Not long ago, I had a chance to visit some old friends here in Chicago when I took the family down to a few of the Chicago museums on the east edge of downtown. Having survived 12 years of the Chicago Public School system, I know the former field-trip destination pretty well. The museum campus, as they call it nowadays, is the central stop for visitors to the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium … and a small local park at Northerly Island edged right up to the lakefront near the McCormick Place Convention Center.
The Chicago Field Museum last week also happened to be the site of a Chicago Tribune forum on the Future of Chicago. The Tribune’s editorial director Bruce Dold sat down for an hour-long chat with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former Chief of Staff. Always the big mouth, I managed to ask an aviation question at the session about Northerly Island and the airport that used to sit there, Chicago Meigs Field (CGX).
A Little History — But first a few facts for those of you too young to remember Meigs.
Despite having grown up in the Second City, I never realized Northerly Island was the site of the 1933 World’s Fair, called the Century of Progress, to celebrate Chicago’s hundred-year birthday. The name became a little more famous to me in the early 80’s when I worked as an air traffic controller at Meigs Field. I also remember one of my early charter pilot landings there in a Citation on runway 18 scaring the cr** out of me, but I’ll save that story for another day.
But it really wasn’t til 1995 when I met another local pilot — Steve Whitney — at an aviation event in one of Chicago’s north suburbs that the impact of Northerly Island really took hold. I saw Steve sitting alone behind a little table with a few photos and a sign that said, “Save Meigs Field.” He’d formed an organization called, “The Friends of Meigs Field (FOM),” which I’d never heard of at the time. But I listened to his pitch. He spoke passionately and politically about how the City of Chicago wanted to close the airport to build a park, which as a city resident I found pretty odd. The city had miles of lakefront parks already. I learned that the Chicago Park District actually owned Northerly Island … and they wanted it back from the biz jet pilots. I learned Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had a thing about aviation. He just didn’t care. He didn’t like little airplanes messing up his skyline views. Only later did I realize that he really didn’t even care about the airlines or business aviation either … just the money they contributed to his city coffers. But Daley was also a powerful Democrat not just locally, but nationally. He was not to be fooled with.
It was no surprise then in 1996 when Daley closed Meigs Field. To this day, I still tell Steve Whitney that he and his FOM directors are some of the best PR folks I’ve ever known. Thanks to some astute political maneuvering, much of it by the Friends of Meigs in fact, the Governor of Illinois signed an agreement with Daley to reopen the airport until at least 2002. Privately though, Mayor Daley was not happy about having his nose tweaked by the FOM, despite the agreement he signed. The Friends of Meigs had a target on their back from that day forward.
Considering Mr. Daley’s reputation, I was surprised to learn of a Meigs provision in a 2001 landmark decision signed by the Mayor and the Governor to expand O’Hare Airport, a process that continues today with a new east-west runway due to open at ORD this fall.
Surprisingly, the deal came with strings for Daley. He never liked not having the last word. In order to expand ORD, Daley had to agree to begin construction of a third airport near Peotone IL (EON) and also, to preserve Meigs until 2026. Chicago’s aviation community rejoiced. But the party was short lived.
Everything changed during the middle of the night on March 30, 2003 when Mayor Daley set a number of bulldozers lose carving huge “Xs” into the runway at Meigs. Suddenly the Mighty Meigs was no more. A number of lawsuits were of course filed and the city was fined for its actions, but we all knew that Daley had made good on his pay back threats to the aviation people who’d gotten in his way. Daley left office in 2011.
Now, 10 years later, here I sat in the Tribune forum and asked the aviation question of Mayor Emanuel that all of us really wanted to know … what did he, the new mayor of Chicago have in mind for Northerly Island, a poor excuse for a city park since Daley’d shuttered the airport in 2003? Reopening the place would be pretty easy, I thought. The control tower’s still there, as is the terminal building and even the fire house. Knock down a few trees in the barren Northerly Island park, lay some concrete and repaint the numbers. I held my breath.
“Reopen Meigs?” Emanuel asked. “Nope. We’re finally going to turn it into the park it always should have been,” he said. “It will soon be a place where kids can play.” There was no spite in his voice, no anger. Just pragmatism and the discussion moved on.
I didn’t have a chance to call Steve Whitney that night to tell him what I’d heard, but somehow, a politically connected guy like Steve … I figured he probably knew anyway.
Rob Mark, Publisher