Back in the mid-1970s, when I was a newly minted reporter, I covered Chicago’s City Hall for a while.
I remember that, at news conferences, Mayor Richard J. Daley, the first of the Mayor Daleys, would talk about the suburbs as “country towns,” as if they were these quaint, almost fanciful places. This, at a time when the suburban population was nearly equal to that of the city. Today, there are twice as many suburbanites as Chicagoans.
It was around the same time that I started using as a key reference work the 1969 book Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by geographer Harold M. Mayer and historian Richard C. Wade.
If I needed to know about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, I’d look in Mayer-Wade. The reversal of the flow of the Chicago River? Mayer-Wade. The 1909 Plan of Chicago? Mayer-Wade.
The book, filled with more than 900 photographs and dozens of maps, has a text that is direct and to the point. And, unlike that first Mayor Daley, the authors weren’t Chicago-centric. They viewed the city in the context of its region — the rest of Cook County and the five collar counties: DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry. They wrote:
At a time when so many see only a city divided between suburban and central core, or between black and white, the historian and the geographer feel it is important to emphasize the shared heritage of all who live in “Chicago.”
Best biography of Chicago?
But Mayer-Wade isn’t simply a great reference work. It is perhaps the best biography of Chicago among a group of many very good ones.
Histories of the city tend to emphasize the colorful personalities of prominent Chicagoans such as Al Capone, Jane Addams, Carl Sandburg and those two flashily corrupt aldermen Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin.
By contrast, Mayer and Wade look at the evolution of Chicago from a pioneer outpost to a major world city. They examine how the landscape of the prairie and the curves of the Chicago River and the looming presence of Lake Michigan had an impact on that evolution. They look at congested streets and garbage-strewn alleys, at transportation technologies and the proliferation of bungalows, at the growth of suburbs such as Hyde Park that became part of the city and suburbs such as Lake Forest that remained autonomous. They discuss the emergence of State Street as Chicago’s Great Street and the stark contrast between the affluent Gold Coast and its next-door slums.
Reading cover to cover — three times
After years of dipping into the book for this or that piece of Chicago history, I sat down a while ago to read Mayer-Wade from cover to cover, and I ended up reading it three times — once through its 70,000 words of text, a second time studying its 900-plus photos and illustrations (with about 70,000 words of captions) and a third examining its 60 or so maps, most created by Gerald F. Pyle.
The sprightly text gives a sense of what it felt like — and even smelled like — in earlier times, such as the authors’ use of this quote from H. H. Windsor on why the new cable car system of 1882 was an improvement over the horse-drawn omnibuses:
“The value of removing from a street the voidings of two or three thousand horses is a matter not to be lightly estimated in point of health.”
Similarly, the photos tell tales from a visual perspective. Consider one image which shows a dilapidated three-story home in the 3100 block of South Wabash Avenue and, in the background, a large new apartment structure. The contrast, so stark, tells a lot about urban renewal in the 1950s.
Or look at a photograph from the late 1940s of people lined up around the corner to sign up for new homes in a development in the West Chesterfield neighborhood of the South Side.
Wonkish, maybe, but delightful
I’m a sucker for maps, so my third time through the book was a joy to see Chicago and its region framed in ways that told their own stories. Such as a map of the annexations to Chicago as well as other built-up areas in the region in 1915.
It shows much of the Far South Side empty of development even though within the city’s borders. Beyond those borders, there was no suburbia, but a scattering of towns and small cities, including Waukegan, Naperville and Harvey.
Maybe I’m just a wonk, but I think anyone who wants to know how Chicago got to be the way it is would find Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis a rich and delightful read — times three.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row section on 1.17.2016.