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West Ridge residents angry over zoo plans

Nearby residents are livid over the Park District’s plan to close the zoo in Indian Boundary Park on the far North Side. They say the district has chronically underfunded the public asset that made their neighborhood unique.

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West Ridge residents angry over zoo plans

The Indian Boundary Park Zoo once had llamas, swans, even a black bear. Today it houses only a couple of goats and a few chickens.

WBEZ/Odette Yousef

A meeting Wednesday night to discuss what to do with the small zoo in the Indian Boundary Park on Chicago’s far North Side turned heated, particularly during a short appearance by the district’s alderman. The meeting was called by the Indian Boundary Park Advisory Council, a nine-year old volunteer organization that helps advocate for the park. It came in response to the Chicago Park District’s plan to dismantle the zoo and replace it with a nature area of trees and plants.

“The zoo is one of the things that made our park special,” said Ron Rogers, an attorney and 20-year resident of West Ridge. Rogers said he used to take his children to the zoo when it had much more exotic animals like swans and llamas. When the zoo was first built in the 1920s it housed a single black bear. Today, the zoo is home only to a couple of goats and some chickens that live in fenced enclosures along the north border of the 13-acre park.

“It’s one of the few treasures that we’ve got,” continued Rogers. “All you have to do is go up and down Western Avenue, Touhy, Devon, see how the commercial district is eroding, some housing stock isn’t what it had been. But it’s the one thing that sets this neighborhood apart, that makes it a draw, that makes why people would choose to move up here.”

Many of the more than 100 people who packed into the Warren Park District fieldhouse voiced a similar sentiment. Throughout the crowd, distrust of the Chicago Park District’s motives and its commitment to executing an alternative plan for the site, ran high.

“This is unfortunately part of the systematic dismantling of the zoo given to us by the Chicago Park District,” said Advisory Council President Jennifer Albom, referring to the decline of the zoo. “They have presented us with nothing, they have not paid for maintenance, they have not supervised or encouraged Lincoln Park Zoo to do what they should be doing.”

The Lincoln Park Zoo is responsible for the maintenance of the animals at the Indian Boundary Park Zoo.

Albom and others were also highly critical of Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th), who called two community meetings with the Park District to discuss the future of the zoo. Silverstein made a brief, unexpected appearance, prompting a barrage of criticism from constituents who felt they had not been adequately notified of her meetings.

Silverstein countered that she included the discussion of the zoo plans in her weekly newsletter. But some at the meeting, like Albom, said their attempts to share their concerns about those plans were ignored. Many asked the alderman to consider calling another community meeting with the Park District where they might be able to present their opposition to the nature area proposal.

The Chicago Parks District claims it would cost $2 million to make infrastructural improvements to bring in more animals, such as cows. Currently, the agency says it spends $90,000 a year to maintain the zoo.

“A responsible agency does not maintain status quo simply for the sake of maintaining status quo,” wrote Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, spokesman for the Chicago Park District, in an e-mail. “The Chicago Park District must constantly evaluate its parks and facilities to make certain that we are responding to the needs of the community while making fiscally responsible decisions.”

A visit to Indian Boundary Park Wednesday afternoon found dozens of families enjoying the expansive playground, picnicking, and children playing in a fountain. A handful strolled slowly by the enclosures in the back, hoping to catch a glimpse of the goats or chickens.

“I don’t live in the area, I live up by Logan Square,” said Mario Meza, who was there with his young daughter. Meza said he grew up near the park and his children look forward to seeing the animals.

“I wish they would have kept it maintained better,” he added. “Maybe it could have drawn more people.”

The Indian Boundary Park Advisory Council has organized a petition to challenge the zoo’s closing, and plans a march at the park on Sunday at 10am.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

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