gives, the Chicago Park District can take away. Having proven that this unlikely peninsula can sustain a paradise, an ostensibly higher and better use has been conceived. Plans to merge the historic golf courses in Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center have put this sanctuary on borrowed time. The fire circles and prairie are slated to make way for hole 12. For the sake of a few seconds of television footage with skyline views, during some hypothetical future professional golf tournament, the nature must go.

Penstemon grandiflorus at the South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Penstemon grandiflorus at the South Shore Nature Sanctuary [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

They claim they’ll replace the acreage elsewhere – but even if so, what will be lost? The labors of the many who came together to create this sanctuary? The more than half a million dollars of public funds invested to build and nurture it? The prime location with unmatched iconic skyline views, along a lakefront that is supposed to be reserved for public use? The ecosystems that have developed over the past 15 years? These are all things of value, nearly irreplaceable, and not to be destroyed lightly.

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Golf already claims the lion’s share of the South Shore Cultural Center and the south end of Jackson Park. It muscles aside nature and the public alike so that paying players can launch balls hundreds of feet across manicured lawns. Yet this exclusive and resource-intensive sport demands more – more land, choicer locations, skyline views.

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

The South Shore Nature Sanctuary is a marvelous resource for the community and our environment. Why allow it to be taken away for the exclusive use of golfers? I doubt this was the future that the Coalition to Save the South Shore Country Club had in mind when they fought to make it “a palace for the people.”

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

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17 responses to “Why save the South Shore Nature Sanctuary?”

  1. Jeremy says:

    Is it a ridiculous idea to think we can have both the Nature Sanctuary and the golf course?How has the Nature Sanctuary bettered the surrounding neighborhoods in the last decade? How does the Nature Sanctuary create jobs for the people? How does the Nature Sanctuary create revenue for low-income neighborhoods?

    • Of course that’s not ridiculous! That’s what we currently have. I was all for the golf course project as it was initially characterized: a renovation and restoration of the courses within their existing footprints (which cover the vast majority of the SSCC and south end of Jackson Park already). When the initial proposals were finally released, though, it became clear that golf was going to be taking over a lot more land and pushing amenities that the non-golfing population actually uses. That’s the part I’m not OK with.

      And sure, golf will spur some economic development (although it’s debatable how much more this will drive than has already been happening because of the existing courses). But all play will start and stop at 63rd and Stony Island in this new configuration, so the likelihood of any significant benefit to 71st Street and South Shore is a bit lower. And if you see the coverage we’ve gotten in Curbed Chicago and Chicago Cityscape – which are generally pro-development outlets – you’ll see that a lot of people realize high quality parkland and things like this stunning nature sanctuary are themselves important amenities that boost neighborhood quality of life and property values. I personally, and a number of people I know, might never have visited or moved to the neighborhood if not for this little peninsula.

  2. Kevin says:

    I lead tours to the South Shore Cultural Center. It is a fascinating piece of Chicago history. It is also the load stone for the South Shore community. It needs to be maintained for ALL Chicagoans and visitors alike, rather than for the sifted few.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Wow, that’s amazing. Thank you Eric and Kevin.

    It seems like the Golf Course is overstepping it’s boundaries, and preserving the beach and nature sanctuary is really important.

    How can something that great be underappreciated? Is it the area, as it currently stands? Hmm…How can we change this for the better?

    Like anything new, there are two sides to every coin so how can we compromise to make all of these amenities and facets of our community a reality?

    I believe the Beach and Sanctuary improve the quality of life for residents. I also believe that the golf course will help improve the lives of even MORE residents because of its offerings to help young (local) kids to make money caddying and get the opportunity to earn scholarships to school, the jobs and pure value it will create for the area, the increased budget that will go into preserving the Nature, Beach, and Sanctuary, and the rebate given to all local residents for this fun, safe activity. What would we need to make it work?

    • Access to the beach and nature sanctuary is convoluted because of the layout of the property. That’s something I’d hope this project could help with that would open those resources up to more people.

      I just don’t see how expanding golf helps more people. About 8% of the American public plays golf. The caddy programs are good for those involved, of course, but could exist without a vastly expanded PGA-caliber course. A nice renovation of the existing courses that kept greens fees affordable for all would seem to be ideal, one that doesn’t snatch up all the prime land that isn’t already taken up for golf.

  4. Just a small specific thing about the caddy component: it will not benefit the teens in the area to any great degree, since it will be for only a few, and further, I doubt that very many girls will be interested. How many women will be playing PGA golf, in comparison to the men? Not to mention the question of race…

  5. Petey says:

    I get it. It seems like it’s only going to help the upper class…

    In the last few years, there is a big push for kids in our neighborhood (Austin, Southside, etc) to caddie. So my daughter is caddying in hopes to get her high school and college paid for.

    Look up WGA Caddie Academy. 100+ colored young boys and girls from very similar neighborhoods. That can only increase with the course.

  6. As a 20 year Steward of the Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary, a Contributor to the Lake Front plan and development of the CPD Natural areas I find any abandonment of the Southshore Nature area intolerable. The CPD Natural Area division has abandon it There is no Stewardship or volunteer program in existence All the effort we put in to build and maintain it lost.

  7. Derek says:

    Nicely written, and beautiful photos! Thanks Eric! C and I went last weekend, and were very glad we did. It is really a wonderful slice of Chicago. I am sure they could figure out a different golf course configuration. The nature preserve should stay.

  8. Mykel says:

    It’s seems like you truly love this place, and we’ve made amazing progress to get it where it is now.

    Is it offensive to ask how we can build upon both so they coexist? How can we expand upon the sanctuary and Nature area, given our current community and the added resources?

  9. Larry Mize says:

    I’m a Northside Chicago expatriate, residing in Florida past fourty years. The Tampa city owned Babe Zaharius golf course is across the street from home. It is well used simply because it is affordable but not of PGA caliber, by any means; loved by duffers of the working class. For the neighbors it’s a lovely open space, un-fenced and accessible. We love it here, as is. It’s a good fit.
    What I’m getting at: is there really potential benefit to your South Shore community by building an exclusive, restricted, public enclave? Would CPD, in effect ‘romove’ from the neighborhood a much valued open natural space?
    I understand that the Obama Presidential Library in near by Jackson Park will ignite the Chicago Spirit once again to redefine the city and cultivate the South Shore Community to its highest potential. A world class PGA golf course is a marvelous vision for a short sighted few. Will it become another disheartening mirage for the underprivileged masses?

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