West Side Gems
This is the first in a series of reported pieces on overlooked and under-appreciated gems on the city’s West Side. If you have any ideas for other overlooked places you’d like us to report on, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Denise Dean drove around for hours last week with her 85-year-old mother, Mamie Dean, looking for a place to fish. They, like so many others in the city and suburbs, eventually discovered the Columbus Park Lagoon, 500 S. Central Ave. in Austin.
“On the way home, I told mama, ‘This is the last body of water before we get home to Garfield Park.’ Over there, we know way too many people. We wouldn’t be fishing, we’d be talking,” Denise said.
The two spent about three hours fishing catfish, channel fish and blue gill. A spokesperson for the Chicago Park District, which manages the Lagoon, said that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) usually stocks the Lagoon with fish every two weeks from May to August.
Strictly speaking, Illinois requires anyone who wants to fish in the state’s waters to secure a fishing license with IDNR. They licenses are available online and at some local bait shops.
Sport fishing licenses are $15 for residents between 16 and 64, $7.75 for veterans and seniors between 65 and 74, $1.50 for super seniors 75 and older, and free for anyone under 16 and residents who are disabled or blind.
Realistically, though, many people fish without licenses. Over the course of several hours on Monday and Friday last week, there were no authorities patrolling the area for unlicensed fishers.
There were, however, people like the Deans and others who consider the historic Lagoon an escape from the noise and exhaustion of city life.
Columbus Park was designed between 1915 and 1920 by renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen. According to an online summary by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, the park represents the culmination of Jensen’s design ideas and his public masterpiece.
“The 144-acre park includes a meandering lagoon designed to emulate a prairie river, complete with cascades and gentle waterfalls constructed of stratified stone,” the Foundation explains.
“Native plants were used throughout, even at the player’s green where outdoor performances were held with backstage dressing rooms created with native vegetation. A nine-hole golf course pre-dating Jensen’s design was integrated into his plan. This is the only Chicago park designed by Jensen with his signature ‘council ring,’ a circular stone bench for storytelling or contemplation. A Mediterranean Revival style refectory was added in 1922.”
Herons and waterfowl visit the park’s reflecting pond during the summer and migrating birds like the Virginia rail and the mourning warbler visit in the spring, the city explains another online summary of the park.
“The center of the park was kept open to suggest the broad expanse of the prairie,” Jensen’s biographer, Robert E. Grese, wrote in a 1992 book. “Flatness was regarded as an asset.”
Mark Goree, 35, of Austin, decided on a whim to visit the Lagoon Monday evening, his first visit of the year. His fishing was limited this season due to a broken foot.
“My granddady taught me how to fish,” Goree said, struggling with a cast leg to ascend the back of a parked pickup truck. “We used to come out here and catch fish all the time. I remember [city employees] used to bring the truck and I would see them stocking the waters with the fish.”
No one interviewed for this story recommended eating the fish they catch, not even Goree, who said he’s well-versed in the art of cooking fish.
“I know how to sautee, fry – all of that,” he said. “If I come home with some fish everybody knows it’s going to be some good eating!”
Goree also shared some baiting tips he learned from his grandfather.
“We would make stink bait,” he said. “We would get chicken liver, red Kool-Aid to make it look like blood and put some hot sauce on there with batter. You put it on the hook like a chicken bite and throw it out there.”
After the interview, Goree was left to fish and reminiscence in peace — just as Jens Jensen intended.