Venturing to a Chicago Once Shunned to Take in West Side Glory in Glass

John W. Fountain
New York Times
7 April 2002

CHICAGO, April 6 — The parking lot was abuzz and crammed with cars, the 94-year-old gray stone plant house basking in its new glory.

All week long, tour buses idled outside the Garfield Park Conservatory on the city's West Side, and absolutely no parking was available on adjacent Central Park Avenue or the nearby side streets. Yet the visitors kept coming.

This week crowds have arrived by the thousands to see the swirling and vibrant blown glass that glistens in purple, yellow and red hues—the work of the glass artist Dale Chihuly. It is all part of a renaissance of the landmark conservatory, built in 1908, and of the neighborhood that is its home.

''Ever since the 60's,'' said Drew Becher, the Chicago Park District chief of staff, ''there has been that stigma on the West Side.''

In the heart of that West Side in a section known as East Garfield, the conservatory over time became one of Chicago's most forgotten treasures, with its aged palm trees and two acres of perennial greenery that against an urban backdrop stand like a sweaty glass of ice water on a muggy summer day.

The 1968 riots that singed the West Side, destroying businesses and scarring the neighborhood, also left many Chicagoans with a fear of traveling here. Whatever the flames did not accomplish in tarnishing the image of the West Side, many people here say, the poverty and blight did.

But after years, the conservatory is brimming with visitors again. That is not happenstance, say city park district officials, who see the health of the conservatory as being linked to the overall revitalization of the neighborhood.

Over the last 10 years, new development has spread west from downtown, including an expansion of the University of Illinois campus and construction of the United Center stadium.

Members of the black middle class are refurbishing old gray stone buildings, and vacant lots are being transformed into gardens.

''The mayor legitimately sees architectural design, attractive urban space, as a catalyst in neighborhood development,'' said Lee Bey, Mayor Richard Daley's deputy chief of staff for planning and design.
The emerging rebirth of the neighborhood is also the tale of a conservatory on the mend.

''We had real problems in the late 80's and early 90's because the conservatory was just left to crumble there for a while,'' Mr. Becher said. ''And the park district has put a lot of money into new computerized systems, new boilers and that type of stuff. Now we're branching out into the more public sexy stuff.''

Mr. Becher said: ''It's a sort of phenomenon that it's happening. People are finding the West Side again. ''It's actually the most beautiful side of the city that we have,'' he added.

Since the Chihuly exhibit opened in November, there have been more than 200,000 visitors, with 60,000 in the first two months alone. In all of 2000, there were 137,000 visitors to the conservatory, officials said.

Inside, fire-red cylinders of glass rise amid the plants, trees and flowers. Some are spidery, neon yellow. Others are blue, orange or green and spiral toward the ceiling intertwined with plants and trees.

''What else can we see in this cool garden?'' Chris Weiss, 30, said to her to her year-old son, Ryan Harnish, as they strolled through.

Though she had visited the conservatory on an annual bike ride that goes through Garfield Park, Ms. Weiss said she was aware that many Chicagoans never ventured this far west and had never been to the conservatory.

''People really didn't come here,'' Ms. Weiss said.

Ms. Weiss's friend Donna Vattanakul, 30, came just to see the Chihuly exhibit, but now she plans to return and bring her mother.

''I wouldn't have known that the Garfield Park Conservatory is so nice,'' Ms. Vattanakul said. ''This is a beautiful area.''

The conservatory is scheduled for a facelift next year that includes replacing its plastic roof with glass. City officials have also laid plans to expand the conservatory with outdoor gardens and a waterfall, a restaurant and shops. They hope to eventually showcase an exhibit of dinosaur bones, Mr. Becher said.

In the meantime, ''Chihuly in the Park: A Garden of Glass'' will be on display through Sept. 8. So far, the exhibit and the conservatory are getting rave reviews from the public.

''I love this,'' said Anne Wilbon, a fourth-grade teacher on spring break. ''I used to live down the street from here.''

Ms. Wilbon said that when she was a little girl she visited the conservatory at least once a week in summer and on Easter. She has pictures of herself as a girl in a pink dress, white shawl and Easter bonnet, she said. She remembers the days when the parking lot was full and no parking was to be found because of all the visitors.

Ms. Wilbon, who moved away 30 years ago and now lives on the city's South Side, brought her granddaughter, Imani Alston, 7, to the conservatory this week for the first time because she wants her to ''experience it.''

''I was surprised at the number of cars in the parking lot and all down the street,'' she said. ''The city has finally gotten smart. It's also letting people know that the West Side of Chicago doesn't have to be Scare Town.''

What of the old conservatory?

''It hasn't changed much,'' Ms. Wilbon said, smiling. ''It's truly, truly beautiful.''

©2002 The New York Times Company