The Greening Of Chicago

Chicago-- Thirty-five summers ago, in the angriest year of a boiling era, the forces of peace, love and understanding--they fancied themselves "flower power"--clashed violently at the Democratic Convention with the police of Mayor Richard Daley. Today the mayor of this famously muscular city-- big-shouldered hog butcher and stacker of wheat-practices flower power. His name is Richard Daley.

The son is in his fourth four-year term. Chicago has been governed by him or his father for 35 of the 48 years since 1955. Chicago's name derives from an American Indian word meaning wild onion, and the city's motto "Urbs in Horto" means "city in a garden." Daley's green thumb has produced a city chock full of gardens.

Including one on the roof of city hall. It has 20,000 plants of more than 150 species. And three beehives, which produce 60 pounds of honey a year. The hives are emblematic of the intensely practical nature of Daley's passion to prove that "nature can exist in an urban environment."

A Daley aide calls him "the Martha Stewart of mayors," then quickly decides there must be a more felicitous encomium to celebrate his attentions to fine touches conducive to gracious urban living. Daley explains his passion for prettification by recalling that shortly after being elected in 1989 he took a train from Washington to New York, and was struck by the ugliness travelers saw as trains entered and left cities along the way. So today the river of traffic flowing from O'Hare airport to downtown on the Kennedy expressway passes between, as it were, landscaped riverbanks.

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Within most cities, Daley says, people experience "a canyon effect of steel and concrete." But cities need not mean just "steel, concrete and dirt." Flowers, he says, are one way "to change the perception of cities." He has created median strips on some major streets and planted them with flowers "to slow down traffic." And, he says, "Flowers calm people down."

This apostle of calming influences is the son of the man called--it is the title of a biography of him--an "American Pharaoh." His father would stop his limousine to pick up littered newspapers, but his passion was not for sensory pleasure but for tidiness. The father considered even Republicans litter: in his last three elections he carried 148 of the city's 150 wards.

The pharaoh was a builder but his most famous pyramids were not what he wanted. He favored low-rise public housing but federal pressures forced him to build high-rises that became crime-infested pillars of poverty. The son has been dismantling them. The son, too, is a builder--witness Chicago's sparkling skyscrapers. But he is primarily a planter.

Since 1989 he has presided over the planting of more than 300,000 trees, which he says not only please the eye but "reduce noise, air pollution and summer heat." Twenty-one underutilized acres around the city have been turned into 72 community gardens and parks. The renovation of Soldier Field on the lakefront will include 17 acres of new parkland. The largest park project, the Calumet Open Space Reserve on the far Southeast Side, is 4,000 acres of prairies, wetlands and forests.

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The city contracts with an organization called the Christian Industrial League, which hires many down-and-out persons to wash streets and water plants. And the organization is building a greenhouse that will sell flowers in winter.

The great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) relished the city's "intoxicating rawness," which was still abundant when the first Mayor Daley won the first of his six elections. He became perhaps America's most important 20th-century mayor. Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing magazine, notes that Chicago could have become a Detroit, a symbol of urban failure.

If the son is a 21st-century model mayor, it is because he senses the importance of the senses: human beings respond to esthetic values. Daley is not given to flights of theory, so he may not realize the extent to which he is continuing a project begun on this city's South Side 110 years ago.

Chicago successfully competed against New York, Philadelphia and Washington for the right to host the World Columbian Exposition of 1893, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage. The White City, as the exposition was called, received 27 million visitors and gave rise to the City Beautiful movement, the premise of which was that cities do not need to be grimly utilitarian, and that improvement of a city's material environment would be conducive to the moral improvement of its residents. Coarse environments would coarsen people; refined environments would help ameliorate what reformers considered the moral deficiencies of people struggling to adapt to urban life.

A century ago, reforming elites thought of beautification in terms of social control: it would tame the lower orders. Daley, a Chicago chauvinist, primarily just wants his city to be second to none--Second City, indeed. But he also aims at mild social control: he hopes his flowers will calm down everyone.

The Greening Of Chicago | News