There is often no justice in history. If there were, then the name Jens Jensen would be as familiar to us as those of Al Capone, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and some of the others who put their stamp on the city for a short time before moving on.
Jensen's stamp, as manifested in the parks that he designed here and in the philosophy that all people, regardless of race or income, should be able to partake of nature, is a tangible and important one. He said, "Beauty gives you peace wherever you encounter it in the world."
"Jensen belongs in the present," says filmmaker Carey Lundin, who has done her best to bring him here in a thoughtful, compelling and inspiring documentary, "Jens Jensen: The Living Green," which will be shown at 8 p.m. June 19 in Millennium Park (jensjensenthelivinggreen.org).
"I am in love with Chicago history and was searching for a story that resonated," Lundin says. "Jensen and his work echoes. He was battling some of the same things we face today, such things as poverty and crooked politics. He wanted all of Chicago to have the benefit of nature. He wanted to bring the country into the city in order to make urban life livable."
Lundin was born in Chicago and raised here and in Wisconsin. This city/country lifestyle has given her a deep appreciation of nature and its place in our lives. She gets Jensen's vision.
He was born in 1860 in Denmark and spent his first 19 years on his wealthy family's farm. He attended agriculture school before three years of mandatory service in the army. He left for the U.S. with a new bride and worked for a time in Florida and Iowa before coming here in 1885.
His first job was as a street sweeper, a task that entailed cleaning up after the horses that clogged the street. As he began work as a gardener in what was then a tiny park system, he became enchanted by the prairies that were still a quick train ride from the city, and he became intent on bringing their power, beauty and serenity to the city. He would become known as the "poet of the prairie," for it was the prairie that informed and inspired his life's work.
He gained increasing responsibilities with the park system and reshaped Humboldt and Douglas parks, "planting the first native flowers and plants in any park in the country," the film tells us. In 1907 he created in that same mold the Garfield Park Conservatory, then the largest in the world and an attraction that drew as many as 25,000 people a day.
But he was an honest man in a corrupt system, one filled with graft and other chicanery, and soon the cigar-chomping politicians booted him out of his role. He didn't stay idle, helping to save part of the Indiana Dunes from the smoke and stench of steel mills and finding work with private clients.
He would soon return here to create his "masterpiece." That would be Columbus Park, the "empty canvas" that existed between Adams Street and what is now the Eisenhower Expressway on the Far West Side. Between 1915 and 1920 Jensen went pleasantly wild, filling the space with native plants and stonework inspired by natural rock outcroppings in the Midwest. It would be his first and only chance to build a large park for residents of the city, as his political foes forced him once again to go out on his own.
His succeeding years were spent as an environmental activist, helping to establish the Illinois State Parks system and the Cook County Forest Preserves. He also made a living designing the private estates of such industrialists as Julius Rosenwald, Henry Ford and Ford's son Edsel. His stature became such that he often worked with and was mentioned alongside Prairie Style icons Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan.
He eventually retreated with his wife and their four children to Door County in Wisconsin, where, in 1935, he established The Clearing, a folk-arts school offering classes in fine arts, natural science, crafts and humanities amid a rustic forests-meadows-water setting. (Still going strong, as you can see at theclearing.org.)
That is where he died in 1951. He was 91 years old.
The film, directed and co-produced by Lundin and written and co-produced by Mark Frazel, tells Jensen's story with energy and passion, employing a stirring soundtrack composed by Sam Hulick and using a number of experts to provide articulate commentary and proper context.
It also features some rare footage of Jensen, as well as many lovely, illustrative examples of his work here and elsewhere, such as the Lincoln Memorial Gardens in Springfield. The film, nearly six years in the making, has won awards on the festival circuit.
"There is a great theatricality to Jensen's designs," Lundin says. "You go into one of his parks as you would a movie: it starts and you go through it, noticing details and feeling a part of it."
There are 570-some parks in this city, covering more than 7,600 acres and containing an incalculable number of flowers and trees. Another great park builder was Frederick Law Olmsted, most famous for Central Park in New York City and for his work creating our Jackson and Washington parks (also the lesser-known and smaller Sherman Park, which runs west from Racine Avenue between 52nd Street and Garfield Boulevard and is a glorious place).
Our parks can be huge or tiny. From A (Abbott Park near 95th and State streets) to Z (Zatterberg Park in the 4200 block of North Hermitage Avenue), there they are for you to enjoy.
Jensen wanted to make parks for people. He was honored in 1960 with the dedication of a boulder in Columbus Park celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. The park was listed in the National Register in 1991 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003.
There is no telling what he might now think of the city he had such an essential role in molding. Lundin believes he would share her affection for one recent addition: the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, that 21/2-acre plot featuring all manner of native flora.
"On any day you can see people from all over Chicago enjoying nature, maybe being enriched by it," she says, and in so doing says a great deal about life in the city.
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