Centennial year for Pilsen park
Waves of immigrants have made Dvorak Park their own

APRIL 9, 2008




Helen Seifert, a life-long resident of Pilsen, has perhaps some of the last first-hand memories of Dvorak Park in its infant years. The park opened in 1908, and Seifert, now 92 years old, recalled going to the park with her Czech immigrant parents and the landlord's daughter, a girl slightly older than her.


Seifert said she overcame her fear of swings at Dvorak Park , checked books out from its library and swam in its pool. There was green space too-Seifert remembered the "nice trees and even the flowers they had in front."


This year, Dvorak Park , 1119 W. Cullerton, celebrates a century of serving as one of the major parks in Pilsen, one of Chicago's most famous port-of-entry neighborhoods, a place settled by successive waves of immigrants from Bohemia, Poland, Italy and Mexico , most recently. To recognize the anniversary, the Park District and the Dvorak Park Advisory Council are planning commemorative events, fundraising efforts and are collecting historical memorabilia from long-time park users.


Seifert's recollections would probably have pleased Dvorak's designer, Jens Jensen, a landscape architect originally from Denmark . Jensen was committed to the regional landscape and wanted people, especially those living in overcrowded tenement districts, to have access to nature.


Dvorak Park , originally just 3.85 acres, was one of Jensen's first "small parks," which were built in densely-populated immigrant neighborhoods, places were newly-arrived Chicagoans made their first homes. Jensen conceived the small parks as having a broad mandate, according to Bruce Grese, a University of Michigan professor and landscape architect who has written about Jensen's life and work. Jensen connected the small parks movement with the work of famous advocates for immigrants and poor, like Jane Addams.


"These parks served the function of providing facilities for people to take showers or to get exercise," Grese said. "They would have events, theater performances, classes in English, all the kinds of things to help immigrants adapt to American society."


Jensen was a restless advocate for the city's newest and poorest citizens. He studied Chicago 's alleyways, where children often played, and came up with new designs for the grounds surrounding schools. He was a part of a group that became known as the Prairie Club. One of their activities was taking city residents on Saturday trips to natural areas.


"He felt a real social responsibility to provide places and experiences for people who lived in the poorest sanitary, the poorest economic parts of the city," Grese said.


Dvorak Park has experienced periods of decline over the years, and neglect by the Park District. In the early 1970s, the park had fallen into disrepair. Teresa Medina, a Pilsen resident and member of the park's advisory council, remembered finding feces on the bathroom floor and poor lighting around the park, as well as few hours for public access.


"We noticed the park was not getting a lot of attention," Medina said. "We got involved in organizing."


One protest featured local moms pushing strollers around the park, demanding better conditions. Medina said the alderman at the time, Fred Roti, eventually had the supervisor transferred.


Teresa Farga, another longtime Pilsen resident and advisory council member, said advocates battled with local gangs who fought to control the park.


Farga said one day in 1977, a gang fight between the Latin Counts and the Ambrose gang disrupted a youth baseball game, scaring the young athletes. The two gangs started battling each other through graffiti, covering an eight by eight square by the swimming pool. Farga and others painted over the scrawls with baby blue paint and gave away free aguas frescas, a Mexican-style soda, to convince children to return to the park.


While the park has expanded-a southern extension featuring walking paths and a soccer field opened in 1999-many of the longtime advocates are worried about Dvorak's future, citing programming cuts (like photography and aerobics) and a sense that the park is not being used by the community.


Farga said Dvorak is caught in a "vicious cycle" where neighborhood people don't sign up for programs, which leads to cuts, which then leads to less people signing up for the remaining offerings.


"There isn't that vibrancy," Farga said.


Chula Ortiz, the Dvorak's supervisor, said the park is trying to expand its athletic leagues, reach kids before they get involved in gangs (the Ambrose gang is still active in the area, Ortiz said, as are criminal groups like Party People and La Raza) and ensure families can get scholarships to sign up their children up for programs if they cannot afford Park District fees.


Grese said if Jensen were still alive today, he would see his small parks as providing a space for groups to transition into new communities.


"Economically and socially, he would see these parks as still being important welcoming centers," he said.