Smile Politely

Year of the Park: Worst to First, 50 – 21

Hey, I should probably apologize, or justify, that last entry in Worst to First. Bottom line, it’s my deeply held opinion that we will never be able to celebrate ourselves if we do not also analyze our flaws. Our parks systems has flaws. That much is true. But the broad assessment is that it is directly tied to funding. That’s the story.

I am not going to further tell that story here. You can read through the A to Z entries if you are interested enough, and also just look around and be reminded for the reasons why.

Today, we are going to start propping up some great, unassuming parks, that fly under the radar and don’t get the credit they deserve.

Read on, dearest fans of parks! 50 – 21 starts now.

a totem pole piece of art in citizen's park

Citizen’s Park: Photo by Justine Fein-Bursoni

50. Citizen’s Park, Champaign

This little park sneaks in to the next tier simply because of ART. Oh, yeah, ART! Remember it? It’s something that just about everyone can agree on when it comes to simply acknowledging its value and importance in the community. Unless it comes to funding. Then it’s a big BIG problem. Well, hats off to the folks at Spurlock Museum, and 40 North, and the others that put Michael Darin’s sculpture in this otherwise underfunded and forgettable park. It makes the park worth visiting, and that is important.

49. Hazel Park, Champaign

This is a weird spot with no real access or parking, but that doesn’t stop Hazel Park Lady from coming out on the regular and putting on her skates and hula hooping or tossing sticks that should be on fire but aren’t. This part of Champaign is such an oddity, it’s nice to have this space to keep it together.

48. Zahnd Park, Champaign

This is now the site of all the important Little League baseball games in Champaign. That alone gives it its due. In the end, it’s sort of forgettable, and sits next to the Bark District, which is fine and all, but doesn’t really accommodate the needs and wants of the dog-owning community of Champaign. But whatever! Who cares about dogs? They are worthless, pathetic creatures, right? They are not. They are important and they deserve more of our attention.

47. Prairie Park, Urbana

Oh, Prairie Park, what have you become? I can remember a different time, when aging men played church league softball, next to youngsters hoping to become the next Mark Grace. The park is better now, of course, and has connectivity to Weaver Park, along with Preston Williams Elementary School, and that makes it a decent spot for the community that surrounds it, and those that might come to visit.

46. Larson Park, Urbana

I don’t know who this Larson character is, and I don’t care. This is Wheatfield Park to me, and my very best friend in the world from grade school grew up ON the park, and we had so many adventures here. Turns out, it’s a basic ass park, with a tennis court and a playground and literally NO garbage cans. But it is still tucked into a now aging neighborhood in Urbana and has enough majesty to call it decent.

45. Wesley Park, Champaign

There isn’t much to Wesley Park, but that is OK. If you choose to go there, to arrive at this park, you will understand why it’s ranked as high as it is. There is a simplicity in its space, particularly because of the neighborhood it surrounds. Take your kids (or someone else’s kids) to play on the train here. It is worth your time.

44. Human Kinetics Park, Champaign

Right now, this formerly forgettable and boring park is being transformed into a massive facility that will change a lot of things for those living in the north side of Champaign. This will be CPD Executive Director Joe DeLuce’s legacy, and goddamnit, I am so happy for him.

43. Heritage Park, Champaign

Despite the goose poop, there are paths to walk here, and water to see. That is better than most parks have to offer and for that reason, and because of how this ties into Kaufmann Lake to the south and Dodds Park to the north, I am both grateful and pleasantly surprised!

42. Dodds Park, Champaign

I will give this park high marks simply because it has an magnificent monolithic monument to the history of Olympic champions that have come from Champaign-Urbana, and the list is vast, and continues to grow to this very month.

King Park: Photo by Maddie Rice. 

41. King Park, Urbana

There is a quiet kindness to this park, which is tied to King Elementary School. The biggest reason that it is listed this high is because of the sculpture by Preston Jackon (seen above) and the fact that the Black community has been celebrating Jettie Rhodes Day here for years and years. This is what community engagement looks like. I am not sure how much Urbana Park District can take for that, but I can state with certainty that they’ve been supportive and helpful, and that is worth celebrating.

a gazebo in leal park

Leal Park: Photo by Maddie Rice. 

40. Leal Park, Urbana

There is something special about anything with age in any part of the Midwest, as we are still not even a 200 year old community. The preserved house here, which now acts as offices for UPD, is a very very old home that has been preserved. The gazebo that is on site is a marvel. That it sits up against University Ave. is a detriment, but, while you are here, you don’t even notice it.

39. William A. Smith Park, Savoy

I will give credit where it is due here. Savoy built a nice park to pair up with the new Carrie Busey Elementary School that sits on site. But let me be 110% clear. It is Champaign tax dollars that carried the fucking weight here. Do not play around with my emotions Savoy. Find the courage to figure out what it means to be part of a community. You are a let down.

Still, solid park.

38. Lohmann Park, Urbana

Frolf! Hey, you know what, some people call it disc golf, and are so passionate about that fact that they yell about it on social media. But George Costanza called it Frolf and that is what I call it. Additionally, there’s some hills and some nice tucked away wooded areas here, and it also plays host to our only consistent cricket games in town, which you can catch on Saturdays or Sundays, right in Lohmann Park. Not sure which one, but you know, you can find this information out on your own if you so please.

37. Weaver Park, Urbana

I really love what they are growing here in the deepest part of eastern Urbana. It acts as the trailhead for the Urbana terminus of the Kickapoo Rail to Trail (currently) but it also has many unpaved paths that you and I could walk and talk about life in. This, and the wildlife that is springing up inside of it, makes it worth a top 2/3 ranking, and will only continue to improve as time goes on.

36. Sunset Ridge Park, Champaign

They built a pretty weird skate park out in the gnarliest part of the exurbs of Champaign. Fair enough. But what I love about this park is that the name is apropos of what it provides: perfect sunsets. You should watch more sunsets, and the CPD has provided that opportunity here for you.

35. Robeson Meadows West Park, Champaign

Walk these trails, despite the signs that tell you that you aren’t allowed to be there. I don’t really get it. Part of it says it’s private property, and then the Park District calls it its own inside of its website and on its promotional materials. So park your car, and walk these fun, peaceful trails and say hi to a few gorgeous swans who live in one of the ponds. Literally, there are swans living here.

34. Noel Park, Champaign

I used to sort of hate Noel Park because of the fact that the entirety of the park is surrounded by some of the most expensive homes in the south part of Champaign. But then I started going there and it was clear that I was just being a judgmental jerk. Everyone pays their taxes, and this is the sort of park that is both inviting and accessible, if you are willing to look for it. Turns out, I am the jerk! There is something about a sandbox with diggers installed into the ground. There’s something about Tee-Ball, too. Watching the equivalent of feral cats trying to hit a ball and run to first is a sight to behold.

33. Helms Park, Champaign

If there is one thing that we can be clear about in this rundown, it’s that history matters. TJ Blakeman at the City of Champaign made 100% sure that the Stone Arch Bridge stayed in tact, and was part of the Second Street Basin, which bleeds into Scott Park. The vista here is both idyllic, and showcases the cityscape that Campustown has become.

32. Garden Hills Park, Champaign

Give credit to the Champaign Park District here, along with Unit 4, right here and now. They stepped up and helped to create a magnificent park to pair with a remodeled Garden Hills Elementary School.

You can’t say the same for the City of Champaign, who has been moving the goddamned  goalposts on improving the conditions of this neighborhood forever. Yeah yeah yeah, they are gonna take the money from ARA and push up the timeline.

Color me unimpressed. You have the money, kiddos. You’ve had the money. You just waste it on an ineffective and poorly managed Police Department. That’s a fact.

a park bench in Harris Park

Harris Park: Photo by Maddie Rice. 

31. Harris Park, Champaign

My young heart belongs to this weird boulevard, and if you take the time to just be here for a moment, you may find your heart singing as well. Try it out.

30. Beardsley Park, Champaign

This is a very very old park, with a rich history, and that information was available to me with a few keystrokes, and that is why I have spent more time there lately than in almost any other park. Good news: I hear that the CPD is going to start adding this sort of historical context and information to their web pages for each park. I will go ahead and take a little credit for that! Anyhow, there’s not much to Beardsley, but it is often peace we seek when we find ourselves in parks. And Beardsley Park provides that and more.

29. Morrissey Park, Champaign

In hindsight, I think this park is rated too high. But here we are. I think there is value to any park that has a “hill” and this one has that. Yes, I chugged three Zimas here in 1996 just to get the courage up to talk to Rachel, a cheerleader at Central. I went to Urbana. It did not go well.

But now that I have revisited it, I love the open space it provides. I like that there is a porta-potty on site.

Dear Champaign Park District: put toilets in West Side Park, now. Or at least soon. You know it’s the right thing to do.

28. Glenn Park, Champaign

This park is teeming with ingenuity and thoughtful recreation. What was once a forgettable slab of nothing, by and large, is now a magnificent space that is genuinely beautiful. Go here. It is not the easiest to access but, you know, you have a car. Or someone you know has one. Use it.

27. Centennial Park, Champaign

This is a massive park, and has so many different amenities it would be hard to list them again here. Bottom line, this is never a bad place to be, whether on the farm, or at the pool, or taking in a high school football game. Yes, there has been violence here lately. But it’s hardly any surprise, right? We allowed gun sales, and depressed the economy for the poorest citizens we have. That is the end result of Reaganomics and idiotic ideas designed for us almost 300 years ago. C’est la vie!

26. Porter Park, Champaign

You wish there were more new park builds as good as this one, but we will not only take it, we will celebrate it. There are miles of trails to walk, and in the wintertime, they deck it out with Christmas Lights, and you know what, this is a really good thing. A really, really good thing.

25. Moore Park, Champaign

Here is a small park in south Champaign that you’d never know was here unless you were looking for it. Mattis Park to the north seems to supplant it, but there is a simple space to inhabit in this part of the green space. The history of this Moore character is worth the read as well.

24. Ambucs Park, Urbana

This is our best park for those in our community who use wheelchairs or have difficulty walking. Ambucs has done its job and more here. The fact that the pavilion is named for Jean Driscoll says it all. 22 acres deep, and a lot of amazing trees to sit under. Yes there is a waste water treatment plant here. But for some reason, it feels OK.

Mayfair Park: Photo by Maddie Rice. 

23. Mayfair Park, Champaign

This is maybe the cutest park in Champaign. I absolutely adore it.

22. Victory Park, Urbana

The pavilion here needs live music, but like, curated for misfits and teens, and not adults like me or you. The community gardens on site are something to revere. The fact that this park continues to serve this east Urbana neighborhood in the way it does gives it the high marks it deserves. Check it out. There’s not much to it, but you will see community here if you look for it.

Patterson Parklet: Photo by Maddie Rice. 

21. Patterson Parklet, Urbana

This tiny nook gets way higher marks than it likely deserves but for two good reasons, in my mind. Sort of like Firefighter’s Park in Champaign, there should be more of these spots in our city. That’s one reason, so we have to celebrate what we have in that regards.

The other reason is that this is one of the spots where I fell in love with my wife. And this is my list, so I am gonna lean into that right now. It’s been a helluva year, and I don’t have many more things to write for this magazine. So that’s what’s up.

COMING FRIDAY: Worst to First, 20 – 1.

Top graphic by Smile Politely. 

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