By James Landahl

Tucked away in the old southside Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport, hidden beside the bustling Stephenson Expressway, there is a park that, despite its beauty, you and I will never find in a tourist brochure. Surrounded by concrete and brick buildings, the native plants, the flowing grasses, leadplant and butterfly milkweed and chicory make it an urban oasis. This expansive 27-acre park rises above the flat landscape of the clustered townhouses of Bridgeport and the infamously dangerous southside neighborhoods – areas filled with worn apartment buildings, business fronts with barred windows, public murals with chipped paint, and that certain grit from its residents. Southside Chicago has a nasty reputation that intimidates glamor-seeking tourists. The locals, most of whom are the sons and daughters of Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants, know this place affectionately as “the Park.”

If you ask the old neighborhood guys where Palmisano Park is, the unpopular city-given label, they’d give you a thick “Whachuyous taahkin’ about?” and probably start shootin’ some bull. If we weren’t in a public park, they’d all be crackin’ open a cold can of Old Style to tell their stories. Buncha wise guys, they never change. Smart-asses, talkin’ about how they smashed vinyl at Comiskey Park on Disco Demolition Night, or complainin’ about Mayor Daley even though he’s been out of office for years now. About grandfathers who ran speakeasies near the Chicago River for the canal-workers – and how old time mobsters dumped bodies in Stearns Quarry, which once occupied the space directly below your feet.

Though a good amount is a load of crap, a lot of the stories you hear are honest fact. When the quarry closed it became a landfill for construction waste, but that pit of concrete chunks in his hometown agitated Daley, who ordered a $10 million rehabilitation of the site. Private companies with vested interests and mob ties got hired, and Chicago paid far too much for the cleanup. Then the scandal broke. Stearns Quarry was buried and overfilled, creating a large mound – Palisano Park – in its place,  and the rumored murder, scandal, and general repugnance got buried under all those accidental native plants. Some quarry walls were left to create a border along what became a small fishing pond, the only visible indication of the place’s murky past. Today, the space, the locals, and the community have been reinvigorated – the heart of a working class neighborhood.

Chinatown has cozied up to the park just to the northeast, and there is a growing Mexican population surrounding the park. Some newcomers can’t speak English, but everyone everywhere is always celebrating birthdays, planning graduation fireworks, or working in the community garden. These new people add an eccentric element of camaraderie to this public greenspace that was originally dependent mostly on the local bars. Full of dim-sum and sipping bubble-tea smoothies, you can sit in the grass and watch the first-generation children fly kites, search frustratingly for 16 lost softballs in the tall flowing Indian grass, and fish for bluegill, small-mouth bass, and green sunfish in the rocky pond.

At the foot of the hill, the city rigorously maintains the fast tempo of its pedestrians, the droning rhythm of the Stephenson, and the cacophony of the El-train. Joggers hit the gravel paths that curve up the incline and across the green expanse, edged by native switchgrass and purple ironweed. But only the runners stay on the gravel. The hill is scarred by eroding paths of dirt and dust where grass once grew. At the top of the hill, all the city sounds are silenced. Here you are – far from everyday life. Here, the elderly sit on benches, inhaling the fresh air in peace. Possums, raccoons, squirrels, pigeons and other classic urban critters scamper, scramble, and hobble over debris, as usual, but the park is more than this. Once a Superfund site, the park is now a migratory bird habitat. A family of hawks hunt from a perch in the trees, and when night falls coyotes emerge, trekking in via the railroad tracks leading from the distant wooded suburbs. 

And what do the old neighborhood guys think of the change? They’re still a buncha wise guys who prefer keeping things business-as-usual, but they love it. The old Polish guys sit with the old Mexican guys smoking cigars and talkin’ Sox. As the sun sets and they say their goodbyes, you can hear one of ‘em try and pronounce “Buenas Noches.” His Mexican buddy might give him a quick pronunciation lesson, and he’ll get it right. But then, when the buddy jokingly tries to say goodnight in Polish, fits of laughter hit so deep they need to hold onto each other just to stay on their feet. All this while the young Chinese kids play basketball with the young Irish kids on the courts below.

And us? Well, after an afternoon of playing soccer with legs on a challenging incline, we can spread out on blankets to recharge for the walk back down and the drive home. We can lie quiet at the crest of that hill, on top of all those dead bodies and coyote tracks, and in the middle of that field, wait as the sun hits the skyline and as the Sears Tower in the distance glows red, reflecting one last bit of light.

James Landahl is a senior Environmental Science student at Loyola University Chicago's Institute of Environmental Sustainability. His academic interests include climate change policy and outdoor education.