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The New City
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Page 12345

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Chicago -- City of Speed

[picture of Professor Miller]

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.

[picture of the ruins of Chicago after the fire of 1871]

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 like it.

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 office buildings.

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.

[picture of a woman at a typewriter]

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.

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