Around 12 volunteers from across Chicago and Oak Park gathered at Garfield Park, 100 N. Central Park Ave., on April 24 as part of a city-wide Earth Day cleanup.

The annual event is organized by the Friends of the Parks advocacy organization and local park advisory councils throughout Chicago. 

This year, they decided to focus their organizational and volunteer recruitment efforts on Garfield Park. 

But while volunteers and advisory council members said they were happy to take part, many of them argued that the Chicago Park District should do a better job of maintaining the park, pointing to the shortage of garbage bins, the closed and decaying “comfort station” restroom building, inadequate lighting in some parts of the park and other issues.

Friends of the Parks is a 45-year-old nonprofit that works to “inspire, equip and mobilize a diverse Chicago to ensure an equitable park system for a healthy Chicago,” according to the organization’s website. Last week’s event was their 37th Earth Day clean-up. The park advisory councils organize the clean-ups in their respective parks, with Friends of the Parks providing extra supplies and recruiting volunteers. 

The Garfield Park Advisory Council holds its own park clean-ups every third Saturday of the month at 10 a.m.

Advisory council President Keith Kelley, of East Garfield Park, explained that council members picked up needles left behind by drug users and put them in separate medical waste receptacles.

“It’s a challenge because, on the one hand, you would like people to have access to the park and give people an opportunity to enjoy it. On the other hand,” he said, before pausing and pointing to a needle about two feet away. As he carefully picked it up and deposited it in the receptacle, a volunteer called him over to a tree a few feet away, where he picked up 12 more needles.

“We want people to [use the park] responsibly,” he said. 

But the issue isn’t just the visitors. Kelley showed a small “comfort station” structure on the east side of the park, which has been closed for several decades. Ironically, he said, it is still being used as a restroom, pointing at the dried feces on the wall. 

“The park district closed it, because metal fixtures were being stolen,” Kelley said. “The whole park is considered a historic landmark. The park district basically told us they can’t tear it down, but they can’t fix it.”

He added that this could be solved by the park district installing “anti-theft” fixtures or even converting the building to some other use, like concessions, but he hasn’t been able to get any traction. In the meantime, brickwork is falling apart, and plant roots are digging into walls.

Volunteer Mary Nelson, who has lived in West Garfield Park since 1965 and regularly visits Garfield Park, said that, while the park has seen some improvement, it still has a long way to go.

“This park is a gem and it’s been underserved by the park district,”  Nelson said. “And it’s sad. But I think that we in the community, we’re starting to speak up and say, ‘Things got to get better.’” 

Volunteer Brian Colva, of Humboldt Park, said he lives nearby and regularly visits the park.

“I think that, if you want to be a good member of the community, you have to keep the park clean,” he said. “I guess that’s why I came out; to make the park look a little nicer.”

Joyce Hopkins, of Oak Park, said that she volunteered because she likes Garfield Park and because she wants to make her daughter (“who is very interested in the environment”) proud of her. 

Patty Horsch, of Lincoln Park, said that she has been dismayed by the garbage in the parks in her own neighborhood. 

“When I saw the call for volunteers in my alderman’s newsletter, I signed up for Garfield Park,” she said. “I like this park and I got two of my friends to come here with me.” 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...