Seeing the summer plantings at their peak is one of the great, free pleasures Chicago offers. The thousands of stubby spring seedlings that the landscape crews planted are now fulfilling an anonymous designer’s vision. The coleus and lobelia crowd one another, the cannas stiffly unfurl, grass tassels wave. The bus ride to and from downtown turns into something of a garden tour, as the 151 crawls past some dazzling garden patches along the Gold Coast and in Lincoln Park.
An understandable rivalry develops among the buildings in the city’s busiest areas, where thousands of people throng every day. Homeowners, businesses, and property managers shell out big-time for head-turning and sometimes trendy annual plantings. These invisible gardeners seem to thrive on the public gaze, just as plants thrive on water and sun.
Old-timers remember it wasn’t always this way. Chicago was once much poorer in greenery and had little to offer in the way of sidewalk cafes. Proprietors reasoned that the summer was too short and summer weather too unpredictable to bother with plein-air investments much. All that changed under the long reign of Mayor Richie Daley, who greatly beautified Chicago and endorsed policies that made it easier for businesses to follow his lead. Beauty can’t solve a city’s problems, though, and it’s rather paradoxical how it abounds.