The perpetrators behind the extra S’s want to remain anonymous.
“You can say that we’re old white ladies,” said one. “That would be fine.”
“Yeah,” agreed the other. “Vandal No. 1 and Vandal No. 2.”
This is the first time the vandals have spoken about their crime, which involved adding a very official-looking extra “S” to every park district sign in Douglas Park, a year and a half before Chicago’s Park District actually decided to change the name this September.
You might say they took a community fight to rename the park into the community’s hands.
“It had started to bother me, and I would wonder, ‘Why is this park not named after Frederick Douglass instead of Stephen Douglas?’” said Vandal No. 2. “It just seemed wrong and obvious.”
Some incredibly persistent middle-school students from Village Leadership Academy were responsible for getting the vandals and many others to think about this.
It’s an insult for the park to be named after a slaveholder, they argued beginning in 2017, especially when it would be so easy to rename the park for an African American hero. They argued the park district could just add an “S” to the end of Douglas to change the park’s namesake from Stephen Douglas, the former Illinois senator who profited from slavery, to Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist.
“Add an ‘S,’ it’s for the best,” the kids chanted and cheered on CTA trains and during meetings of the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners, for years.
But the park district was slow to act. That’s when the vandals got their idea. “We just sort of said, ‘Well, why can’t we just change the name? Let’s just go do it.’”
This was early 2019. Their first attempt involved cut-out paper S’s.
“I think we used weld-bond glue and we put a matte medium over,” said Vandal 1.
The S’s held for about a month, until there was a sleet storm one night. In the morning, “We found the sad little S’s laying on the ground,” Vandal 1 said. “So we had to start again with a new technique.” They stepped up to glossy paint, and perfected lettering with tracing paper, stencils, and contact paper.
Douglas Park is big — 170 acres. Signs with the park’s name are at every entrance.
“I was thinking we were gonna do one sign, and it will fall apart. And so what?! We had done our job,” said Vandal 1.
But that’s not what her co-conspirator had in mind; not even close.
“It was like, ‘No. We’re gonna do every sign. And if it falls apart, we’re going to fix it.’”
So the two maintained 47 signs — and took care of every single extra ‘S’ — for more than a year.
They’re pretty happy with how professional their work looked.
“The medium-sized signs worked out fine, because ‘Douglas’ and ‘Park’ are on two separate lines. So they look good,” said Vandal 2. The smallest signs were trickier, with nowhere for the extra ‘S’ to go. They ended up cramming it into the space between the two words. “They looked awkward, but that was the best we could do,” said Vandal 2.
The biggest signs were a challenge, too. They featured lettering eight feet off the ground. “These are the ones we’re most proud of,” said Vandal 1.
“It’s sort of a risky situation,” added Vandal 2.
The vandals needed ladders to reach the lettering on those bigger signs, and they’re not the kind you’ll typically find climbing ladders in the middle of a public park. Vandal Number 2 is 72 years old, and Vandal 1 is 63.
And if that wasn’t risky enough, they didn’t wait until cover of darkness to paint their extra S’s.
“Absolute broad daylight,” said Vandal 1. “Old white ladies are invisible. And we used that secret power.”
They did get caught once. Vandal 2 was up on the ladder, at the park’s main sign near 19th and Sacramento.
“She wasn’t actually putting the S on yet,” just lining up the T-square, said Vandal 1. “And this black SUV pulls up, and they roll down the window, and they’re like, ‘What are you ladies doing?’”
The guy in the SUV was wearing a Park District staff shirt. The vandals started wondering about bail money.
But Vandal 2 didn’t miss a beat; she quickly responded with one of a handful of excuses the vandals had thought up from the beginning.
“She was like, ‘Well, we’re from the Art Institute. And we are studying typography in the parks. And you’d be surprised how interesting these signs are! And how many signs there are! And what bad shape they’re in!’” Vandal No. 1 recalls. “And he was like, ‘Oh, I’m the head of maintenance here, and if you were putting a sticker up there, you would be so busted because they’re so hard to get off!’”
He never noticed the extra ‘S.’ And if anyone from the park district did, they never took the S’s down — for more than a year.
News reports would mention the altered signs from time to time, but the two vandals were never outed or caught.
“We felt that what we were doing was supporting the work of the kids, and drawing a little bit more attention to it,” said Vandal 2. “It helped to give it the little visual drama that it needed and a little mystery to it.”
After the park district board voted in September to dump the name Stephen Douglas, all the signs in the park were quickly taken down. Yes, ironically, that meant the park district removed signs with the updated name, albeit with some occasional imperfections.
The Chicago History Museum has one of the altered signs.
The middle school kids have been celebrating their victory. They say they felt supported when they saw that extra ‘S’ on the signs — they knew there was somebody out there helping them. “And they have pretty good art skills,” said one of the students.
The park district’s board of commissioners is slated to finalize the park’s name change this month, after Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna. Official signs are expected to go up after that.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods at WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.