West Side neighborhood becomes home to Chicago’s first fitness park


Courtesy Jessica Scott

West Side neighborhood becomes home to Chicago’s first fitness park

By Assistant Metro Editor

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Bob Fioretti (2nd Ward), who recently announced his mayoral candidacy, attended the Oct. 5 ribbon-cutting ceremony for Chicago’s first fitness park on the West Side in East Garfield Park.

The playground at Rockwell Gardens, 2540 W. Jackson Blvd., was once a vacant lot and hub for gang activity and homelessness, said Earl Billingsley, a 57-year-old West Side resident. Billingsley lived in East Garfield Park for 30 years. He said the park will now provide a safe haven for neighborhood children to play and stay active.

“If you aren’t sure how valuable this is, look on the other side [and] you know what it used to look like,” Emanuel said at the ceremony. “This is what it means to create a platform for our kids to play.”

Chicago Bulls College Prep High School freshman Gregg Williams  who lives across the street from the park said he appreciates that the park is readily accessible to him. 

However, Williams said he is too old to play at the park, so he will use it to exercise.

“I feel good about this [park] being in my community because it supports [combating] obesity and kids that don’t really get out [of] the house too much,” Williams said. “It’s a convenient area [and] it’s very nice.”

Fioretti said he has been a major proponent of creating and restoring Chicago’s parks. People can participate in various activities and gather together to create change in their communities, he said.

“This is how we rebuild our neighborhoods block by block,” Fioretti said at the ceremony. “We recapture our neighborhoods by this, and this park symbolizes hope. It symbolizes a vibrant community, and it really symbolizes what Chicago should be when everybody comes together.” 

The neighborhood residents were happy to have a new park for their children to play in, Billingsley said. He said this is the first time the area had a park where children can play.

“It is a good thing for the community because kids need things to do,” Billingsley said. “We used to have to make things to do [in order] to play. We never had the luxury of having the things white folks had in their neighborhoods. We had to do the best we could. It’s a start to something good.”

Fioretti said the impact of the park on the community was immediate and that he hopes other fitness parks will be implemented throughout Chicago.

“I’m proud of how we built this park; how we got the funds and hundreds of hours of community meetings that went into the design of this park,” Fioretti said. “Anything in the community of this size or even smaller always needs community input.”

Cornelius Jackson, a member of the West Side organization Reclaiming Our Community, which consists of former gang members fighting gang violence, said it would provide positive change in the community. He also said he and other members of his organization will patrol the park regularly to make sure the children around the neighborhood will be able to play safely.

“ROC is going to play its part, and the moment we start seeing or hearing about gang members being over here, we’re going to step to them,” Jackson said.

Emanuel said at the ceremony that he supports ROC’s action and told the residents that gang members would disperse from the area if the residents maintain a positive presence in their neighborhood and  demand safety for their children.

“This is where the fabric of a community comes together,” Emanuel said at the ceremony. “This is where we also push back and realize this part of the city, like all parts of the city, belongs to our children, and if the community is strong, there is no place for the gangbangers to feel like they can be.”

Jackson said having a park in West Haven is going to create change not only for the neighborhood’s children but for the adults as well. He said children will be able to have a place where they can feel safe in their own neighborhoods.

“It’s a great thing,” Jackson said. “It’s going to give our kids something to do. They’ll be able to come over here and play instead of standing out in the neighborhood where people [are] selling drugs or where they can possibly get hurt. [The park] should be a good, safe place for them.”