Chicago Park District Has History of Racism Allegations

From federal lawsuits to scathing reports, the administration of the city’s greenspaces has for decades come under fire on grounds that underserved communities are treated unfairly

Former Park District Superintendent Michael P. Kelly and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel break ground on a new park in 2017. (DNAinfo/Linze Rice)

In addition to dealing with a security camera program under fire, Chicago Park District officials are also grappling with a history of allegations of systemic discrimination and inequity in how it allocates resources.

Friends of the Parks, a Chicago-based park advocacy group often critical of the Park District, released a 81-page report in 2018 blasting city officials on a number of parks-related issues.

Specifically, the study alleged parks on the city’s South Side had smaller budgets compared to parks of similar size to the north. The study charged city officials with spending about $85,000 per park more on parks in predominantly white neighborhoods.

“Our research has revealed challenges to democracy, transparency and equity in the system, and it suggests some rather obvious disconnects between the Chicago Park District’s investments and the needs of underserved communities,” the report read.

The Park District responded with scathing criticism of its own, saying the FOTP report “blatantly disregard[s] important capital and programmatic gains that have been made in parks across Chicago.”

City officials said the FOTP misrepresented how the city budgets park spending.

“It should be noted that the Chicago Park District prioritizes capital spending based on community needs, and not according to race,” said then-Park Superintendent Michael P. Kelly.

Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, told the BGA her group stands by the allegations in its 2018 study.

In 1982, the federal government sued Chicago’s Park District alleging parks in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods had fewer indoor facilities like pools and field houses, fewer outdoor amenities and few programming opportunities when compared to parks in white neighborhoods.

The ruling that followed resulted in a three-year consent decree giving a federal judge oversight of mandated reforms.

“The consent decree of 35 years ago set exacting and excellent standards of maintenance, standards that have slipped at many parks,” FOTP said in its 2018 analysis. “The impact of this is seen in inequities around the approval of capital requests and allocation of capital funding across all parks. Addressing these issues is essential for all Chicagoans to have the quality of fields and facilities they deserve.”

In 2011, nearly three decades after the consent decree, more than half of the $500 million budget set aside for city parks by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration went to just 10 parks – seven of them in predominantly white neighborhoods, according to the Chicago Reporter.