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Book review: “Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis” by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade

During my long career as a Chicago Tribune reporter, much of my time was spent covering urban affairs, and often, when working on deadline and in need of a quick dose of background information, I’d turn to a book I thought of, simply, as Mayer-Wade.

mayer-wade --- growth of metropolisI wasn’t the only one. Mayer-Wade — officially Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade — has been a go-to book for Chicago region reporters, planners, professors, historians and activists since it was published in 1969.

The Plan of Chicago? Quick, turn to Mayer-Wade. The history of Evanston? Mayer-Wade. The Illinois & Michigan Canal? How Chicago looked at the time of the Great Fire of 1871? The before and after of urban renewal?

Mayer-Wade was always there with some clear, pithy bit of history and often a photo, drawing, map or other image. Indeed, it was those images that set Mayer-Wade apart.

Harold Mayer was a geographer, and Richard Wade an historian. They joined together to tell the story of Chicago in a uniquely integrated way:

This volume…tries to do more than show physical development — it attempts to suggest how the city expanded and why it looks the way it does. This broad purpose explains the dual authorship, for the task seemed to require the tools of both the historian and the geographer — the former with his emphasis on the texture of life and the latter with his concern for spatial relationships. It is the joining of the land and the people that makes the city, and the partnership of two disciplines appeared to be an appropriate strategy in approaching this process.

The how and why

To this end, the two scholars, with the assistance of Glen E. Holt, wrote about 70,000 words of text (or, roughly, the equivalent of 150-200 pages in a typical history book without illustrations), as well as another 70,000 words of captions to complement a bit more than 900 images.

Among those images are some 800 photos, a variety of drawings and 60 or so maps, most created by Gerald F. Pyle.

Mayer-Wade is one of the foundational books in the study of Chicago history, belonging on the same bookshelf with such essential works as Bessie Louise Pierce’s three-volume history (1937-1957), the three-volume history by Alfred Andreas (1884-1886), Homer Hoyt’s One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago (1933), Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon (1991) and The Encyclopedia of Chicago by James Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating and Janice L. Reiff (2004).

Back around 2000, after many years of checking a few pages here and a few pages there in Mayer-Wade, I got the bright idea to read it from start to finish, and thought it would be a perfect selection for a book club I belong to which reads history books.

The response, however, was a complete lack of interest.

“That’s a reference book, isn’t it?” one of the guys said. “Not a book you read.”

A book you read?

Well, as it turns out, it is.

At last, after more than a decade of procrastinating, I sat down recently with Mayer-Wade and started with page 1 — well, actually with the Introduction on page vii — and found it to be a delightfully interesting and eye-opening read.

OK. Maybe that’s more of a comment on how much of a wonk I am. Still, I would bet that anyone who is interested in Chicago and its history would find this a fun read.

Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna (left) and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin
Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna (left) and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin
Not “fun” in the sense of colorful characters doing colorful things. There have been plenty of anecdotal histories of Chicago that emphasize such extravagant personalities as Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin, the epitome of corrupt alderman, and mobster Al Capone and poet Carl Sandburg.

Yet, as entertaining as such works can be, they tend to give a skewed look at the city. After all, the tens of millions of people who have lived and worked in Chicago and its region over the past two centuries have had little contact with the Hinky Dinks of the world.

But their lives have been shaped in many ways by the place and community that is Chicago — the physical location and the collection of individuals who make up neighborhoods that make up sections of the city and its suburbs that, together, make up the region.


Region is an important concept and context for Mayer and Wade. They recognize that, despite official boundaries, Chicago is not separate from suburban Cook County and the six suburban counties. Chicago and every other municipality and every unincorporated area within the regional orbit are deeply inter-connected.

This was a reality that, at the time Mayer and Wade wrote, was easy for residents and leaders to overlook.

Indeed, as a young reporter in the mid-1970s, I attended news conferences at which Mayor Richard J. Daley would talk about the “country towns” (i.e., the suburbs) as if they were foreign lands or alien planets.

For Mayer and Wade, the region is the context in which the city of Chicago developed and grew, thus they provide a great deal of textual and visual attention to a wide array of suburbs, ranging from Evanston to Park Forest, from Elgin to Aurora, from Riverside to Skokie, from Blue Island to Lake Forest.

Similarly, they offer a detailed look at many suburbs of the late 1800s that were eventually annexed to Chicago, including Hyde Park, Lake View and Morgan Park.

The region, too, for the authors, is the result of that development and growth — and the true subject of their book:

We mean by Chicago the entire metropolitan area, not simply the legal municipal unit. The modern metropolis, with its central city, suburbs, and “satellite cities,”’ is a single historic and geographic entity. Today it is politically fragmented, but in every other way it constitutes a functional unit. All of its parts grew out of the same historical roots; its present problems and prospects are interwoven; and all of its people will share a common future.

At a time when so many see only a city divided between suburban and central core, or between black and white, the historian and geographer feel it is important to emphasize the shared heritage of all who live in “Chicago.”

Reading Mayer-Wade

With so many hundreds of photos and dozens of maps, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, obviously, isn’t a typical book.

For instance, it’s designed in groupings of two pages. Each page is laid out in a three-column format, so a two-page spread covers six columns. Often, there will be only a single column of text on the far left with the other five columns filled with photos and captions (although the photos aren’t constrained by the column format).

mayer-wide --- typical page - 2

As a reader, I love having images to complement the text. I would have gone crazy, however, if I had tried to go through this book the normal way — reading the text and stopping to look at the images and captions on each two-page spread.

My solution? I essentially read the book three times.

I read the text from beginning to end, and it read like a story (as any good history book should) and had a fine flow. It could stand alone with few or no images.

For example, starting in 1867, retailer Potter Palmer almost single-handed established and boosted State Street as the commercial center of Chicago. To lead into a description of how he did it, Mayer-Wade offers this paragraph, providing interesting and informative context:

The rise of State Street as “that great street” was at once characteristic and spectacular. In the mid-sixties, it was narrow, shoddy, and unpromising. Small shops and shanties edged wooden sidewalks and unpaved streets. Most retail activity took place along Lake Street and wholesaling along South Water Street. If Chicago had a focus, it was at Clark and Lake, where land values reached $2,000 a front foot in 1865 compared with $150 at Washington and State, just three years earlier.

Or consider these few sentences about the slum area that developed on the Near North Side cheek-to-jowl with the Gold Coast:

As early as 1929 Harvey Zorbauch had described this shabby slice of the city with all its problems as a “belt of bleak, barren, soot-begrimed, physically deteriorated” buildings. This blighted area he divided into two parts: an area of cheap lodging-houses along Clark and Wells streets, and blocks of tenements west of Wells Street. “The tenement area,” he wrote, “is the worst of foreign tongues and cultures; the area of cheap lodging houses is a jungle of human wreckage.”

Quoting Zorbauch not only provides an intense description of the structures in that area, but also, with its reference to “the worst of foreign tongues and cultures,” a hint of the attitudes of mainstream Americans toward immigrants.

Reading the photos

Then, I “read” the photos and their captions. Given the purpose of the book, the pictures are light on individuals and heavy on buildings and street scenes. And those street scenes, for me, were among the best elements of the book.

For instance, an image of the central produce market on South Water Street between Lake Street and the main branch of the Chicago River between 1900 and 1910 (page 222), shows the intense congestion that made the street a prime target of Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett’s Plan of Chicago.

mayer-wade -- photo --- 222 --- larger

Only a few years after this photo was taken, the market was moved about four miles away to the Near Southwest Side, and replaced by the east-west leg of Wacker Drive.

Or take a look on page 258 at a scene of children playing in a garbage-strewn South Side alley. It helps explain why suburban developers were able to attract city-dwellers by emphasizing the lack of alleys in their subdivisions.

mayer-wade -- photo --- 258 --- larger

Reading the maps

Then, after the photos, I “read” the maps.

I love maps. Before the invention of interactive text on the Internet, maps served that purpose, at least, to the extent, that the more you study a map, the more you — you — start to see relationships.

For instance, a map on page 125 shows a great deal. You can look at the boundaries of the city in 1893, and see that, within those borders, the built-up area (shaded) doesn’t reach to much of the South, Southwest and Northwest Sides.

Mayer-Wade -- map -- pg 125 -- sans title

You can see that the built-up area of that year included such places as Blue Island, Joliet, and dozens of towns that, more than half a century later, had been integrated into the suburban landscape.

Also on the map are the 1966 borders of Chicago, so you can determine which areas of the city — not too many, actually — were later annexations.

A final note

Most people who look to Mayer-Wade use a paperback edition. And the paperback is identical to the hardcover version — with one major exception.

The hardcover includes four composite panorama photographs of downtown Chicago taken from some tall building in the years 1858, 1913, 1937 and 1969. Each panorama opens out to the equivalent of six pages in the book (and are often missing or damaged in used copies of the hardback).

With these photos, you can, in a way, travel through time to be in the city in those years and experience Chicago in a unique way.

Mayer-Wade is a great book, and these panoramas make it even greater.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • johnny
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 8:03 am

    what the hell is a “woke” calling o.p. lib. now sound like a neat book

    • Post Author
      Patrick T. Reardon
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:31 pm

      It’s wonk. That’s a word for someone who is a nerd specializing in policy issues.

  • Jonathan Mayer
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 12:51 am

    A delightful and thoughtful review of my father’s book. When I was growing up, I saw him work on this with absorption, passion, and even love–love for the work, and love for the city, its history, and its growth. I still look at Mayer-Wade proudly, and nostalgically. I wish that my father was still around, peering at the photos, typing away on his new IBM Selectric, and saying, “Jon, come on over, let me show you something” and he proceeded to teach me in a way that no formal education could even approach.
    Jonathan Mayer, Professor of Epidemiology, Internal Medicine/Infectious Diseases, and Geography,
    University of Washington, Seattle

    • Post Author
      Patrick T. Reardon
      Posted July 30, 2014 at 7:28 am

      Jonathan — It is wonderful to get your note. I have such a great admiration for your father’s book. I’m working now on a couple books about the city, and the book stands as a model I hope to emulate. Thanks. Pat

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