Hometown Tourist: Humboldt Park

Hometown Tourist is a series that hears that chipper tip, “be a tourist in your hometown!” and says, “Okay!” When friends come to visit, I like to show them a combination of standard tourist spots and the neighborhood places they’d never know to look for. Why not write about all those places? If you have suggestions on Chicago places you’d like to see covered for Hometown Tourist, add it in the comments.

I might never have started this blog were it not for Humboldt Park. Humboldt is bordered by North Ave, California, Kedzie, and Division, a vast expanse of green on the west side of Chicago. When I lived on California, I would walk the seven-tenths of a mile down the street and find a spot next to the lake to sit and read. In 2009, I’d been thinking of starting a blog (nothing like joining a trend a year or two late). On a few sunny September afternoons, feeling stifled and uncreative in my apartment, I walked down to Humboldt Park, sprawled out on the grass, and wrote. Surrounded by families barbequing and teenagers biking and old men fishing, I scrawled some ideas in a notebook and decided they would be enough to go on.

A typical summer day in Humboldt Park

The manmade lake is stocked with fish, and the patient and hopeful find many places around the perimeter to set up their poles and see what they can catch. The boat house is basically a big pavilion covered by graceful arches, and I mostly look at it from afar, although it can give a nice view of the lake when you’re standing on it. Also, there are barebones bathrooms in there, which is useful.

Native plants

The park was designed by Jens Jensen, who designed various other parks in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. One of Jensen’s main principles was using native plants in landscape design, rather than importing exotic plants. He believed that a space was most beautiful when it used the materials at hand, and looking at the prairie design of Humboldt, it’s easy to agree. I also think of my friend Matthew, who works for a parks department in Michigan and spends a large part of his time removing invasive plants and educating homeowners about the dangers of invasives and the benefits of natives. Looks like Jensen may have been ahead of his time on this one!

You can see the Sears Tower (or Willis, sure) in the distance

The park is so large that a road runs through it so cars aren’t inconvenienced. All the pictures here are ones I took in the eastern side of the park, but the western side has great stuff too: a fancy fieldhouse, a small lagoon with a sand beach (the only such beach in the city that’s not on Lake Michigan), and a little river flanked by benches sheltered by plants in just such a way as to make them perfect makeout spots. A bike path meanders through the whole park, baseball fields host games all summer, and the playground is almost always covered in children squealing with delight.

The boat house

Humboldt Park is the name of the surrounding neighborhood as well as the green space, and it’s a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. Giant, metal Puerto Rican flags straddle two of the streets, and almost every other storefront is a restaurant with delicious foods. The city of Chicago hasn’t really caught up to the street food craze sweeping the nation, but there are several food huts and carts at the park with tasty jibaritos and alcapurrias for sale. In June of each year, the streets host an official parade and also an unofficial parade of jubilant, flag-waving people in slow-moving cars for the Fiestas Puertorriquenas. People sit out on their porches and grill food, bomba and salsa music blasts from stereos, and everyone’s in a great mood. All this is concentrated in the park, where a large carnival is set up and live music plays. It’s a good time, and a total change to the usually peaceful park.

In short, if you’re anywhere west of Western and north of the Eisenhower, stop by! It’s a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

Where it is: In the square created by North Ave, California Ave, Kedzie Ave, and Division Street

When to go: Whenever! Obviously, it’s not as active in the winter, although the scenery is just as beautiful as it is in the summer, if different.

What to see: The lake and boat house, the gardens tucked away in the shade, a baseball game at one of the diamonds, the shallow swimming lake on those hot summer days

Cost: Free

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4 thoughts on “Hometown Tourist: Humboldt Park

  1. I had no idea the park was so big, had a lake and was so accessible. What an awesome resource so close to home. Living in the middle of Michigan I sometimes get chided for being “so far away” from any of the 4 Great Lakes that border Michigan. Humboldt park sounds wonderful.

  2. I went for a leisurely bike ride along the paths that snake throughout the park a few weeks ago. Not only are there native plants, but some of those native plants are edible! Milkweed pops up all over the city, but there is an extremely high concentration of arrowhead (also called wapato). It is the pointy-leaved thing growing in the muck right on the edge of all the ponds/lakes in the park. The tuber can be harvested in the fall if you’ve got some heavy duty muck boots. Or, more discreetly, the new leaf growth can be had right now. Look for leaves that are completely curled in on themselves. I don’t think they’re good raw, but steamed they are supposed to be right up there in the world of edible greens. And I’m sure there is a lot more I am completely unaware of, too!

    • Yes, but was there a heron that you didn’t see because you were so excited about milkweed?? 😛

      That is some wonderful and useful information right there. Thanks, Keegan! Chicagoans, take note.

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