The marketing pitch in Chicago’s motto “Urbs in Horto”

Chicago’s official motto helped sell the city in the mid-1800s:

But as European descendants forcibly settled the region, and began turning land over to agriculture and then urbanization, the trees that remained were sparse holdovers from pre-settlement times. Many of the new trees they planted were non-native species for landscaping purposes, while animals distributed invasive tree species.

So the idea that Chicago was a “City in a Garden” when the motto Urbs in Horto was adopted by the city government in the 1830s is a bit of a misnomer, said Julia Bachrach, former historian for the Chicago Park District.

Bachrach said the 1830s brought a flurry of land speculation in the Chicago area, which city officials encouraged by enticing East Coast developers to buy up stretches of land. But first they had to convince developers the land was valuable.

“It was a bit of a PR move to call this marshy, windswept, ‘smelly onion’ city the ‘City in a Garden’,” Bachrach explained.

As this article goes on to describe in more detail, many of the trees, parks, and boulevards came later to Chicago. And many of the things Chicago later became known for – including “the city of broad shoulders,” skyscrapers, meatpacking, and divides – have few clear links to gardens and trees.

I recall reading Ann Durkin Keating’s Rising Up From Indian Country and being surprised by the presence of sand dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan in the early days of white settlement. As a kid reading and hearing about Chicago, the story always seemed to go the other way: filling in land along the lake with refuse from the great fire, reversing the flow of the Chicago River, and building a booming metropolis over whatever was there before. Chicago conquered nature to become what it was and then thought of parks, trees, gardens, and a lakefront. That it could feature nature in particular ways was a product of this mechanical and human progress.

Bonus facts: the motto is featured at the bottom of Chicago’s seal and is represented by one of the points of the fourth star on the Chicago flag.

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