When the sun came up over Chicago on March 31, 2003, it shone down on six large Xs that were bulldozed overnight into the runway of a small downtown airport.
Under the cover of darkness, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley made it clear who ran the city when he ordered the destruction of Meigs Field on Northerly Island without alerting the City Council, the statehouse or the Federal Aviation Administration. The former airport is now a park, which the mayor had wanted for years.
Daley defended the move the next day by citing safety concerns and told reporters it was a risk to have planes that close to skyscrapers in a post-9/11 world.
“I am not willing to wait for a tragedy, as some have asked me to do, before making a very difficult and tough decision,” Daley said at the press conference.
But even in 2003, when the country was still shaken by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the mayor’s safety explanation didn’t hold up. The secretary for the Department of Homeland Security told the Sun-Times he was “disappointed” Meigs closed, and the agency wasn’t consulted.
At the press conference, one reporter pressed the mayor by asking, “doesn’t good government function best in the light of day?”
Daley answered “yes,” but did not offer any explanation for the moonlit work order.
“It was seen as a dictatorial ploy by the mayor to get his way,” said former Ald. Dick Simpson, who is now a political science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Chicago. “This was the first big move of simply doing what he wanted to do.”
The destruction of Meigs was a brash stunt that epitomizes Chicago politics. Simpson equates bulldozing Meigs with similarly “autocratic” schemes greenlit by Daley’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, such as ordering police to maintain law and order among protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, resulting in violent clashes.
Twenty years after the overnight destruction at the airport, Simpson and others said the maneuver is fading from collective memory, but it can serve as a reminder of the need to have checks and balances on mayoral power.
The Meigs Field land is now Northerly Island Park, which reopened in 2015 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that Daley didn’t attend. Situated off the lakefront at the edge of the Museum Campus, the human-made island was originally built in 1925 as part of Daniel Burnham’s famous “Plan of Chicago.” Burnham, the renowned city planner and architect, imagined a series of similar islands stretching from Grant Park to Jackson Park, but Northerly was the only one completed.
The 91-acre peninsula was home to Chicago’s second World’s Fair in 1933 and later was a beach and park. In 1946, construction began to turn the land into an airport, which opened two years later.
The small airstrip was later renamed for Merrill C. Meigs (pronounced “migs”), a Chicago pilot and newspaper publisher. A passenger terminal was added in the early ’60s, and by 1990 Meigs handled more than 61,000 flights a year — a number that fell to around 32,000 by 2002, according to Sun-Times reports at the time.
The airport by the lake mostly served small planes — many private and corporate. Some commercial commuter flights also used the airport for quick trips to nearby places like Springfield, Indianapolis and the Twin Cities. Over the years, the airfield welcomed a bevy of notable guests, including a handful of U.S. presidents.
Despite the volume, there were calls to close Meigs throughout the years. The idea was first floated in the ’70s because the airport was losing money, according to Sun-Times reporting.
Daley’s no-holds-barred tactic to close Meigs for good came as a shock to even close City Hall observers, but his desire to shutdown the airport was widely known. The mayor had for years made it his mission to close the runway and convert the land to greenspace.
In 1996, those efforts reached a fever pitch when Daley closed Meigs for the first time by padlocking the gates, having unveiled his plans for a lakefront park on the site. However, then-Gov. Jim Edgar found the move irksome and intervened. The two feuded over the Field before eventually brokering a deal to keep Meigs open for five years.
By 2001, Daley was battling with another Republican governor over the airport’s future. This time, the mayor and Gov. George Ryan reached an agreement to keep Meigs open for 25 more years. In exchange, the governor supported a proposed O’Hare Airport expansion.
But, as the Sun-Times reported after the mayor dispatched the bulldozers, no O’Hare bill cleared Congress and Daley said the deal was off.
Michael Shakman, a lawyer who represented the Edgar administration in its Meigs legal battles with the city, said in 2003 that he was astonished the mayor reneged on the deal.
“I think it’s one of those things that in the long-term history of this mayor and his administration will be a significant black mark on his character,” Shakman told WBEZ the day after the demolition.
Twenty years later, Shakman stands by that assessment. Shakman said this month the traffic in and out of Meigs was “valuable for the economy.”
“For the most part, they were business travelers who brought money into the Chicago area, and specifically to downtown Chicago, which could always use it,” he said from Florida, where he was visiting to fly glider planes.
Daley’s spokeswoman declined to comment on Meigs Field.
In the decades since, the lakefront property has struggled to become a popular park. Juanita Irizarry, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of the Parks, said a transformation plan “was never fully actualized” and the space is incongruous — especially because of the Huntington Bank Pavilion concert venue on the island.
“We don’t think it’s got the right set of components,” Irizarry said. “You know, if you really want it to be a natural area, you probably shouldn’t have these mind-numbingly loud concerts there.”
In 2010, the park district unveiled ambitious plans spearheaded by Chicago architect Jeanne Gang to convert Northerly Island into an urban oasis of sorts, with everything from scuba diving to campsites. The city told Chicago Magazine in 2020 that Gang’s design remained an “active, long-term plan,” but was on hold because of lack of funding.
Now, with the Bears’ future at nearby Soldier Field in flux, Northerly Island once again finds itself situated in a sea of potential change.
Last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Museum Campus working group released updated renderings, which included calls to complete Gang’s designs for Northerly Island. Irizarry of Friends of the Parks said she’s hopeful the next mayor will double down on those lakefront plans — and further the transformation of the land that once housed Meigs Field.
In a statement to WBEZ, the Chicago Park District called Northerly Island one of Chicago’s “most treasured natural gems” with a pond, trails, hills and more than 150 types of native plants.
“Over the past two decades, the Park District along with the Army Corps of Engineers have invested more than $10 million to develop a 40-acre, nature area on the island,” the statement reads in part. “Past proposals for more extensive developments at Northerly would come at great cost and further burden to taxpayers.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, Northerly Island was eerily quiet. A few people biked or walked along the path, but they were far outnumbered by geese and seagulls.
The private planes, the single airstrip and the giant Xs are all long gone, and the hilly landscape makes it hard to imagine they were ever here. But from the perch of the pedestrian trail, there’s a good view of the still-standing air traffic control tower — the last real sign of Chicago’s downtown airport.
WBEZ’s Justine Tobiasz contributed to archival research. Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.