WTTW recently aired a visual ode to fourteen of Chicago’s historic landmarks. “The Most Beautiful Places in Chicago” is an hour-long documentary program that shares an intimate look into the unique stories that make these public spaces stand out and why they’re significant to the communities they reside in.
Communities featured range as far south as the Indiana border and as far north as the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. The special teaches hometown natives and city admirers the beauty that lies in our everyday landmarks, along with the origin stories behind their conception.
The program “reintroduces us to the treasures in the many neighborhoods of our city by sharing the history and meaning behind them,” said Sandra Cordova Micek, President and CEO of WTTW.
Captivating overhead shots of the city skyline at sunrise transition into an informative and entertaining narrative by Emmy award-winning writer and producer Geoffrey Baer. The Weekly spoke with the host to discuss his experience filming some of the featured South Side sites.
“The Most Beautiful Places in Chicago” aired March 7 and is now available to watch (or listen to) online .
What were some challenges faced when trying to choose which places to highlight?
The title is intentionally provocative. Did we really find the most beautiful places in Chicago? Of course not. A part of this is that we are hoping to get a conversation going. There will be a place on the WTTW website where people can post their favorite places and pictures of them and descriptions so that there’s a bit more dialogue about what are the most beautiful places. When I started out this project, you know, I was imagining visual beauty. But really, the show is filled with people who show me these places and love them, or in some cases, design them, and tell their stories. Not all of the spaces are necessarily visually stunning, though there’s plenty of that in the show. A lot of it is in the human element as well.
Explain how the South Side landmarks impact the communities where they are located and the overall diversity of the city.
The South Side has really changed dramatically for some beautiful reasons and for some racist reasons over the years with restrictive housing covenants and things like that. The South Shore Cultural Center was a very exclusive country club that didn’t allow Black [people] and [Jewish people]. It’s just so weirdly ironic [that] South Shore as a neighborhood used to be a Jewish enclave. And then, with the end of restrictive housing covenants, the neighborhood very quickly became almost one hundred percent Black. But the club didn’t allow [Black people]. So they had to close because they weren’t allowing the neighbors in. And thankfully, the building was saved. It’s a beautiful building and golf course. It became a Park District building, and now it’s open to everybody.
For generations, Chinatown had no park. When they built the highway that connects the Stevenson and Dan Ryan expressway in the sixties, they bulldozed a huge part of Chinatown down. This meant kids had no park for decades until Chinatown leader, Ping Tom, was able to do a deal where he got rights to build along the abandoned railroad yard, which runs along the Chicago River.
They hired Ernie Wong and his company to design a park. So Ping Tom Park is meaningful on so many levels. One is that it obviously righted the wrong that the neighborhood had no parks. It was also extremely meaningful to Ernie, who got to explore his own Chinese American heritage. He had never been to China until he was in his twenties. He obviously learned a lot about his heritage and got to apply this in designing a park in Chinatown. We talk a lot now in Chicago about cleaning the river and creating access to it. The river used to be closed off from the city. This park has a boat dock for the water taxi, a kayak launch, and a fishing pier. They’ve naturalized the river’s edge with plantings and a habitat for animals and aquatic creatures. It’s just an amazing asset to the neighborhood.
Palmisano Park in Bridgeport originally was a 300-foot deep hole where they quarried limestone for decades. Once the City finished coring the limestone, they started using it as a dump for clean construction debris. It was partly filled when it was suddenly shut down and became a park. Here comes Ernie Wong and his company, and they shoveled up all this debris and made a little mountain out of it planted with prairie plantings. They made a wetland and another area that trickles down to a massive pond, the bottom of these big limestone walls. It’s just amazing that it’s right in the middle of the city. And so there’s, you know, an industrial site that had been a scar in the neighborhood. And now it’s this beloved open space in a very crowded formerly industrial urban neighborhood.
Way down on the South Side, along the lakefront right where the Calumet River is, there used to be a huge steel mill called Southworks. When it closed down in the early 1990s, they tore it all down. And it’s just this big, huge parcel of empty land along the lakefront. The only things left are these big, old concrete walls. So the City made a part of it a park called Steelworkers Park.
When the mill closed they asked a former steelworker and artist Roman Villarreal to design a sculpture for the park. He’d built something as a tribute to the steelworkers and what the steel mill meant to the neighborhood. The sculpture is of a worker surrounded by his family because Roman says what the steel mill meant was family.
What are the similar themes or connections between these spaces and their historical origins?
I think one of the similarities is that each one has a story—a meaningful story to the people who share them with me. Several of them are tied together because of ornaments on buildings that you would walk right by and you’d never notice. The whole second act of the show is about old abandoned industrial areas being transformed into beautiful amenities for the public. Another theme is sacred spaces and houses of worship.
What was your favorite experience from filming the special?
Well, the show starts with me flying in a little four-passenger airplane out over the lakefront at sunset. I’m an aviation geek; I love flying. So to be able to fly up and down the lakefront for forty-five minutes, with me in one airplane and the cameraman in another right next to us, was a huge thrill for me.
I would say [one] other [thing]: We go to this beautiful brand-new skyscraper near the mouth of the Chicago River called St. Regis tower. We got to go up onto this floor that nobody’s allowed to go on. It’s called the blow-through floor because it doesn’t have any windows, so the wind just blows through the building instead of pushing against it and making its way. They allowed us with our cameras out there, and that was quite a thrill.
Kristian Parker is a writer and visual storyteller, inspired by sharing narratives that positively shift and shape perspectives.