The Quiet Urban Nature of Humboldt Park

I took a walk through Humboldt Park this October, on a Saturday that just happened to be in the lower 70s and sunny. I couldn’t think of a more pleasant way to spend an afternoon, finishing the walk at the Boathouse Café with a glass of wine and a view of the lagoon on the patio. Each time I visit the park I forget that I’m in the middle of Chicago.

The Humboldt Park Lagoon just north of the café hosts part of the large bird and butterfly sanctuary that snakes throughout the park. Weeping willows and pebbled trails weave around the lagoon and offer several optimal wildlife viewing scenes. I came upon many seed pods on milkweed plants that were about to burst open to provide Monarchs a place to leave their eggs. The emerging caterpillars in turn consume the plants for nourishment.

My mother, who grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, used to gather these milkweed seed pods with her six sisters all over their land. They would empty the pods, paint them gold and silver, and use them as decorations for their Christmas tree. Even though milkweeds are common throughout the country, seeing them here in the middle of Chicago is a comfort.

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron

I happened upon a Great Blue Heron cleaning its feathers and resting in the algae-green water of the lagoon, and I stopped dead in my tracks, trying to get a photograph that would accurately capture the majestic animal I had come across without much effort. The bird must have been just fifty feet from busy Humboldt Boulevard–a stark reminder that this park rests on the northwest side of the third largest city in the nation. 

A wedding party was posing for photos among the leaves next to the rose garden, which is surrounded by pavilions and art sculptures, which blend well with the natural scenes. In the early 1900s, Jens Jensen designed much of the park, and set up this space as a formal garden, which he hoped would serve the community as a place to rest and enjoy nature. There is an ongoing initiative in the city to restore the formal garden, and donations will also set up regular future maintenance for the space.

Humboldt Rose Garden
Humboldt Park rose garden pavilion

Also in the rose garden is one of two monuments relating to the World’s Columbian Exposition that was held in Chicago in 1893, the two World’s Fair Bison, which were sculpted by the same artist who did the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions. Further north in the park is the Leif Erikson monument, commemorating the Norse explorer and adventurer, who many people believe was the first European to set foot on our continent. The monument was sculpted by Sigvald Asbjørnsen, a Norwegian artist looking to get his work noticed at the World’s Fair, and he stayed to work in Chicago afterward.

Leif Erikson Monument
Leif Erikson, Norse explorer. By artist Sigvald Asbjørnsen.

I’ve been exposed to many historical structures and stories relating back to the World’s Fair since moving to Chicago. I worked for several years on Chicago’s south side, just near Jackson Park where the fair was held, and the Museum of Science and Industry, one of the last buildings that still remains from the exposition. I get the sense that the World’s Fair is slowly being forgotten; of course no one is still alive who would have been there, which seems strange to think about, though it was so long ago. These monuments and memories go somewhat unnoticed to visitors of the city, it seems.


Humboldt Park animal burrows
Animal burrows in Humboldt Park

On the east side of the park, near Luis Munoz Marin Drive, I noticed some small holes dug in the soil, something small and burrowy’s home, which I believe to be a chipmunk or other ground squirrel. It’s hard to imagine these creatures mingling with city rats at night. But then again, it’s possible that these holes are actually rats’ bungalows, and I just forget about them here.

Brownstones line Humboldt Park, the Spanish colonial architecture bringing the neighborhood lots of unique structures. Paseo Boricua is the section of Division Street just south of the park, where a well-known steel-made art installation–two Puerto Rican flags that frame this strip–were installed in 1995. The idea behind the steel flags was to recognize the steel and welding jobs that many Puerto Rican immigrants once held in Chicago.

It’s funny; many people I’ve met in the city are not always keen on traveling to Humboldt. I admit, when I first moved to Chicago the rumors of certain neighborhoods kept me wary, being from a small town in southeastern Oklahoma. What a shame, considering the beauty, history, and diversity that these often overlooked neighborhoods provide those who are not afraid to seek them out.

Needless to say, the Humboldt Park neighborhood boasts one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the Midwest, after a collective migration from New York City in the mid-twentieth century. On nice days, the south end of the park is full of families picnicking and blasting popular Puerto Rican music, and musicians play along to the tunes on drums they carried over for the festivities. Anywhere you are in the park, these Puerto Rican rhythms carry, accompanying walks as a sort of reminder, a blessing.

Humboldt Park Field House
Humboldt Park Field House

The stately field house, constructed in 1928 by the West Park Commission, hosts an event space and fitness center, and is open most days. It overlooks the Humboldt Park Beach, which is drained in the off season. I tried to wander through the field house, but the ballroom was being set up for a wedding, and basketball practice was being held on one of the courts.

Walking over to the west side of the park, the trees become more sparse and there’s much more open space for the festivals the park hosts–the Latin Jazz Festival and the Puerto Rican Festival.

The field house will be a home base for displaced Puerto Ricans in the coming months, after recent Hurricane Maria. Obviously the fate of Puerto Ricans who remained on the Caribbean island and suffered the tragic autumn hurricane remains to be seen, under our current wavering and unsympathetic U.S. leadership.

Perhaps Chicagoans and the Puerto Ricans who have settled here can still offer some kind of safe haven, both rejuvenating and peaceful, in Humboldt Park, an island itself on the northwest side, drums beckoning to the east, and across the ocean.

To donate to the Hurricane Maria relief, considering visiting the United for Puerto Rico website, led by the first lady Beatriz Rosselló.

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