Let the tourists have their Oak Street, with its hard bodies splayed under palm trees, its joggers, bladers and bikers weaving precariously down the path. I’ll take Hartigan Beach, a hidden cove in Rogers Park whose contours change with the light, the time and age of its visitors.
Hartigan Beach can be reached only by foot along a stub of a street called Albion just off Sheridan Road. When Albion’s opulent homes were built in the early 20th century, Hartigan Beach served as their own private playground. Today, renamed after a long gone alderman and incorporated into the Chicago Park District, it holds the park district’s minimal complement of playground equipment — baby swings and big swings, animals on giant springs, and a fort with three slides, one curly and two straight. A few good climbing trees grow on the edge of the grass and where the water meets the sand, a white guard chair and a rowboat serve as lookouts on the horizon.
Public Space, Private Moments
I first started going to Hartigan Beach in 1984 when my husband Doug and I took a small apartment a few blocks away. We filled this public space with private moments. We read the Sunday papers there. We ran along the shore. We threw parties. We cross-country skied in the winter. We had snowball fights, and a few knock-down, drag-out screaming fights too, working out our private moral dramas in public.
When our son was born, we joined the families there and brought our naked toddler before sunrise to play in the water. Later, my son became the grade school boy who pretended to slay dragons near the fort. Next, he became the junior high kid who played Frisbee with his friends on the beach. High school starts next month, and I imagine he’ll join the kids smoking cigarettes and making out after sundown, pressed against the rocks.
I’ve seen women in saris wade into the water, yoga classes at dawn, Waldorf School kids writing in their journals, weddings, baptisms and picnics smelling of Rogers Park’s ethnic foods. I’ve been a walker and runner there, a player and watcher, friend and lover, griever and consoler, overachiever and fuckup, all in the sheltered solitude of Hartigan Beach.
Once, I remember a red moon rising up so vividly over the lake it cast the park in the rosy hue of a dreamscape. And just last week, a fox crossed my path, right there on Hartigan Beach.
A Place to Remember
For many years a retired trader has been putting up beautiful silken prayer flags from Nepal and Bali, some as tall as 30 feet high, on the shore and in the sandbars to honor his mother, who died 10 years ago. I get it.
On May 26th, 2006, just as the sun went down, I walked to the beach with my own cobbled together family—my sister-in-law, my niece, my son and his best friend. We brought two boxes. One held candles and framed pictures of our family in happy times. The other box carried Doug’s ashes.
Long before he got sick, my husband made a list of places he wanted his ashes to rest. It’s no wonder we chose Hartigan Beach. Alone on the beach, each of us said something, though now I can’t tell you what. We walked into the water and let go of hands full of Doug’s ashes. We watched as the water mixed in the ashes, making it impossible to tell the difference between Doug and the sand.
Almost every day, I still go to the beach I think of as mine to walk on the sand, therapy to nurse an old injury. And almost every day, I ask my son Nick, to go with me. Even though he is breaking away, he has yet to say no. These are the times we can talk about what is going on in our lives. But some days we say nothing. The beach talks to us.