Play makes for happier children and resurrects the inner child in the rest of us. Applying this philosophy to urban planning, Chicago has inaugurated three bold venues in the past year that season childlike exuberance with just the right jolt of grown-up creativity.
An underground garage’s leaking roof was transformed into a game-changing verdant park, a foreclosed bank was reinterpreted as a cheeky hotel, and a derelict rail line has been repurposed into an urban-cool bike and hike trail.
Welcome to Chicago’s newest playgrounds.
Chicago’s official motto is Urbs in Horto, or City in a Garden, and it feels truer now that its downtown boasts 20 new acres of lush green parkland honoring Maggie Daley, the late wife of former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. Set atop the now-repaired underground garage and connected to Millennium Park via a pedestrian bridge, Maggie Daley Park completes a 45-acre tract that Mike Kelly, superintendent of the Chicago Park District, describes as “the largest combined green roof area in the United States.”
The park, which opened in December, rises along the west side of busy Lakeshore Drive. Shrubs, perennials and more than 1,400 trees outline play areas with primary-colored equipment in a landscape design that ranges from wild native prairie plantings to elegant rows of evergreens.
It’s a hilly landscape, created by stacking and molding 71,000 cubic yards of polystyrene-based geofoam, then burying them under horticultural soil. Amid Illinois’s pancake-flat terrain, Kelly says happily, “We will have valleys for the first time!”
The dips and peak encourage surprise, says Martin Roura, of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the architectural landscaping firm that designed Maggie Daley Park. “We’ve all been kids,” he says. “It’s always great to keep discovering things, not knowing what’s going to be around the corner.”
On a frigid February afternoon, I watched die-hard Blackhawks fans swoop around elated wobbly children on the park’s Ice Ribbon skating path. In April, when the weather warmed, I wandered among the upside-down tree trunks of the Enchanted Forest. All summer, orange-helmeted grown-ups and kids scaled the two 40-foot outdoor climbing walls that disguise the winter rink’s refrigeration units.
A couple of hills over, the three-acre Play Garden shows off various water-themed and some water-spouting play equipment. From the Lighthouse to the Harbor, the Boat House, and the Watering Hole, children get to play captain, pirate or stowaway. Giddy adults wobble across the rope-and-wood suspension bridge between two 30-foot-tall wooden climbing towers. Visitors of all ages careen down the slides installed in the Bridge Towers, landing softly in the padded Sunken Crater.
When the sun sets, LED towers — called the Light Masts — cast a moonlight-blue glow that offers both ambiance and safety. Face eastward, and you see boat lights dotting Lake Michigan; look north, west or south, and Chicago’s skyscrapers sparkle like party dresses.
It’s only a short walk from the park to the former Old Dearborn Bank Building, now recast into the very first Virgin Hotel. Flamboyant founder Richard Branson’s vision: “We’re here to wake up the industry and bring back the fun.”
And the 250-room hotel certainly seems to be animated by a wacky sense of humor. The red carpeting in the entry hall tumbles down the stairs, mimicking a spilled bucket of red paint. The restroom signs feature crouched desperate-to-go male and female icons. The framed art reinterprets European masterpieces with stuffed animals. (Think “Fluffy with a Pearl Earring.”)
The hotel is pet-friendly — a sign reads: “Heavy Petting Encouraged” — and red-collared white dog statues stand guard outside what the hotel refers to as your “chambers.” Why not your “room”? Because even the single room I visited had a sliding door separating the dressing room from the sleeping lounge, hence two “chambers.” Note that such internal doors are outfitted with teasingly suggestive peepholes.
Everywhere, little placards direct through wordplay. The basket under the sink says, “Throwing in the towel never felt so good.” Directions to the hotel’s wraparound rooftop terrace promise, “Girls like it on top.”
From the “Greek Wedgie” salad at Miss Ricky’s diner to the Funny Library’s picture books and retro games, to the trophy room featuring wire-beaded safari animals and gigantic fake beetles, Virgin plays tongue-in-cheek. I cotton to the hotel’s Web page, “The Know,” where people making reservations can personalize the contents of their mini fridge. When travel brings on my inner cranky child, it’s pretty cool to not have to bug Mom for my favorite treat.
Two miles northwest of the Loop is the 606, named for Chicago’s Zip code prefix and the city’s version of Manhattan’s High Line (but almost twice as long). Pointedly inaugurated on 6/06/15, Chicago’s newest baby is a decade in the making and still growing. While the wheel-friendly plaza and solar observatory are still under construction, all the runners, skaters, skateboarders, dog walkers and bikers zooming past sumacs and poplars aren’t pausing to worry.
The 2.7-mile trail has linked and revitalized four congested neighborhoods — Bucktown, Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square — that had been chopped up by the abandoned Bloomingdale rail line. Amid the squeals and chatter of perambulating families, I can almost hear the cha-ching of rising real estate values.
Part of the 606’s mission is to thrive as a “living work of art” through rotating temporary art installations. On one late June afternoon, I passed a sky-blue billboard that framed linguist and artist Kay Rosen’s work: an eye-level alphabet that reads “ABCDEFG HI ” — revealing a sudden greeting. On a lower wall façade, Chicago’s Gallery 37 Youth Arts alumnus and Project Onward member Louis deMarco has painted murals of colorful gridded clouds, which he describes as “emotional periodic charts” that help guide him through the ups and down of his autism.
At a spot called Graffiti Gardens, funded by the Chicago Cultural Center, I stop my bike to watch dozens of graffiti artists spray-painting in broad daylight. I meet BBoyB, Flash and BreakerRay, of the Artistic Bombing Crew, neighborhood kids who used to dodge the police now grown and replaying the area’s rebellious art history under city auspices. Flash is the historian: “If you go back to 1984, you’ve got Puerto Rican and Mexican gangs on either side of the train tracks. This art form, started out by kids, is defiant.” BBoyB adds, “You went through the ranks, from tagger to bomber to graffiti writer to graffiti artist. How cool, here now, it comes full circle.”
Flash said: “When graffiti is seen as an art form, the neighborhood improves.” He points to a wall emblazoned with the word “Herencia,” Spanish for heritage, and decorated with playful figures. “The comic characters — Cantinflas, Tin Tan, Chapulin and Cri-Cri — reference the heritage of cartoons we Mexican kids watched.”
If I had chalk right now, I’d color up the sidewalk. Go on, Chicago: Keep breaking ground, especially when you uncover the fountains of youth within.
Calcagno lives in Chicago.
More from Travel:
Virgin Hotels Chicago
203 N. Wabash Ave.
Modern and playful, four eateries and a spa on-site. Rooms from $229.
The Commons Club
at Virgin Hotel
203 N. Wabash Ave.
Trendy and busy. Watch the chefs at work. Open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Entrees from $21. Local favorite: the $44 tattooed rib-eye.
Maggie Daley Park
337 E. Randolph St.
Park: 312-552-3000, Fieldhouse: 312-742-3918
Open 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Fieldhouse hours are Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Seasonal rock climbing equipment, ice skating rentals and/or lessons: $15-90.
Hike or bike the 606
Starting point: Walsh Park, 1722 N. Ashland Ave.
An elevated old railway line has been transformed into a curvy green park pathway. Crossing boutiques, eateries and former industrial neighborhoods, it is now hipper than hip. Find bike rentals at www.divvybikes.com. Open 6 a.m.-11 p.m.