The Miracle of Chicago

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It had been 22 years, a whole turning of a saeculum, since I had last set eyes on Chicago. I recalled it as a place of some interest, with delicious ribs, excellent old ballparks, great blues clubs, and an idiosyncratic 19th-century transportation system (and ridiculously over-cheesinated pizza). Still, I was underwhelmed then; having grown up in the city that made Chicago the "second city," I did not grasp what the excitement was about.

When I returned in 2009, I saw Chicago anew with different eyes. I looked on the city where Jane Jacobs showed me South Lawndale and Back of the Yards as functioning urban neighborhoods turning proles into burghers. It was a city whose poet laureate I could no longer take seriously for his hagiography of a monster, albeit one not of the city. Rockwell had emphasized how its trading and middlemen helped bring peace. In the intervening time, natives of that place, no less fiercely proud of it than any New Netherlander of his home, taught me of its architecture, tribalism, and unbridled capitalistic spirit. The city’s chefs, meanwhile, had embraced a new creativity, and created a food mecca to almost match New York and The City. Finally, a long curse on the city’s baseball teams had lifted in 2005 with the victory of my in-town-favorite White Sox, although the Cubs fans, winless since 1908, did have the best perspective on things: "Hey, any team can have a bad century."

On Wednesday, October 14th, I set out to explore the city. The first stop was at the Michigan Avenue bridge to view the Fort Dearborn Massacre monument. While somewhat incorrect today in displaying Indians as aggressors instead of the genocide victims at the hands of US army that they often were, it does capture the spirit of the city in the late 1890s and is refreshingly figural to the modern eye. It is also a reminder in stone of the duplicitous government policies in wartime that lead to civilian suffering. Like Willem Kieft, a war caused Indian reprisals that primarily affected the people on the frontier. Many of the Indians later left the area as a result of the Treaty of Chicago, negotiated in 1833, very close to the founding of the city.

The area across the Michigan Avenue bridge, north of the Chicago River, is part of the smallest "side" of town, the East Side. I had a chance to walk through the Gold Coast, a district largely bedecked with mansions in the period around 1890, when the fashionable Prairie Avenue district on the South Side was upstaged, and the city’s posh district moved to the North Side.

Ransom Cable House, 1886; source:

A stop into a local Whole Foods showed that Chicago’s power as a shipper remained: my favorite cheese, from California, was for sale here for less than I had ever paid on either coast. Like a wire strung between posts would dip due to gravity, the low point of the arc of cost seemed to hit in Chicago, the "Nation’s Freight Handler." Well-stocked with victuals, I wandered a bit around the area, making sure Ed Debevic’s was still there in 50s throwback fashion, and eventually wended my way onto the platform of the Chicago Avenue station of the circa-1892 elevated system.

I had intended to retrace a historic route to Jackson Park, site of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, and one part of a glorious chain of parks built from 1870 to 1890 that ring the core of the city. First, however, came a driving need (Unprecedented, I know.) to investigate the new route to Midway Airport, the Orange Line. (Since my last visit, Chicago had taken the depressing tack of abandoning heroic designations for rapid transit lines like "Lake-Dan Ryan" and "Evanston Express" for a series of color-coded names [what subway surfing young man would ride the Pink Line?], possible because of the low number of lines in comparison to a REAL system, but lacking soul or the ability to confuse non-natives.) My Brown Line train took me to the Loop, where I changed to a train linked to the South Side elevated system; such a journey was not possible in the 80s, when only the subway connected North and South.

The ride to Midway is mostly uninteresting, with some long stretches and good views of the route of the Illinois and Michigan canal, the privately constructed transport link that helped make Chicago a transportation center. A return to Roosevelt Road gave the chance to explore again the South Side El, whose breakneck speed on the arrow-straight run to 35th Street I recalled as the best transit ride in America. I could no longer ride to University Avenue to get off and walk five blocks north to view the Robie House, preserved specimen of Frank Lloyd Wright from 1908, as transit follows the age-old rule of government: the private sector builds, the public sector destroys. (This was also the only time I had ever been frightened for my safety in urban America; the South Side sure can seem the "baddest part of town.") The desolation of many blocks along the route of the El was countered by some fine examples of limestone-front Beaux-Arts-era mansions withstanding the urban decay on what appeared to be Indiana Avenue. Most interesting to me was the renaissance on the southern end of the loop that was visible from the El; having seen the abandonment there in the 80s, I was pleasantly surprised to see recovery.

The Green Line train from which I viewed it took me out to Oak Park to view Wright’s 1909 Unity Temple. As the history of it says: "It … broke nearly every existing rule and convention for American and European religious architecture while laying the groundwork for modern buildings… Along with a revolutionary cubist design — with no steeple and no front entrance — Wright’s Unity Temple would use concrete in a daring way." It cured me of any further interest in Wright, who had nearly gotten me killed, as I now saw him as being born too late to serve his true patron, Walter Ulbricht of East Germany. Wright was a man of the 20th century. As in his structural insufficiency at Bear Run, his questionable use of cinders in the concrete at Unity Temple has caused a grave threat to the building; they could use your help. Preserving these 20th-century monuments to the cult of personality is urgent for the libertarian future!

After two days dedicated to my business purposes in Chicago (which included a chance to view the skyline the way any skyline should be viewed, from the water), I was again set loose in the Urbs in Horto. A walk through Grant Park, another legacy of the Gilded Age, gave a chance to explore Millennium Park. It was pleasant, and had incorporated Jacobs’ ideas on avoiding the vacuum that a park causes by including commercial activity, but a rainy autumn afternoon was not the best time to see it. A quick dash across Michigan Avenue allowed access to an Irish-themed gastropub (Stop your snickering and your "jumbo shrimp" gibes! Yes, they did have potato soup, and it was excellent! As was everything!) to renew and refresh.

My last stop exploring was the Chicago Cultural Center. This building was completed in 1896 as the Chicago Public Library. It is stunning, awe-inspiring, shimmering, sumptuous: words do it little justice. Carrara marble, Tiffany Glass, painstaking mosaics, words redolent of long-ago art history classes are brought vividly to life.

Like any proper New Yorker, I was struck with a sense of envy. Oh, sure, this town had never had Dvorak apply its characteristics to a whole hemisphere, or seen Mahler tap the baton at its Symphony Orchestra, or had Stella incorporate its skyline as the centerpiece of a modernist altarpiece. But it had jewels even greater than those in the crown of New York, acquired in a span barely one sixth that of its elder; the kid had style and class.

It is a place of miracles. I was standing in a glorious temple to the accumulated learning of the ages where only mud had been 60 years prior. Ex nihilo, this plucky burg had erected almost all that I have described in the 25 years following its devastating fire. No Federal Ozymandias had commanded it; no state legislature had mulcted the wealth of millions to build it; no bureaucratic pasha had decreed it. Preserved in the city’s heart is late-19th-century testimony to the power of spontaneous order to create wealth and objects of beauty when unconstrained by centralized monstrosities. It speaks of the power of free men working with an honest unit of account, the gold dollar, and free to associate and create with whomever they choose. It offers a glimpse of the promise of a society that can build works of enduring richness again, after Leviathan has collapsed. Go.

Thomas M. Schmidt [send him mail], a native of Brooklyn, knows "the future’s uncertain and the end is always near," and that New York will need Chicago as it struggles with and overcomes DC.

The Miracle of Chicago by Thomas Schmidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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