By Dan Haley
I was raised to believe that Cook County Forest Preserve land was hallowed ground. It was to be left untouched. If the wind blew down a tree, well, there it lay, moldering until it was returned fully to the earth. If a pagan cult, or a screwy bunch of teens, sacrificed a goat in the woods, well, there it lay until, you know, it was returned fully to the earth. If a patronage hack got the keys to a caretaker's cottage to go with his do-nothing job and generous pension, well, there he lay. Unless he got really greedy and stupid and was shipped to the hoosegow where he would lie, moldering, until he was paroled and put in a slightly less cushy Forest Preserve job.
Sure, there were exceptions to the moldering. There were family reunion picnics in the mowed areas, and making out in the paved areas and really making out in the offices. But not much changed in the so-called green necklace of woods that rings Chicago and which was created a century ago by visionary leaders who presumably never imagined just how low an inspired vision could get.
Things started to get slightly better in recent years over at the Forest Preserve headquarters, which strangely enough is tucked in those Tudor-like buildings in the park over at Harlem and Lake — yes, that's right, just across the street from Sleepy's Mattress Emporium.
That park is actually a freestanding outpost of the Forest Preserve District. It even has a name. Cummings Square. According to a Journal piece last spring it was named for Edward Cummings, an early real estate developer, who ran a tennis club on the site a century ago. The parcel fell to the Forest Preserve in 1921. Since that time, they have regularly mowed the grass and otherwise preserved it as the world's largest bus stop, complete with a shelter that looks like it belongs in Yellowstone.
Really though it was with the election of Toni Preckwinkle as Cook County board president, and concurrently Forest Preserve board president, that the torpor–shaking got underway. While it is only a pittance, the county says it will soon spend $75,000 on Cummings Square. That'll pay for fixing some pathways, adding some lawn furniture and, notably, putting a few bucks into the so-called Cummings Stage, the odd stone construct that has sat purposeless for decades.
And, remarkably, Forest Preserve officials say, as they contemplate further investments at Cummings, they will do it in collaboration with Oak Park and River Forest officials. Locals have coveted Cummings for years as possible space for youth sports but have always gotten the "Can't you see it's moldering?" response when they've inquired.
Not far from us is a more expansive Forest Preserve property known as Miller Meadow. It's along Roosevelt Road in Forest Park, the only strip there that is not filled with dead bodies — at least dead bodies with headstones.
Beginning in 2014, the energized Forest Preserve District says to start looking for two full soccer fields, a football field, ultimate Frisbee course, an 18-hole disc-golf strip, a model aviation flying field (yes, really), improved picnic groves, improved walkways, and a pedestrian bridge connecting the area to Loyola Medical Center. There'll be a 7-acre dog park and the county will also take the progressive step of actually removing invasive plant species from wooded areas and attempt to restore the prairie. Plus, in case you never knew there was a river back in that thicket, the Forest Preserve is going to open specific viewing areas and build a canoe launch on the Des Plaines.
It is all good.