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History

Two Hundred Years in Five Minutes

The story of Chicago with the good parts left in

Downtown after the Great Fire of 1871

AP Photo

By Harold Henderson
September 22, 2006

Chicago has always been a town of immigrants and mostly not of the WASP variety: when the 18th-century trader Jean Baptiste Point duSable, his Potawatomi wife Catherine, and their family became the first regular residents, you might say it was a BFIC (Black French Indian Catholic) town. Chicago’s first businessmen were fur traders who answered to the American Fur Company’s headquarters at Mackinaw on the far north end of Lake Michigan.

In 1836 the city’s canal commissioners designated the lakefront (roughly from Randolph to 14th Street) “Public Ground—A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear, and Free of Any Buildings, or Other Obstruction Whatever.” And so it has remained—if you don’t count the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, and their expensive parking lots, not to mention the eight-lane Lake Shore Drive or the times the parks are roped off for private parties.

Cincinnati and Saint Louis are in the middle of the country too. How did Chicago outgrow them? In 1856, the Board of Trade found a way to gain trade—it turned handmade farm products into commodities by setting up quality standards for grain. Wheat and corn from individual midwestern farms no longer had to be sold and loaded one sack at a time. Now all grain of the same quality could be stored and shipped in bulk and traded by simply using receipts and futures contracts.

The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for president in Chicago in 1860, but he didn’t attend the convention.

After the Great Fire in 1871, the city’s commercial elite compounded the disaster by running the Chicago Relief and Aid Society Katrina-style, dispensing too little help too late to too few. The fire had devastated nearnorth immigrant neighborhoods and burned all the bridges connecting them to the rest of town—yet at first the society set up no relief depot north of the river and published information only in English. When a fire victim did get work, the society immediately cut off all help. These lucky souls then endured a week or two of employment but no cash while they waited for their first payday. (The society finished up with a generous surplus, thank you for asking.)

The Haymarket anarchists were convicted—and four of them hanged—not because they threw the bomb that killed eight policemen at a labor rally in May 1886, but because they might have said or written things that might have been heard or read by whoever did throw it.

The Chicago River had to be reversed twice, in 1871 and 1900, both times away from Lake Michigan (it didn’t take the first time). The lake cleaned up, and the city’s sewage got carried instead down the Illinois River, which got so gross that by the 1910s it was devoid of oxygen all the way to Peoria.

Daniel Burnham was a great deal maker and architect, but much of his fabled 1909 plan—the one that would’ve ringed the city with green boulevards—was never built. Why is his name all over the place? The idea that crude rude Chicago could be made into an immaculate “White City,” like his setting for the 1893 World’s Fair, was irresistible. As writer James Krohe Jr. puts it, “Burnham and his followers slathered a stucco of North Shore values atop Chicago’s rough exterior.”

Jane Addams was more than a pioneer social worker—more like a predecessor of Martin Luther King Jr. She started with high culture and garbage cleanup on the near west side. She ended up staunchly opposing World War I, as King did the Vietnam War. Both have since been selectively remembered for being nice.

Labor shortages in World Wars I and II drew African-Americans up to Chicago from the old Confederacy, with big assists from the Illinois Central Railroad and the Chicago Defender. Their labor was welcome but they weren’t: in July 1919, a four-day race riot began when a black swimmer was stoned and drowned at the 29th Street beach. The racial prejudice of whites up to and including Mayor Richard J. Daley, the father of the current mayor, kept blacks restricted to crowded south- and west-side neighborhoods for decades, a residential pattern that has continued even as crowding has eased and African-Americans have moved into adjacent southern and western suburbs.

Chicago government agencies gave whites plenty of extra help long before the term “affirmative action” was coined. In 1937—when public housing was both desirable and desperately needed—the Chicago Housing Authority built the Jane Addams Homes to serve a neighborhood defined to exclude blacks living nearby. As a result, blacks occupied 30 apartments, while Italians had more than 400.

Northwestern’s lakeside campus and the steel mills in Portage, Indiana, have something in common. The mills were built where the most spectacular Indiana Dunes stood until 1963; the Evanston campus was built on the sand brought north for landfill.

Don’t confuse the two Mayor Richard Daleys. Richard J. the Father (mayor 1955-1976) lied to Martin Luther King Jr. to persuade him to leave town in the summer of 1966, built a patronage army, and was never indicted although many around him were. Richard M. the Son (mayor since 1989) illegally bulldozed a lakefront airport, built a patronage army, and was never indicted although many around him were.

Millennium Park used to be a sandbar. Soldier Field used to look like a stadium. The Bulls used to be contenders. Sears used to be headquartered on the west side. Sears used to be headquartered in the Sears Tower. Sears used to be . . . oh, never mind. If you want more, here are three places where history reads better than fiction:

“The Founding Fathers: The Absorption of French-Indian Chicago, 1816-1837” by Jacqueline Peterson (in Ethnic Chicago, edited by Melvin G. Holli and Peter d’A. Jones).

City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America by Donald L. Miller.

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago by Mike Royko.

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