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 more like August or September 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]

NAME

West Side Park 

LOCATION

400 W. University Avenue, Champaign

Photo by Tim Bailey. 

HISTORY AND FEATURES

West Side Park is perhaps Champaign-Urbana's most bucolic park, and it is known for being a perfect gathering place for good reason. It's been around for over 160 years — founded before Champaign was Champaign — and outside of the pre-fab new playground, and some interesting additions of modern art, everything about it seems like it could have installed in 1859, the year it came to be. 

Teddy Roosevelt spoke in this park, as he campaigned for the presidency in 1912. That dude was insane. I mean insane in the colloquial sense, of course, but for real. That dude led troops into battle. I am not going to look it up, because oftentimes, the story is better than the facts, even inside of a published article, but I am pretty sure that Teddy Roosevelt was the last Commander-in-Chief to hold office and also be all like "CHARGE!" He spoke at West Side Park. 

Countless rallies, protests, celebrations, concerts, and happenings have taken place here over the years. A stroll through its pathways is something just about every person who has ever spent any time in Champaign has taken part in. There is a sense of wonderment when you are in this park. It's timeless, and classic, and we are better off as a community for it. 

a sculpture of a native american sits atop a fountain Photo image by Tim Bailey. 

There are many sculptures and pieces of art within; some better than others, naturally, but most of them meet the moment as far as I am concerned. Even the modern art that the Public Art League jammed in there the past couple of decades. Its centerpiece, "A Prayer for Rain" by artist Edward Kemeys, has watched over a growing and changing community for 120 years. But look beyond that and you will find just under a dozen more to examine and judge for yourself. Judge away! That is what public art is for, goddamnit. Do you not like the weird flower thing at the west end of the park? Good, neither do I. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be there. After all, Todd and Carol like it. And Todd and Carol are just as important as you are I in this community. Sure, maybe Todd eats with his mouth open and Carol can't stop watching repeats of "Friends" but that does not disqualify them from assessing the art in West Side Park. They are deserving. 

There's a brand new children's playground and an expanded play area for families to spend time together. And while I don't think it meets the aesthetic that the park necessarily demands, I also recognize that it fits the current moment, and is very popular due to its central location and the many, many day cares that exist in the surrounding radius. After all, we can't have children breaking bones in this park. We have to make sure they have a fun time. Broken bones are not fun. 

Photo image by Tim Bailey. 

There is seating galore, and honestly, there may be nothing more valuable to me, personally, than the idea of simply asking a friend to meet up in a park and sit on a bench and discuss what's new and what's old, and what's to come. West Side Park is the best place in town to do this, hands down, bar none, in my estimation. 

In the summertime, there are activities and events to cherish, including The Taste of Champaign-Urbana, which has made such vast improvements in recent years, it bears mentioning here. It is not easy putting on this sort of event — trust me — and the Champaign Park District has done a great job continuing to make it happen. 

I look forward to its return, and hopefully, with more live entertainment that resembles the aughts and early 10s. It's a good investment! 

ASSESSMENT

There's so much to love about West Side Park that it doesn't really feel right to offer any real, harsh criticisms about it. Fact is, as a stand alone spot, it is iconic and beautiful and everything you or I could want in a green space. Go take a walk around there again soon. You will see. 

I do think it would benefit from a bit more programming, however, in that I think it would bring more families and friends out to enjoy the park more often. The way it is designed would be absolutely perfect for weekend food trucks and art vendors, parked close to the fountain. If you put them there, and let folks know about it, people will come. If you get Triptych or Blind Pig to set up a little beer cart, and allow adults to behave as adults, from say, 5pm to 9pm on weekends in the summer, you will find blankets being spread, and families comingling in droves. Not everyone wants to hang out in Downtown Champaign at the bars. Different topic for a different day. 

There's also enough space to build a mini dog park as well, and that is something that I hope the planners at CPD (and UPD) are taking serious as we continue to live in a city where our off-the-leash dog parks exist wayyyyyyyyyy off on the outskirts of town.

A reminder to Joe and Tim and the planners I mentioned above: not everyone has a car, and moreever, not everyone wants to drive 30 mins round trip just to let their dog play around with some other dogs. For real: add dog parks in centrally located parks. You will see, it will work. 

But look, if none of these things ever happened, it would still be a Top Ten park in my book. West Side Park is awesome. Just being there reminds you that it's OK to feel happiness, or sadness, or nothing at all. It's OK to just be alive, and appreciate the work of the ten generations of people who have maintained and managed such a lovely, centrally located green space.

There is nothing like it anywhere else in Champaign-Urbana, honestly, and for that, I am deeply grateful for it. 

Top image by Tim Bailey.