Suit seeks equal services for all of Chicago's parks

Consider the contrast:

* Tiny Welles Park, nestled in one square block of Chicago's predominantly white Northwest Side, has almost more facilities than it can hold. There are two baseball diamonds, a pair of tennis courts, a large, well-used field house, swings, teeter-totters, and benches scattered in any space not already occupied.

* In Garfield Park, an area well over four times as large in a black, West Side neighborhood, there are proportionately far fewer benches and recreation facilities. The paint on the once spectacular gold dome of the field house is peeling. The lagoon beside it, which looks like a clear blue lake on city maps, is now a dirty gray and no longer the site of summer boating it once was. The lily ponds - put in when well-to-do whites were the park's neighbors - and the swimming pool are no longer filled.

The visual differences hint at deeper financial ones. It is the contrast in dollars paid out for park facilities, programs, repairs, and personnel in white neighborhoods vs. black and Hispanic areas that are at the core of the federal government's recently filed civil-rights suit against the Chicago Park District.

This is the first such federal suit focusing entirely on the issue of equal park services. It is also the Justice Department's first suit under the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act, which authorizes disbursement of Community Development Block Grants. By law that money must chiefly benefit those with low and moderate incomes.

The suit charges that a consistent pattern of discrimination in spending federal funds has evolved over many years. The disparities at the base of the federal suit and another more limited one filed by the Midwest Community Council , a Garfield Park neighborhood group, have been documented by the Chicago Reporter (a monthly journal published by the Community Renewal Society) and by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Sun-Times notes that Welles Park, which lies in Parks Superintendent Edmund Kelly's ward, has had more landscape attendants and full-time recreation workers than Garfield and three other sizable parks in black and Hispanic areas put together. The Chicago Reporter notes that parks in white wards have averaged almost three times more arts and crafts programs and four times more senior-citizen centers.

''We've been in this neighborhood for 40 years and we've seen the deterioration taking place - it's gross discrimination,'' insists Nancy B. Jefferson of the Midwest Community Council. The council first approached the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc., in 1975 with broad charges of city service discrimination in every area from street cleaning to garbage pickup. Those charges led to statistical surveys and to a suit filed on the council's behalf in 1979. It is expected to go to trial sometime during the first half of 1983.

Explaining why parks were singled out, Sybille Fritzsche of the Chicago Lawyers Committee says, ''You start with the strongest case.''

She says that records have not been kept, for instance, which could document disparities in street and sanitation spending. While black and Hispanic neighborhoods do tend to have more police because of a higher average crime rate , police response to emergency calls is often slower. But, again, that trend is hard to document in dollars and cents, she says. Also, the size of branch library budgets are geared to the previous year's book loans, a fact that makes a legal charge of discrimination hard to prove.

''You need very good records to support such cases,'' says Ms. Fritzsche.

Both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times have editorially declared themselves appalled and embarrassed at the independent Chicago Park District's failure to settle the federal case in advance of the Justice Department's suit. But Park District Attorney Rick Halprin says talks between the two parties are two-thirds of the way toward a settlement. Some personnel have already been reassigned in an effort to equalize services and more shifts will be made.

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