Landscape Architecture Magazine Ι Nov. 2015 

Palmisano Park in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood is as a theme park ride of ancestral Chicago landforms, landscapes, and industrial histories. In one corner, wetlands that once surrounded its lakeshore. In another corner, prairie that extended for hundreds of miles in all directions. Then there’s a rock wall 25 feet high left over from 130 years of dynamite blasting, when the site was a limestone quarry. Since the beginning of time (just about where Julie Bargmann, the principal of D.I.R.T. Studio, began cataloguing the land’s history) the site has been the bottom of an inland sea, a wild prairie, a quarry, a dump, and now a park. It’s tough to miss elements of any of these iterations. In an act of radical landscape adaptive reuse, Bargmann’s plan kept that vast majority of material on site, and made sure visitors to the park could tell. “We didn’t want to be at all shy about the landforms looking almost hyper-constructed—a little supernatural,” Bargmann says. “This place goes from [a] geologic age, to the building of Chicago, [to] its industrial history.” No matter how ugly, invasive, or damaging, every step in this journey is told. “It’s not about fixing the past,” she says.

It’s about building this petting zoo of Chicago history and land with as little intervention as possible. After the limestone quarry was shuttered, city trucks would bring in construction waste from across Chicago. Bargmann asked the city’s planning and streets and sanitation department if they could make this ongoing process part of her design. She wanted them to stack construction refuse into a 70-foot-high ziggurat, the park’s centerpiece and a total anomaly in pancake-flat Chicago. “You’re already doing this anyway,” she said. Why spend money on a re-grading plan if the city is already paying to add material to the site? “It could be a pretty fucking cool narrative.”

They didn’t go for it. “They looked at me like I had 100 heads,” she says. “They chickened out.”

Bargmann never got an answer for why the city didn’t want to apply a more creative and performative flourish to their waste dumping habits, largely because she was ushered off the project. Bargmann and DIRT Studio, based in Charlottesville, Va., were brought in as a sub-consultant to engineering firm Roy F. Weston Solutions in 2001 to take the project through schematic design. Unbeknownst the Bargmann, she says, the city decided it wanted to work with a local landscape architect, and didn’t ask DIRT Studio to stay on to develop the site. In 2003, Site Design Group, headed by Ernie Wong, was brought on to bring the project to completion. The plan by DIRT Studio that the city handed Wong was bold, broadly conceptual, and bare-bones enough to keep Wong from feeling like he was raising someone else’s child. But the clumsy hand-off from one firm to another still registered. A few years into Site Design Group’s involvement, the two landscape architects met for the first time. They rehashed the bureaucratic wrangling needed to get each of the city agencies involved marching in the right direction. “I remember her saying, ‘I don’t envy you,'” Wong says. “It was awkward,” Bargmann says.

Tucked just south of the Chicago River on the city’s South Side, the 27-acre park begins with a series of terraced wetlands. The wetlands step down to a 2 acre fishing pond, the path guided by a staccato network of sharp, angular metal catwalks; a sign that you’re leaving the natural world behind. A 33-foot hill, topped in both sod and prairie grasses looms over the pond. At the site’s western end, a playing field with a dirt jogging track.

At first glance the limestone rock wall seems unspeakably ancient. But it’s perhaps the least “natural” thing about Palmisano Park. The shear rock wall now visible was exposed due to a century’s worth of steel, sweat, and toil. For Chicagoans to admire today, it had to have the earth ripped from it with blasts of dynamite. The gray, mottled and craggy rock wall is topped by shrubs and trees, some of the only mature large plants on site. (The original budget didn’t include enough money for trees. The Bur oak and river birch saplings on site now were donated by Target.) A fence keeps people away from the edge, making it a curated experience, inaccessible and primeval. The hum of the nearby Interstate Highway is filtered out. At the quarry’s water line, the rock wall fills up your vertical field of vision. There is a surreal sense isolation amid one of Chicago’s industrial corridors, as if a giant thumb had pressed this place down into the earth’s crust ever so slightly.

The more scars and slights the better. Bargmann makes a remix of ghost landscapes and visibly scarred landforms that aims to describe the development, industrialization, and deindustrializaiton that brought Palmisano Park to where it is now. This process, revealed by the park, also tells the story of Chicago and the Great Lakes.

For at least as long as Palmisano Park was an Edenic prairie, it was also the bottom of a massive inland sea. “We started our timeline back in the fossil age,” Bargmann says. You can still find fossils in the limestone slabs and boulders scattered around the site as traffic bollards or steps leading down to the fishing pond. When the prehistoric sea retreated, Chicago became a small part of the vast and fertile Midwestern prairie, represented by Site Design Group’s plantings of Avena sativa, Lolium multiflorum, and Anemone cylindrica on the hill. Chicago’s other iconic pre-settlement landscape ecosystem are the wetlands that ringed the Great Lakes, and Wong’s array of lush ironweed and cardinal flowers attracts garter snakes and red tailed hawks.

The Bridgeport neighborhood that surrounds the park predates Chicago itself in local historians’ estimation. In the late 1830s the quarry was opened by a group of investors attracted to its proximity to the Chicago River. By 1851, Marcus Cicero Stearns had bought out his other partners and assumed control of the operation, re-naming it “Stearns Quarry.”

The limestone blasted from the quarry built the infrastructure that would make Chicago a titan of transit and industry. Before railroads crisscrossed the continent, wealth traveled through waterways, and Stearns’ limestone helped connect the Great Lakes to a great river. The Illinois-Michigan Canal was made with this limestone, allowing water freight to travel from the Chicago River and canal, to the Illinois River, eventually meeting the Mississippi River. Blasting went on for 130 years. Period photos from the air show an otherworldly, sheer rock face deep enough to be covered in shadow.

Eventually it became too costly for the quarry elevator to haul stone out of the 380-foot-deep pit;  partially preserved as part of Bargmann’s and Wong’s design. The elevator and the scant remnants of a quarry building to the west of the pond are the only structures left from the quarry, which period photographs show to be a bustling multi-story village of excavation. These structures enrich the narrative but they remain for a functional reason: Wong says that removing them would have been likely to erode the cliff or cause a rockslide.

The retention pond is nowhere near 380 feet deep today, but inside you feel submerged and isolated from the whole city when you stand, suspended, over the pond. To the east, the wetlands gradually step up a set of terraces to the horizon. To the south is the 33-foot-high hill, topped by prairie. And to the north and west, the limestone rock wall blocks off views of shuttered factories and interstate highways. Wong says that when he takes visitors to the park, the reactions are much the same: I can’t believe I’m in the middle of Chicago.

In the next phase of life for Stearn’s Quarry, it became a place to hide ugly things. Shuttered in 1969, it became a construction waste dumping ground. In 1974, the Tribune reported that the state EPA had filed a complaint against the city for illegal dumping. The city admitted it had no permit. In 1987, the agency threatened a lawsuit against the city. Two years before, the architect Sal Balsamo suggested that the best use of the pit would be to hide a 100,000-seat mega-stadium. His plan, mercifully never enacted, would have wrapped a mostly underground stadium in a 15,000-space car park, equal parts first-year Archigram sketch and austere super-villain lair. “No matter what you do, you can’t make a stadium pretty,” Balsamo told the Tribune. In 2004, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation alleged that city officials were pocketing bribes from private trucking companies for access to city contracts that required little to no work. A classic Chicago patronage scandal, it cost the city $40 million a year and brought a slew of federal indictments. What little work was done included dumping construction waste into Stearns Quarry.

The site was fenced off and isolated from the community after the quarry was shuttered. It became a place where people were dared to enter. It was mostly known as a place to commit suicide, or maybe to fish where water had collected in the pit. The quarry, like Chicago at the time, didn’t have much reason to think better of itself. From 1970 to 1996, Chicago lost 60 percent of its industrial jobs, according to American Prospect. The nearby Chicago stockyards closed their doors in 1971. “It was the death knell for a lot of things here,” says a neighborhood historian, Maureen Sullivan, who co-authored Images of American: Bridgeport with Gazarek Bloom. “Everyone was moving to the suburbs. People were just leaving.” And the dump trucks kept hauling.

By about 2001, according to the parks department, the community voiced support for turning the landfill into a park. Considering Bridgeport’s severe lack of green space, even the scarred quarry was par for the course for the city’s parks department. The Chicago Parks District had been converting abandoned brick and lime kilns and city dumps into parks since at least the early 20th century. “The Parks District doesn’t get any pristine properties,” says Bob Foster, a project manager with the Parks District that was instrumental in bringing Palmisano Park to fruition. “Just about every property [we] get has some sort of brownfield characteristic to it.”

Chicago is a city largely devoid of dramatic topography. “Mt. Bridgeport,” the constructed hill on the south end of Palmisano Park, rises above grade, hinting at the park’s other great constructed-landscape reveal, the city itself. A dirt pedestrian path (or a longer ADA-compliant path at the rear of the site) takes visitors up Mt. Bridgeport, through fenced-off prairie plantings and broad swaths of sod grass. Finally, the skyline explodes into view. “You scratch your head at that point,” says Wong. Limestone boulders from the quarry, just the right shape and height for sitting , offer spots to relax. The 33-foot-high hill might as well be 300 feet, a partial fulfillment of Bargmann’s desire for a 70-foot ziggurat that would contrast with the quarry pit’s depth even more.

While it’s not really uncommon for architects to slice a crystalline glass box into a fluted column Beaux Arts building, or weld a parametric blob onto a centuries-old Chinese hutong, landscape architects have been more timid about working within the constraints of existing sites and drawing sharp narrative contrasts with adaptive reuse projects. Architects often see the economic and cultural value of old infrastructure before landscape architects do, says Bargmann. “We should have the same attitude,” she says. The reticence of landscape architects to restrain themselves to the raw components of a site is what makes Palmisano Park so unique. For Bargmann, working with what you’ve got has an ethical and moral imperative. Leaving site materials in place means less movement, carbon emissions, and money spent. It also leaves more layers of a site’s history intact, offering visitors a more compelling story to invest themselves in and take responsibility for.

Site Design Group saw through an important series of remediation tasks. Wong and his team drained an existing pond, and placed a liner at its bottom to prevent potential contaminants from leaching into the water. They refilled the pond and stocked it with fish, and the park’s serene fishing hole was born. A waterproof clay membrane culled from construction sites around the city lined the wetlands, to trap any potential waste contaminants from below that might infect the water as it flows into the pond. Mt. Bridgeport and the athletic fields at the far western end of the park were built from re-graded fill from the site and topped with fresh soil in time for its 2010 opening. There were new plantings and 40,000 cubic yards of fresh topsoil. Slabs of concrete and limestone reused from the site divide the four grades of wetland, and create a set of steps that take you down to the southern edge of the pond. No materials came off the site. The park, a didactic, mannered, and meticulous lesson in Chicago landscapes, is still mostly made from what it used to be. Are these “recreated” landscapes? “Adaptively re-used” landscapes? “I’m not really sure,” says Wong, before settling on “man-made ecological park.”

Cannibalizing the park’s existing materials was also necessitated by its budget, which, at $10 million, seemed like more of a dare than a plan. Palmisano Park, it happened, was developed at the same time as Millennium Park, the crown jewel on Chicago’s lakefront. The two parks are the same size, and both are reclaimed brownfields. The construction refuse from Millennium Park was carted to Palmisano Park and buried. “We got the leftovers from Millennium Park,” Wong says.

– – –

Bridgeport’s earliest nickname was “Hardscabble.” Its factories absorbed wave after wave of immigrants: the Germans, the Irish, the Poles, the Lithuanians, and eventually Asians and Hispanics (seemingly everyone, conspicuously, but African-Americans.) It’s historically factional and sectarian, a place where there are neighborhoods within neighborhoods, where Czechs don’t go to church with Poles. This insularity is reflected in the park. Palmisano Park isn’t a place that reaches out and grabs passersby. From the east, on Halsted Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Bridgeport, Mt. Bridgeport’s rise blocks views of the quarry wall, prairie grasses, and playing field at the site’s west end. Nearly every section of the park is visually isolated from the others, worlds unto themselves that offer new vistas and ecosystems only after persistent exploring. Bridgeport is also the center of gravity for Chicago’s never-totally-dead Democratic machine. Five mayors called it home, including Daley the Father and Daley the Son, who ruled the city for a combined 43 years. In Chicago’s golden-age reveries, the city is Bridgeport; a land of brick bungalows and two-flats, born from stockyards and packing plants, populated by ethnic enclaves who may do what they want on their own time, but when the bell rings, all check in to work with a shrug and a sneer. Unique among parks, the preserved limestone rock wall and excavation elevator honor traditions of work, not of recreation.

Just about every large-scale building, infrastructure, or landscape project in the city has to address what to do with the husks of Chicago’s faltering industrial base. The 606 puts 2.7 miles of elevated park on a disused freight rail line. Chicago’s newest park is Northerly Island, on the site of a former lakefront airstrip. The city’s architect of the moment, Theaster Gates, isn’t an architect at all, but an artist who buys up crumbling properties in the impoverished South Side, where segregation and deindustrialization has critically wounded the city. Gates does with houses what Wong and Bargmann did with Palmisano Park. He cannibalizes their raw materials and refashions them into community space.

Chicago is just now old enough to have some history, which all of these projects, Palmisano Park not least, celebrate to different degrees. And if you could ask ditch diggers who carved out Stearns Quarry over 150 years ago, they’d likely say Chicago will never be too old for a future, and Ernie Wong agrees. “As long as we continue to be creative, we can transform these spaces,” he says. “It says to me we have some hope.”

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