Promontory Point Park and Promontory Annex in Burnham Park, Chicago, Illinois
By Gary Ossewaarde
Back to Point home. Burnham Park home. Burnham Park Timeline. Around the Point photo gallery. Burnham Framework Plan. Lakefront Protection Ordinance. South Lakefront Access projects. To swimming issue page. Redesign controversy homepage.

Promontory Park sign west of the 55th underpass

To a photo walk around

Where Hyde Park meets Lake Michigan, the northeast edge of Promontory Point

Where Hyde Park meets Lake Michigan, northeast end of the Promontory Point. Gary Ossewaarde

"...a place you go to and you are thrilled--a beautiful experience, a joy, a delight [with] a sense of space and a sense of the power of nature and the power of the sea."
Alfred Caldwell, original park designer, describing in 1986 his vision of Promontory Point over 50 years before

Contact the Park District Park Services, 312 742-5369, Jackson Park field house, 773 256-0903, or in http://www.chicagoparkdistsrict.com, not this website, re: permits, weddings, rentals etc. But if you want to have more going on for kids and the public or want to form a council at the park, contact the HPKCC Parks Committee as well as the Park Distdrict's Legislative and Community Department.

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General

Phone 312 747-6620.

To News, general interest features.

Resolution was in the middle off the 1st decade of a new century proceeding to new talks with a better prospect of successful conclusion and preservation of the step stone revetment with access-- but.... See Point Latest and Point home.

Replacement of shrubs and trees lost to storms over recent years was underway in July, 2008.

At the same time, police insistence upon non-swimming off the point has involved tactics that have been called outright harassment, including helicopter fly-nears.

For information, classes, opening of bathrooms etc. call either the South Lakefront Region- now downtown at 773 742-PLAY or Jackson Park fieldhouse, new number 773 256-0903. The bathrooms will be open a longer season and longer hours in 2006. Thanks to Ald. Hairston who arranged funding.

Weddings and other rentals- contact Ann Regan at the Park District downtown number above or to her @chicagoparkdistrict.com.

Tip: Always check in the Chicago Park District home page concerning beach closures and safety. Red flag(s) at a staffed beach means "no swimming," but the Point is not an officially sanctioned swimming area although it is sometimes guarded (and sometime patrolled by ticket givers, especially when adjacent 57th beach has a swimming ban).

Promontory Point, part of Burnham Park, juts out into Lake Michigan east of Lake Shore Drive between about 54th and 56th Streets, about 6 miles south of Chicago's Loop. It is under three blocks from the 55th Street stop on the #6 Jeffery Express bus and a half mile from the # 28 bus (post August 31) and Metra Electric stops at 55th. It is accessed through an underpass under the Drive at 55th Street, where there is also parking from the north and south via bike trails subject to Lake Shore Drive and revetment/underpass work. Or you can use the 5oth St. overpass or 57th underpass. Warning--the washrooms in the fieldhouse are only open in summer proper and with limited daytime houses.

General information on Promontory Point staffing and advisory council is in the Parks Website Home page, Advisory Councils, and Directory of Parks in the Hyde Park-Kenwood Area. The council per se has not met in a long time but members monitor and act on behalf of the park, while the PP C Task Force and the Conference parks committee are interested in all aspects of the Point park. Contact Gary Ossewaarde for current activists/monitors.

The shore's famed revetment and tree-lined picnic areas with Alfred Caldwell-designed stone sitting council rings, the huge playing meadow, and bike paths remain open during Lake Shore Drive construction. Bikers and runners have the whole Lakefront Trail open again on the east side of the Drive, but other than the 55th underpass, nearest access from the south will remain 63rd and from the north the 50th Street bike overpass. However, the new path over the 57th overpass from 56th to the beach house is now open. (Please dismount your bike when going through the 55th underpass and proceed slowly. New striping and signage is to be installed.) The vast meadow often teems with soccer and other players and kite flyers and the park's rim fills with picnickers and fishers. And the castle-like fieldhouse is available for rentals, such as weddings.

A special treasure greets one upon emerging from the underpass, the David Wallach Memorial Fountain. In 1894, David Wallach (about whom little is known) left a sum for a sculpture and fountain in a park that would slake the thirst of man and beast. The David Wallach Memorial was installed and dedicated in 1939. Elizabeth Haseltine Hibbard designed the bronze fawn, and her husband Frederick Cleveland Hibbard designed the fountain which has a pool at the base that serves pets and wildlife. Of course, the fountain has leaked periodically. The fawn was stolen at one time, but recovered. The polished brownish granite base is about 2 billion years old, with wonderful crystalline facets of feldspar, biolite, mica, and hornblende.

Complaints about the 55th underpass. It was clear of graffiti in October, 2004. CDOT says it was advised by the city to not use graffiti-proofing coating but to repaint regularly and put in a mural--that might be a good project for a school or community group.

55th is supposed to be one of the underpasses to have a special safe speed-calming hump applied on the approaches. Don't any bike riders dismount anymore? The signs seemed to be plain but will be upgraded.

Further in, there have been problems with some of the plantings. The Park District forester says the pines are planted too close together and to deciduous stands, and this is responsible for progressive dieback. There is now much less planting at the west end of the Point.

The mess at the interface with 57th St. Beach is being cleaned up as of November, 2005.

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Programs

Promontory Point's programs are moved to Jackson Park field house's suite of teen programs. But, events are still held, such as some of the teen club events. Lookingglass Theater has held a youngsters drama summer workshop. The park district feels that the facility and its distance from parking are not suitable for typical pd programs, especially gym-based.

Lookingglass Theatre Company holds an annual Summer Camp on the Lake at Promontory Point. Chance of a lifetime for youth ages 9-15. call 773 477-9257 x193.

And the castle-like fieldhouse is available for rentals, such as for weddings. Call the South Lakefront Region.

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News, general features and happenings of interest at the Point

News

At the Wallach Fountain, east of the 55th underpass, full flow has been restored to all spigots including the lower one for animals, as called for in the original bequest. We understand Mayor Richard M. Daley personally made the decision to restore the historic and needed flow. However, the fountain still has leaks, repairs to be requested in the spring. Persons apparently think it fun to plug the upper basin's drain. Masonry repair with the right grout is still needed.

Comments made about the park at the South budget hearing in September 2005.

Strong complaints were made about bike and other directional and behavioral signage at the underpass and drops to it.
Objection was made to closure schedules for the bathrooms.

Promontory Point's revetment is a common place for tours and investigations of local geology, deep history, and natural history. A major tour was given in 2004 for the Hyde Park Historical Society--see the Geology page. In spring, 2005, the revetment was s place for lichen study:

Hyde Park Herald, April 20, 2005

Anyone curious about the three grown men seen last week with their noses glued to the limestone blocks of Promontory Point need not worry. They were hunting lichens. Accompanied by two companions, lichen enthusiast Reich Hyerczyk hiked the limestone armored ring of the Point on April 14 to begin documenting species of the tiny organisms at the lakefront park.

"I want to show people there's more than pigeons to these rocks," Hyerczyk said. "When you get close with a lens you find stuff all over." The tiny organisms, which can be made up of algae and fungus, may be the next big story at the Point.

Hyerczyk has found a lichen, Pyrenopsis ploycocca, that has yet to be documented in Cook County making it something of a rarity locally.... Jack Spicer, who has helped lead the fight to save the Point's limestone, admits he probably does no have a "snail darter" on his hands The snail darter.. delayed the construction of the Tennessee's Tellico Dam because it was listed as an endangered species.

Nonetheless, Spicer enjoyed the lichen hunt. "I think it's just wonderful all the little exciting things there are at the Point if you just take a moment to look," Spicer said. Historically lichens have been used as pollution indicators, to dye clothes and as food. "I tried a couple.. just to see," Hyerczyk said. "They tasted like mud."

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Historical Society strolls the Point in April 2004

April18, 2004, 40/50 Hyde Parkers braved high winds and unseasonably warm temperatures to learn about the building of the Point, its relationship to the Lakefront and natural flora and to landscape theory, and about its birds. The tour was led by Hyde Park Historical Society board members Doug Anderson and Jack Spicer.

Although we were in the waxing weeks of spring migration, we saw few birds due to the high winds--ring-tail gulls, cormorants, and few others. The birds were hiding in trees against the wind. By mid-May, 100,000 birds will be flying over each night from dusk to 3 am, 8 million of 55 species in total, of whom a fifth will die of encounters with tall buildings. A few species, those that start in Costa Rica or Panama, will nest in the area, the rest, originating in South America, will continue on to Canada. We were also reminded that birds are strong indicators of environmental health and about the monk parakeets (see in Harold Washington Park).

Much of what we learned about the Point's history and its place in the landscape and built environment are presented elsewhere on this page, as well as that from Raymond Wigger's Geology Underfoot tour in October, 2004, also for the Historical Society.

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Promontory Pount Park sign Point from old revetment slated for removal, north

Part of why the community wants to "Save the Point: The left edge of this cove is slowly becoming a sand beach via the process of "groin accretion". This stretch, looking north northwest towards the Loop, is proposed under the Task Force plan to have the north universal access/drainage swale and several types of access to the promenade and into the water for experience (including for people in wheelchairs) of or swimming from a "submerged beach". Looking beyond: interface with the all-concrete new 51st-54th revetment (hard to see, but the sterility comes through). Right: adjacent pine grove and small Alfred Caldwell-designed council ring. Park District experts say this grove is too closely planted together and to close to hardwoods for its health and has other sources of stress.

55th underpass
north from the Point. Note replacemetn 51st-54th revetment in center
north side of t he Point with pines, where revetmetn and park start to spread out northward the fieldhouse castle, arch. E.V. Buchsbaum. Lannon Wisc. limestone

The restored 55th Street underpass from east and west. David Wallach Fountain, designers Elizabeth Haseltine Hibbard (fawn) and her husband Frederick Cleveland Hibbard (fountain) at the east end of the 55th Street underpass (the only convenient access to the Point until late 2004). Vistas. (The Hibbards are a family that goes back to the early years of Hyde Park.) The famous fieldhouse 'Castle' from the east edge of the Meadow. It is of Lannon-type limestone quarried in Wisconsin. Architect E.V. Buchsbaum. More pictures. See also the website of Mary Rose Shaughnessy /Parks.

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History

The short history. (Visit Burnham Park Timeline, city's Lake Shore Drive Site.)

Promontory Point, at 55th Street and Lake Michigan, is an historic landscape and the focal point of Chicago's Burnham Park (although focal point partly by default because the other planned outer-shore peninsulas and islands were not built.) Conceived as part of Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago in 1909, "the Point" was created by an enormous landfill project in the 1920's as a start on realizing the mid-south part of the Burnham Plan The Point was originally slated for 52nd/53rd Street. By 1926*, landfill was well underway from 23rd to 56th but did not yet include the full extent of Promontory Point. (*The John McDermott, Jr. and Victoria Ranney pamphlet says the Point had largely been filled in with sand and garbage by 1926, citing complaints in the Hyde Park Herald about the garbage and blowing sand and odors.)

The step-stone revetment and romantic field house came in the 30's and the whole was landscaped in 1937 by Alfred Caldwell in the Prairie School tradition. To Caldwell, the Point represented the meeting place of the vast prairie and the Great Lakes, and thus symbolized all that was unique about the landscape of Chicago. There were periodic repairs since, especially in the 1960s when the northeast concrete platform with its "coffins' (intended and working as wave deflectors) was put in to stabilize deterioration at the most exposed edge. Changing lake levels had led to deterioration of exposed wooden piles and development of voids under parts of the revetment edge, although the drop of some limestone blocks largely filled and slowed growth of the voids.

Since 1937, The 1920's stepped limestone shoreline "revetment" has been a naturalistic, organic transition from the Caldwell landscape to the water. Since its completion, the Point and especially the revetment has been a place for gathering, resting, and recreation for visitors to the park. The limestone shoreline at the Point has been a part of people's lives for two thirds of a century. More in the City's Lake Shore Drive history site, Hyde Park Historical Society site, below, and in July 13 Plan—Background.

In more detail: Making and fulfilling the Point

In the year after the Columbian Exposition post-Fair cleanup administrator James Ellsworth asked Daniel D. H. Burnham to take a look at the lakefront from Grant to Jackson Park with an eye to developing it as a park and development corridor. Burnham quickly ruled out a resort or upscale residential community and conceived a park that would be both "a playground for the people" and a linear corridor of scenic drive, waterways, boatways, harbors, and islands and protruding promontories. This would provide useful and natural space and stabilize/transition the shore. Envisioned near the south end, at 52nd/53rd, would be a very prominent peninsula with a south-pointing fishhook. It would be years, even after these ideas were limned by Jules Guerin in Burnham and Bennett's 1909 Plan of Chicago, that even part of the concept would be realized.

In the early 20th century the shore at 55th was about where South Shore Drive is now, edged on the south by the original Iowa building and the headwall of a long, granite-paved "beach" sweeping southeastward. As late as 1917, the eastmost nearby building was the luxury 10-story 5490 South Shore. In 1919, anticipating settlement of issues with the Illinois Central Railroad and other litigants, City Council approved breakwaters and shore infill and extension from 12th Street to Jackson Park at 56th Street. The South Park Commission hired Construction Materials to build it.

The breakwater and fill operations began at the future Point after 1924, and by 1926 had progressed to the extent that complaints were coming to the Hyde Park Herald about unsightliness, odors, and blowing sand. Basically what was built at this time was the Promenade level, the elevation and profile of the whole Point were little higher. This did not yet include the steps. By this time the Shoreland Hotel (1926) had been built north of 5490 and the next year the Flamingo Hotel would open in the block to the south--part of a big wave of development the followed electrification (cleaner air and less noise) of the Illinois Central's voluminous, frequent passenger service. Shoreland residents promptly started to use the Point as both their parking lot and beach (advertising showed the Shoreland as if it were really on the shore!). The park was finally sodded in 1929, stopping both the blowing and odors but apparently not use as a parking lot. About the same time, the new Lake Shore Drive opened--the northbound lanes called Leif Erikson Drive and the southbound Christopher Columbus Drive in a nice nod to the city's ethnic rivalries and Columbian Exposition heritage. Trees were planted west of the Drive. Then work stalled because of the Depression and impending bankruptcy of the South Park Commission, which was consolidated with other regional park boards into Chicago Park District in 1934.

By 1935 work was ready to resume--and then 5th Ward Alderman James Cusack happily claimed this was through his intervention. Someone hustled and saw to it that the Point among many other Chicago park projects (eventually 67 in Illinois) was designated for WPA funds and labor. Maybe they used President Roosevelt's known fondness for the city (Mayor Cermak took the bullet widely thought to have been meant for Roosevelt, but others say for Cermak.)

Planning was assigned to Alfred Caldwell, who had assisted the great prairie school park and landscape designer Jens Jensen. Both preferred naturalistic landscaping that reflected the Midwest and incorporated its native plants exclusively, and in holistic landform and plant grouping design. They sought to restore the connections between modern-made 'scapes and what was there naturally--and how nature worked. Limestone was the bedrock of Chicago, so Caldwell was in favor of using it for the revetment, even though someone else designed it. (His own sketches would have had shorter but wider stones and steps.) They were very aware that at times Chicago was a tropical reef, buried under up to 2 miles of ice, had deposition of materials ground from up north, was under 60 feet of lake, or was high and dry miles inland. Likewise, Caldwell (unlike Olmsted) sought the same trees and shrubs and clusters of these with meadows in between that they observed on remaining sections of shoreline. (Today the shrubs under the trees are gone--some say for security reasons.)

They associated themselves in many but not all ways with Prairie School design, although really more contextualists who thought in terms of transitions, rooms, inter penetrations, and flow-through. They wanted to create special places that drew in and engaged the visitor: He viewed the Point, he said in 1986, as "a place you go to and you are thrilled--a beautiful experience, a joy, a delight [with] a sense of space and a sense of the power of nature and the power of the sea." The separately-built limestone block step revetment would serve as transition from the Lake to the built environment, yet you would not see the lake from many of the vantages and edges.

Jensen's and Caldwell's strategy was to create dynamic ways, rises, and vistas that drew the visitor casually, by easy transitions, but relentlessly into a wonderland. You are lured down the road, generally curving, see the tip the next hidden attraction, and so forth--though never is enough revealed to make you want to rush along. They planned strategic resting and viewing spots--but for groups, not just one or three--the famed council rings. The rings--Cal well's designs being somewhat different from Jensen's--were in fact not built until the 1987-90 partial restoration under Caldwell.

The council ring is thought not to have been inspired by Native American practices, although perhaps partly suggested by ancient henges, rings and dolmens--memorials or places of spiritual presence and worship, and to create a democratic space--no pulpits or president's seat or rostrum here. In more modern times, they were built as were grottos, for retreat and reflection. Jensen and Caldwell took the form over for democratic and American-experience expression: places were groups and families would hold egalitarian and democratic discourse. And it works. The fire pit in the center also enforces the suggestion of Native American life and consensus democracy. (The present rings were rebuilt in 1990, the stone in both is Silurian-age Niagara dolostone.)

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Caldwell first raised up the Meadow, sloping up eastward, and created a hill northeast of the meadow for a shelter building. By September, 1936, he had lain plumbing, built the 55th underpass under the Drive, and constructed the paths. By this time, photos show, the step-stone revetment was in place. It employed wooden post cribs and metal tie bands and a stone block promenade followed by two to five rising tiers. Large blocks and rubble were dumped in front. The stone is Mississippian age Bedford-type Indiana limestone, c. 360 million years old (60 million younger than the stone for the fieldhouse and council rings). Look for the fossils--in some places whole colonies of them.

September 1, 1936, Caldwell submitted his planting plan using indigenous plants-- 241 American elms, 50 American linden, 637 prairie crabapples, and sugar maples, American hop hornbeams, and two varieties of Jensen-trademark hawthorn. (There are also wonderful stands of pines, but their date is unknown to this writer.) Thick groves of trees and plants were to form a ring around the central meadow, except at the north to allow downtown skyline views and south to allow viewing of the industrial complex all too soon to play its role in the "arsenal of democracy." Tree planting was partially done by May, 1938 and still in progress in October. Caldwell was also involved in landscaping the northeast corner of Jackson Park.)

The design stressed the two experiences of the Point: the meadow and the rocks (limestone step revetment). The limestone block step revetment was turned into transition from the Lake to the built environment. Mostly the design was realized, but plant removals over time at the east end and along the paths on the west end of the Point diminished the surprise and transition in these places.

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Park District staff architect E. V. Buchsbaum designed the Shelter (fieldhouse or pavilion). Started in 1936, it was built of Wisconsin Lannon-type Silurian Niagara dolostone (as was the replacement 'Iowa' building west of the Drive and south of 56th). It opened in 1937, as was the Point as a whole. Buchsbaum defended the building as a "picturesque, distinctive building" and the suggestion of a a castle or lighthouse fit the limestone steps and rustic mead. It quickly became a busy site of dances, scout meetings, and more. Caldwell disliked the Shelter as too heavy for the site and an architectural throwback and had nothing but contempt for the fieldhouse and its architect. Would he have built any fieldhouse? Where? What kind and style? Some of us think there is room along the lakefront for several different visions. If a picturesque "eastern lighthouse"/castle is plunked down, it is not per se a disaster. As a fieldhouse it has in recent years been a hard-to-use disappointment--but great for weddings.

Various improvements were added in subsequent years: benches in May, 1938, Boulders called for in Caldwell's design in March, 1939, and in 1939 the Wallach Memorial Fountain (see above). Unusual features include a granite glacial erratic formed about 2 billion years ago.

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In 1953, the Army leased about 7 acres for a Nike missile base radar site. The towers south of the fieldhouse were enormous (one 150 feet tall) and dwarfed the fieldhouse and revetment (which, along with the outer paths, were never blocked off). Many neighbors resented and resisted the tall towers and the fed's barb-wiring off park and lakefront recreational space, especially for military/Cold War purposes. There were parades and protests but they did not become significant until the Vietnam War. Removal of the site due to obsolescence in starting in January 1971 was met with a victory party, "We Won Our Point" in October. Soccer teams again ruled the Meadow.

The Point continued to be popular in the mid-late 20th Century, among swimmers, cyclists, joggers, picnickers--and for viewing 4th of July fireworks, although the park was sadly neglected and the fieldhouse was little-used. There were serious racial and social tensions at times, and the summertime drumming (until the drummer group moved to 63rd) and retaliation of police action through smashing of windows on 55th drew deep neighborhood resentment. This calmed down later, with the main point of contention being the loud-music tailgate parties in the parking lot at the end of 55th Street on summer evenings.

By 1981, South Side resentment at Park District neglect led to a federal class-action suit, settled with a consent decree in 1983 that would lead, among other things, to Point restoration, lakefront trail improvements, and founding of park advisory councils. Promontory Point was the focus of the only council for many years in all of Burnham Park. Also, in 1981 organizations and individuals formed the Hyde Park Recreation Alliance, which pressured the District to start day camps for kids, especially at the Point. That at Promontory Point started in 1984 with 30 kids and grew steadily, although with some controversy over programming. Concerts also grew in number. .

In preparation for the 1987 50th Anniversary of the Point, a group of landscape architects surveyed the Point. Caldwell was at first reluctant to participate, saying that his park no longer existed and he had no desire to return. In 1989 the landscaping was partially restored under Caldwell's leadership. In 1991, the fieldhouse was restored, although council members felt it was incomplete. (There seems to be no way to make the lower level usable program space under modern ADA standards.) So popular is the fieldhouse for weddings and parties that the District had to reverse plans to shut it down during Lake Shore Drive and expected rebuilding of the Revetment.

The limestone revetment had stood the test of time well, even though the rotting of the wooden posts under changing lake levels created cavities and led to stones sinking. Silting has helped stabilize, as did a concrete apron with wave deflectors built on the east end in the 1960's. Starting in the 1980's a major debate began over how to rebuild Chicago's seawalls. Some revived Burnham's idea of off-shore islands or submerged reefs, and the Army Corps just wanted rock or rubble mounds . But the Park District and parks groups insisted on rebuilding the step revetments, leading to a multi-agency (including state preservation agencies under the National Historic Preservation Act) Memorandum of Agreement in 1993. By the time focus groups were formed to see the plans, concrete had been substituted and the full blown controversy documented in the Point pages began. When the revetment is tackled, it is supposed to be done in stages so most of the Point and half the revetment will be open at any given time.

Meanwhile, in the early 2000's the Point was nearly isolated at times for Lake Shore Drive reconstruction and replacement of the leaky 55th underpass. And the Army Corps fenced off part of the Meadow to look for any leaking tanks remaining from the Nike site. As 2004 started, matters had returned to normal at the Point, but the fieldhouse remained underused.

If you would like to send comments or add your favorite Point pictures, please forward them to the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference. Several additional Point pictures can be viewed at the site of HPKCC member Mary Rose Shaughnessy. (Go to Hyde Park or Nature in that site, Parks is being revised.)

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News items

All parties have agreed to participate in a third party review process for design of the revetment founded on the 1993 Memorandum of Agreement governing historic (National Trust Eligible) properties along the Lakefront. All parties have long ago agreed that when the project is done, Caldwell's Point design and landscape will be restored.

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People's suggestions for the park

These range from repeated requests to fix the Wallach fountain base (at the east end of the tunnel) right, to better enforcement and signage to slow bicyclists in that sector, to revive programming in the historic "castle" fieldhouse, to better and longer (partially granted) access to the toilets there--and some kind of facility close to the tunnel, to a dog park in the green west of the Drive, to a new way to handle parking and night merrymaking especially south of 55th and west of the Drive.

From Walter L. Michael: Make improvements (mainly ADA) at Point, punish those who trash it. Herald, August 22, 2007

I just came back from a walk around the Point. I have enjoyed such walks since 1972 (throughout the year). Coming home I read the story, "House Bill brings Point preservation step closer" (Hyde Park Herald, Wednesday, Aug. 8, p. 1).

I have not participated in any talks about the Point during the last few years. I thought that what I am thinking is so logical and obvious. I am convinced that there is a need for the following:

I am getting older, and I am having a very tough time getting down to walk along the water's edge.

I have no nostalgic feeling about the jumble of stones that are terribly hard to negotiate while trying to get down to the water's edge.

Also, I do not understand my fellow human beings who throw away their garbage. Would they litter their own living rooms? There should be stiff fines for littering.

The Point is our front yard, backyard, even our living room--our unbelievable treasure. Sitting there, one can forget that there is a bustling world-class city a few yards away.

Oh, on the west side of the Point there could/should be another toilet facility (on the east side of the viaduct or even in the viaduct).

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