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Jens Jensen, Beyond the Clearing

So you think you know Jens Jensen.

You know the name, because if you pick up a paper or brochure in Door County enough times, you’re bound to come across it. You know he started The Clearing, and maybe you know he was a prominent, globally influential landscape architect.

But you don’t know Jens Jensen. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. More than six decades after The Clearing founder died, and more than 75 years after he retired to Ellison Bay, even the people of Chicago, a city covered in his fingerprints, are only now beginning to learn the full detail of his influence.

Jens Jensen: The Living Green, a new documentary by filmmaker Carey Lundin, is giving Jensen new life, and for those who know him as a Door County icon, the film will unearth the full depth of a man who was far more vocal than his quiet school on the tip of the peninsula would suggest.

Jensen (1860 – 1951) was a Danish-born landscape architect who designed more than 600 parks throughout Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, including some of the most prominent parks in Chicago. He fought to save the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and helped create the Cook County Forest Preserves that stunted the overwhelming surge of suburban sprawl to preserve natural environments for the masses.

But Jensen also fought the Chicago political machine, costing himself positions, influence and notoriety that is only now being restored more than a century after the city fired him for refusing to play politics with jobs.

I sat down with Lundin near her home in the city’s Roscoe Village neighborhood to talk about discovering Jensen and bringing his story to life. The film premiered at Chicago’s landmark Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park June 19 to an audience of 3,000, with an additional 75,000 watching it on Illinois Public Television.

Myles Dannhausen: Tell me what it was like to get the response to the film that you did, between both the showing at Millennium Park and the public television audience.

Carey Lundin (CL): It was just such a wonderful surprise that after all these years of struggling on this project that people really cared. When you do something like this, you don’t know if it will ever get finished, and if it does get finished, will anybody ever see it?

So to find out that people really cared was amazing.

MD: What attracted you to Jens Jensen as a documentary subject?

CL: I was looking for a subject for my first feature film, and I wanted to do a character-driven story. It turned out he was not just a landscape architect, but an unsung hero of conservation, and his is a story that not a lot of people knew. It’s a story that informs the situations we have living in the city today, the idea of equal access to parks and food and the value of nature.

He not only tried to change the composition of the landscape of the city to better people’s lives, but also saved native lands in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. And the obstacles he faced created a great arc for a story.

MD: Why is Jens Jensen relatively uncelebrated in comparison to other Chicago icons?

CL: In Chicago, we celebrate the politically connected. Progressives like Jensen don’t receive the recognition they deserve. It’s only now, as we’re battling corporations to save land, to put more parks in the cities, that his ideas are becoming relevant. It took a century for his progressive ideas to become as valuable as they are.

Smart people know who he is, but the populist aspect of him is what people don’t know.

MD: The film shows Jensen’s political struggles, getting fired in 1905, and again in 1920. How did Jensen, a landscape architect, become a lightning rod in Chicago politics?

CL: The city operated on patronage jobs. If you wanted a job, you didn’t do anything against the machine and you kept your mouth shut.

Jensen was not a corrupt individual and he would not keep his mouth shut. He wouldn’t tolerate graft, and that didn’t go over well in Chicago, so he became a political football.

MD: Jensen loved the prairie, and tried to bring the prairie to the city in his parks. Eventually he retires to the “wilds of Wisconsin.” Why didn’t he go to the country sooner?

CL: He couldn’t afford to, like so many immigrants. He came here with no money and without any real training. If you wanted to make a life for yourself you had to go where things were happening. So he came to Chicago, which at the time was both the fastest-growing city in history and one of the worst places on earth to live.

His youth in Denmark formed an opinion in his mind of justice. He was a future leader, and I don’t think future leaders flee problems. They’re attracted to them.

MD: Most people trying to make a name would go to the lakefront, to the grand public works projects. But Jensen’s focus was the city’s crowded, poor west side. What drew him there?

CL: He’s not drawn there, it’s where he can live, where all the Danes and German workers lived. At that time people stuck to their immigrant enclaves. If you lived on the West side, you would never go to the lake because that would mean you’d have to go through several other neighborhoods where you didn’t speak the language and might get beaten up.

But he came from a moneyed family, and he had this idea that he was going to do something with his life.

MD: What do you hope Door County people take away from the film?

CL: I hope they realize that Jens Jensen’s story was long and broad before he ever came to Door County. If you think you’re going to know the full story of Jens Jensen, you’re not. I’d need a 10 episode miniseries to come close.

This illustrious history in Chicago is what inspired him to do what he did in Door County. His goal was to inspire people to continue his work, and he will continue to inspire people to work as conservationists.

Jens Jensen:  The Living Green will be screened at Door Community Auditorium in Fish Creek on Sept. 9 at 7 pm, with a pre-show introduction by Director Carey Lundin. Freewill donations encouraged.

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