Roughly three decades ago, the U.S. Justice Department brought national attention to one of Chicago's open secrets. Park district officials lavished money on parks in white neighborhoods at the expense of those in African-American and Latino ones.
The feds filed a lawsuit, which led to a consent decree. Federal pressure pushed the district to start bulking up staff and building new field houses. But more than 30 years later, the equity issue hasn't gone away.
Some of the city's fast-growing communities, which are also overwhelmingly Latino, are still getting the short shrift, according to a new investigation by The Chicago Reporter. Families in these neighborhoods still have fewer programs for youth, playgrounds and other amenities.
Park equity has become a hot topic in some of the nation's biggest cities. After years of major spending -- both public and private money -- on high-end destination parks, there's a growing movement in New York and Los Angeles to spend more on neighborhood parks, which are de facto backyards where families barbecue, ride bikes or play catch.
The imbalance is the result of a new sort of pay-to-play system that is increasingly common in Chicago. Park officials often prioritize projects based on corporate donors, philanthropists or special pots of public money rather than need.
More than half of the $500 million spent improving parks since 2011, the year Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected, for example, went to a handful of increasingly white, affluent Chicago neighborhoods. The secret to their success? They were able to tap into outside money.
Meanwhile, four out of the five Latino neighborhoods identified as "parks poor" by The Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based organization that advocates for open land, got little money for park improvements. (Check out our interactive map to find out how well your community has done.)
"You would think with the changing population, the city would invest in this," says Sara Reschly, an activist who has spent nearly four years trying to raise $1 million to revamp an athletic field in her working class Latino neighborhood that is the city's most parks-poor.
To learn more about what local park activists like Reschly are doing to level the playing field, read the full investigation here. And check out our primer on the history of race, class and inequality in Chicago's parks.
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