Chicago Florissant: Art and Nature in Our Metropolis



This glorious, sunny-yet-temperate summer, I spent a fair amount of time bicycling and walking in our gorgeous city. I revisited favorite haunts; I joined jolly garden walks; I went to the River Walk to admire the most intriguing Floating Museum, envisioned as a barge transformed into a mobile gallery, at one of its mooring points at LaSalle and Wacker; and I have become a rookie botanist, studying the Interior Prairie at Montrose Point.

Exploring Gardens in Bowmanville

I had great fun bicycling up and down Bowmanville streets, peeking at gardens, chatting with their proud creators, and enjoying this charming neighborhood just to the south of Rosehill Cemetery.


A smoke bush in a garden, formerly a parking lot.

Bowmanville takes its name from a local innkeeper and shady speculator, Jesse Bowman, who in the 1850s “made the cart paths and forest near present-day Foster and Ravenswood Avenues his own,” by pretending ownership of many plots of land in the area and then selling them to innocent buyers. He quit town before they discovered that the jolly innkeeper did not own the land he had sold to them.

Good cheer—and generous nibbles and drinks (especially the latter)—were offered at the houses and gardens on view. At my last stop, a sweet bower and terrace, the highly entertaining hosts poured rather strong Moscow Mules—or were they Mint Margaritas? I left in a fine mood and paid particular attention when riding home on my trusty bike.


Margarita Garden.


Treehouse in Bowmanville.

The Interior Prairie at Montrose Point

Montrose Point is one of my favorite biking destinations throughout the year. The views of the lake and the grand silhouette of Chicago are stunning every season, every hour of the day.

Sometimes, I just wait for the gloaming: the blue mysterious twilight when lake waters darken and slowly, almost one by one (or so it seems), the lights go on along Lake Shore Drive, reminding me of an intricate advent calendar.


In the gloaming: a cityscape from Montrose Point.

In the fifties and early sixties, Montrose Point served as a radar station to a long-gone missile site at Belmont Harbor—the control tower is still there.

Yes, indeed, echoes of the Cold War reverberating around Chicago when Nike (a fancy athletic shoe to most of us) missiles were installed up and down the lakeshore and in other places of our park system. They were ultimately disbanded, and the land was given to the Chicago Park District, which created a bird sanctuary, known as the Magic Hedge, on the grounds of Montrose promontory.

It has become a paradise for birds and birdwatchers alike with one of the most diverse environments attracting an amazing variety of birds. The Interior Prairie was later planted adjacent to the sanctuary.


The prairie in early spring . . .


. . .and in full summer bloom.

I like to think that here flower power won out in a serendipitous and wonderful way!


August flora in the prairies.


Biking recently through the Interior Prairie, now in full bloom and a glory to be beheld, I met the affable Eric Anderson: ecologist, landscape manager, and consultant to the Chicago Park District. He kindly offered to walk with me and talk about what it means to manage a prairie—to support “nature’s successional bloom.”

On our way to a work in progress, a future butterfly meadow, we stopped at a hidden corner called the Water Feature. This, actually, was once a leaking water pipe—a bit of infrastructure left behind from missile days, and as Eric explained:

“It made a wet spot, birds started coming, the pipe was fixed, and now water is flowing into the green thicket—and thus it was incorporated in the planning of the prairie’s ecology.”


The “water feature.”

I also learned about the various grasses that are sown, or broadcast (he used that wonderful old word), across the land to grow a soil-retaining cover, one of the essential first steps in the creation of a prairie. Careful ongoing weeding is also of the essence as plants start to grow, paying attention so that no one species becomes dominant to the detriment of others.


The oat grass.



We continued our stroll along the winding prairie paths, lined by elderberry bushes; prairie cup plants (so named because their leaves form cups deep enough to retain plentiful moisture); the tall, brilliantly yellow wingstem, also known as tickseed (Coriopsis); and the dramatically purple ironweed.

When Eric pointed out that a diverse healthy prairie can have hundreds of species, I began to feel like that aforementioned rookie botanist, learning names of just a few obvious and ubiquitous flowers I had photographed many times on other bike rides.

There is, for example, a bewildering array of intensely yellow blooming plants that I always thought were either Brown-eyed Susans or sunflowers. Far from it—they may be gray cone flowers (Rittibida pinnata), false sunflowers (Heliopsis helanthoids), a more delicate version of the yellow wingstem (Coriopsis tripteris), or the compass flower (Silphium laciniatum). But, botany aside, they all look gorgeous and light up a prairie landscape (as well as any humble front yard flower patch).


Yellow brilliancy.

On my way home, I thought about how lucky we Chicagoans are that, thanks to the fabulous work of the Chicago Park District, parks are no longer just trees, grass, and playgrounds, but that nature is increasingly given a wide berth in our urban environment.

Eric put it well: “We are trying to read the landscape and figure out what used to be there and what could be there; we are trying to understand the steps to bring this forth.”


The Chicago Park District counsels, “Patience.”

Art on the River

Not entirely unrelated to my jaunts across Chicago’s neighborhoods, gardens, and prairies was my viewing adventure of the Floating Museum on the Chicago River. It is a phenomenal collaborative art project that intends to “activate sites of cultural potential throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods.”

It is a barge stacked with crates displaying not only a great variety of works from local artists and their diverse cultural backgrounds but also powerful visual symbols of Chicago’s early history.


The Floating Museum.

Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, a prominent visual artist and one of the four co-directors and important contributor to this project, created the stunning recumbent head ofJean Baptiste Point du Sable at the bow of the barge made an informal, informative, and most entertaining presentation at water’s edge.


The recumbent head of Jean-Baptiste DuSable.


Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford (at right) and his brilliant wife, Veronica Vegna.

He spoke eloquently about the vision and symbolism of the Floating Museum, the River Assembly, the river as a connecting and transporting agent throughout Chicago. The barge was moored at SkyArts in Southeast Chicago: 3026 East 91st Street at 2751 South Eleanor Street, Pilsen, Bridgeport’s Bubbly Creek, before it came to the River Walk theatre, emphasizing the “move a across neighborhood boundaries” and the dramatic history of the South Branch of the Chicago River.


Bubbly Creek (image on crate), the infamous dump of animal waste during the heyday of stockyard packing plants.

What a delight the river has become since those days of yore! The merry to-and-fro of many colorful vessels, the busy water taxis, the nimble kayaks parading on the Main Stem is a visual delight, inspiring and invigorating—as is the vibrant elegance of the Riverwalk complex that spans from Franklin Street to Lake Shore Drive.

Jeremiah’s jocular remark that he hopes the barge, one day, will transport the Chicago Symphony Orchestra up and down the river, expresses beautifully a sense of integration and renewal. It also relates to the red thread of my wanderings, whether it be the creation of a garden on a one-time parking lot, the planting of a prairie on the grounds of a disbanded military installation, or a barge transporting art and culture on a once egregiously polluted river.


For more information on the Floating Museum project, visit