Just a day at the park
A few years ago, Aurora, Ill., residents could not envision that the historic McCarty Park could be anything more than old turf, rotting structures and crime. Residents questioned why the city even considered investing in it. “The biggest single problem was skepticism on the part of some people as to whether we could be successful in doing something to transform that park and transform that area,” says Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner. Recent revitalization efforts that have restored the park, however, are proving the doubters wrong, and attracting visitors and residents to the center of downtown.
Platted in 1836 as a public space for residents, McCarty Park was designed to be the center of activity and commerce in the downtown area. And, for a long time, it was, playing host to community events, concerts and even a 1903 visit from President Theodore Roosevelt. But, as residents began to move away from the urban core to outlying suburban areas, downtown Aurora no longer attracted families as it had before, particularly to some of its public spaces, which had become rife with illegal activity.
About six years ago, Aurora, a 175,000-resident city 40 miles west of Chicago, began revitalizing its downtown area, starting with Phillips Park, which had been filled with criminal activity. But the lawlessness that had once plagued Phillips Park found its way to the center of town, settling at McCarty Park. Although McCarty Park’s grass was cut every week, it was not maintained to detract pests. A gazebo with rotting boards had been closed off, and the park’s tree canopy had become overgrown. “Over the last 20 years, while [McCarty Park has] been historically maintained, it has not really been a huge gathering place,” Weisner says. “Our purpose was to reinvigorate the park — realizing its wonderful history — and [try] to maintain many of the historical features, add to it to make it a real attraction within the area, draw families and children, and really have it become utilized as it once was.”
Last year, city officials met with park designers to gather suggestions for the new park, and a survey led by Alderman Juany Garza collected residents’ ideas, which included adding picnic tables, restrooms and holding community events, such as festivals and concerts. Others wanted kid-friendly attractions and to retain the park’s historic look. “It really was kind of a comprehensive approach to improving the whole neighborhood along with the neighbors,” Weisner says.
Funding for the $700,000 park improvements came from a variety of sources, including a neighborhood committee group. Mayor Weisner also dedicated money from the city’s capital improvement fund to the site.
On July 18, the new McCarty Park opened, featuring improved landscaping, including new turf and blooming flowers. Twelve flower baskets decorate the park and are shaded by a historic tree canopy. Residents can pass through the 3.75-acre site using its crossways. A wrought iron fence and stone entrances made of native limestone encircle the grounds. A pergola also has been installed. The main park attraction, however, is an interactive water fountain with 22 nozzles that spray water in six different patterns. The fountain recycles water and features a border made of recycled glass. A city employee is stationed at the site to maintain the grounds and monitor park activity.
Now, when Mayor Weisner passes by McCarty Park each week, he sees crowds of visitors, a testament to the project’s success and an example of how city leaders can produce positive changes in the community. “[Now], I think there’s a lot of believers,” he says.