Letter to The Evanstonian: Harley Clarke demolition is preservation

Mollie Hartenstein, Letter to The Evanstonian

In the last issue, The Evanstonian published an editorial entitled “Save Harley Clarke”, which argued that the Harley Clarke Mansion should not be demolished because the group planning to demolish the mansion is biased, because other groups have not had a fair chance to submit alternatives to demolition, and because of its potential benefits to the community. These three reasons perpetuate a narrative of victimhood surrounding the demolition of the mansion. Considering Harley Clarke’s lack of public access and continued cost to the Evanston community, the mansion proves to be more of a burden than a benefit to the city. I, and many other like minded Evanstonians, believe the mansion should be torn down to save taxpayer dollars and create a park that is open to the public, environmentally conscious, and reflects the land’s true potential.

As it stands the city of Evanston has signed a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the Evanston Lighthouse Dunes Group (ELD) understanding that demolition will occur and laying out a plan for the ELD to pay for the demolition and subsequent land restoration. In The Evanstonian editorial and other Evanston media, the ELD is characterized as a small group of rich citizens who want a better view of Lake Michigan in order to boost property prices. Media sources spout this narrative without citing any sources while using an ad hominem attack to refute a reputable and sensible plan for Harley Clarke and the surrounding land. Rather than spending millions of dollars to create a partially public space for expensive programming, the ELD will provide a new, publicly accessible Evanston park which will be owned by the city forever.

The City of Evanston purchased the Harley Clarke Mansion and its grounds in 1965 from the Sigma Chi Fraternity’s Northwestern Chapter, and then entered a 40 year lease with the Evanston Arts Center. After the EAC moved to its current location on Central St., the city of Evanston has been thrown into a lengthy debate over the future of Harley Clarke. Commissions have been created and disbanded, reports have been published, developers have bid for access to the space, and someone has always found fault with whatever plans arose. This debate has cost Evanstonians over $45,000 in fees for Harley Clarke, while the mansion has been left empty and unused. The idea that the ELD plan for Harley Clarke is jumping the gun is preposterous when considering how long public commentary has halted action. Nearly four years is plenty of time to create proposals for the land and present them to the city, and far too long to have Evanston residents paying for an unusable “public” asset. Although the land has been zoned for public use since its purchase, the Harley Clarke Mansion has never served the entirety of the Evanston community.

While the Evanston Arts Center provided cultural enrichment to Evanston families who could afford it, the classes, camps and programs were not free and financial aid was limited. Since its purchase in 1965 the Harley Clarke mansion has served only those with enough privilege to afford the EAC programs and get transportation to the far northside of Evanston. To argue as The Evanstonian puts it, that “Harley Clarke serves as an access point to the lakefront for families who historically have had minimal access to the area” ignores the lack of need-based programming at the mansion and the acres of publicly accessible land surrounding it. This space, which is paid for by all taxpayers in Evanston, has only ever benefited those Evanstonians who live in the surrounding area.

Truthfully, a park in the same place as the mansion would provide a freer and more accessible way to enjoy the view of Lake Michigan and the Grosse Point Lighthouse. Anyone and everyone would have access to the park on the former grounds of the Harley Clarke Mansion. Thus, demolishing the mansion is the only way to create a truly public space on the city-owned land.