In Chicago, a low but persistent rumbling is heard these days, especially on the South Side. It is Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s greatest landscape architect and the planner of what would become the city’s Jackson Park, turning in his grave and muttering Victorian imprecations against Barack Obama and his eponymous foundation.
Why? Before we get to that, let’s see what Olmsted wrote back in 1871 (the year of the Great Chicago Fire), when Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore and other southern lakefront precincts – what would now be classified as inner-city neighborhoods – were still remote, barely settled suburbs of a fast-growing city:
There is but one object of scenery near Chicago of special grandeur or sublimity, and that, the lake, can be made by artificial means no more grand or sublime. By no practical elevation of artificial hills, that is to say, would the impression of the observer in overlooking it be made more profound. The lake may, indeed, be accepted as fully compensating for the absence of sublime or picturesque elevations of land.
There are three elements of scenery however, which must be regarded as indispensable to a fine park to be formed on your site, the first being turf, the second foliage, the third still water. For each of these you are bound, at the outset, to make the best of your opportunities, because if you do not, posterity will be likely to lay waste to what you have done, in order to prepare…