Two Hundred Years in Five Minutes
The story of Chicago with the good parts left in
Downtown after the Great Fire of 1871
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
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
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
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
“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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