Little Park, Big City

Photo by Ethan Tate

The first lessons a child learns growing up in a city are simple but essential: don’t talk to strangers, come home when the street lights go on, and, last but not least, never think about playing in the streets. So it’s understandable that the city’s new parklets, dubbed People Spots by the City of Chicago, take some getting used to. “People are a little taken aback, because it’s literally set up in the streets,” says Leanne Muller-Wharton of Little Black Pearl Art & Design Center, one of many businesses in Chicago benefiting from the city’s recent creation of several People Spots.

Parklets are miniature parks erected in parallel parking spots. Several of them were installed over the summer throughout the city, including in Andersonville and one by Little Black Pearl in Bronzeville. Though parklets are still novel in Chicago, they are already very common in other big cities; San Francisco has more than 30. While there has been some opposition from those concerned with the loss of parking spaces, supporters argue that the parklets will ultimately attract customers to nearby businesses and open up more space for the public.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced the plan to the City Council last June as part of the Chicago Department of Transportation’s “Make Way for People” initiative. The Quad Communities Development Corporation took the responsibility to manage funds provided by Special Service Area #47 and constructed two People Spots on the South Side. The space on 47th and Champlain is used by many customers of Simply Soups, Salads, Sandwiches and C’est Si Bon. Another that opened on August 29th on 47th and Greenwood has been used extensively by patrons of Little Black Pearl.

The People Spots in Chicago measure six feet wide and two parking spaces deep. At the People Spot near 47th and Greenwood, bright red tables and chairs sit atop a large wooden deck surrounded by a continuous exterior wall. The architects of the parklets promise that the walls are tough enough to stop a car, but really, it’s the greenery and silver planter boxes that give you a sense of security and separation from the street. Chicago’s newest experiment with public space seems like a nice place to rest your feet and take in the beautiful, albeit noisy, scenery.

Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corporation, reached out to Little Black Pearl because it already offers so much to the larger community. The beautiful 40,000 square foot facility includes a charter school, a design center, and a café. Little Black Pearl’s café oversees the upkeep of the parklet, leaving chairs and tables out from 7:00am until 7:30pm every day. All pedestrians are welcome, but most parklet-goers are paying customers and students doing their homework after school.

The parklet has been well received by other business owners. Yolanda Travis, owner of the McDonalds on 47th and Cottage Grove, showed her support by coming to the ribbon-cutting ceremony. She believes the project contributes to the Mayor’s commitment “to improving street safety and promoting walkable communities.”

Despite its popularity, the People Spot will not stay up all year. As it is only open from April to October (nobody wants to sit on a parklet when Chicago’s winter hits), it will be closing in a few days. In the past few months, Little Black Pearl has made the best of their little corner of the street. Recently, while hosting events for the World Music Festival and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, they’ve used the parklet for extra seating space. On Saturday, October 13th, they put on Jazz at the People Spot, part of the citywide Open House weekend and an effort to showcase the parklet.

Unfortunately, rain pushed the jazz bands inside for the day. But people could still enjoy the food trucks that stopped by, a photo booth, jewelry for sale, a live art installation, and student-made blown glass pumpkins inside Little Black Pearl. Once the Little Black Pearl café is in full swing again next summer, they’ll host more events that can fit inside the parklet, including poetry readings and live music. The café plans to train “students interested in restaurant management and culinary skills” to serve customers relaxing in the parklet.

As Chicagoans become more familiar with the concept of a parklet, more people are sure to stop by the tasteful yet unobtrusive little rectangles on 47th Street. Already, they seem to be making a difference. “The community is coming together to network, to do homework, to have snacks,” says Muller-Wharton. The People Spots on 47th Street are closing soon, but sooner than you think, they’ll take back the streets.