Over the course of a year, give or take, I have made amateur, and hopefully decently entertaining, assessments about every single park in Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy. Additionally, I did the same for our Champaign County Forest Preserves and our "city parks" — which are green spaces and small plazas owned by the municipalities.
This was no small task, and I am glad that I did it. After all, it would interest you to know that when my friend Mason Kessinger (one of the co-founders of Smile Politely) and I sat down to start talking about what sort of content a magazine like this one might contain, this was one of the ideas on our list that ranked the highest. We should be the sort of magazine that would assess and then rank every single park in this city. After all, this is important cultural information!
A city is oftentimes defined by its parks. Think of the last time you went to a new city and set out to explore it? Wasn't it true that you scoped out their "central" park to see if it was worth your time? I sure hope so. They are the glue that binds a community together; a collectively funded and maintained plot of land with amenities to serve the public and welcome visitors from all corners. This is what creates the shared space that allows us to feel as though we are a community.
Here in Champaign-Urbana, we are blessed with a lot of great parks to explore and enjoy. That's the good news. The bad news is that there are likely too many parks for them to maintain properly, and that is mostly true in Champaign, which has a bloated system for taxation, and a corporate community that does not place a premium on the necessary funding it would require. For the history of the Park District, the local park board has been dominated by conservative Republicans who have actively found ways to avoid raising money via tax referendum, and who have not done the hard work to build a corporate and private funding model that would improve and grow the parks system in the ways it should have.
But there is still much to celebrate. And celebrate them we will over the next week! But if we are going to assign glory to our best parks, we have to also define and showcase our worst parks as well.
I wish to make a very very important point right now: the people that run our park districts, and who do the hard work to maintain and promote the programs within them, do a remarkable job working with less than they should have to succeed. Hats off to Joe DeLuce and Timothy Bartlett, of CPD and UPD respectively, along with their executive staff and employees working alongside them.
If it seems like I have been harsh at times, that is because I felt it was not worth it to write almost one hundred entries simply talking about each park as though there were no pitfalls inside of them or the system that funds them. If I wrote things about doing mushrooms or drinking Zima in the parks as a wild-eyed youth, it is because it was true and I like those memories and wished to share my experiences with you. If I upset anyone because they didn't feel I had done enough research on something or looked into this or that, I can safely tell those people to relax; please showcase your own article series of this kind to me when you get to it. Looking forward to reading it!
Thanks to those of you who said nice things to me along the way, or who shared the articles on social media. I am off social media almost completely now. It is not something I am built for any longer, and honestly, I don't think I ever was.
Anyhow, Worst to First, Part 1 — #82 – #51 starts right now!
Town Center Park: Photo by Maddie Rice.
This is the worst park in all of Champaign-Urbana. I cordially invite you to go there some time and consider if you agree, or if you do not agree. You can email me about it at [email protected] and we can discuss over coffee or an iced tea.
Sheesh, a man speaks a few hard truths about the political make up of Savoy's governance and you'd think I'd talked some mad shit about their parents. Look, it's not so much that this is a terrible park, it's about the history of how it came to pass, and why it isn't anything more than what it is.
This one is a real shame; it sits on the corner of Washington and First in Midtown Champaign at the very northern edge of what they like to call the "Historic First Street District." More specifically, this was the Black community's business district, and it has been neglected for decades, and — shockingly! — the City decided it would be the perfect spot to build their new police station. This park should be the beacon of gatherings and art and culture for a renewed district, with meaningful financial investments made from not just the Park District, but from the City itself. Because they goddamned owe it to this community... for starters.
This is not really a park. It is a plot of grass with a sculpture. It's not a bad sculpture, but there is literally no person that seeks this park out outside of those who work at the Blue Line Building. And that is good, I like that — but it's not a very good park.
This is now the site of what will be a brand new K-8 International Prep Academy, so it sort of gets the boot this low based solely on the fact that it is defunct for the moment. No ill will really, just had to put it somewhere, and I decided it would be #78.
This park made me feel sorta weird after I realized it was probably named after a golf course now owned by Donald "The Human" Trump. There's nothing wrong with it really, but it's not anything special and the connectivity is awkward for me.
Canaday Park: Photo by Maddie Rice.
This park sits on land that overlooks the Champaign County Jail. So, I wouldn't classify it as a good park, honestly. It's got a nice old Little League field though? Always a good thing.
I like the size of this park, and its potential, but I maintain that it was built prematurely and will end up benefitting Judah Christian School more than anyone else, and since those fuckers don't pay taxes, and because they are literally responsible for putting youth in danger, I don't like this park for those reasons.
This park is a snoozer for sure. It would be the perfect spot for a dog park, or a place to do something interesting. But it isn't, so it's listed here in this spot.
It's not so much that I don't like this little park; I sorta do like it. What I don't like is that it is situated literally two small blocks from Hallbeck Park, and I guess I am just bummed out that there are two parks within a decent tee shot from one another, neither of which have all that much to offer, when there are so many other parks in our community that need attention.
See above. It's fine, this park. A really good place to fly a kite, I think. But there's not much else to it. Also, the developed of this neighborhood and the donor of the park was named Josef Hallbeck. As a Jewish man, it just... feels too, I dunno. Something.
Urbana does a nice job with literally almost all of its parks, since they have so few to maintain relative to the size of the community. But this one is pretty forgettable, if I am being honest. With Crystal Lake down the road, this one really isn't an option for me.
This is a normal, boring park in Savoy, and that makes it sort of meh.
What a shame that this isn't truly the Central Park of Campustown. I get the reasons why Champaign Park District can't sock a bunch of money into it, of course. The Acacia House would just keep fucking it up, I get that. But maybe there's a way to have all those houses take ownership of it and beautify it and put some programming in it? I think some more thoughtful effort here would go a long way.
This is one of the oldest parks in Champaign, but it's not really a park, it is a green space that bisects... Willis Ave. between Maple and Eureka. I like the trees, but it could use a few chess tables or sculptures.
What a way to honor the former Mayor of Champaign and his mother, the most important person to ever hail from Champaign with regards to public education. Changed the whole damned country, and for the better, and they get a long plot of grass with a weird metal peacock sculpture that is not accessible in any way? Yeesh.
Bridgewater Park: Photo by Maddie Rice.
Same deal here, in a lot of ways, to the above entry about McCollum Park. It's fine that this is a space to honor Erma Bridgewater, but I think it could use a little love!
I am happy this park exists because it is unique for our city, but it's not enough for it to rank much higher than this with all the other great parks below it.
This park has so much potential, but again, this is about funding and resources. I hate to break it to you — "you" being the person who whines and complains about property taxes: your life will not be affected by chipping in an extra $50 or whatever a year to make our parks more beautiful. You have let your family down, again.
There is nothing wrong with this park, but same deal: it's forgettable and as such, it lands in the bottom half of this list. Bottom line: Champaign either has too many parks or doesn't have the funding and resources to manage them all in a way that they deserve. You be the judge!
Speaking of judges: since this is not really open to the public, it's not really a park that should be "judged." Hiyo! But for real, you can join the archer's association that leases the space, and that is open to the public, and that is pretty awesome so, it ranks higher than some of the above.
Nothing much to see here, but not a bad little plot of a park in west Champaign. Just nothing to get too excited about.
OK, #60! Now we can start getting into some of the better parks we have in town, and Johnston Park is a pretty decent one, actually. It's relatively anonymous and it was one of the ones that I honestly had no idea existed until I started this project. I liked it! Not as much as some of the others, as you can see, but a really nice open space to spend time doing things with other people, or just by yourself.
Finally made it out to this park, and for being as new as it is, you can feel it's potential. Because it was named for Robert Toalson, who was Executive Director of the CPD for a whopping 31 years, I am giving this one higher marks than some of the others that are similar to it.
Hosier Memorial Garden: Photo by Maddie Rice.
Again, not really a park, but a plot of land next to the highway (yes, Neil St. is a highway) and the CPD does an awesome job curating it and making it beautiful so it gets some kudos from me.
I have an affinity for Burwash Park, mostly because I coached my first Peanut League game here, and I think Savoy did a pretty nice job with the amenities on this one. Sand volleyball! Remember, no one is gonna say much if you bring out a cooler of White Claws and have yourselves a jolly good time on a hot summer day.
This is ranked as high as it is because I really love that it feels like the sort of "park" that belongs in a city. It's just a little nook with old shady trees, and sitting areas, and good landscaping. I wish there were more of these, quite frankly.
Leo Bian! The man was a legend apparently, and this park has something about it that I liked a lot. It is close to Maynard Lake, which is one of the truest hidden gems in Champaign, but I think I just like that there's water in this park, and it feels really quaint even being so close to a major road. I recommend it!
Mullikin Park feels similar to Bian Park in some ways. It's small, and basic, but there was just a nice feeling to the spot. I dunno... these rankings are so deeply subjective that this could have been like #72 or #63 or #54. But this is where I put it!
Admittedly, I think this one is ranked too high, but I also have a personal memory attached to it (which you can read if you click that link) and as such, I enjoy my time here on the rare occasion that I go.
You can read our editorial about dog parks in Champaign-Urbana here. We are not doing a good enough job engaging all of the dog owners in this community. It is a crying shame.
COMING WEDNESDAY: Worst to First, 50 – 21.