Northerly Island is actually a peninsula, created as part of the Burnham Plan of Chicago. You can reach it by following the road past the sculpture garden outside of Adler Planetarium. It was once the site of Meigs Field, but the second Mayor Daley controversially sent bulldozers to the runways of that small airport in 2003. Some claim it was a horrible abuse of power. Others claim it was a good security move. Aviation aficionados miss having a lakefront airport; 99 Percenters decry having a whole peninsula dedicated for wealthy executives to fly their private planes to work. In any case, there is no airport there now.
Instead, there is a gorgeous expanse of restored prairie and bird habitat, along with a field house where you can learn about nature, and an outpost of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation focusing on helping migrating birds who strike the windows of downtown skyscrapers. The Charter One Pavilion, a concert venue now slated for expansion, will host bands like Phish and Ben Folds Five this summer.
In the summer, 12th Street Beach is one of the less crowded beaches in the city because of its secluded location. There is open water swimming here, rather than the limited-depth swimming at other beaches. You can also enjoy public restrooms that are a bit cleaner than at some other beaches and skip long lines at the concession stand. There is typically only one lifeguard, so be aware of your little swimmers. Amusingly, there is no 12th Street here (it’s now called Roosevelt Road).
In spring and fall, this is an excellent place to birdwatch. In particular, many Purple Martins nest here, and you may see some warblers passing through who are only in the Chicago area for a few weeks or even days per year.
There is also talk of building an artificial reef off the shore here, providing habitat for struggling Lake Michigan fish. This is just one of many ecology-minded projects under discussion for Northerly Island, keeping true to Burnham’s motto, “Make no small plans.” I, for one, am eager to see what actually comes to fruition.