Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Photo of the Week: Urbs in Horto

City in a Garden -- Downtown as viewed from the north end of Diversey Harbor (JWB, 2011)

The few folks who lived in the swampy mess that would become Chicago back there in the mid-1830’s either had an enormously optimistic vision of the future or an uncommonly wicked sense of humor when someone chose “Urbs in Horto” as the phrase that was to be placed on the little hamlet’s corporate seal.

First of all, there wasn’t much garden (horto) in the city’s muck and mire.  For a distance of eight to ten miles around the town, water lay two to three feet deep in many places.  And there wasn’t much city (urbs), either . . . just a few thousand soles squatting alongside a brown river.

Still, in July of 1837 the citizens of the newly incorporated village enacted an ordinance that stated,  “The seal of Chicago shall be represented by a shield (American) with a sheaf of wheat on its center; a ship in full sail on the right; a sleeping infant on the top; an Indian with bow and arrow on the left; and with the motto ‘Urbs in Horto’ at the bottom of the shield, with the inscription “City of Chicago-Incorporated, 4th of March, 1837 around the outside edge of said seal.”

It may have been a grandiose gesture on the part of a small constituency back then, but the little Latin phrase on the city’s official seal set the stage for a philosophy that has carried down, ebbing and flowing with the times, to the beautiful city we find today.

That is clear this morning as I look out my living room window and see the landscapers hard at work, arranging attractive floral schemes around the statues of Goethe and Hamilton on the north boundary of Lincoln Park.  It was true this weekend as I skirted the northern end of Diversey Harbor on my way to the lake and saw the island of downtown skyscrapers framed between the flowering crab trees, a city in a garden.

“. . . the need for breathing spaces and recreation grounds is being forced upon the attention of practical men,” Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett wrote in the Chicago Plan of 1909.  “who are learning to appreciate the fact that a city, in order to be a good labor-market, must provide for the health and pleasure of the great body of workers.  Density of population beyond a certain point results in disorder, vice, and disease, and thereby becomes the greatest menace to the well-being of the city itself.”

Urbs in horto.  Find a place.  Make your space.  Give thanks for all that we have been given and for all that we might still do.

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