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Nuestro Retrato: Montrose Beach

Principle: You are creating a place, not a design

By Brendan Crain

January, 2010

The first of the 11 Principles of Placemaking states that the community is the expert when it comes to creating successful public spaces.  When Placemaking Chicago's “What Makes Your Place Great?” competition inspired students from the Poder Learning Center's English as a Second Language classes to write essays about their favorite places in Chicago, we saw a unique opportunity to learn about how members of the city's immigrant community use of public space around town, and how their insights illustrate the Placemaking Principles.  The following is the second in a series of articles based on these student essays.

In dense, urban areas with large immigrant populations like Chicago, open public spaces present newly-arrived residents with the opportunity to claim a part of the city as their own, creating programming that weaves together their own cultural traditions with those of their adopted home.  

Chicago’s Montrose Beach is such a place.  For Fernanda Perez and her compatriots, this area is not just a wide swath of grass and sand -- it's an important social space where the city's Ecuadorian community gathers every weekend in the warmer months for fútbol tournaments (better known to Americans as soccer).  "Since before my husband came, more than 20 years ago, Ecuadorians have gone to Montrose Beach," she explains.

The games, according to Fernanda, originally were organized by several members of the Ecuadorian immigrant community, which according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago is the fifth-largest Latin American immigrant group in the city and is largely settled around the intersection of Lawrence and Kimball, in Albany Park.  Albany Park is one of Chicago’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods and, while this creates a unique melting-pot atmosphere, gatherings like those at Montrose Beach provide immigrants with an important touchstone that allows them to maintain relationships and customs that might otherwise be lost as they assimilate into their new lives in the United States.

For instance, as more families began to attend the games at Montrose Beach, the weekly events evolved organically, expanding to become one of the primary social gatherings for Ecuadorians living in the Windy City.  "It started out just for men," Fernanda says, "but now there are games for women, and for children, too.  We have cookouts, sometimes we celebrate birthdays; it's where we have our 4th of July celebration.  We always go to the beach."

For anyone concerned with creating more and better public space in their communities, it's important to remember the value of places that accommodate a variety of uses -- or, as we say in Placemaking, to create a place, not a design.  The design of a place is important, but perhaps even more important are the activities that happen in the space. People like to use open spaces, and sometimes the best public spaces are those that allow people to figure out how they should be used for themselves.

In Fernanda's case, the Ecuadorian community gatherings at Montrose Beach have helped her to adjust to life in America while staying closely connected to the country and people she left behind.  Asked if she has any special memories out of the hundreds of times she has been to Montrose, Fernanda smiles and, without hesitation, shares her favorite: "It is where I met my husband."  For Fernanda and many others, open public spaces are filled with opportunity.