If you’ve lived in Logan Square for a while, chances are you’ve spent some time at Unity Park, whether to enjoy their family-friendly Movie in the Park, partake in fall activities at Pumpkinfest, or just have fun on the playground.
This summer, the Unity Park Advisory Council (UPAC) is kicking up the fun to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the inception of Unity Park (2636 N. Kimball Ave.). The main celebration will take place on June 16 at Hairpin Arts Center (2810 N. Milwaukee Ave.).
Much like Leslie Knope’s Lot 48 saga on Parks and Recreation, Unity Park had a long and winding road to become the park it is today.
It helped launch one political career, pitted a new alderman against her constituents and encouraged a group of citizens to band together to fight for the improvement of their community.
How did this journey begin? Well, with a fire.
Act One: Playlot 293
In the early 1950s, a fire ravaged several homes on the 2600 block of Kimball Avenue. Over time, these homes were demolished and turned into a metered parking lot for businesses at the corner of Diversey, Milwaukee and Kimball Avenues. The businesses closed, the lot was no longer needed, and instead, it became an impromptu play area for neighborhood kids.
In the 1970s, residents demanded the City of Chicago donate a portion of the lot to the Park District, and Playlot 293 was born. It included a sandbox and basic play equipment.
Act Two: Total Unity
Jump ahead to 1986, and the playlot is a nuisance; the concrete is too rough for kids to play on, and parents want an actual park in their neighborhood.
Around that time, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) was looking for a new issue to advocate for. One of their organizers, Manuel Guillot, was going door-to-door to talk to residents about their concerns.
Joel Monarch, co-founder and former co-chair of the UPAC, was behind one of the doors that Guillot knocked on.
“His question was, ‘If you could change one thing in the community, what would it be?’” Monarch said. “I mentioned that the playlot could be fixed up. Others had mentioned the same thing, so he picked that as the community issue, and invited people to a meeting. Our group arose out of that meeting in July 1986.”
The group he’s referring to is UPAC, but in 1986 they were known simply as Parents for a Decent Playlot.
This group of about seven residents — including Monarch’s wife, Connie — battled for nearly half a year with Jesse Madison, then-commissioner of the Chicago Park District, to get the playlot rehabbed into an actual park.
In June 1987, after protests and contentious community meetings, the group got what they wanted. The concrete was swapped out for soft surfacing and fresh landscaping as part of a pilot program to revamp 300 playlots across the city.
The unveiling of the new park came with a new name: Unity Playlot Park.
Monarch credits this name to the mantra that LSNA organizer Guillot used to say to the UPAC in its early days of advocacy.
“The first meeting we had with the Park District, we got into an argument with each other in front of them,” Monarch said. “When we went back and met with Manuel, our organizer, he said in all meetings we need to have total unity. It was an encouragement.”
Act Three: Hoop Dreams
In 1993, as part of an initiative from Mayor Daley, UPAC gained their official advisory council status for the park. One of their first moves as a council was to have permanent basketball hoops installed.
The hoops seemed like an easy win. The majority of the neighborhood approved of the idea, as did the Park District. The project was almost under way in 1995 when the operation was halted due to one new opponent: newly elected 35th Ward Alderman Vilma Colom. Citing that a silent group of citizens worried about attracting “gangbangers,” Colom resisted the plan for basketball hoops, despite overwhelming vocal support.
The battle was well publicized in neighborhood news, and even prompted the production of a small audio documentary called Meet Me at Unity Playlot.
Rey Colón, the area manager for the Park District at the time, was on the community’s side. With the encouragement from the UPAC and others, he ran against Colom for her seat in 1999, but lost. He ran again and won in 2003, taking the incumbent’s seat with the support of a community that he had supported over the years.
Epilogue: Unity Park as a Community Hub
Since the basketball battle, the park has had four expansions and now offers regular community events during the fall and summer, all mainly funded by UPAC’s annual fundraising event, Party for the Park.
Robert Castillo, the current UPAC Director of Development, has been involved with UPAC for 20 years. For Castillo, community parks hold more significance than just community beautification.
“A lot of my friends didn’t have a mother or a father, and having a male or female playground director was life-saving,” Castillo said, referring to growing up near Goethe Playground in Logan Square. “For me, I understand what it’s like to have that neighborhood resource.”
Because of his work with Unity park, Castillo is excited to plan the 30th-anniversary celebration this June. The park’s rich history of community involvement is a big part of the event as well.
“I felt that we needed to say thank you to everybody who helped us get to this 30th anniversary. Making sure we acknowledge all the people who helped us get to this point — that’s why it’s important for us to host this event,” Castillo said.
And celebrate, they will. There are many events planned this summer to celebrate the anniversary and as part of the park’s usual programming. Visit unityparkchicago.org for more information, and check out the LoganSquarist calendar for dates and addresses.