Nature | Nature Issue 2017 | Parks

The Eyes, Ears, and Voices of the Parks

All public parks in Chicago can have stewards, volunteers who takes care of the wildlife and perform public outreach. The Weekly spoke to five of them.

L-R: Heather Breems, Jennifer Raber, Katie Flores, Jerry Levy, Alison Anastasio (Rohan Patrick McDonald)

Alison Anastasio and Jennifer Raber, Rainbow Beach Dunes Stewards

It’s all landfill underneath here.” Alison Anastasio gestured to the thriving grasses around her. Orange flowers dotted the field, while waves rolled onto the beach a few feet away. “I think that that is really incredible,” she added. “Here’s a little strip of land in between a parking lot just up the street from an old steel mill, on top of slag, and it’s doing a lot of things that the ecosystems in the Indiana Dunes do.”

Anastasio is one of the stewards for Rainbow Beach Dunes (RBD), located in Rainbow Beach Park on 77th Street and South Shore Drive. As stewards of RBD, Anastasio and Jen Raber organize monthly workdays, where they lead groups of volunteers in maintaining the park by picking up litter, pulling up invasive plants, and planting seeds of native plants.

Anastasio began stewarding in 2009, as she was finishing her PhD degree in ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. Once she had the time to explore the nature around the city, Anastasio fell in love with the dunes that characterize the Calumet region. After learning about the stewardship program from a friend, Anastasio reached out to the Chicago Park District. “I didn’t know there was such a good-looking dune habitat [here],” she said, as she first learned about RBD when the Parks District gave her a list of sites that needed stewards. Anastasio revitalized the stewardship program at RBD by reaching out to both the local community and Chicago’s wider network of nature organizations, building up a core group of volunteers.

Two years ago, Anastasio emailed the RBD mailing list for help with stewardship responsibilities. Between working full-time as a dean for the UofC’s MD-PhD program and organizing workdays by herself, she needed support. Raber, who had previously volunteered at RBD a few times, responded. After volunteering at parks across Chicago, Raber wanted to be more deeply involved with Chicago’s nature sites. “Showing up as a volunteer is fun and everything, but it’s more of an enriching, deeper experience when you’re responsible for the site,” she said.

RBD is a relatively new nature area, as the entire lakeside area used to be a manicured beach. In 2004, the Park District found that marram grass, one of the few plants that can grow on open sand, was growing on the beach. As marram grass is important in allowing for developing and stabilizing dune ecosystems, the Park District designated part of the beach as a natural area to support the growth of diverse plant species.

For Anastasio, who lives on the Far South Side, the most rewarding part of stewardship is “interacting with people who didn’t know that this was here, especially people that live in the neighborhood.” Local engagement has increased since 2009, thanks in part to Anastasio’s early efforts in community outreach. RBD now has partnerships with local high schools and receives about one hundred volunteers each year. RBD has also expanded its programming beyond workdays, partnering with the Bird Conservation Network to host bird-watching walks.

Raber lives near Montrose Beach and values how stewarding allows her to build a strong relationship with a nature site. “If I weren’t a steward, if I were just being a normal volunteer, even if it was Montrose or someplace near my house, I just feel like I wouldn’t have that deeper connection.” Raber and Anastasio want to share RBD with even more people in the future. “I feel like it still slides under the radar a little bit,” Raber says.  “I just want to expose people [to RBD] and have them have a good experience,” Anastasio said, “and if we can get some weeds pulled, that’s great.” (Maggy Liu)

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Katie Flores and Heather Breems, McKinley Park Stewards

We just spent eight hours and that earned 75,000 dollars. That’s crazy!” Katie Flores exclaimed, referring to the sidewalk she was standing on. It’s one of the pathways around the lagoon in McKinley Park that was renovated last year after a proposal made by her to improve McKinley Park. 

Before Flores’s proposal, these gravel paths were so degraded that, on rainy days, pedestrians and strollers wouldn’t be able to pass at all. With Samantha Hertel, the Vice President of the McKinley Park Advisory Council (MPAC), Flores helped put together an extensive documentation of all the problems existing in the park in the form of an interactive map and presented it at a Chicago Park District budget meeting. Their efforts paid off—although the renovation was already in the budget, the Park District decided to double the allotted amount for improvements. “It was awesome. We felt very triumphant with that,” Flores said.

Heather Breems, the other steward leading the stewardship program in McKinley Park,   explained why the Park District became more willing to invest in the neighborhood: “They [the Park District] know there’s a community that’s also invested in it.”

It all started six years ago, when Breems’s family first moved to the neighborhood. “We lived right by the park. The playground was really old and run-down, and I was like, ‘Oh, there’s got to be a way to fix that and get a new one.’” So Breems co-founded MPAC with several other parents in the neighborhood with an initial focus on renovating the playground.

Flores joined MPAC two years ago. Last year, she and Breems decided to start a stewardship program in McKinley Park after Flores, MPAC’s vice president at the time, learned that many of the natural areas within the Park District did not have such programs, including their neighborhood’s own sixty-nine-acre park.

“At the beginning, we did monthly workdays where we cleaned up garbage or planted,” Flores said. This year they have started incorporating educational events, such as birdwatching and ecology classes, into select stewardship days.

The stewardship holds personal importance for Breems and her family. Living right across the street, they treat the park as their backyard—they frequently picked up trash and garbage even before becoming official stewards. “It’s something that my whole family can do and we enjoy doing,” Breems said. Whether it is spotting a real snake slithering around the bush or seeing a nest of baby ducks that are just starting to hatch, she always gets excited whenever she discovers a piece of nature: “It’s so great to live in the city but have access to that.”

Flores is proud of her stewardship because it helps others “foster a sense of pride in their neighborhood.” In addition to stewarding, she currently works with elementary school teachers through the UofC’s STEM Education program. She writes pre-school math curriculum and coaches elementary school teachers in their math practice.

At the end of the workday, several kids were eagerly describing to their parents the birds they had seen. While Flores collected their binoculars, neighbors shared the rest of their weekend and Mother’s Day plans. “I’ve got baseball all day!” she said, referring to her five-year-old son’s baseball season. “Mama’s gotta wear her sunscreen!” (Lorraine Lu)

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Jerry Levy, Jackson Park Wooded Island Steward

How ya doing?” said Jerry Levy, volunteer steward of Wooded Island in Jackson Park, to a group in business attire passing by. It’s how he has greeted everyone during our walk on a sunny mid-May morning, from rangers in a pickup truck to a jogger to a man lying down in the sun. As this group continues on, he adds, “I don’t think they’re birders. No binoculars.”

A longtime Hyde Park resident, Jerry Levy has been Wooded Island’s faithful steward for the past eight years, volunteering on the side of an ongoing career in civil law. Levy first began to think about entering park conservation after years of cross-country skiing in Jackson Park. He is now a Master Treekeeper, a Master Gardener, and a certified herbicide applicator, thanks to a series of courses he’s chosen to take at the University of Illinois Extension since accepting the position. Still, Levy says his knowledge level is at “one one-hundredth of some of the people around here.” His own learning process continues to this day with regularly scheduled meetings with Parks Department staff to discuss developments or study new techniques in conservation.

Across Chicago’s wide range of neighborhoods and communities, stewardship can take on a variety of appearances. Levy describes his role as the “eyes and ears of the park.” As we stand in front of a sprawling 300-year old oak, he details the growth history apparent from its shape, and it occurs to me that Levy is certainly Wooded Island’s voice as well.

Levy’s role in the Parks Department structure, as a steward uniquely adjusted to Wooded Island, is to facilitate the three-way relationship among Park District officials, the general public, and the island itself. Beyond easing communication between park visitors and park employees, Levy is the bridge between the plants and the people. Levy spends hours alone at Wooded Island each week, observing and interacting with the park. When he has company in the form of volunteers or school groups, he shares stories about the land and trees that would otherwise go unheard.

He teaches me about how May is migratory season, the ideal time to see the dozens of bird species that spend their springs and summers at Wooded Island, a small haven nestled within Jackson Park. A few seconds of standing on the island are all that is needed for confirmation. Bright yellow warblers, some barely the size of a large oak leaf, dot the trees and sky. They are not difficult to spot, but I have never seen them before. As we continue walking he names tree after tree, starting with Bur Oak #34, and shows how to identify tricky species of invasive plants, consulting small pages of cursive notes for reference.

During each month’s Wooded Island Work Day, occurring every fourth Saturday, Levy teaches plant-identification to a group of volunteers and visitors. The remainder of May’s plans include his granddaughter’s first-grade class from the Lab School stopping by to see the birds, and a group of seventh graders coming to measure the island’s many rapidly-growing saplings. Levy tells me the saplings have grown substantially; he expects they will be nearly twice the width they were last year.

A bridge across the West Lagoon connects Wooded Island to the rest of Jackson Park. At the foot of it, a man stands with a fishing pole. “He’s not supposed to do that,” Levy remarks as we approach, explaining that while this was a popular fishing spot years ago, all the fish are long gone from the water. Fishing is now technically, although perhaps unnecessarily, banned. I wonder if I’m about to witness park discipline being handed down, but as we pass, all that happens is the man waves and nods, and Levy waves back. (Sarah Fineman)

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