Friends of the Park Executive Director, Juanita Irizarry
At a time in our nation when the issue of race seems to be circulating around every major political discussion, Latina Executive Director of Friends of the Parks in Chicago, Juanita Irizarry, is certainly not shying away from the issue. Much like she didn’t shy away from singlehandedly shutting down the idea of building The George Lucas Museum on the city’s lakefront. I got a chance to chat with her and learned how her religious and humble upbringing helped to shape her passion for parks, people and social justice.
Judith Ruiz-Branch: Before we get into the whole “George Lucas Museum” drama, tell me a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up?
Juanita Irizarry: I’ve lived in Humboldt Park almost my whole life. My family moved from Greenville, Illinois to Chicago when I was 9 months old. They were interested in ministry. My dad was involved in a church in the neighborhood (Avondale Gospel Hall). He pastored there for most of my childhood and taught Spanish at a local school. The church didn’t pay much so he did that to pay the bills.
I went to Salem Christian School (in Humboldt Park). My mom taught there and I was the school’s very first class. They (my parents) raised us to care about the neighborhood and to really go out and make a difference in the world in whatever way we can.
JRB: So did your interest in social justice issues come from your parents? When did you know that was your passion?
As a kid, I always knew I wanted to help my neighbor, but it wasn’t until I was older that I really began to understand systematic social justice issues. There were a lot of arson fires in the neighborhood when I was younger. The city redlined communities like ours and decided they weren’t going to give loans to Latinos, so burning the buildings was the only way to get the money out. There were also a lot of slumlords, they collected the rent but didn’t really take care of the buildings. I saw all of this, but it wasn’t until later that I really understood what was going on.
JRB: So how did your passion for parks come about?
The parks were always apart of my life. I lived five blocks from Humboldt Park and I was a tomboy, always out playing in the parks. You don’t necessarily think of it at the time but parks were definitely a part of my upbringing. Also, my mom was ahead of her time and was composting in Humboldt Park long before anyone thought that was sexy. We were always at the ponds in the summer.
JRB: So, how did you end up becoming the Executive Director of Friends of the Parks?
I ran for alderman of the 26th Ward in the most recent aldermanic race, right before “The 606” was built. Even before coming to Friends of the Park (FOTP) I was out on the streets, knocking on doors. It all connected with my real life.
I’ve always worked at organizations that were always willing to challenge the system, so that part was always very natural.
*” The 606,” formerly known as “The Bloomingdale Trail,” is a three-mile long elevated park that runs through Humboldt Park and the Northwest Side of Chicago.
JRB: So wait, you were against The 606 too?
I wasn’t against it. I just didn’t like how it was being implemented. The way the mayor had pitched “The 606”, one thing he always said … “and this will help to drive property costs,” … which would displace current residents (in Humboldt Park). You can’t get as excited about a new park if it’s not for you. There has been a lot of pain in the neighborhood around the purpose of the park and I resonate with it.
JRB: Ok, so let’s talk about the George Lucas Museum? What is the reason behind the fight to keep it off of the lakefront?
I think a lot of Chicagoans grow up in the city without realizing the 100-year battle that’s been going on to keep the lakefront clear. FOTP has very much situated itself to make sure we do keep the lakefront open and clear for the public. Montgomery Ward, who’s known for his department stores, back in the 1890’s actually fought to keep commercial interests out of grant park, we see ourselves standing on the shoulders of Montgomery.
“To quote Montgomery Ward: I’m doing this for the poor and the masses so that everyone has the same access to the lakefront.”
Initial Plans For The George Lucas Museum
JRB: But you fought for a parking lot? Why?
The mayor, in his spin, does not include the history. Back in 1990, there was an agreement made that helped to bring to bear the McCormick place expansion. The city agreed to make that space parkland in exchange for the expansion. In the Chicago Park District’s own underlying documents, that space is called a park. But the city has reneged on its commitment to turn that space into parkland and reduce parking spaces on the east side drive. They were supposed to have figured out how to get some of that Bears parking over on the west side of the drive. But they found it more beneficial to take advantage of the revenue from those parking lots. The Bears were given “temporary permission” to the parking lots. It’s actually unfair of the city and pretty hypocritical.
JRB: So in actuality, it’s not the parking lot you were fighting for?
We do not love parking lots, but we know that it does still have a chance to become a green space being vacant. We believe that city residents should be asking questions about giving away our land to a billionaire that can afford to pay market price. There was a phone call made between the mayor and Melody Hobson, George Lucas’ wife, because George was having problems getting permission to build the museum in his hometown of San Francisco. The ground lease terms were $10 for 99 years, with two potential subsequent 99-year renewals, for a total of 297 years for $30. The city is making it seem like they had this robust plan. It was really just a sham.
If you’re going to give away public asset, you should at least have a public participation process. (In this case), they held public meetings during the day at times that were not convenient for residents and residents were told about the meetings last minute. They also didn’t answer questions from the public on the basis that they were involved in a lawsuit.
JRB: Both you and Melody Hobson, George Lucas’s wife, seem to be invested in the rights of minorities. During the land dispute, she was quoted by the Chicago Tribune saying, "As an African-American who has spent my entire life in this city I love, it saddens me that young black and brown children will be denied the chance to benefit from what this museum will offer.”
What is your response to this?
The very opportunities for brown and black children for which Ms. Hobson expresses such concern could just as easily be made available by locating the Lucas Museum on a site other than the lakefront. By not being willing to select an alternative site, it is Ms. Hobson and Mr. Lucas that are denying those opportunities to Chicago children.
JRB: So how does being a Latina impact your role at FOTP?
I’ve always been drawn to positions that challenge authority because of what I saw growing up in Humboldt Park where the system didn’t work for us. I always thought I had privilege as a light skinned half white Latina, (my mother is white), and I wanted to use that privilege for those who didn’t have it.
We (FOTP) do have a more diverse board than people realize. Three of our four staff are people of color. I think being Latina brings an additional level of legitimacy to the organization, we represent communities we come from and still live in to this day.
My own mixed heritage has given me a space to build bridges. I spend time in both communities. I get to chose how I portray myself. People can’t identify me. I always use this biblical saying and one the JFK also used, “to whom much is given much is required.” So much has been given to me so it’s my role to give back and to take on these “David and Goliath” battles one is called to do.
JRB: Is there anything else you think people should know about you or FOTP?
Just as fiercely as we fight for public access for our lakefronts, we also fight for our neighborhood parks. We work with neighborhood folks who want to clean up their parks and create programs that may not otherwise have resources for or have been facing difficulties getting started. That part of our work is so core to what we do. We are super rooted in working in communities of color and that makes my work here so much more satisfying and significant.
We are not some elitist chardonnay sipping working group trying to keep the lakefront to ourselves. I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be Juanita if that was who we are.
Creating feeds my soul.
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Hi, my name is Judith and I live in Chicago. I am a creative being by nature with a wanderlust heart, and a forever love affair with God's creations, specifically the mountains and water. I didn't choose to be a writer. Writing chose me. So write I must. But not just to write. To create, to inspire - I hope. Besos.