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.
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.”
“Habitations of the underworld”
He quotes from Herbert Asbury’s book on the dark side of Chicago, ironically named Gem of the Prairie:
No part of Chicago was rebuilt more quickly than the saloons, brothels, gambling-houses, and other resorts and habitations of the underworld. In less than a year after the fire, conditions were even worse than in 1857 or in the early years of the Civil War.
Buttressing Asbury is the voluminous 1887 History of the Chicago Police by John J. Flinn which asserts that every train arriving in the city after the Fire “contained a larger percentage of disreputable characters, who had turned their footsteps toward Chicago with an idea in view of preying upon the honest people of the community.”
In addition, Flinn notes, many of those honest people were “demoralized” by their losses in the Fire:
Reckless dissipation on the part of those who had lost part or all their possessions in the conflagration was not uncommon. Some took to stimulants; others to gambling; the decade after the fire is strewn with the whitened bones of human wrecks, caused by that great calamity. Saloons, concert halls, dives, brothels and gambling hells flourished.
“A wide-open town”
The situation was the same, Strauss notes, during the 1893 World’s Fair. When Harrison evoked the image of the “black city,” he wanted his listeners to think of Chicago as strong and vibrant.
But it could also be viewed as a city of vice and corruption — and he was part of the reason for that. Asbury notes:
Harrison had promised during his campaign that he would give the World’s Fair crowds a wide-open town, and he more than kept his word.
Until he was assassinated on October , 1893, by a disgruntled office-seeker, Chicago was the most wide-open town America had ever seen, or probably ever will see.
Harrison was slain in his home, just a few hours after he had given his speech about the white and black cities.
Corruption of one sort or another has continued to be a major element of Chicago’s history over the past century and more. Strauss notes that the question is often asked: “Why do we have so much vice, crime, violence and corruption here?”
Finding an answer has to start with an examination of the people Chicagoans elect to public office. And here’s one fact for consideration: During one recent 25-year period, 25 present and former Chicago aldermen were convicted on corruption charges.
In other words, there is an attitude in the city that has long accepted corruption. Just as there has been an attitude for the past 60 years or more that accepts one-party rule in Chicago government.
“They had to”
Harrison’s boasting about the drive and energy of Chicagoans to rebuild their city so quickly after the Fire was, like much boasting, only part of the story.
As the ashes from the blaze still floated on the wind, the rich and powerful of Chicago — the ones who lost the most money, goods and buildings in the Fire — had no choice but to rebuild. They were deeply invested in the site, deeply committed to the rubble-covered property they still owned, deeply entrenched in the city.
The working class and poor may have lost even more relatively, but, lacking the same financial ties to the location, they were much freer to leave Chicago if they wanted.
And it wasn’t only the movers and shakers in Chicago who had such commitments to the site. It was their Eastern investors as well. Those Chicago businessmen, writes Strauss, knew that “New York and London banks could not fail to furnish the capital necessary to rebuild Chicago with all haste.” And he elaborated later:
The myth of the Chicago fire assigns remarkably little role to the realistic motives of eastern businessmen who charitably, humanely, and patriotically met the challenge and helped, along with contributions from admirers from far off land, to raise the phoenix from its ashes.
They had to. They were invested to the hilt.
Even before the Fire, the boasting of Chicago leaders about their city — the image they promoted — stressed the municipality’s location and the enterprise of its citizens, with little or no mention of those New York and London investors. Yet, Strauss notes, not everyone was buying that story.
A “demonstrably groundless boast”
In 1874 — three years after the Fire — Everett Chamberlin published a history of the city, Chicago and Its Suburbs, in which he argued:
What built Chicago? Let us answer, a junction of Eastern means and Western opportunity. The East had an excess of enterprise and capital which as naturally pushed West, on lines of latitude, as water runs downhill…But what made the opportunity? We answer, the simple fact that the district of country within two hundred and fifty miles of Chicago filled up with settlers…
Then, in a section titled “Greatness Thrust Upon Her,” Chamberlin went on to say:
Chicago was a large business focus before enterprise was a local characteristic. In the history of no other emporium of business do we find anything more marvelous than the historical fact that Chicago grew great without ambition; not from humility, but from the inveterate hesitation of petty ideas. How strangely this contrasts with the prevalent but demonstrably groundless boast of a locally inherent self-making spirit.
Never was a great city less its own architect.
Chamberlin points out, for instance, that, unlike many other cities, Chicago “never invested a dollar in a railroad.” Instead, railroad entrepreneurs had to overcome governmental indifference. Even so, those magnates found success, and forced the city “as a golden subjugation.”
The inhabitants of past days could no better withstand the uncredited but splendid boom of eastern railroads, than they could have resisted a pestilence. They had to accept it.
OK. If the image of Chicago promulgated by boosters in the 19th century — and, of course, today — wasn’t completely accurate, what is the best way to think about the city? What is the best image?
Strauss asserts that, even if you leave the overblown negatives and positives to the side, “Chicago can still emerge as recognizably ‘itself’ of we glance at what is written about the place.”
And then he summarizes those aspects: “a great Midwestern industrial and commercial center….a cosmopolitan city, a world city, great in size and aspiration, in attainment and fame…the main railroad and airlines crossroads of America….home of so many and such diverse ethnic groups as to make it, as the journalists delight in writing, the second largest Polish city, the sixth largest German city, the second largest Swedish city, ‘a hodge-podge of races and nationalities’…a town marked by a certain amount of violence, vice, graft, and those other unpleasant accompaniments of big city life.”
“A character of its own”
All of that is true as far as it goes (although, after a half century, some of those “largest city” references may be a little different). Yet, how much does it tell us?
Paris is Paris, no other place. London, the same. New York. What is it about these and other unique places that sets them apart and gives them individuality? Does Chicago have it?
Amid all the image-making that Strauss surveys, he mentions in passing:
The entire complex of urban life can be thought of as a person rather than a distinctive place, and the city may be endowed with a personality — or, to use common parlance — a character of its own.
He doesn’t dwell on this idea, yet I think there is some merit to it if seen in a certain light.
It’s not that a city can have a choleric or serene or sensual personality. Yet, we can talk, for example, about how open or closed a city is to diversity in terms of education, economic status, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity? New York is, in part, New York because of its diversity. This is a case when there does seem to be an attitude shared by a majority of the people of the city to some extent. Else why live in New York?
We can talk about the aspects of cultural life that predominate in a city. You can’t think about Paris without thinking about art. New Orleans without its food and music would be what? Not New Orleans.
I suspect that an analysis along these lines would begin to delineate a sort of attitudinal and cultural personality. A key element in such an analysis would be the extent to which residents participate in these aspects of a personality.
Everyone in New York, for instance, takes part in the city’s diversity. Not everyone in Paris is part of its artistic culture. Yet the argument could probably be made that, because art is so pervasive in Paris — from its museums to its gardens to Baron Haussmann’s streetscape — that it is part of the air everyone breathes.
Mention of that streetscape leads me to another element of this — the physical environment.
Just as my personality is formed, in part, by whether I’m tall or short, fat or thin, agile or klutzy, the experience of living in or visiting a city is affected by the touch and look of the place.
If Chicago has a personality, it is certainly shaped by the physical space that it is — its lakefront and its lake, its flatness and its skyscrapers, its street and alley grid, its housing stock, its tree-lined curbs, its easily overlooked three-branched river.
There is something here, I think.
If we can figure out how a city is “itself” in terms of attitudes, culture, geography and whatever else might work along these lines, then we will probably find it easier to figure out how to face the challenges of the future.
Patrick T. Reardon