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Who owns Chicago’s famous lakeshore?

| by Jay Walljasper

cc license by pntphoto from Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/pntphoto/197694012/

A proposal to build a children’s museum in Grant Park creates storm of controversy about a place long deemed “a common.”

As early as 1836, farsighted Chicago citizens refused to sell the village’s lakefront to build a shipping canal, even under pressure from the state of Illinois. They deemed the land: “Public Ground—a Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of Any Buildings or Other Obstruction Whatever.”

In the 1890s, civic leader Montgomery Ward led a crusade to fulfill that original mission, filing four lawsuits that successfully removed a whole spate of fee-charging businesses from what was supposed be public land. Today Grant Park stands as one of the world’s most famous urban green spaces— an expansive front yard for city residents that looks out on Lake Michigan.

Those historical debates are being revisited today with a proposal from the Chicago Children’s Museum to build a new facility in Grant Park. Supporters and opponents of the plan make interesting arguments about why their wishes for the park represent the truest embodiment of the commons, as seen in these dueling op-ed articles from the Chicago Tribune.

The debate on both sides is an encouraging sign of growing public appreciation for the importance of commons in modern society, and a reminder of the visionary citizens of the past who protected and promoted the public spaces that we enjoy today.

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Posted April 22, 2008

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