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The New City
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Page 12345

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The White City

While they were laboring in the slums, the White City opened to tremendous national fanfare. The Fair took place at a critical juncture in the nation's history. Many Americans saw their country's future bound up with the future of its industrial cities, and these cities appeared to be flying apart. These Americans feared that the unsettling changes urban growth had brought with it: socialism and labor unrest, spreading slums, waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, and a new and freer morality, were tearing apart the old Protestant republic.

A young American historian raised a further concern. In an essay he read at a meeting of historians at the Chicago Fair, called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the frontier of free land, the nurturing source of America's democracy, and a safety-valve for urban discontent.

Reading Turner's essay gave some people the sense that the country was about to explode.

But this was also a decade of confidence, and Daniel Burnham's White City was a reassuring expression of faith in the nation's future. Its message was that cities could be saved, not by settlement workers and socialists, but by civic-minded businessmen.

Built by Chicago's commercial kings, the White City was their vision of what a great city could be like. There were no beggars or garish signs, and the streets were immaculately clean. Picturesque walkways and waterways connected the magnificent exhibition halls. And these buildings were filled with the newest inventions of the age: among them, electric kitchens, calculating machines, and a gadget for viewing motion pictures, Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope.

The builder of this place understood the American mind. In Daniel Burnham's city, tradition and change, order and innovation, were in perfect harmony, suggesting to anxious Americans that they could enjoy all the conveniences of the Machine Age without changing their old values and habits. Visitors came away wondering why every American city couldn't be made over in the image of the White City. The writer William Dean Howells called it "a glimpse of utopia"; the black leader Frederick Douglass pronounced it a national scandal.

The White City excluded the accomplishments of African-Americans. And when fair directors held a special Colored People's Day, they added a note of ridicule to the occasion by providing watermelons to the crowd. Douglass and his young friend, the black activist Ida B. Wells, wrote a protest pamphlet and passed it out at the fair.

But while Wells boycotted Colored People's Day, Douglass, who was seventy-five and in failing health, used the occasion to give an electrifying speech, over the shouts of hecklers. "We Negroes," he said, "love our country. We fought for it. We only ask that we be treated as well as those who fought against it in the Civil War." Douglass pointed out the paramount problem of the White City; it failed to acknowledge not only the accomplishments, but also the existence, of the kind of powerless people Hull House workers were trying to help.

The White City's richest legacy is the confidence of its builders in the possibilities of urban life, their conviction that the modern metropolis, with its enormous problems, could be made over into a work of art. But a great city is not a work of inspired scene painting, static and splendid. It's a living drama with a huge and varied cast of characters, and with a plot full of conflict, tension, and spectacle.

People will always disagree about how to make cities better. Dreiser speaks for those who insist that cities should be allowed to grow freely and naturally, achieving a kind of messy vitality; while Burnham speaks for those who lean toward order and planning. But both Dreiser and Burnham ignored the lesson their own city provided: that a great city is an uneasy balance between order and energy, planning and privatism, capitalism and community, Jane Addams and Philip Armour.

What Dreiser did understand is the meaning of the White City. He loved the fair, and took his dying father there in a wheelchair to see it. But he, like most street-smart Chicagoans, saw it for what it was; a summer city, not the real thing.

Dreiser took Chicago, and later New York, for what they were, the good and the bad, and brought them back to us in prose portraits that rival those of the outstanding urban interpreters of the age: Honore Balzac and Charles Dickens. And he caught the significance of what he witnessed. Chicago was an unequaled place to watch what he called "a new world in the making."

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