A modest proposal for Jackson Park

A funeral pyre is one of the oldest rituals for dealing with the dead. Admittedly, Jackson Park’s trees are not dead yet, but with the coming of the Obama Center, they soon will be.

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Chicago’s Jackson Park in 1894, after a fire burned the remnants of the Chicago Columbian Exposition.


I write as one of the plaintiffs in the Protect Our Parks lawsuit trying to prevent the Obama Foundation’s seizure of Jackson Park.

It appears now that the Obamas have no intention of respecting the seriousness of the lawsuit by waiting to see the outcome. They have already begun closing roads around the park, and the demolition of the historic Women’s Garden has begun. It will be used as a “staging area” for the trucks and heavy equipment required to clear cut over a thousand mature trees, many of them a century old.

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After five years of dubious legal and political maneuvers to defeat opponents of this environmental disaster, and futile efforts to persuade the Obamas to move the Presidential Center to a superior site on the South Side that their own consultants recommended, we find ourselves on the eve of destruction.

Since all this has now come to seem inevitable, or, as we say in Chicago, a “done deal,” perhaps it is time for those of us who oppose the destruction of Jackson Park to admit defeat and provide helpful suggestions for ways to make this next phase as efficient and painless as possible.

In that spirit, I have a few suggestions for the Obama Foundation. The first concerns the trees. Admittedly, they are in the way of the immature saplings and the sculpted Styrofoam landscaping that will surround the 235-tall monument to the Obama presidency. The question is, what is the most efficient way to remove them? Bulldozers and chain saws strike me as crude instruments when a much quicker, cost-effective alternative is obvious.

Why not set the trees on fire? That way they will provide the fuel for their own destruction, saving the burning of fossil fuels required by all that heavy equipment. Many of the trees are over a century old, and the energy expended in cutting them down can easily be saved by burning up the thousands of years of energy stored in them. This will also save considerably on labor costs.

A further refinement in this proposal is suggested by the question of which trees should be set on fire first. My recommendation would be to take the oldest, what forestry experts call the “mother trees,” in the glades of Jackson Park. Studies have shown that these century-old trees can actually feel it when their numerous siblings, offspring and neighboring underbrush are violently removed. Best to begin, then, by sparing the sensitivities of these senior trees, along with all the benighted tree-huggers and bird-watchers who will mourn their passing.

The burning of Jackson Park would have symbolic power as well. The funeral pyre is one of the oldest rituals for dealing with the dead. Admittedly, Jackson Park’s trees are not dead yet, but they soon will be. In most cultures we do not cremate the living, but wait until they have died of natural causes to perform the last rites. In this case, however, the living must be sacrificed because they stand in the way of what we are assured is “progress.”

Given the out-of-control forest fires ravaging the Western United States at this moment, the destruction of a mere thousand mature trees will seem like a minor issue in our inexorable march to a hotter planet.

I want to anticipate one predictable objection to this proposal. Some people will say that burning down the trees of Jackson Park will not look good. It will be difficult to conceal it from the public with ten-foot-high screened chain link fences because the smoke and the smell will hover over the South Side for days. But there is a straightforward answer to this objection.

Instead of concealing the destruction, the Obama Foundation should treat it as a noble sacrifice of a historic public space that deserves a spectacular send-off, a celebratory ignition to accompany the ground-breaking. Even better, the resulting scene of destruction can be rendered in dramatic images that will remind the public of the historic spectacle of Jackson Park in 1894, after a devastating fire burned the remnants of the Chicago Columbian Exposition.

I provide here a photograph of that scene in all its sublime splendor. Of course, it will not look exactly the same. There will not be the architectural foundations of the incinerated pavilions of the World’s Fair. But the husks of the tree trunks and their root structures can easily be displayed to good effect to remind the citizens of Chicago of this heroic sacrifice of public land.

Perhaps this photo should be displayed alongside the portrait of Obama seated in front of a wall of green foliage now on view at the Art Institute.

A fitting epitaph for what was supposed to be a “green presidency.”

The only question I have at this point is, who will light the match?

W. J. T. Mitchell is a historian of landscape and the politics of public space. He has been a professor at the University of Chicago and a resident of Hyde Park for more than 40 years. He is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Obama Foundation’s efforts to build a presidential center in Jackson Park.

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