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Trying to Save Elms

April 17, 2018

Being 77 years old, I still remember the elm-lined streets of the 1940's. A tunnel of graceful mature American elms established an almost holy, church-like sense of quiet, reverent, worshipful space in front of the houses on my block.

By the time I moved to Chicago in the 1970s, the streets were barren. The elms were long gone, and replaced by well-meaning waves of flowering plums, hawthorns and Norway maples--none of which did justice to the unique parkways of the city.

The original layout of the city provided for eight-foot parkways to ensure that all of Chicago's streets were lined with graceful street trees. After all, the city's motto was "Urbs in Horto" (City in a Garden). And I resolved to try to bring back the American elm to the parkways of Chicago, one tree at a time!

So I searched for the few remaining American elms on the North Side. I carefully collected germinated elm seeds to replant them in my back yard. Then I carefully tended them for five or six years until they were strong enough to transplant onto open spaces on the parkways of the neighborhood.

Back in the early 1980s, few property owners lived on the North Side; most of the buildings in the neighborhood were rentals. The residents cared little about the young saplings reaching for the sun in front of their buildings. They left the trees alone.

To the extent I could, I hand-carried five-gallon buckets of water to irrigate my young children in their first year or two, when summer droughts cruelly baked the clay soil of the parkways hard as brick. Many trees died. But some survived the traffic, pollution, dogs, and homeowners who de-converted those rental buildings into luxurious private homes.

At least 30 of those trees still flourish to this day. And it is my pride, that the genus Ulmus americana has had a rebirth on Chicago's parkways, ensuring that future generations may one day enjoy those holy tunnels of elms.

American elm on city parkway

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