CITY OF THE CENTURY
By Donald Miller
Simon & Schuster, $35
Reviewed by Tom Valeo
Although shopping malls, chain stores and fast food joints have gone a long way in homogenizing the landscape, American cities still have their own unique personalities. This is the first in an occasional series focusing on books about a single city.
Donald Miller's description of Chicago's birth is like watching a time-lapse film of a city emerging from the ground and suddenly blooming with streets, houses, factories, railroads and then skyscrapers _ some of the tallest in the world. Then two-thirds of the way through the film everything burns to the ground in the Chicago Fire of 1871, only to rise up again even faster.
What spurred such astounding growth?
Miller provides a satisfying answer to that question in City of the Century, his insightful history of Chicago from the white man's first recorded visit in 1673 to the dazzling Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The area around Lake Michigan and the Chicago River _ a wet, soggy place, which the Miami Indians called "Chicagoua," after the smelly skunkweed that flourished there _ was not the most likely location for a great city. The lake and the river were distinct geographical advantages, Miller admits, but Chicago had serious disadvantages, too. A sandbar blocked the mouth of the river, for example, forcing boats to anchor a half-mile offshore, and "for a distance of eight to 10 miles around the town, water on the prairie was up to a foot to 3 feet deep in places."
What made Chicago grow so fast, Miller argues, was the arrival of men _ and they were virtually all men _ willing to take big risks in hopes of big profits. By bringing unbridled capitalism to this remote trading settlement, these men, in a single lifetime, transformed a desolate frontier outpost into a bustling metropolis with a million residents.
At first, Chicago emerged as a self-fulfilling prophecy _ land speculators, knowing that a city would emerge somewhere in the area, bet on the spot where the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan. The hefty profits made by those early speculators attracted more speculators and investors from New York. Soon stores, streets and other rudiments of civilization began to sprout, bringing more people to this oasis on the desolate prairie and making land even more valuable.
What made Chicago the undisputed leader in the city sweepstakes, however, was the audacious decision, made in 1836, to build a 100-mile canal from Chicago to the Illinois River. Financed by huge amounts of money from New York capitalists, the canal provided ships with a direct water link to the Mississippi. Combined with the water link to New York provided by Lake Michigan, Chicago became the most obvious destination for any entrepreneur with an idea for making a fortune.
From this point on, Miller tells the story of Chicago by focusing on the men who made it happen. William Butler Ogden, for example, created a lumber business that provided the city with wood needed for the frenzied construction. Aaron Montgomery Ward and Richard Warren Sears created mail-order businesses that delivered merchandise of every kind to any American who could pay for it.
Gustavas Swift and Philip Danforth Armour created huge meat-packing businesses, while Cyrus McCormick developed a mechanical reaper that revolutionized farming (and made him several million dollars, of course).
George Pullman invented the Pullman sleeper car, and then created a clean (if somewhat paternalistic) company town to house the thousands of workers he needed. Potter Palmer built a huge and lucrative dry goods business which, when he retired at the age of 41, he turned over to Levi Leiter and a man whose name still means shopping in Chicago, Marshall Field.
These frontier entrepreneurs all engaged in a feverish capitalism. "Caution had no place in it," Miller writes. "Shady behavior was an inevitable part of it."
So was squalor, filth and misery. Chicago's streets were filled with dung and dead animals; tenements were packed with impoverished immigrants; drinking water from Lake Michigan was polluted by sewage from the Chicago River. (In 1885, outbreaks of typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery and other diseases linked to sewage killed an estimated 12 percent of Chicago's population.) Miller even suggests that the Chicago fire can be blamed, in part, on the businessmen who balked at raising taxes to buy the equipment that the fire department needed to protect a city built out of pine.
Some have complained, in fact, that Chicago was shaped almost exclusively by the drive for profit. "A thousand sites infinitely preferable for a city could have been found in close proximity, but they lacked the "commercial' advantages which are of such commanding importance in the capitalist system," socialist leader Eugene Debs wrote in his essay, "What's the Matter with Chicago?"
Miller doesn't disagree with that assessment, but he recognizes that those vast amounts of money also provided a foundation for culture and the arts in Chicago. The moneymakers, after all, paid Louis Sullivan to design the spectacular Auditorium Theatre. They also built the Art Institute and the mesmerizing "White City" that contained the Columbian Exposition.
Chicago is like Aristotle's Athens, concludes Miller: "a city of filthy streets, chaotic markets and scandalous sanitary facilities" which, nevertheless, specialized "in the making and remaking of interesting human beings."
Tom Valeo is a Chicago theater critic.