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Happy 10-year anniversary, Northerly Island

A favorite phodecade since then-Mayor Daley opened Northerly Islfor public as natural area: Bob Long Jr. (from left) Ken Schneider

A favorite photo in the decade since then-Mayor Daley opened Northerly Island for the public as a natural area: Bob Long Jr. (from left), Ken Schneider, the late Henry Palmisano and Steve Palmisano pose with one of the no-fishing signs from the former air

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Updated: May 8, 2013 6:38AM

Ralph Grasso had the right idea to call the annual perch derby on Northerly Island the ‘‘Harrison Ford Fishing Derby.’’

Even a decade later, Northerly Island makes me feel alive like few other stories I have covered.

It mixes love and hate. That sacred space on the Chicago lakefront both makes my blood boil and moves me to tears — sometimes on the same day.

During the last decade, I have figured out the twin reasons why Northerly Island so touches me.

One is simple: In the modern world, Northerly Island is a unique experiment in returning prime real estate to a natural space for urban residents. It has succeeded, though not to the level I dream about.

But it has succeeded. Northerly Island is a natural spot on the Chicago lakefront used by hikers, bikers, fishermen, birders, walkers and smart sightseers.

Second — and maybe more personal — is this is one time fat cats were beaten and stayed beaten. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, but this sticks in some subconscious spot, one so deep that I can’t eradicate my utter glee. The fat cats lost, and no amount of lawyering, accounting or PR has been able to change it. Northerly Island remains an imperfect wild spot in the heart of one of the great cities in the world.

Even a decade later, Ford seems the perfect symbol for the anti-Northerly Island forces. Naturally, ‘‘Blade Runner’’ is the most cinematic of Ford’s movies. And, aptly enough, the masterpiece is set in a postmodern world utterly devoid of the natural.

It’s a perfect setting for the two-faced Ford to showcase his talents. Through the years, Ford, a showboat conservationist and an owner of multiple planes, has lipped off about the eradication of the former airport.

Last week was a time to remember and, for some of us, to celebrate the daring X-ing out of the runways of a small airport on the lakefront and the return of that prime space to the public and the natural world.

On the night of March 30 into March 31, 2003, then-Mayor Daley’s henchman did the deed that made Northerly Island a park.

I remember waking up and hearing the news on the radio, then thinking it was an April Fool’s joke. But it wasn’t. Daley had figured out a way to take back the airport for the public.

Why, I am not sure. My contacts with the Daley world aren’t good enough.

But it is a park, imperfect and becoming more imperfect with the expansion of the concert venue at the north end of the peninsula.

So many memories stick from Northerly Island, including the utter euphoria of the first public event there, a perch-fishing derby. People stood on car roofs to watch. An electric feeling of roaming around the inside of a palace filled the shore.

I remember walking the whole island, just to do it, and feeling the lonesomeness of the east side, the utter beauty of the view of Chicago (Soldier Field, the Sears Tower,
the Loop) from the Burnham Harbor side.

It seems natural for children’s fishing programs to be centered there, for jumbo perch, rock bass, lunker smallmouth bass, brown trout, spring coho and fall Chinook to be caught there.

Mike Osuch caught the modern record for Chicago walleye
(7 pounds, 5.5 ounces) from the tip of Northerly Island on Sept. 11, 2008.

Seems natural enough.

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