Chicago -- City of Speed
In the summer of 1893, Chicago put on one of the spectacles of the century, the
World's Columbian Exposition. It was a fair to celebrate, one year late, the
400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World. And it drew 27
million people from every part of the globe.
The fair marked America's emergence from the Civil War as a reunified nation of
unrivaled power and prosperity. The imperial architecture of the exhibit
buildings and their impressive displays of new science and invention announced
that the approaching century would be the American Century. But if this was
America's fair, it was even more so Chicago's. A declaration that it had
arrived as a city of global consequence.
In 1830 there was no Chicago. Sixty years later, it was the second-largest
city in America. And amazingly, in between these years, in 1871, it was almost
totally destroyed by a colossal firestorm.
To make the fair truly spectacular, Chicago's master builder, Daniel Burnham,
constructed a miniature city of gleaming white buildings on former swampland
along Lake Michigan. The buildings looked like those of Ancient Rome, but the
White City had an ultra-modern infrastructure, including the most advanced
urban transit system in the world. And the grounds were magnificently
landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park. It
was to be a vision of the urban future.
But many Chicagoans saw their own city of smoke and steel as the true model of
a new kind of metropolis. Chicago was loud and dirty, but full of energy and
modern advancements; and Chicagoans wanted the world to see it. The 19th
century was the Age of Cities. In 1860, only one American in six lived in a
city; by 1900 one in three did.
And no city had grown faster or was more representative of the age than Chicago. Chicago had won the right to hold the fair in a bitter competition
with New York that was decided in Congress. The Windy City's lobbyists
convinced Congress that Chicago should be awarded the fair because it, not New
York, was the most American of the country's largest cities. Like America
itself, Chicago was young and aggressively confident, a product of both
frontier and technological expansion, a place of hustlers and visionaries
disdainful of tradition and committed to the future.
It was a place that did things on a big scale, rising bigger and better, in a
mere ten years, from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871. Chicago was the
Queen City of the Machine Age. Its vast slaughtering mills and mail-order
houses were the incarnation of speed and efficiency. And its rebuilt downtown
was a technological wonder, with streets lit by electricity, serviced by
rapid-running streetcars, and lined by solid rows of office skyscrapers.
New York built the world's first skyscrapers in the 1870s, but by the 1880s
Chicago had more of them, and they were built with greater technical audacity
than New York's, making Chicago the world's first vertical city. This prairie
colossus was a foretaste of the future in another way. In 1893, it was laid
out like no other city on earth; yet soon all big industrial cities would look
It was at the same, a vertical and a horizontal city, a city of steel-frame
skyscrapers ringed by suburbs linked to the downtown by steel rails. The
skyscraper was a completely American, and a completely commercial, creation.
No other country built skyscrapers, and there were no skyscrapers that were not
Chicago's architecture mirrored the character of the place, a city built for
business. After visiting Chicago, a New York writer thought it curious that
the image of the downtown that remained fixed in his mind was made up
exclusively of business buildings. As he wrote: "Not a church enters into it;
scarcely a public building enters into it."
Every age brings forth cities that embody the spirit of its time. In
industrial America, the Land of the Dollar, it was Chicago. As a French writer
remarked: "In New York, business is the big word. In Chicago, it is the God,
the last reason for every action and thought."
Most visitors were unprepared for Chicago. It was that spectacular, and awful.
Steaming toward the heart of Chicago in one the country's new express trains,
tourists passed through an industrial amphitheater bigger and blacker than
Pittsburgh, endless reaches of factories and freight yards, and slag heaps and
coal piles that looked like small mountains. And everywhere, covering
everything, were wind-driven clouds of black and gray smoke.
Walking out of one of Chicago's cavernous train stations, strangers entered the
busiest and noisiest downtown in the world, a place that, twenty years before,
was a cemetery of fallen, fire-scorched buildings. Visitors were overwhelmed
by the velocity of Chicago, because so much of its commercial energy was
confined to a one-square-kilometer Loop, named for the iron ring of transit
lines that circled it. The terrific crowding and noise there were shocking,
even to New Yorkers, whose city's commercial activity was strung out for miles
along its lengthy avenues.
They called Chicago the City of Speed. Cable cars pushing through heavy traffic
slammed into slow-moving drays, lifting them into the air and overturning
wagons and teams. Signs hanging over office doors read: "Away for Lunch: Back
in Five Minutes." And the movement of the crowds on the streets reminded one
tourist of "an infantry attack." Everything in the Loop was organized for the
efficient conduct of capitalist enterprise.
Cable cars and electric trolleys brought shoppers from the city's far-flung
suburbs right to the doors of State Street department stores. And in
skyscraper offices, rows of women typists performed clerical work faster than
it had ever been done before, their rapid-moving fingers connected to their
machines as if they were physical parts of them. The typewriter brought women
workers into the capitalist office space and made office work more specialized
and mind-dulling, like factory work in Armour's meat mills.