Explore Chicago’s Northerly Island As It Finally Returns to a More Natural State

A cyclists rides the concrete path on Northerly Island with a hazy view of Chicago behind him.
A cyclists rides the concrete path on Northerly Island with a hazy view of Chicago behind him. Jeff Banowetz
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It may be an odd thing to say that Chicago’s Northerly Island has returned to nature, considering the man-made plot of land is less than 100 years old and its use has been hotly debated for even longer than that. The place isn’t even an island—it’s a peninsula, accessible from Chicago via Solidarity Drive—so perhaps nitpicking at this point doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But after visiting Chicago’s newest park, which opened after a $9.7 million project to create a nature preserve on the southern half of the island, I can tell you one thing—it’s not going back to being an airport.

A series of sculptures on Northerly Island are one of the few acknowledgements of the history of aviation there.
A series of sculptures on Northerly Island are one of the few acknowledgements of the history of aviation there. Jeff Banowetz

It was 12 years ago that Mayor Richard M. Daley famously carved up the runway at then Meigs Field, the downtown airport popular among the business crowd and downstate politicians. After years of lawsuits and competing governmental interests kept Daley from getting his park, he went ahead and seized the land in the middle of the night, citing safety concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Of course, that was largely viewed as an excuse to get what he wanted. And it worked. Chicago ultimately had to pay a $33,000 fine and repay $1 million in airport development grants, according to the Chicago Sun Times, and he was widely criticized for overstepping his authority. But the airport was gone, and the nature preserve could be put in motion.

Northerly Island dates back all the way to Daniel Burnham’s 1909 plan of Chicago, which envisioned the island to be an open space for public enjoyment. But even before land could be created, city officials were considering the space for a downtown airport to accommodate newly invented aircraft. The island (that is, peninsula) was created between 1920 and 1925, with the plan of including a downtown airport on the property. But the Great Depression came along and caused delays, and Meigs Field didn’t open until 1946.

Mayor Richard J. Daley talked of turning the airport into a park as early as 1974, going back to Burnham’s original vision. (That vision included five islands to be used for recreation on Chicago’s Lakefront. This was the northernmost, thus the name. It may not make sense without the other islands, but it stuck.)

After all the years of argument and lawsuits, the nature preserve finally opened to the public on Friday, Sept. 4, occupying the southern half of the island. The northern half is the home of the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion, a concert venue operated by the Chicago Park District that has been used to help raise money to complete the project. While initially viewed as a temporary facility, the concert venue has found success on the island, growing in size and attracting bigger acts. You shouldn’t expect that to be going anywhere.

The top of Adler Planetarium is visible while looking north over the lagoon at Northerly Island.
The top of Adler Planetarium is visible while looking north over the lagoon at Northerly Island. Jeff Banowetz

So after all this time, how does the new nature preserve fit in with not only a concert stage, but also the surrounding Chicago cityscape? It turns out, surprisingly well.

The key in transforming the preserve was the change in topography on the island. Instead of the flat, runway-accommodating surface you may expect, landscape designers have created a lagoon surrounded by large, undulating hills that offer an impressive sense of isolation. The sound of crickets and water is all you hear in the preserve. You can still obviously see the city’s skyline to the northwest, and tall masts from the boats in Burnham Harbor to the west. But they don’t dominate the landscape. Nor does Lake Michigan to the south and east. A large pile of rocks lining the outer portions of the island mostly blocks the view. The result is a focus on the lagoon and surrounding prairie plants, which are still a work in progress.

Right now, visitors are kept to the mile-long circular path that surrounds the lagoon. A tall fence keeps people from tramping over the vegetation, which the park district says will take several years to fully develop. Trees that are planted to help separate the concert venue from the preserve will also eventually grow bigger to delineate that space better. But even though you can see the concert stage in the distance, it’s not imposing.

The mile-long path around the lagoon on Northerly Island is surrounded by a fence, keeping people off the newly planted vegetation.
The mile-long path around the lagoon on Northerly Island is surrounded by a fence, keeping people off the newly planted vegetation. Jeff Banowetz

As expected, the birds have already taken to Northerly Island. I saw three great blue herons frolicking in the lagoon, and plenty of ducks enjoying the isolation. Several people wore binoculars, and I expect this to be a top spot for birders in the years ahead. Plenty of folks were enjoying the hazy day on my visit, but you’d expect as much given the publicity and Labor Day weekend. And it was by no means crowded. People looking for some peace in a Chicago Park District property will be hard-pressed to find anything better once the novelty wears off. Unless there’s a concert.

Access to the park is easy, just follow Solidarity Drive to the Adler Planetarium and turn right. Signage isn’t great just yet, but it isn’t hard to find. Parking, on the other hand, is expensive and limited. You may get lucky with street parking on Solidarity once the tourist season dies down, or there’s a paid lot just north of Soldier Field. If possible, ride your bike for a much more pleasant experience.

For families, you can also enjoy 12th Street Beach, a Chicago Park District facility between the planetarium and Northerly Island. I was surprised how few people were there on Labor Day weekend. The sand is great and you can enjoy a meal from Del Campo Taco, which offers excellent Mexican fare as well as snack-bar staples.

Mayor Daley was almost certainly wrong in taking power into his own hands and destroying those runways 12 years ago—but it’s nice that we can all enjoy it now.

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