Smile Politely

Year of the Park, A to Z: Centennial Park, Champaign

As Year of the Park continues, we will be documenting every park in Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy, Champaign County Forest Preserves, along with other odds and ends between July 2020 and July 2021. You can see what has been covered thus far by clicking here. If you have suggestions or ideas or feedback, feel free to contact us at [email protected].


Centennial Park


2200 W. Kirby Ave., Champaign 


Centennial Park is an example of Unit 4 School District partnering with Champaign Park District to create a comprehensive and strategic space to afford us a diverse and well established set of park amenities with recreation centers, along with a public swimming pool, playgrounds, pavilions, tennis courts, a hill for sledding on snow days, a petting zoo, and more. 

It was acquired in 1959, and was part of a landswap with Morrissey Park, and with Centennial High School slated to be built in a few years as the city was growing to the west, it is a remarkable spot that is good for all seasons, depending on your interests. 

At almost 70 acres, it encompasses the space between Kirby Ave., Crecent Dr., John St., and Kenwood Rd. Within it, of course, is Centennial High School and its athletic facilities. But beyond that, Champaign Park District provides the following amenities and centers: 

  • Leonard Recreation Center
  • Bicentennial Center
  • Sholem Pool 
  • Cannonball Hill
  • Lindsay Tennis Center
  • Lindsay New American Gardens
  • Prairie Farm Petting Zoo
  • A playground
  • A shelter for rental with a massive amount of seating 
  • Bocce Ball courts
  • Walking paths

Holy hell, that is a lot! Basically, Centennial Park has a lot to unpack, and is worthy of a significant amount of your attention and your time. 


This is really Champaign Park District on steroids, and if there’s not something you can find that you like about it, this is an issue for you and your therapist. I speak to mine about all kinds of things, and finding joy in recreation is one of them. It’s OK, this is a safe space for us to talk about these things. 

So, I think I am just going to run down the list above real quick, because otherwise, I’d be typing 2000 words on this spot, and well, there’s other parks to consider, and far too many components to this gem to fully unpack it all within the parameters of my intentions and assignment. Plus, I have to teach first grade to my son, who will, at some point, tell me I am a terrible father, and that he hates school. He is truly a young man made in my own image! 

the facade of the front of leonard recreation building

Photo provided by Champaign Park District. 

The Leonard Recreation Center on the west side of the park is one of the newest additions to the Champaign Park District facilities and is really a great place for all. It has a fun spot for young kids to run around when its cold outside and when there isn’t a plague on our hands. There’s a gym with multiple courts for playing basketball and volleyball. There’s a running track above it that is really a great place to get in your steps. There’s small weight room with treadmills and elliptical machines to get your heart rate up. This is a great gym to join for those without the means to afford one of the more expensive spots in town. Sure, there’s no shower and towels and barbicide, but get over yourself, and get your heart rate up and go home and shower. I am sure you will live. 

The Bicentennial Center played host to “The Cage” for a long time recently, where students of the game of baseball could train with semi-pro players from the past. I love a good batting cage, because no matter how old I’ve gotten, how out of shape I am in at various times, my swing is still really fucking good, and frankly, I can still hit an 80 mph fastball if I know it’s coming. So, that is something I tell my wife, who looks at me like am not all that impressive, yet again, but I remind her, there aren’t many overweight Jews in our neighborhood that can make the same claim, so, you know, celebrate me, honey, thank you. 

Now, this spot will be the new centerpiece to the Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation organization, who does such tremendous work in our community. The timeline for that is a moving target right now, but once it gets there, it will be yet another amenity in our community for those with special needs, and a bit more centrally located for those without access to the same levels of transportation as others. Great news, and great work to all involved!

a swimming pool with lots of people in it

Photo by Mathew Green. 

Next year, I will do a run down on both Sholem and Crystal Lake pools here in Champaign-Urbana. Preview: Sholem is the better overall experience, because of the lazy river, and the pool snack bar, which is the only acceptable place in the world to eat “nachos” like they serve here. Don’t gimme this shit about eating them at a ballgame. You will have a hot dog, or something else. Not nachos. Not today. Only at a pool where the sun continues to heat the neon orange “cheez” in such a way that it glows. Crystal Lake is still totally worthy of your time. The two Park Districts have a shared membership / resident program, but it does not go far enough. More on that come 2021. 

a small hill with trees around it

Photo by Seth Fein.

This “Hill” is a pathetic spot to sled* if you consider the fact that Hackberry Hill in Orchard Downs and Cannonball Hill in Crystal Lake exists just a few miles away. I grew up in Urbana, and I fought with Champaign kids about this for years, and frankly, I am not backing down now, and honestly, it’s gotten worse over the years. Fine, fine, fine. You wanna climb this sad hill and sled down it come snowy days this year, you do your thing, but I refuse to accept it as anything more than a big pile of nothing with just one side to sled down. No! This is not as fun. 

people playing tennis on courts with a bucket of balls in the foreground

Photo provided by Champaign Park District. 

The Lindsay Tennis Center is another in a long line of facilities for us to all play tennis on in Champaign; it’s a great hardcourt spot for rallies and competitive games. The same Lindsay family donated and helps to maintain The Lindsay New American Gardens. We are appreciative of this Lindsay family, and what the’ve offered to us here in Champaign-Urbana!  

the entrance of Prairie Farm with a red barn serving as its gate

Photo by Seth Fein. 

I adore the Prairie Farm Petting Zoo, which is to say, I find this to be a more pleasant and important experience for kids than say, a zoo Zoo ZOO which I sort of struggle with at times. I will say I enjoy going to Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, or Scovill Zoo in Decatur on occasion, but if pressed, I prefer Prairie Farm. The animals seem happier and honestly, I am not sure I want to see a tiger up close without the soothing voice of David Attenborough reminding me of X Y and Z and I am seeing it. Hey, I am a modern man. I think I can’t divorce that from my experiences. 

I also love this sculpture as you enter the Farm. It was donated by Dwayne and Cheryl Faust Robinson for their sons David, Mitchell and Todd. The inscription on it is all about how brothers love each other, and are there for one another no matter what. I feel that, as I love my brother Adam so much, and miss him all the time. Of course, sometimes, people’s brothers sleep with their partner and then murder them in cold blood. Sometimes other bad things happen. I mean, hello, Hamlet? Anyhow, love the sculpture though. Here it is from the entrance because, that’s the best shot I could get right now: 

a sculpture made of bronze of three brothers sharing a branch to sit on

Photo by Seth Fein. 

Beyond that, there are the normal amenities that you’d expect in a park, but sort of bigger and better here than most places. The playground for kids is double the size of the average one, so it’s a great place for kids 2–8 to bop around for a while, as they can hop back and forth between structures for a while. 

a large children's playground

Photo by Anna Longworth. 

There’s a great big pavilion with grills and massive amounts of tables with seating for many. More on this next year, but this should also be a Wi-Fi spot for the community, with a hired coffee truck / service for those who love to work outside and in the open air. Contracting with Espresso Royale or Columbia Street or Page Roasting would be ideal here. 

a large pavilion with seating and grills

Photo by Anna Longworth. 

Finally, there are bocce ball courts at Centennial Park! I love bocce ball, but these courts are hibernating at the moment, so let’s hope with the pandemic comes to a close, they are refurbished and promoted and perhaps we can convince some people to allow folks to bring bottles of wine (wine only!) to these courts and play bocce together the way they do in EU, which frankly, has a better sense of how to enjoy the outdoors than Americans do, in some ways. Bocce ball + wine = good times. Why is alcohol still considered such a bad thing. It is the only thing that is getting a vast majority of us through this pandemic. I am drinking it now. 

two bocce ball courts sit in a park

Photo by Seth Fein. 

OK, looks like I wrote a lot more than I said I was going to but that is simply because there is so much to unpack and so much to celebrate about this park. It may be December, but there’s reason aplenty to show up and find ways to have some fun. Bundle up, for cryin’ out loud! 

*I have never been sledding on The “Hill” at Centennial, and I am sure it is plenty fun. This harkens back to an argument I had in 1995 at a party in Morrissey Park drinking Zima with a couple of dudebros from Centennial, and frankly, I am still not over it. Never will be. I could even write their names here and do a comprehensive overview of their lives and jobs and families but, this is not the goal of Year of the Park. One of them turned out pretty OK. The others are not good people, and I assure you, they are conspiracy theorists who want to see both the Rapture and the end of Democracy in America. I am looking forward to seeing them again one day. That will be fun. 

Top image by Anna Longworth. 

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