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How Chicago Happened

 The prototype of the city-as-process, Chicago’s phenomenal growth is the great urban romance of the modern world

First published in AR October 1977, this piece was republished online in July 2015

Prior to the founding of Chicago cities were thought of as ‘settlements’. They were subject to growth and change but this was slow and the emphasis was on permanency. The configuration of the city changed rarely and buildings were pulled down and replaced only with reluctance.

Chicago changed all this and in doing so became the prototype of the modern city, of the ‘city-as-process’. Its phenomenal growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is the great urban romance of the modern world. The plan of Chicago was determined 50 years before by Jefferson’s decision to cross the new western territories of the United States with a grid of roads running north/south and east/west at half-mile intervals. Chicago therefore may be thought of as a part of this grid which happened to sprout buildings. A European ‘settlement’ type of plan tends to hold successive generations in a sort of clamp: the structures built on it stand in a particular relationship to one another which is determined by the plan itself. A grid exerts no such clamping effect: no sites on it have any intrinsic precedence over any others - apart from what is given to them by natural features which interrupt the grid. A grid plan, therefore, invites impermanence and predisposes those who build on it towards a policy of unsentimentality. Without doubt the grid has exerted great influence over the development of Chicago and on the attitudes of her citizens. On the one hand it has instilled in them a spirit of nonchalance in times of hectic expansion. While on the other it has laid them open to territorial anxiety as they see some undesired user creeping towards them with no emphatic barrier to stem the advance.

At the time of the birth of Queen Victoria Chicago was represented only by a wooden fort and stockade built on a spit of land at the mouth of the Chicago River and guarding the portage route between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. This fort (Fort Dearborn) was surrounded by a dismal marsh and indeed the first Chicagoans seem to have lived up to their knees in water. By 1830 the place had 50 settlers. In 1834 the Port of Chicago was effectively opened and by 1837 the population had risen to 4000. This rush of people gave rise to Chicago’s first technical invention, the balloon frame which cut down the time for building a timber house from several months to a week.


Moving House, Engraving from a house mover’s advertisement in the Chicago Business Directory 1859

Chicago was now a transportation centre. Produce was brought in from the surrounding prairies on plank roads, was packed, warehoused - and sent on again by ship. In 1848 the first railway was built, from Elgin in the west to Chicago, a run of about 40 miles. By a fluke of preservation one of the engines which served this line, the Pioneer, was saved and now stands, black and terrifying, in one of the upstairs galleries of the Historical Society. The railway caught on and by 1866 there were no less than 10 trunk lines leading into the city. In this year it was decided to raise the whole place off the marsh. The street level was raised- in places by as much as 14 feet, but, more commonly, by four or five feet - and the timber houses were jacked up accordingly. To this day, in some of the older parts, you can see timber houses which are still down at the original level. In the main, however, this cavalier attitude towards their homes appealed to the first generation of Chicagoans. Firms arose who specialised in house moving, so that householders who did not like their neighbours or who saw a chance of selling their sites at a great profit would have their houses jacked up, put on wheels and trundled to another locality. The poor, however, doubled the density by having their homes moved to the back of their plots so that another could be built on the frontage.

Timber, grain and cattle were t he staple of the city’s prosperity. The industrial installations were centred on the two branches of the Chicago River; but in the early 1860s the railways- in an act of competitive collaboration which could only happen in America-clubbed together to take the cattle interest out of the city and to put it into what we would today call an ‘out-of-town’ facility, the Union Stockyards. These were sited· six miles out to the south-west, occupied a square mile, and had their own restaurants, hotels and exchange. Even in this early period Chicago had a foretaste of that depressing feature of the ‘City as Process’-obsolescence. The axis of the first Chicago ran east-west: the east-west thoroughfare, Lake Street, was the commercial centre and the wealthy lived for the most part on west side, that is, on the side farthest from the lake, ‘outside settlers’ they were picturesquely called. Then, in 1867, a wholesale merchant called Potter Palmer who had made a fortune in cotton during the Civil War bought three-quarters of a mile of the north-south thoroughfare, State Street, and, by the simple device of building luxurious premises on this street for all the main trading companies, turned Chicago into the north-south city which it now is. The near west side fell into a decay from which it has never recovered and, to avoid having to pass through so much squalor on their way to the centre, the well-to-do then moved south. But, as we shall see, they were not destined to remain there very long.

The first Chicagoans did not see the lake as an amenity. There was no fuss when the Illinois Central brought its tracks in from the south between the lake and the city, right up to the terminus near the river mouth. The wealthy on South Michigan Avenue did not mind the clank and snuffle of its vast engines, nor the showers of soot which they must have poured on their hydrangeas.


‘The burning of Chicago’ Currier and Ives’ contemporary lithograph

The first Chicago, then, was a timber city, with masonry three-and four-storey buildings in the commercial centre and handsome masonry villas on the outskirts. Its most imposing structures were warehouses and rail way stations. It was already a multi-racial city: about half its citizens were immigrants and the dominant groups were German and Irish. The blacks were present, but in restrained numbers. This Chicago came to a sudden end on the evening of 8 October 1871 The cow belonging to a Mrs O’Leary who lived in a little shack in the south-west corner of the city kicked the contents of a kerosene lamp on to the straw. The shack, Mrs O’Leary and, so far as we can tell, the cow also, survived; but most of the rest of Chicago didn’t. A Strong south-west wind blew the flames from shack to shack. It jumped the Chicago River and proved quite unstoppable. Consuming 64 acres per hour it burnt, first, the south side, then it crossed the river again and burnt the north side, all the way up to Fullerton Avenue. In the end four square miles of city were destrayed and nearly everyone was ruined. Chicago’s rivals, New Orleans and St Louis, could hardly conceal their joy. But their joy was short-lived. Most industrial plant lay outside the trail of the fire. Within a week nearly five-and-a-half thousand temporary structures had been built. Hungry architects poured in from the east coast and cemented that great friendship between architects and commerce which was to be such a feature of the restored city. The place would have been rebuilt there and then were it not for a depression which set in in 1873 and lasted until 1880. When it was over two new inventions had taken root which were to make so great a difference to the appearance of the central area: electricity and the elevator.

The central area now shoots up towards the sky and, as it did so, the City Fathers grappled with the problems which high rise creates on the earth beneath. In 1882 they took up the electric cable car, pioneered in San Francisco. These moved to and fro between suburbs and centre at a speed of between nine and 12 mph and, circling round the business centres, created the ‘Loop’. In 1890 the south side Rapid Transit Company started work on an Elevated Railway. This followed the cable car routes and, with its aerial track, confirmed the Loop as a visible component of the city. It was powered first by steam, then by electricity and raised the average speed of travel to 15 mph.

In 1893 the city went on show to the world in the Chicago World Fair, sited in Jackson Park on the south side, close to Hyde Park, where the University of Chicago now has its principal campus. The World Fair created a crisis of conscience in the Chicago bosom. The city was, without doubt, one of the world’s most powerful; but was it also one of the most beautiful? and the most cultured? Well, no. Historians of Modern Architecture deplore the World Fair. It worries them that men like Daniel Burnham, whose firm two years before had designed the revolutionary 16-storey Monadnock building in the Loop, could countenance such a feast of historical reminiscence. Leaving this question to one side, it is certain that the Fair instilled in Chicagoans a desire that their city should be beautiful; and in particular it drew their attention to the part the lake could play in such a programme. For the Fair was built on artificial islands formed in the margin of the lake. As can be seen in Currier and Ives’s pre-Fair Panorama of Chicago, the grid reached to the shore of the lake along the whole frontage. The southern half of the lake front was marred by the railway and in the northern sector the grand houses were not on the lake front but half a mile back, on La Salle Street. A grid plan may make an impressive city, but it does not make a beautiful one. Particularly when, as in Chicago’s case, there were virtually no internal open spaces in the central area that imposing buildings could front on to. The city-as-process gave rise to a great number of casual, shifting gaps in the city fabric, but  had no place for a deliberate, permanent gap. Suddenly, then, Chicagoans saw Lake Michigan as a great aesthetic opportunity; and once again the developer, Potter Palmer, stepped in and, by ma king a start on Lake Shore Drive immediately to the north of the river mouth, gave the city plan one more decisive twist. Up to 1893 the centre of gravity of the city was south of the river mouth, with commerce firmly anchored in the Loop and the grand houses on the southern avenues. After 1893 it begins to move north. First, the great families- the Armours, the McCormicks, the Montgomery Wards abandoned their mansions on the avenues to move into the larger, more splendid ones built for them by Potter Palmer on Lake Shore Drive, the ‘Gold Coast’ as it was called. Later with the building of the new bridge on Michigan A venue in 1920, much the same was to happen with commerce as businesses moved out of the crowded and cavernous Loop on to the more ample sites north of the river. Chicago now begins to get its modern configuration. The water along the lake shore is shallow. Thus it was an easy matter to give the city an added strip of made-up land, of depth varying between a quarter and half-a-mile, on which to put a continuous chain of parks and marinas. Facing on to this strip is a continuous cliff of tall apartment buildings which goes on, mile after mile. But this lakeshore crust of affluence is, at the most, only about a quarter of a mile thick and behind it is the grid of ordinary Chicago. Even SO, the lakeshore parks and beaches are public and are continuously used by everyone. Memories of the World Fair continued to work on the Chicago mind and in 1906 the Merchants Club commissioned Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett to apply the principles of classical planning to the whole of Chicago. Their plan was published in 1909 and was adopted by the city the following year. Though he would have denied this en ergetically, Burnham sought to change Chicago from a commercial city to a cultural city. He imposed upon the grid a set of radial thoroughfares which centred on a new and unutterably grand Civic Centre. This centre he put not in the Loop but to the south-west, at the junction of Congress and Halsted in the position where the Post Office building was destined to go. In the event, in the years between 1910 and today, ideas about city planning were to flow in very different channels. Chicago was to make its mark on the popular imagination, not as a regular, horizontal city but through its irregular clusters of towers. Apart from this Burnham had assumed an uninterrupted reign for the railways.


Post-fire, pre-skyscraper Chicago. Currier and Ives Lithograph of 1985

Even so, the publication of the Burnham plan marked a turning point in the history of the city. It posed, in an uncompromising way, the ‘problem’ of Chicago. This problem is: ‘How do you turn a city dedicated to the creation of wealth into a city dedicated to the right spending of wealth?’ Chicago was as successful as she was because she gave free rein to her most active and citizens to build where they liked, what they liked. How to direct and channel this activity to produce a beautiful and liveable city without damping too much this primary activity which makes it all possible? Burnham sought to impress on his fellow committeemen the notion that, If a city is beautiful, people are able to make more money in it. But though, in the long term, this maybe true, it is not self-evident truth applied to the short term. In 1910 Chicago was still midstream in its career of innovation and expansion: its population. was destined to rise from 2 million to 3 ½ million and the dislocation to be caused by the motor car was still in the womb of Time. It is not therefore altogether surprising that those parts of the plan which could be carried out without interfering With the business city - most notably the lakeshore parks - were implemented, but the remainder not.

There is, however, one other aspect of the plan which needs a mention. Ever since the 1890s the chief commercial houses in the Loop had been building a network of tunnels which enabled goods to be brought (on rails) from warehouses outside the Loop to sales spaces within. Burnham conceived a plan for joining these up into a coherent system and, by linking them to the 21 trunk railroads which led into Chicago, to direct the movement of all freight underground. This superlative idea was frustrated by the shift from rail to road, though the idea was carried over into the motor age in Chicago’s practice of running a duplicate roadway underground (e.g. at Wacker Drive). The railways too responded to Burnham in the building of Union Station and in rationalising their handling of freight; but the immediate future was not theirs.

The motor car magnified Chicago’s opportunities - and her problems. The pattern of life had been the same from the beginning, The new immigrant came in and settled in a poor area near to his place of work, in an ‘ethnic’ neighbourhood where everyone spoke his language-be it Polish, Lithuanian, Czech or Chinese. Then he made good, moved to a more ample setting a little farther out where he lost his national identity and became more  American. The motor car speeded and enlarged this process, enabling both successful businesses and successful people to move farther out to sites which were ever more ample. Chicago pioneered both the out-of-town shopping centre and the out-of-town industrial estate. Suburban life was taken more seriously in Chicago than in England. In England it has always been regarded as offering a maimed and imperfect existence, which is ‘neither one thing nor the other’. The Chicago suburb is more self-contained and sets out to offer at least a semblance of everything down-town has to give. Thus when Marshall Field open a department store in a shopping centre like Northbrook, it is about as grand as their establishment on the Loop.


How Chicago spent her money. The Dream of Colombian Exposition, 1893. A contemporary photograph looking down on to the basin from the manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building

This decanting of Chicagoans from the middle outwards was so successful that by the to the 1960 the population of Chicago proper began to decline. The demographic picture, too, had been changing fast. Immigrants to Chicago in the nineteenth century and on until the Second World War had been of European stock and assimilated easily to the new life offered them. Their teething troubles were expressed in the Chicago gangster who – though scarifying in himself-did little environmental damage. The immigrants of those sorted themselves out into small and innocuous village-type communities sprinkled throughout the inner wards of the City. Since the Second World War the immigrants have· been mainly blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexican cans, for whom assimilation is much difficult. In 1910 the black population of Chicago was 2 per cent, today it is about 35 per cent. The Peurto Ricans and Mexicans are much fewer in number, but have the added language difficulty-so much so t hat public notices in Chicago are printed in Spanish also. Because of the scale of the migrations, both of industries and of successful whites from the west and south sides of Chicago, the new immigrants have coalesced into much larger units so that, when riled, they riot and burn the place down.

Chicago did not start her attack on the problems created by bad housing and the motor car until after the Second World War. Then she used the only remedies to hand: clearance-cum-high-rise for the one and the Urban Expressway for the other. The first Expressways (such, for instance, as the Chicago Skyway which runs south-east and skims over the industrial installations round the Calumet River) were built as toll roads, on the American principle that a good thing should pay for itself; but the later Expressways were built at Federal expense and the city had the wit to insist that the constructors included a commuter railway on the median strip. The city is well served for transport. The grid of streets was always good for buses and cars and to this is added Lake Shore Drive-sited far enough out not to be a nuisance-and Expressways leading north, west and south; and the two-layered Wacker Drive which skirts the north and west sides of the Loop. For trains she still has the ghostly remnants of the commuter services of the old main lines-whose double-decker trains move majestically and comfortably over t heir under-serviced tracks; and she h as, of course, the ‘El’, the much-beloved elevated railway which, for all its nineteenth-century appearance and switchback lines, is very efficient. And there is O’Hare Airport. Anyone arriving at Chicago between the wars would have found the city still visibly intact. Vast tracts of it he would find in very bad shape, but at least the houses were standing and people were living in them. Today this is not so. A policy of clearance (aided by riots) has left wide tracts of near desert - there are 17 square miles of vacant lot in central Chicago. Shortage of space had never been a problem. Yet, in the ’50s and ’60s, Chicago followed everybody else in turning houses into high-rise blocks which rise incongruously from the plain and multiply the problems they were intended to relieve.

To see Chicago from the air is like looking down on an unevenly worn carpet. Halfway down the edge facing the lake is the ragged tuft of the Loop with its successive generations of skyscraper, each out -topping the last, the last two corners, the Sears and the Hancock, out-topping all the others. Then, to the west and south side, are wide tracts where the street grid passes over brown earth and the viewer is reminded uncomfortably that these areas were once the most favoured and prosperous parts of historic Chicago. To the west and to the north are much wider tracts of green, created by the tree-lined avenues of well-to-do residential districts. This has always been a characteristic, for Chicago took for its motto Urbs in horto and is often referred to as ‘the green city’. Farther to the south the carpet is covered by a haze for this is where the heavy industry is: the modern port of Chicago and the steel mills of Gary in the State of Indiana. These four hang together: together they demonstrate what Chicago has always been: a city-as-process.


The first High Rise Chicago. George Melville’s ‘Panorama of Chicago’ as seen from the top of the Monadnock, 1897

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