Introducing Classic Royko on Mondays: Tear down those Jackson Park trees!

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One of the first of 800 trees to be cut down in Jackson Park to make way for a new section of Lake Shore Dr. stands bent in death, as a member(arrow) of the Daniel Burnham Committee to save the trees climbs another tree in a desperate but futile effort to save it from being felled. | Bud Daley / Sun-Times archives

Last week, on the 21st anniversary of his death, we republished a vintage column by Mike Royko, the greatest Chicago columnist ever. We probably shouldn’t say that out loud — that Royko was the best — for fear of offending all the fine columnists working today. But they know it. It’s true.

The column we reran from 1980, about the stupidity of our nation’s weak gun laws, seemed incredibly relevant to our own times, which, when you think about it, is depressing. Readers responded enthusiastically, though, leading us to this thought: Let’s bring Mike back.

If the Tribune can run Classic Peanuts, and Coke can sell Classic Coke, we can — and really should — run Classic Royko.

We thought we’d kick off this weekly online feature — Classic Royko on Mondays — with a Royko column that reminds us how hard Chicagoans have always had to fight the folks who like to tear down trees in the name of “progress.” They’re aiming to do it right now, as part of the plan to build the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, and they were doing it 53 years ago to make way for a road in the same lovely park, which must be a nervous wreck by now.

Here’s what Mike had to say about that in 1963.

It is surprising that there has been nothing said in City Hall about plans for a ground-breaking ceremony in Jackson Park.

Ground-breaking ceremonies are a political tradition. It is almost mandatory that politicians gather to be photographed turning the first spade of dirt when a new project begins.

Yet, with work ready to begin in Jackson Park, no plans have been announced.

It cannot be that widening and rebuilding South Lake Shore Drive is an unimportant project.

If it is not important, why would the Mayor and his advisers be willing to cut down hundreds of trees and bulldoze a big part of one of the city’s most beautiful lakefront parks to make it all possible?

If it is not important, why would he go ahead with his plans despite cries of outrage from people who believe the lakefront should not be tampered with?

No, this is indeed a major project. It is unthinkable that it should not be marked by ceremony.

Arrangements should be made to gather all of the people who made it possible in the park.

The Mayor should be there, of course. And the city planners and engineers. Aldermen should attend. And invitations should be sent to representatives of the concrete industry, the auto industry, the oil industry, the various motor clubs, and others who view the building of highways as a major event.

They could meet in the shade of the trees, while the shade is still there, and after making a speech the Mayor could have the honor of sinking a saw blade into the first tree.

Since time is of importance_with work about to begin— I have taken the liberty of drafting a short speech that can be given by the Mayor or one of his helpers.

“Friends, we are gathered here under the spreading boughs of these stately old trees for an important purpose: We are going to cut them down.

“These are nice trees, as trees go, but when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

“We are cutting them down because they are standing in the way of progress. To coin a phrase: You can’t see the highway for the trees.

“Despite what our critics say, we did not reach the decision to tear up some of this parkland without giving it careful thought and study, weighing the pros and cons, looking into the future, trying to decide on doing what is best for everyone. But we are going to cut them down anyway.

“We made a study to determine who uses trees and we made some startling discoveries.

“Our study showed that the most frequent users of trees are birds. After birds, squirrels rank second. Then come kids who climb in trees and swing on their branches. And fourth are people who sit under them in the shade.

“Don’t misunderstand me. I have the greatest respect for these groups; but this city did not become great through the efforts of birds, squirrels, kids and people who spend their time sitting in the shade.

“Our study also showed that in time, these trees will all die anyway. However, barring strong wind, lightning, and disease, most of them might last another hundred years or probably even longer.

“In fact, if we don’t cut them down now and get on with the job at hand, they’ll outlive us all and our children and our grandchildren. And there might not be someone with enough foresight to do what we are now doing.

“Meanwhile, countless people would be deprived of their right to get from one point to another as quickly as possible. They would have to take other routes and spend precious minutes at red lights. They would be forced to drive thirty

m.p.h. when they could be doing forty-five or fifty. Is this fair?

“In closing, I would like to read a poem, written just for this occasion. It is entitled:


I think that I have never knowed

A sight as lovely as a road.

A road upon whose concrete tops

The flow of traffic never stops;

A road that costs a lot to build

Just as the City Council willed;

A road the planners say we need

To get the cars to greater speed;

We’ve let the contracts so dig in

And let the chopping now begin;

Somebody else can make a tree

But roads are made by guys like me.


Take it from Mike Royko: Machineguns don’t kill

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