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Off the Map

Austin is Chicago’s largest neighborhood, but you won’t find it profiled in any travel guides.

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The Austin Town Hall, on the other hand — another one of Explore Chicago’s hot-spots, which cites Independence Hall as its inspiration — is not being overtaken by greenery, but this comes as no surprise. The Austin Town Hall is owned by the Chicago Parks Department, and can only be allowed to flirt with so much squalor. As the centerpiece of a “sometimes troubled” neighborhood, it must put forth a professional face; to neglect it would insult an already injured community. The ugliest thing about it is the drab tenement building next to it, but that can’t be helped — people, after all, must live somewhere.

In contrast to all this mixing of the foul and the fair stands Columbus Park, just off the intersection of Central and Adams. Strangely, there is nothing foul about it. According to Explore Chicago, it is the masterpiece of legendary landscape architect Jens Jensen. They are not exaggerating. Columbus Park is perhaps as perfect a park as ever existed. It sports lagoons, creeks, streams and waterfalls. The nature trails are flanked by wildflowers. Geese and herons trawl the waters. From a distance, my photographer and I spot a green mass on the lagoon’s surface; at first, we assume that it’s scum, only to find that the lagoon is also host to lily pads.

Just beyond the nature trails are golf courses. Men in polo shirts squint at the horizon as they swing their clubs. I still wonder just what golf-players are doing in Austin. “Don’t they know where they are?” I ask my photographer, though I know she has no answer for me.
To golf on the West Side strikes me as obscene. Part of me is tempted to ask them just how much they paid for their clubs. Do they know how much heroin that money would’ve gotten them? They wouldn’t have to wander very far to find out. The park’s southernmost border is Harrison; from what I recall, Madison is the place to score.

The golf course is painstakingly maintained. On the other hand, across the street is a garage that appears to have been imploded. All that’s intact is the roof; it sits atop a pile of wood, brick, and insulation. I don’t know how this is possible – is it money? An unequal distribution of funds? Is there money in the city budget for golf, but not for garages? Politically, something is happening here, I’m sure of it. But I can’t imagine that my imaginary SAIC interlocutor is very interested in that, either. I would direct their attention to the flowers behind the barbed wire, then. That, for me, is Austin, more so than the vodka bottles.

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