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A park of Chicago history


Walking down into the hole of what was once Stearns Quarry, I saw the unmistakable motion of guys fly-casting off the fishing pier in the lagoon at the bottom.

That's right, in the middle of Bridgeport, Chicago's fabled mayoral neighborhood, two guys were fly fishing. For bluegill.

The Henry C. Palmisano Park is something different when it comes to an open wild space in a modern urban setting.

The park is worthy of Palmisano; and he, worthy of the park.

Palmisano, who died in February 2006, was one of three brothers running the bait shop, Henry's, started by their late father, Hank.

But Palmisano was more than the accountant for the family business. He was a dedicated singer (Catholic choirs and the Bridgeport Choral Society), a former president of Valentine Boys and Girls Club and a great advocate for Chicago fishermen.

He also was the person who gave me my first scoops in outdoors writing. The park, named in September, is a dandy way to commemorate him.

I have a confession. Several years ago when renovation started at Stearns Quarry or Park No. 531, I snuck in at several holes in the fence and surveyed the park and its potential. On Wednesday, I went back for a more extensive and legal tour with Tom Palmisano, one of the three brothers.

''A 27-acre park, half a block from my house, with a lagoon, named after my brother,'' Tom Palmisano said. ''I can't complain.''

The park is reaching its potential as a groundbreaking space.

It's a park with a history tied to Chicago. The quarry literally gave foundation for Chicago in the 1830s. Marcus Cicero Stearns owned and operated the quarry for years. Material Services took over in the 1900s. Quarrying ended in 1969. For 20 years, it was used as a clean-fill dump by the city.

Tons of topsoil topped the fill when the park was made.

Tom Palmisano and I fished bluegill with tiny jigs tipped with wax worms or spikes at the lagoon. In a half-hour, we caught a couple dozen mostly smaller ones from the shoreline. Roy Calderone, fly-casting on the pier with a couple others, caught some keeper-sized bluegill.

Tom has pushed city and state officials to make it a catch-and-release site, so the emphasis can be on kids fishing. Much of the lagoon is protected anyway because the starkly beautiful limestone walls from the old quarry make other shore access impossible.

Mallards, Canada geese and a pair of white domestic ducks swam the lagoon.

On the north side of the park, waterfalls drop from a fountain in the park's northeast corner through wetlands to the lagoon. Much of the cover in the park is or will be prairie.

The west side is a multipurpose field with a small cinder running track (a woman jogging lapped us twice). There's fencing around the leftover limestone walls. Even in the middle of the day, many walked the handicapped-accessible paths. Ald. James Balcer and John Daley are said to use the park regularly.

The other distinctive feature is the hill. It offers a spectacular view toward downtown. I rate the downtown view better than the one from Cricket Hill at Montrose. Leftover limestone boulders at the crest highlight the park's history.

Entrances are at Halsted and 29th, Halsted and 27th and across from the McGuane Park fieldhouse. There's diagonal street parking on the north side off 27th.

Tom and I made it back to the Halsted side, where the old concrete wall left over from quarry days divides park from street.

It was time.

He grabbed a couple of Italian beefs from Freddies, the 31st Street institution, and we talked of history and gardening in the sun.

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