How We Live
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RAY SUAREZ: There’s a breathtaking tropical forest under glass just a few minutes away from Chicago’s loop, but it sat almost forgotten, neglected for years. Its story is not only about decay and decline, but about second chances, and about how art and the buzz a big show can unleash can put a forgotten city neighborhood back on the map.
The fortunes of the Chicago park district’s Garfield Park conservatory sagged just as the fortunes of its west side Chicago neighborhood did. The body blows of the 1968 riots after the murder of Martin Luther King, the steady loss of industry and jobs, and the abandonment of the Garfield Park neighborhood by banks and mortgage lenders left an area with little promise and little hope. Chicagoans avoided the neighborhood, and they avoided the conservatory. Lisa Roberts runs the place for the Chicago Park district.
LISA ROBERTS, Executive Director, Garfield Park Conservatory: If you think about keeping glass secure, keeping plants warm in a glass building in the city of Chicago, keeping all the glass intact, that’s a very big prospect. And things just kind of went downhill.
RAY SUAREZ: It wasn’t always that way. Garfield Park was built by the Chicago Park district in the late 19th century as a pleasure ground, a park for strolling and relaxation in what was an upwardly mobile middle class neighborhood. The conservatory came in 1908.
LISA ROBERTS: It was it was one of the big cultural attractions here in Chicago. And it’s rather well known in the history of greenhouse design. And when this opened, particularly in the fern room right behind, you saw a completely landscaped natural looking setting and people– so the story goes– actually came in and said… thought that the conservatory had been constructed over an existing lagoon. It was that realistic looking.
RAY SUAREZ: Did the city’s commitment to the place change when nobody came to it anymore?
LISA ROBERTS: What happened is it reached a low point, which in retrospect turned out to be a real blessing in disguise, because there was one of these famous Chicago sub- arctic nights, and everything failed. The heating failed, and there was broken glass, and we lost a portion of one of the plant collections. It was very bad. But what it did is it was kind of a wake-up call to people, and people came together from across the city and said, “we’ve got to save this place. We’ve got to do something about this.”
RAY SUAREZ: That was in the mid- ’90s. The city government and the Chicago Park district began to pull America’s largest conservatory back from the brink with $8 million in renovation. A non-profit community organization started raising money to save the landmark building and its collections, and to reconnect the place to the neighborhood and the wider city. Reunite Rushing is the executive director; she’s a west sider, and knew her neighbors had felt estranged from the landmark in their midst, shut out.
EUNITA RUSHING, Executive Director, Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance: In terms of a conservatory, the community really didn’t visit a lot. We’re trying to change that, because we feel like we have a jewel here, not only in the sense that it’s located in the community, but all of the downtown museums are really fighting for the audience that we live with. And so it’s very hard for us to ignore that, and we have a real opportunity as the conservatory is being rebuilt and restored to its glory days, that the community can play a pivotal part in that.
RAY SUAREZ: So far, so good. Historic building in danger. Alarm bells ring. Comeback begins. New building starts in the old neighborhood. Dangerous and badly built public housing is replaced by new low- rise housing units. The Chicago Transit Authority rebuilds the train station based on its original 19th century design. Suddenly, people from around the city aren’t afraid of Garfield Park. Attendance grows. But then, everything gets kicked up into a new gear by the arrival of artist Dale Chihuly, who works in vividly colored, large scale glass objects.
SPOKESMAN: It’s almost finished. I can still move it a little if you stay still. Yes!
RAY SUAREZ: He developed a great working relationship with the city after some small commissions, and plans began for a major exhibition. The suggested location wasn’t one of Chicago’s world famous museums. It was the Garfield Park Conservatory.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what’s your reaction when this was first floated to you? “Hey, Lisa, a famous artist is going to make a bunch of work, and we’re going to stick it in with the plants. What do you think?”
LISA ROBERTS: “Glass?” That was my reaction. Although glass is one of the few materials you can actually display in the plant collections, and it doesn’t care about water, and it doesn’t care about humidity, and in some ways it’s the perfect material to display in here. Actually, I was very excited about it. I’m very interested in kind of this fusion between the botanical sciences and the arts.
RAY SUAREZ: Then Roberts, and the public got to see the work installed amidst the plants. In the space of a few weeks this place moved from solitude to packed crowds, even on weekdays.
RAY SUAREZ: So is it fair to call this the signature piece of the exhibit?
LISA ROBERTS: Yes, I would say this is the signature piece. There are actually two or three which have been become signature pieces. But this is the first piece you see when you walk in the door. This is the blue peacock tower. This is the one that, for people who are looking at this for the very first time, haven’t seen Chihuly, haven’t seen the conservatory, this is a very impressive piece to walk in to. It kind of stops people in their tracks because they aren’t expecting what they see. To a person you get gasps and ooh’s and ah’s.
RAY SUAREZ: So in a way the art can draw attraction to one of the great treasures of the collection.
LISA ROBERTS: Yes. And that was something that Chihuly took great care to get to know what the different plants were here and to know what the most important plants were so he could display his art in a way that enhanced those plants. This is one of them, the double coconut palm, which is the single most important plant in this entire conservatory. But so what Dale did is he took his blue baskets and made almost a necklace around them, which is quite beautiful and which really frames this plant beautifully, and that was part of what he wanted to do. So that this installation is as much about the double coconut palm as it is about the blue baskets.
RAY SUAREZ: The appeal of that partnership of plants and art is working for the conservatory. Attendance has quadrupled over the last several years. Attendance just through the summer had already doubled the numbers for all of last year. The glassworks bring busloads of tourists, Chicagoans, kids, seniors, families, plant-lovers, art-lovers, and key for the conservatory, a lot of first time visitors.
WOMAN: First time I’ve ever been here and I was born in Chicago.
WOMAN: I think it’s amazing the way the glass almost looks like it’s some plant forms, kind of like it’s growing out of the plants.
RAY SUAREZ: Looks like it belongs there, huh?
WOMAN: Yeah, it really does. Every time you turn a corner there’s another surprise of something else hidden there.
WOMAN: I unfortunately never visited Garfield until this Chihuly exhibit was here. Now I discovered it. We’ll come back probably even maybe when the exhibit leaves.
WOMAN: People are aware of what’s happening over here so they’re coming around to take a look and they’re enjoying it because I’ve heard some people came for the first time. “We’re going to come back. It’s in our neighborhood.”
RAY SUAREZ: I spoke to Reunite Rushing of the Conservatory Alliance in the recreated city back yard garden, where visitors can take courses or do volunteer work. We talked about the new success of the conservatory and why it’s good for Chicago, and the Garfield Park neighborhood.
EUNITA RUSHING: A lot of people had sort of written the west side off but I think they’re all rethinking that opinion. We’ve seen many, many people come through the door to see Chihuly whom hadn’t been here in years. And I am so pleased about that because now they can actually come here. They can see for themselves what is going on here. They can see that the people out here are people just like the ones that they live next door to, that their concerns and what they want for their families is the same thing people want everywhere.
You want decent housing, you want good schools for your children, and you want to be able to go out and have some recreation in your neighborhood, if that’s what you choose to do. And so I think the perception of the west side is changing. And so what does that do for the city of Chicago? Another neighborhood that’s open to all of the residents who live in the city, as well as all of the many tourists who come here to visit on an annual basis. So it’s a win-win for everybody.
RAY SUAREZ: A win-win. There’s revamped public transit, the park and its stunning field house have been rehabbed. Hope, once in short supply, lives on the west side. And the conservatory is a source of, and at the same time benefits from, the good news. Garfield Park’s neighborhood is still troubled, but no longer the scary, mysterious place it was to many in Chicago. Lisa Roberts is looking for new opportunities to bring art to her forest under glass, and she’d like to raise the money to have one or two of the Chihuly works stay permanently when this successful run wraps up just after Labor Day.
LISA ROBERTS: That looks like a big old grape that has just dropped off. I actually wouldn’t mind keeping that one either.