The Garden of the Phoenix: A hidden gem with a long history | Opinion

We were walking in the Japanese garden south of the Museum of Science and Industry. It was 4 p.m. and, because it was autumn, the sun was already melting to the west. The late afternoon was hot for the season — almost 70 degrees — and the manmade lake next to the temple and its garden had become a mirror for the sunset, so we watched its reds and golds play across two different screens. Somewhere by the opposite shore, concentric ripples spread slowly, the probable footprint of a bird I hadn’t seen take off.

If visitors know anything about the history of the Garden of the Phoenix on Wooded Island in Jackson Park, the story they recount probably focuses on the Garden’s origins in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, during which the Japanese government constructed the original Ho-o-den (Phoenix Temple) at the site in Jackson Park. After the Exposition’s close, the temple remained as a gift to the United States from Japan. But the garden’s origins are only the first chapter in a lore that twists through the intervening 130 years.

The original pavilion had a small garden, but in the 1930s, the Chicago Park District restored the temple and added extensive grounds — now, there’s an artificial river running

through the garden and under a high-arching footbridge before spilling into the lagoon. There are stone paths at either end of the bridge, leading visitors along the edge of the water, up a little hill and around the temple, behind the waterfall, and in and out of a copse of Japanese maples. 

There are actually maples all over, dropping paper-thin, bloodred stars on the grass and the path stones in autumn. Soon, the Garden of the Phoenix will be blanketed in several feet of snow, and, come spring, its 120 cherry trees — planted in 2013 to signify 120 years of history — will bloom pale pink.

The restored garden has been a site of perpetual metamorphosis, and, often, a proxy in complex debates over who belongs in Chicago and in the United States. As World War II dawned, the Garden of the Phoenix felt its impact alongside the rest of the homefront. The garden was then being cared for by the half-Japanese, half-French Canadian Osato family, who operated a teahouse on the site. 

The family’s father, Shoji Osato, was one of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent interned and investigated during the peak of anti-Japanese sentiment in the early 1940s. No evidence ever materialized to back up the accusations of treason against Osato, but historians speculate that his promotion of Japanese culture and reputation as a photographer attracted the government’s attention and led to his 10-month detention on the South Side, in a Kenwood mansion on 48th Street and Ellis Avenue. 

Even after the war ended, the abandoned garden remained overgrown, visited mostly by vandals, two of whom burned the Phoenix pavilion to the ground in 1946. While humans had temporarily forsaken the Garden of the Phoenix, it instead became a rest stop for hundreds of species of migratory birds, including herons, geese, hawks, red-wing blackbirds, and yellow warblers, according to Robert Karr, a historian of Jackson Park. The site drew attention from ecologists and in 1977 Wooded Island was designated as a nature sanctuary, which it remains today.

Despite its status as a nature sanctuary, the gardens would not be left to non-human inhabitants for long. In the decades after the U.S.’s peace with Japan formally came into effect in 1952, the garden continued to embody the two nations’ relationship — this time, reflecting a mutual desire for postwar peace and partnership. In 1973, Chicago became sister cities with Osaka, Japan, and in 1983, the Japanese American architect Kaneji Domoto — another survivor of internment — was commissioned to redesign the garden. 

A decade after that, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Osaka-Chicago relationship, the city of Osaka donated funds for the garden’s contemporary Japanese-style entry gates.  In commemoration of the anniversary, then-mayor Richard M. Daley renamed the garden the Osaka Garden. Since then, periodic installments and improvements have been made, overwhelmingly by architects and designers of Japanese descent. This small, quiet patch of public space, whose songbirds can almost drown out the whine of Lake Shore Drive traffic, has strangely been a stage for the U.S.-Japan relationship, reflecting war and peacetime in its glassy man-made lagoon.

Perhaps that is not so unusual — parks and monuments around the world change hands and appearances over time — but the garden’s susceptibility to world-historic events stands in peculiar tension with its oft-touted status as a wild refuge where the grey city gives way to green. Karr, who in addition to being a historian of the space is a board member of The Garden of the Phoenix Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to the garden and aligned with broader efforts to shape the Jackson Park area, calls the garden a “pastoral setting,” full of “extraordinary wildlife,” wherein people can connect to nature.

Jackson Park, which forms the setting for the garden, was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose philosophy of designing public parks and monuments to appear as close to wild as possible left a permanent imprint on American design. According to Karr, Olmsted’s plan for the Wooded Isle in Jackson Park evolved from this archetypically Romantic desire to reproduce the experience of nature with precise but covert design elements. In fact, as the Columbian Exposition drew near, Olmsted was reluctant to allow anyone to develop on the island, only agreeing to allow the Japanese to put their garden there because the Japanese tradition of using gardens to emulate nature was in line with his intentions for the Isle. 

But despite Olmsted’s effort to design Wooded Isle as a seemingly natural space, 130 years have seen the Garden of the Phoenix reworked, abandoned, defaced, and revived in accordance with the zeitgeist of the moment. The garden is nothing so much as a stage for

Chicago’s relationship to both Japan and to public spaces to play out in dioramic miniature.

When I’m in the garden — on that hot October afternoon, but also year-round — it is often

crowded not with human tourists or locals, but with dozens of Canada geese, the ungainly black, white and brown birds that shit everywhere and terrorize small children. 

The near-omnipresence of Jackson Park’s Canada geese neatly captures the tension between this would-be natural space and the fingerprints of human interference. The geese are technically native to Illinois, but in the early 1960s, they were believed to be extinct. 

When a biologist discovered a flock in Minnesota, zealous conservationists reintroduced them nationwide. In Chicago, the geese grew accustomed to sidewalk droppings and handouts, and now tens of thousands stalk the city year-round. Though Robert Karr would no doubt hail the geese as precious wildlife in the heart of Chicago’s concrete maze, they in fact remind us that when we attempt to cultivate the wild, we inevitably alter it, implicating ourselves in the resulting tangle of human and non-human lives.

Recent years have rung in a new chapter in the curious political history of Jackson Park’s Garden of the Phoenix. 

In 2013, the controversial organization Project 120, headed by familiar face Robert Karr, began a  multi-pronged, well-funded campaign to “revitalize” the park with a new pavilion, additions to the garden and new “ecological areas” in the park writ large. Project 120 partnered with the Chicago Park District to underwrite projects in and around the park, including Yoko Ono’s metal sculpture Skylanding, her first permanent public installation.

Project 120 was active until about 2016, when Jackson Park was selected as the prospective location for President Obama’s Presidential Center (OPC). At the time, organizations such as Friends of the Parks (FOTP) and Jackson Park Watch raised concerns about  Project 120’s plans for the garden and Jackson Park, and how the establishment of the OPC might replicate patterns in Project 120’s conduct they found disturbing. FOTP director Juanita Irizarry told the South Side Weekly, “If we have parks where so much of the money to develop the park comes from private sources as we see happening more and more, do these private sources then want to control the use of these parks?” 

She and other activists also worry that developments like those of Project 120 and the OPC will drive up housing prices in the area, pushing longtime residents out in a continuation of Hyde Park’s long history of gentrification, and complain of a lack of transparency in Project 120’s approach.

Although the OPC broke ground in September, fights over the Center continue, and it isn’t the only recent controversial development for the garden. In August, gates were installed on the bridges leading to Wooded Island, where the Garden of the Phoenix is located. Per the Chicago Park District, the gates are intended to enforce the island’s dawn-to-dusk hours and protect from “criminal activity”. 

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) voiced support for the gates in a comment to Block Club Chicago, citing vandalism, theft of koi from the garden’s pond, and public sex in the area. Members of the Jackson Park Advisory Council similarly advocated for the gates. Council President Louise McCurry said that although volunteers frequently clean up the garden, vandalism and intentional damage to the garden’s plant life have continued. ““The only thing that makes sense is to keep people out at night,” she told Block Club. 

Though officials have praised them, the gates remain controversial in the Hyde Park community. In Herald coverage this summer, Aaron Gettinger wrote about how the gates could disrupt Wooded Island as a popular cruising site among queer Hyde Parkers, particularly Black men. On Twitter, numerous users bemoaned the loss of night access to the once-public space. One resident told Gettinger, “Frankly, if the gay sex has anything to do with why they’re putting up the fences, it’s just ridiculous.” Another asked, “’Why do you need to police people’s bodies?'”

So what is next for the Garden of the Phoenix? Ongoing debates about the future of the garden are in keeping with its long, complex history. For over a century, the garden’s role in the city seemed to shift to reflect the dynamic between the United States and Japan in the prewar period, during World War II, and through decades of careful peacebuilding. Now, it is a nexus of far more local battles. 

Though the gates are complete and Project 120 appears dormant, something tells me the garden will continue to be at the center of Hyde Park debates about public space, gentrification, and development. Preservationists, activists, nature-lovers, and developers all have a stake in the garden’s future, and often drastically different visions for Wooded Island and Jackson Park.

More than anything, today’s arguments over the garden — who it belongs to, and who belongs there — should remind us that every slice of quiet urban space has a human history. And as much as the garden appears to be a pocket of nature in our busy city, its history and future are subject entirely to human whims. 

Go to the garden one of these days. See a pair of mallards bob by; scan for herons roosting on the far side of the lagoon. Pause to watch a vee of Canada geese high above, knowing full well they won’t be flying south this winter. Slip a bright red maple leaf in your pocket to keep you company during the snowy months ahead; cross the footbridge. Notice the ragged black tarp showing between the smooth rocks that cover the shore of the lagoon, and think about the small army of Chicagoans, from Olmsted to Domoto, who planned this place, poured its cement, planted its trees, and now argue about its future.

Ruby Rorty is a student at the University of Chicago and editor-in-chief at The Chicago Maroon.


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