getting drunk in grant park

History lurks behind every current issue and it is fascinating to see how it is used and abused by the pros and the cons. The current debate over locating the Children’s Museum in Grant Park is a great example. Half a year ago when this issue first came up, I blogged about the irony of how a little basement museum in a 1924 Lincoln Park administration building had become a $100 million juggernaut. I also opined about the future since I seriously doubt the 1990s children’s museum fad will reappear after the 2010 baby bust.

Besides, wasn’t the Museum of Science and Industry the 1933 example of a children’s museum? It was for this child. But enough ancient history.

This week the Children’s Museum applied for a liquor license for their largely underground facility planned for the northern edge of Grant Park and my mind went back 25 years, to 1983. I was first working downtown and I was volunteering for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, surveying homeless men in Grant Park. They were living there, and drinking in various underground hideaways. So of course I was struck by the irony that now, a quarter-century later, us respectable middle- class types will be able to drink underground in Grant Park. I suppose the liquor license is ancillary to the Children’s Museum, but again the whole idea of a children’s museum – and I wrote up the ones in Madison and Indianapolis for Michelin – is a thin concept that I seriously suspect won’t bridge the 2010 bust. In that case, the liquor license is a very smart move, since a restaurant and pub multiplex under the northern edge of Grant Park could be a multi-year moneymaker for the city.

Is this evidence of the privatization of the parks we have been hearing about so much with Toyota renting the Bean for three days and Latin School building facilities in what once was a public park? Actually, reclaiming the parks for respectable middle-class people is the theme of this 25-year story. In 1983 the parks were still hanging on to their 1978 scariness, and the 1980s launched the Reagan era public-private partnership which helped privatize and middle-classify so much of what was once a wide-open public realm. An underground drinking establishment in Grant Park – at $100 million – is the icing on that 25-year old cake. It is a natural evolution of a trend which has created wonderful things for respectable people, and those people deserve a drink. I’m not saying it is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m just sayin’.

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