Chicago Athlete: How did you get involved with Chicago parks?
Erma Tranter: It started with running and with the Chicago Area Runners Association, actually. A few runners and I formed a committee to start the marathon in 1977; I was getting my masters in Urban Planning at University of Illinois at Chicago at the time, and I had the summer off, so I was the race coordinator. We picked a date in September, so I had to go to the Chicago Park District (CPD) and get a permit, and they said no, so that was my first experience with parks.
CA: What did you do when they denied your permit for the first Chicago Marathon?
ET: We ultimately got the permit because Mayor Bilandic was a runner. So we put the event on the lakefront through Jackson, Lincoln and all the parks there. While I was coordinating, I met some of the people involved with Friends of the Parks and met some board members. While I finished getting my degree, I also put on some special events as a serious women runner also in the parks, so I was always interacting with Friends of the Parks.
CA: What kind of events did you put on?
ET: We put on a series of women’s race, because at the time women weren’t running as much. We found out that they weren’t comfortable with men, or never raced before, so we did a series just for them. We put on the Avon Women’s 10K and Half Marathon, and many more for a year or so and again, all in parks on the lakefront.
CA: Did you start your career at FOTP soon after?
ET: Yes, Friends of the Parks had a nine-month grant from the government to hire a planner, and I applied for it and got it in 1980. They ended up extending the grant to 18 months for me, and then the next year I became Executive Director until 2014. I thought I’d just stay the length of the grant and help the city, but I stayed 34 years.
CA: Clearly you were good at what you did to have moved up to director so quickly.
ET: Turns out I loved what the parks meant for neighborhoods, because I used them every day; they’re essential for health and fitness, and kids have to go somewhere to play. And then I met wonderful people who are working so hard to change the community. Between my passion for being a runner and biker, and the need in the city and seeing how a great park made a great neighborhood, it really fit in with my values.
CA: Over the three decades, what do you feel is your greatest accomplishment?
ET: When I started, there had been a lawsuit against the Chicago Park District claiming they discriminated against minorities; they spent money in white areas, but not equal tax dollars in minority communities. We supported the lawsuit – my first dealings were with the inequities, and my job was to help implement equality. We had to make sure tax dollars were spent in minority communities on the South Side to bring them up to a level of facilities that were seen on the North Side.
Also, Friends of the Parks is a strong advocate for identifying neighborhoods that didn’t have parks. We did several studies in three years that identified those locations, and we’d work with the local neighborhood groups to get more parks planned. With help from the CPD, it went from 7,000 acres to 10,000 acres of parks in the city.
CA: Where do you think Chicago parks could still use improvements?
ET: Well, we had a plan for the city to identify and finish the lakefront. Right now, it ends at Hollywood on the North Side and at 71st on the South Side, and there’s two miles on either side that could be finished, to go all the way to Evanston. It was called the Last Four Miles Plan; I think we did a good job designing it, but nothing has happened. Just lack of funds for implementation.
CA: What made you decide to leave?
ET: Well, 34 years is a long time. I had an opportunity to help a nonprofit in Guatemala, which I did a few times because I loved it. I also needed change; I now am a consultant that is working on a restoration project in Lincoln Park, and I’m on the National Board of City Parks Alliance where we focus on urban parks. So I am still working with parks, but now I can work with a few groups on various projects, which I couldn’t concentrate on with FOTP because I had to focus on all 581 parks. I am still very much a part of it, and I love FOTP and help them anytime.
CA: What is your favorite part about working in Chicago?
ET: I love the city and I love the people; we are the Midwest, and when you’re working as an urban planner and working in 77 communities of a city, you see the diversity of the people and their commitment to their neighborhood and passion for improvement. I love the different languages and the different people that have all come here with their own stories. I also love the lakefront; I think we’re blessed to have that.