Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Chicago Stuff You Don't Know #1: The naked baby

    Last November, I was writing a profile of Rahm Emanuel for Esquire, so spent time sitting around the mayor's outer office, waiting to see him. Eventually, after sifting through the boostery pamphlets scattered around and chatting up the cops and bodyguards who were also waiting, my attention was be drawn to the Seal of the City of Chicago, a big disc of bronze behind the security desk. It is the usual melange of symbols that must have appealed to early 19th century types: an Indian, peering off into the distance, a ship under full sail, a sheaf of wheat, a shield, a Latin phrase ("Urbs in Horto" or "City in a Garden"). All ordinary and expected.
    But one feature seemed downright strange. Right at the top center, floating above the
rest: a baby. A naked baby on an open shell. A massive helmet of hair on the tot, but a baby nonetheless. What's with that? Venus as a infant, perhaps? No digging was necessary to solve the baby mystery. The plaque to the lower left spills the beans: "The Nude Babe In The Shell Is the Ancient And Classical Symbolism Of the Pearl, And Chicago, Situated At The Neck Of The Lake, Signifies That It Shall Be 'The Gem Of The Lakes.'"
    Okay then. And you thought the online world had capitalization problems.
    Not everything about the seal is on the plaque. When it was created, at the city's founding in 1837, the design committee named by William B. Ogden, the city's first mayor, explained that the ship symbolizes "the approach of white man's civilization and commerce." (A reminder that symbolism has always been a high priority in Chicago, often to our eventual detriment. It isn't as if Ed Burke invented the practice). The ship must have somehow must have come to the attention of aldermen Allan Streeter and Robert Shaw—perhaps while waiting to see Harold Washington— who in 1987 condemned the ship for representing "institutionalized racism." (As opposed to the more individualized racism practiced by a guy like Shaw, currently running a Quixotic campaign for mayor, who once told the Chicago Defender that a white person should not lead Chicago because whites "don't know how to be fair"). The two demanded the ship be replaced with a cameo of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the black man who was Chicago's first permanent settler. Never happened. 
    Still, the seal could use a makeover. The City Council might want to appoint a committee. Sign me up. I see some kind of bold graphic blue and white "C" set against a neon background.  Or, better, scrap the rest and just keep the baby. People love babies. But lose the strange hairdo. 
    This baby-on-the-city-seal business is not the most practical information, true, but you never know when it may come in handy.
    "Honey, guess what!!! We're going to have a baby!" 
     "Funny you should mention babies—did you know that there is a baby, nude, in repose, and resting on an oyster shell, on the official seal of the ..."
    Well, maybe not.

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