By Erick Johnson
The big weekend is here. The Weber ™ grill has been cleaned, the ribs marinated and the cooler stocked with a fresh assortment of drinks. Memorial Day Weekend, the unofficial start of summer, is upon us.
For many Blacks, the place to see and be seen will be at Chicago’s iconic 63rd Street Beach situated off the city’s famed Lake Shore Drive. At nearby Jackson Park, hundreds of Blacks of all ages will crank out the picnic blankets and soul food while listening to thumping, pulsating beats from booming car stereos. Crowds will gather and sway to rhythms of the ultra-hip 63rd Street Beach Drummers.
It’s a scene that has slowly materialized in the past several weeks as temperatures rise, but the celebrations will hit a fever pitch this weekend as many flock to the 63rd Street Beach—one of 28 Chicago beaches on picturesque Lake Michigan.
Amid the beach balls, rumbling jet skis and dancing fountains, spectators will also see the 63rd Street Beach house, a sprawling Chicago landmark that has stood for nearly a century.
During this annual sun-bathing ritual, patrons will also see cracked ceilings, backed-up toilets, exposed pipes and peeling paint. The beach house, a proud relic that was shuttered and built on a once racially segregated beach, is aging and falling apart. Its infrastructure is crumbling as park officials wait for millions in capital improvement funds from a state that’s been mired in a budget crisis that’s almost a year old.
The beach house is one of several landmarks or buildings whose future hinges on the state’s budget. Since the budget crisis began last June, many residents have seen its impact on health care clinics, social programs and public colleges—particularly Chicago State University. This summer, Illinois citizens, especially the Black community, will see the effects of the budget crisis in another realm: Chicago’s parks and recreation.
Built in 1919, 63rd Street Beach was a part of a 10-acre expansion of Jackson Park’s lakefront. The beach house was built as an elegant centerpiece on a valuable piece of Chicago property. Its majestic twin towers continued to soar above the beachfront. Built for whites, today the beach house is heavily used by Blacks and Hispanics, who used the facility to slip into the latest swimwear, shower and use the restroom when nature calls. Kids and adults play in the interactive water fountains in one of the courtyards.
In the past, the beach house was called a bathing pavilion. It had open balconies, loggias, bathrooms, showers, medical rooms, and separate courtyards for men and women with hundreds of wooden changing rooms. When it opened, the 63rd Street Beach House cost $173,000, which is about $2.4 million by today’s standards.
When the beach house opened some 97 years ago, it was considered a jewel on the lakefront. Today, that view may have changed among beachgoers.
In the back of the building, paint from the exterior walls is peeling off. Ceilings and walls appear cracked in some areas. Light fixtures are broken and left dangling from their perch. Window screens from the two abandoned concession stands are torn or missing. Aging pipes are exposed. The bathrooms are often overcrowded. During several visits by a Chicago Crusader reporter last year, several toilets in the men’s restrooms were backed up with human waste. One sink was out of order for two weeks. Meanwhile, patrons have complained about the cleanliness of the restrooms.
That summer, the Park District told Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th) that they will turn on the interactive water fountains only during special events. In 2015, Hairston told one newspaper that she was unhappy with the beach’s unkempt appearance. She also said that these kinds of problems are not present at other city beaches and encouraged the community to begin a letter-writing campaign to reach out to the Chicago Park District, but the problems still persist.
Further north, 57th Street Beach and the 31st Street Beach remain in good shape and clean. The 57th Street Beach has two operating concession stands and clean restrooms. The 31st Street Beach—renamed the Margaret T. Burroughs Beach & Park—has a well-groomed walking trail, nice bathrooms and a concession stand.
Both beaches have more diverse crowds than the predominantly Black 63rd Street Beach.
The Crusader left messages with the Chicago Park District and Hairston, but no calls were returned by press time.
One thing is certain: money is tight in the Chicago Park District, which manages the city’s 590 parks and beaches. Public records show that this year, the district made across the board spending cuts to close a $16.6 million deficit as officials established their $458 million budget.
About $145 million is allocated for the Park District’s payroll, which increased by 4 percent from 2015. This year, park officials plan to build two buildings at Hadiya Pendleton Park. They also will build a long-delayed $8.5 million Eleanor Boathouse in Bridgeport.
Despite its rich history, immense popularity and deteriorating condition, the 63rd Street Beach House, is not in the Park District’s budget this year. It was also not included in the budget for the past two years. There isn’t enough money for it.
The biggest source of revenue for the Park District continues to be property taxes, which brought in just over $272 million this year, according to the latest figures. Usually, the Park District spends an average of $30 to $40 million on capital improvement projects, but with a bond debt of $840 million, park officials are planning to spend less money for such projects between now and 2020.
Instead, Chicago Park District’s General Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly, wants to “rely heavily” on state funds and grants for capital improvement projects. Whether this will be enough to sufficiently maintain the city’s large number of parks remains in question.
For now, park officials’ biggest problem lies in Springfield where state officials won’t release some $40 million in funds for the Park District’s Capital Improvement Fund. The crisis has even delayed needed improvements to the 107-year-old South Shore Cultural Center.
In reality, the problems may grow worse this summer at the 63rd Street Beach House. Record crowds may flood the facility to cool down from record-breaking temperatures that are predicted for the summer season. In May, Chicago has been hit with above-normal temperatures.
Many may recognize the 63rd Street Beach House in the movie, “Barbershop II,” where Queen Latifah teaches defense techniques to women and the dancing fountains in the courtyard serve as a backdrop.
The beach house was built at a time when Chicago’s Black population was exploding from the Great Migration. It was also a period where many of the beaches were heavily segregated. Frustrated Blacks and angry whites often clashed during bloody riots that left many people of color dead and injured.
As more Blacks moved to Woodlawn and the South Shore neighborhood, they frequented the 63rd Street Beach, where they were forced to use the far south end of the promenade that was called the “Colored Beach.”
During a transition period where the majority of beach patrons became mainly Black, the beach house was shuttered and neglected for years before it was reopened in 1999 after an $8 million renovation project. The two large open-air courtyards that were used for storage were restored. An interactive spray fountain was created in one of the courtyards. In addition, the second level is used for wedding receptions and other events. A thick blanket of ivy covers the beach house’s front facade.
Many credit Jackson Park activist Eric Hatchett for getting the beach house restored after he campaigned for years. Hatchett died months before the beach house reopened, and the pavilion portion is named after Hatchett.
In 2004, the 63rd Street Beach House was named a Chicago landmark after efforts by Hairston and former 20th Ward Alderman Arenda Troutman. As a landmark, the beach house cannot be demolished and special grants are available for restoration. However, those funds are still in short supply for the 63rd Street Beach House.