The Hyde Park- Kenwood area is particularly rich in city parks, and especially in children's playlots. By one count, Hyde Park- Kenwood and the surrounding area are home to 30 city parks. For parents of young children, this is a particular boon, and one of the reasons HP-K is such a child-friendly neighborhood.
Naturally, the best park playground is (or should be) the one closest to home, just down the street, where kids can walk or be carried a short distance, to meet and be with people they know. Chicago playgrounds also come in a variety of packages. While most of them have the same basic equipment and general layout, they come in vastly different settings: some are new, some are old; some are loved and bustling, some are neglected and empty; some cater to a restricted demographic, some display the full range of Chicago's ethnic diversity; some are squeezed between apartment buildings, some take up entire city blocks; some are in larger parks with few amenities, some are among the city's most attractively landscaped jewels, surrounded by may other attractions.
So, all this being said, here are chicago pop's rankings of Hyde Park and Kenwood area playgrounds. There may be a few I missed completely, and a few that have striking qualities that deserve to be highlighted, even if they don't place in the Top 5. Let's hear about it, if so. But I'm confident that the Top 1 and 2 positions are there to stay.
The rankings here are based on the quality of the playground -- amount of equipment, condition, layout -- but just as much on the setting, the qualities of the surrounding park, and the demographics of park use. There is a slight preference for larger playgrounds in larger parks, but I also include a smaller favorite in recognition of the fundamental diversity of playground settings.
Hyde Park-Kenwood's Best Playground: #1 Harold Washington Playlot, Harold Washington Park
Hands-down, without-a-doubt, no-two-ways-about it, Hyde Park - Kenwood's best playground is the spacious, shaded, elaborately-equipped, and beautifully sited Harold Washington Playlot in the city park of that name.
Harold Washington dominates in every field. It is an outstanding, recently-renovated children's playground located within one of the most beautiful city parks in Chicago. It is unmatched in surrounding attractions and amenities. And it is one of the least segregated playgrounds in the Hyde Park area.
This last quality helped knock a few solid and serviceable playgrounds out of the Top 2 -- playgrounds like Bixler Playlot, on 57th Street, which is used by a heavily Caucasian crowd, and the vibrant playground at 47th and Cornell in Burnham Park, which is very popular for pick-up basketball and heavily African-American.
The surrounding park helped lift the playground to the top of the list thanks to a few key features, chief among them being one of Hyde Park's very few public restrooms. This is something that any parent should be able to appreciate, as well as a sign of confidence in the civility of park patrons.
The list goes on, and includes Chicago's only boat pond -- which we remain hopeful will one day rent boats for kids to sail -- newly resurfaced tennis courts right next door, chess tables nearby, access to the lakefront trail, Promontory Point, and Istria Cafe a few blocks away, as well as the coming rehabilitation of the Del Prado Hotel on the southwest corner of the park.
Enjoy your local playground this summer. But be sure at some point to stop into the best playground in the best city park that Hyde Park - Kenwood has to offer.
#2 Kenwood Community Park
Kenwood Community Park is the only other park in the neighborhood on the same level as Harold Washington in terms of diversity of activity stations, with one jungle gym for toddlers and another for older children, as well as one of the best play fountains. Like Harold Washington, Kenwood Community Park has abundant shade, is clean, and is frequented by a diverse group of residents from all of Hyde Park and Kenwood.
The playground itself resembles Bixler to the extent that it is located in a park next to a school (Beulah Shoesmith), set in a residential neighborhood -- in this case, a charming square of old brownstones and single-family homes. Two blocks to the east is one of the Chicago Public Library's architectural jewels, the Blackstone Library.
Kenwood's configuration is somewhat unusual in that it is an oblong, narrow area, fit in between a baseball diamond and the park boundary. But this is a quibble. The adjacent tennis courts are frequently in use, and the sandbox is very popular. Kenwood Community Playground is the epitome of an active playground integrated into the fabric of an old, established Chicago neighborhood.
#3 Bixler Playlot
Bixler Playlot scores points for one reason above all: location, location, location.
It is quite popular among the PSN-mommy set, due primarily to its location in an area that is comparatively lacking in parks or playgrounds. It also has the convenience of being located across from one of the few stretches of commercial and dining activity in Hyde Park -- on 57th Street -- making it easy to grab a refreshment around lunchtime for the kids or a coffee to help the adults keep up with the youngsters. Because of this central location, it is almost always in use.
With Bixler we move down to a different level from the #1 and #2 playgrounds. It is smaller, less well kept, and has fewer activity stations. Importantly for this ranking, Bixler is not nearly as diverse in the crowds it attracts. On an aesthetic level, it tends to be littered with junk and broken toys that someone, at one time, thought it would be generous to leave as gifts to the commons, but now mostly frustrate or trip the children who try to use them. It is also less well-shaded than either Harold Washington or Kenwood, making for hot times both for children or their guardians watching from the benches.
#4 Sycamore Playlot Park
Sycamore Playlot Park is my favorite among the smaller "pocket" parks laid out on one or two city lots between standing blocks of residential apartment buildings. Many of these parks are visited much less often than the larger or more popular parks in the neighborhood, and are often known only by locals. However, some of them are worth visiting on the basis of their own qualities, and Sycamore is one of them.
Located half a block from Barack Obama's Kenwood mansion, Sycamore is a well-shaded playground with one major activity station, two swingsets, and a sandbox. It is surrounded on three sides by the brick walls of adjacent apartment buildings, and opens up onto Greenwood Avenue. Several nearby in-home day-care services occasionally bring their toddlers into the park in warm weather.
Sycamore Playlot is not busy, and this may spook moms who don't like to be alone, even though there is a large Secret Service presence just around the corner. It also lacks any significant green space, giving it a very urban feel. All this being said, it is well-equipped for its size, the gear is in solid condition, and Sycamore has the advantage of being one of the more tranquil playgrounds on a calm summer afternoon.
And in the fall, Sycamore is distinguished by three young maple trees that are among the few in Hyde Park to turn a flaming red, contributing to the quiet beauty of the place.
#4 Nichols Park
Nichols Park is the dive-bar of neighborhood parks. That is partly what gets in on this list at all -- its very seediness. But it has several redeeming qualities that compensate for this run-downness and make it a major playground destination for the area. Above all, it is large, with some of the only and largest green space between the Midway on the south, Washington Park on the West, and the lakefront parks on the east.
There are two Park District playgrounds in Nichols Park, one with a more university-oriented crowd on the southern end near 55th Street, and another with a more neighborhood-oriented crowd on the northern end near 54th. Both are older and dilapidated, much like the rest of the surrounding park. Here is where kids will find those increasingly rare but very fast aluminum slides that heat up to 1000 degrees in dog days of summer.
Nichols ranks high for diversity: I have heard more languages spoken in and around the two playgrounds at Nichols Park, especially the southern one, than at any other playground in Hyde Park. The presence of the Neighborhood Club guarantees that there are kids of all ages and backgrounds at the southern end of the park, while the northern playground is regularly used and reflective of the diversity of the neighborhood. All of this -- plus the central green and glorious surrounding timber -- helps Nichols Park overcome its dilapidation to place at #4 on our list of neighborhood playgrounds.
#5 Playground at Promontory Point in Burnham Park
The playground in this park ranks #5 on my list for purely aesthetic reasons: it is situated in a very pleasant location. (Pictures forthcoming!)
The playground equipment is by no means the newest, most modern, or most extensive (although the equipment is in better shape than the playgrounds at Nichols Park), and the playground is used only intermittently. Close to the Point, it is more remote from the central areas of Hyde Park. But the playground, at the southernmost end of vast Burnham Park and across from the Shoreland Hotel, is one of the loveliest settings of all the playgrounds in Hyde Park. It is shaded by several enormous cottonwood and basswood trees, which let a dappled sunlight filter down to the activity stations. The Point is steps away, and open green space is all around. Even when completely empty of other visitors, its open location and proximity to the lakefront path make it feel safe.
#6 ... Your Suggestions?