Crystal Gardens: Chicagoans fight to save one of the city’s only indoor green spaces

(CNN) – Céline Wysgalla remembers the first time she set foot in Crystal Gardens at the age of 5, her petite body eclipsed by hundred-year-old trees towering above her.

For more than two decades, the interior garden of Chicago’s Navy Pier has been a cherished escape from the hectic city life, a reminder of the peace and quiet reflection that only comes from being immersed in nature.

But the beloved tropical garden, which has always been free to the public, should be replaced with a new paid digital experience.

Now 25, a recent graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she earned her master’s degree in environmental health, Wysgalla is leading an effort to save the one-acre Indoor Garden.

“Gardens offer a chance to interact with nature and increase your appreciation of the natural world. There’s nothing quite like Crystal Gardens in Chicago, and it’s one of the few free indoor green spaces. available to residents of this community, ”Wysgalla told CNN.

“I know how precious green spaces are and how rare it is to have an indoor space like this in the city, so I would be devastated if the Crystal Gardens were torn down.”

Wysgalla started a petition on September 16 to save the garden. It has so far collected over 18,000 signatures. She also created an Instagram account, dedicated to saving the garden, where hundreds of people have left comments sharing their memories of Crystal Gardens and their hopes to protect it.

Crystal Gardens is currently home to over 80 palm trees and huge monstera plants, among other tropical plants, all enclosed in a six-story glass atrium dotted with dancing fountains.

The new entertainment experience, “Illuminarium”, is expected to be built inside the old garden. Construction will begin from early to mid-2022, with the attraction opening in the fall or winter, CNN affiliate WLS reported.

“Navy Pier’s partnership with Illuminarium will transform the one-acre Crystal Gardens from an underutilized garden and upscale private event space into an anchor destination for families all year round,” said a spokesperson for Navy Pier at CNN.

“It is the organization‘s responsibility to develop attractions that support the maintenance, viability and programmatic offerings of Navy Pier,” the spokesperson added.

Chicago’s Navy Pier, a popular tourist attraction and non-profit organization, has temporarily closed from September 2020 for more than a year, in an effort to “limit the financial burden and impact” of the coronavirus pandemic.
The loss of revenue from the Pier’s major revenue sources, such as the Centennial Wheel, the Children’s Museum and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, has resulted in a projected shortfall of $ 20 million this year alone, according to the Pier, which has described the loss as “devastating”.

“Over the past 10 days I have heard stories from people near and far about all the memories and special moments they had at the Gardens – weddings, proms, quinceaneras, performances, festivals, engagement , reunions with family and friends, the list goes on, ”Wysgalla said.

“I understand that Navy Pier has to compensate for the effects of Covid-19, but I think Navy Pier underestimated how important space is to Chicagoans and visitors.”

Navy Pier did not respond to CNN’s request to respond to the petition, but defended the new project, which it said has been “fully reviewed” and approved by the Chicago Plan Commission, the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals. and the city council.

Protect a free experience for low-income residents

Devki Patel is a graduate student at DePaul University and another outspoken activist demanding that Navy Pier reconsider the new venture.

Constantly torn between school, work and the bustling city life, her sanctuary was Crystal Gardens, where she could “find creativity, relaxation and connection with nature,” says Patel, an experience she believes. firmly not to be reproduced.

“Given the direction of climate change and the new patterns of damage to our environment, these spaces are our only way to connect with biodiversity and life,” Patel, 26, told CNN.

“We no longer need virtual experiences of nature, many museums offer immersive exhibits as well. There is no reason why an experience like [“Illuminarium”] cannot take place in a location that does not require uprooting and cutting down decades-old plants and foliage. “

More importantly, she added, preserving Crystal Gardens also means protecting a safe haven for Chicagoans who can’t afford to pay for an experience.

“Crystal Gardens is one of the only free experiences left at Navy Pier. The decision to close this space severely limits accessibility to one of Chicago’s top attractions,” Patel said.

The gardens have also partnered with nonprofits and museums to organize educational events, entertainment and programs for children.

“These events enrich Chicago’s vibrant culture and connect residents and tourists in an unforgettable setting,” she added. “By making space pay only, the city is inadvertently restricting a large number of Chicago residents from the experience and this proposed area of ​​Navy Pier.”

Maintain a relationship with nature

“Illuminarium” will be a 32,000 square foot immersive experience that projects sights, sounds and scents that transport visitors to another place, WLS reported.
The first show, according to WLS, will be an experience called “Wild” which will take participants to Africa. Viewers will come “face to face with the world’s most exotic animals in their natural habitats” and gaze at the Kenyan night sky, according to the Illuminarium website.

Patel pointed out the irony of replacing a true nature experience with a paid digital experience.

“The loss of this space would be a loss for preservation and a victory only for those who benefit from the capitalization of this space,” Patel said. “I guarantee you no Chicago resident wants to embark on a virtual safari at the expense of existing wildlife.”

Caelan Jones is another Chicagoan who spent much of his childhood visiting Crystal Gardens, which became the first place he saw such massive plants.

Years later, Jones is now a plant expert, grower, and seller, helping people connect with nature through a connection to plants.

“I’ve seen them improve the lives of so many people just by giving them something new that they’re interested in. We need to preserve all of our main outlets so people can experience plants in such an immersive way,” Jones told CNN . “Studying through a book or a screen is not like watching a plant sway in front of you in real time.”

Crystal Gardens “opens a door” to people’s curiosity for plants and nature as a whole, and is a source of joy and passion for the Chicago community – more valuable than any experience Navy Pier can offer. , he added.

As the clock continues to tick, getting closer and closer to the end of Crystal Gardens, Chicagoans who call the garden a sanctuary say they will fight for it until the end.

About Wanda Reilly

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