Near the end of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, five-term Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. gave a speech in the Music Hall to a crowd of visiting mayors and other officials.
Detail of Newberry Library photo —“Photo of Harrison’s Last Address,” Carter H. Harrison IV Papers, 1673-1953, box 17, folder 824.
, from Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity in the Era of the World’s Fair, accessed , http://faith.galecia.com/resource/carter-h-harrisons-last-public-address.
His subject: the “beautiful White City” that had been built in Jackson Park to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas but, even more, to trumpet the greatness of Chicago.
When [the Great Chicago Fire of 1871] swept over our city and laid it in ashes in twenty-four hours, then the world said, “Chicago and its boasting is now gone forever.” But Chicago said, “We will rebuild the city better than ever,” and Chicago has done that.
The White City is a mighty object lesson, but, my friends, come out of this White City, come out of those walls into our black city….The second city in America!
Harrison’s use of the term “black city” was to contrast the busy, crowded, ever-growing, money-making metropolis with the pristine beauty of the temporary fairgrounds where uniformly gleaming white buildings had attracted more than 27 million visitors over a six-month period.
For him and for other Chicago boosters, it was the “black city” — which undeniably was covered by a pall of smoke and filled with smoke-begrimed structures — that was the true wonder.
A century earlier, there had been no Chicago, no settlement even, just a single trader and his family. Three-quarters of a century earlier, fewer than 40 people had lived on the site. Nearly a quarter of a century earlier, the city had been devastated by the Great Fire. Yet, on the day Harrison spoke, Chicago was second only to New York — but, he was sure, not for long.
Soon would come the day, Harrison predicted, when “Chicago will be the biggest city in America.”
Sociologist Anselm L. Strauss doesn’t mention Harrison in his 1961 book Images of the American City, but the mayor’s speech fits well into the context of many of his observations. His book is an examination of the way people think of cities — residents, outsiders, tourists, boosters, critics, and Chicago is a frequent subject for his analysis. For instance, Strauss notes
the schizoid spirit of the Columbian Exposition itself: partly an aspiration after a greater cosmopolitanism…and partly pride in the enterprise of a city which could so vigorously and admirably present the fair to an awestruck world.
Many Fair visitors, he points out, “were keenly aware of the difference between the imposing Exposition (the ‘white city’) and the actualities of Chicago (the ‘black city’).”
Harrison may have characterized the “black city” as an awe-inspiring dynamo of commerce, success and progress, but it was easy enough for visitors to see the ground-down lives of many Chicagoans and the filth of the city’s streets and the violence and corruption just below the surface.
Indeed, Strauss, who spent most of the 1950s as a professor at the University of Chicago, writes that newspapermen Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, in their 1920 book Chicago: The History of Its Reputation “saw their city as oscillating between two poles: gigantic enterprise and tremendous violence.” Continue reading