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The New City
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The Skyscraper

Factories in the sky, that's what the skyscrapers were for the new and growing female work force. Yet these vertically organized buildings were marvelously convenient ways to do business. Within a single tall building, with its array of legal, advertising, and commercial services, world-shaping deals were made in a matter of minutes, to the amazement of European businessmen.

The skyscraper was also a technological wonder. The first skyscrapers of New York and Chicago were built with traditional construction techniques. They were supported by heavy masonry walls, which were especially thick at the base. Window space was at a premium, and no one dared build a wall-bearing building over ten stories. It would have collapsed in a heap.

Then, in the mid-'80s, Chicago architects, following the lead of William Le Baron Jenney, began building skyscrapers supported by wind-braced, iron and steel frames, or "cages" as they were called. The thin walls of brick and terra-cotta, lined with long rows of windows, were not part of the building's support system. The steel frame did all the work. The wall was a mere curtain.

Chicago's skyscrapers evoked the no-nonsense, business style of the city. They were clean-featured buildings, with a minimum of surface decoration. That's what made them distinctive, a truly American architecture. They looked like what they were supposed to be; business buildings, while New York skyscrapers looked like Greek temples or Roman baths.

Chicago skyscrapers looked this way because they were built by developers interested in cutting costs, not showing off. Louis Sullivan, the first architect to make tall buildings beautiful, argued that form must follow function. But in Chicago, form usually followed finance.

The skyscraper was the first building in history to depend on machines for its operation. It needed elevators to carry passengers to its upper floors, and telephone and telegraph systems to put tenants in the air in touch with the city below. The skyscraper couldn't have existed without another gigantic machine, an urban transit system capable of moving its small army of workers in and out of the city.


The Department Store

[picture of a department store]

This is equally true of another great commercial invention of the age, the department store, with its even larger army of salesclerks and customers. The department stores of America's big cities were crowded from morning 'til night with customers, as many as a quarter of a million a day. And some of them had workforces larger than steel mills.

Marshall Field, who rose from stock boy to the richest man in Chicago, built the country's most opulent department store, a Palace of Desire that catered almost exclusively to women. In the department stores along State Street, women accounted for 99% of the purchases. When Chicago lit its department stores with electricity, many of these women shoppers stayed in town into the evening, without male escorts.

Traditionalists complained about this; and also about what they called the new vice of shopping. A cranky editorial in the New York Times called shopping a "purse-destroying addiction every bit as bad as male drinking." Yet the accepted place of Victorian women in a male-dominated society, in the home all day, taking care of children, sewing, cleaning, cooking, and entertaining, made shopping a liberating escape from domestic drudgery.

In the great Chicago novel Sister Carrie, Indiana-born Theodore Dreiser captures this oncoming consumption culture. Carrie Meeber, his central character, leaves her home in rural Wisconsin at age eighteen, drawn to the lights of Chicago, as young Dreiser had been, like a moth to a flame. There she enters a glittering department store and finds herself wanting things she's never seen before the very moment she sets eyes on them.

There is also in Sister Carrie a brilliant sensitivity to the changing nature of dress as an indicator of class and social station. A salesgirl at Marshall Field's making $6 a week could save her money and buy one or two ready-to-wear outfits that could instantly place her on a level with her middle-class customers. In the city, it was possible to move up in life simply by buying the right clothes; or as Carrie does, by having her lover buy them for her.

Listen to Dreiser: "When a girl leaves her home at eighteen [for the city], she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse." Here Dreiser describes how many Americans felt about cities, then, as well as now. There was the enticement of a better life, but the equal threat of moral corruption.


The Transit System

In Chicago, moving up in life usually meant moving out -- outward, that is, to the suburbs. We think of suburbia as a 20th century creation. But the suburbs, like the central business district, came into being at the end of the 19th century; both of them made possible by mass transportation.

Before 1800, Chicago had a transit system dependent on 75,000 horses. Teams of them pulled passenger cars along tracks in the streets. The horse, like the modern automobile, was a heavy noise and air polluter. When it rained, the city's gutters flowed with rank-smelling brown streams.

In dry weather, pulverized manure blew into the faces of downtown shoppers. The constant drumming sound of iron-shod hooves on the city's streets was deafening. And as many as 10,000 dead horses a year had to be removed from the streets, where they'd been left to swell and rot in the gutters.

[picture of a cable car]

In 1880, the cable car, a San Francisco invention, began to replace the horse as a passenger conveyance in Chicago. It was twice as fast as a horse, and was clean and relatively quiet. But just as cable cars were being extended, the electric trolley came along. It was faster, quieter, and less expensive to install than a steam-driven cable system.

By 1900, almost every American city had adopted the trolley. In the Gilded Age, urban transit was owned and operated not, as today, by municipalities, but by powerful, and power-hungry, capitalists. The transit czar of Chicago was an ex-convict named Charles Yerkes, who Dreiser made into the central character of his novel, The Titan. Yerkes had served jail time in Philadelphia for stock fraud, and he led a scandalous lifestyle with half-a-dozen mistresses.

He'd come to Chicago, he brazenly announced, for one reason only: to make a fortune. Employing corruption and fraud on a colossal scale, they called him the Goliath of Graft. Yerkes built a far-flung transit system. In the process, he made a million in land speculation.

Yerkes built tracks out to empty land on the edge of the city, land he'd secretly bought, in advance, for a song. Then, when his transit lines were in place, he made a killing selling it to housing contractors. But Yerkes couldn't get along without a little help from his friends. He needed franchises from the city to operate his transit lines on public streets, and to get them he bribed almost the entire city council.

He was finally driven out of Chicago after he tried to muscle through legislation that would have given him a long-term monopoly of Chicago's transit system. Yerkes returned to New York and then went abroad to build the London Underground. Chicago was glad to get rid of him, but he left behind one of the finest urban transportation systems in the world.



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