Chicago has a major park called Humboldt Park, an official community area called Humboldt Park, and a dignified old avenue called Humboldt Boulevard. But ask the first thousand Chicagoans you meet to tell you who “Humboldt” was, and chances are they won’t have the slightest idea.
Humboldt has become even more obscure than William McKinley—remember him? So let’s go out to the community, drive down the boulevard, and go into the park to his statue.
Alexander von Humboldt was born into minor Prussian nobility in 1769. He seemed destined for a career in politics or finance. But by the time he became a young man, he decided to follow his first passion, natural science.
In 1799 Humboldt and a friend traveled to the Spanish colonies in South Amerca. The trip evolved into a five-year-long expedition. Humboldt explored new lands, studied plant and animal life, made scientific measurements, and would boldly go where few Europeans had gone before.
Returning to Europe, he published his field research and became famous. Now Humboldt used his celebrity to promote science. Charles Darwin, for one, said that Humboldt had been his early inspiration.
In 1829 Humboldt headed an expedition into Asiatic Russia. In his later years he wrote a multi-volume synthesis of various sciences titled Kosmos. He died in 1859.
Humboldt never visited Chicago. His statue, and all the other Humboldt-names around town, can be credited to ethnic politics.
When Humboldt died the Germans were just becoming a major Chicago voting bloc. Picture a group of aldermen gathered around. You can just imagine one of them saying—“We need to name something for a German. Who’ve they got? Humboldt, a scientist everybody loves? Yeah, that’s perfect!”
The park was laid out in 1869. The statue arrived in 1892, the work of Felix Gorling. It was paid for by German-born brewer Francis Dewes, who was also responsible for a flamboyant mansion on Wrightwood Avenue.
When the statue was erected, the neighborhood around it was heavily German. The Poles later settled in, and for many years Humboldt Park was the site of the Polish Constitution Day Parade. Then the Poles moved on and were succeeded by the Puerto Ricans.
And ethnic politics still operates. One of the park’s roadways is now named for Luis Munoz Marin—the first elected governor of Puerto Rico.