Friday, November 5, 2010

1900s: Chicago and urban growth

For the first decade of the 1900s I finally jumped into local history, which is my favorite lens, and chose Chicago (my adopted home town) as a case study of the entire country's growth of cities in the industrial revolution, although it was the most dramatic case up to this point.

The Plan of Chicago, created by the leadership of Daniel Burnham in the first few years of the Century paints an elegant picture of the new grand ideas urban planning coming out of the industrial revolution applied to the relatively sparse canvas of U.S. cities, especially in the growing west. That Chicago was so rapidly rebuilt by commercial and leaders following the Great Fire of 1871 shows the energy and urgency toward growth and the ability to ignore basic social and structural considerations such as housing, transportation, or public health. It is natural to see how this led to uncontrolled massive expansion of the city as support for its industry, and secondarily by default, a place to live for masses of immigrants coming to work in the jobs created by the growth.

As I read about the lack of overall vision and planning on a national scale for Reconstruction, but successful planning at the corporate level with the Carnegie's and Fricks of the world, with hindsight it appears inevitable that the application of the planning philosophy would move from industry to government. And the Plan of Chicago is an example of the link as Burnham created it on behalf of the commercial and merchant's clubs, who then lobbied the city to implement its ideas. When I lived in New York several years ago I read The Power Broker about Robert Moses, the infamous and powerful city planner. He was clearly the next step (and apex?) in the planning evolution as a member of the city he was able to combine the creation of an overall vision and take the necessary steps (no matter how unpopular or unfair) required to execute his grand plan.

One hundred years later I am amazed at how much the Chicago of today is influenced by the first integrated central plan for the city.

I also just read Sin in the Second City about the infamous red light district of Chicago and it's most famous house, operated by the Everleigh sisters at the same time as the Plan of Chicago was being written. While the stories of the Everleigh house are fascinating, and their higher class status compared to all of the other establishments in the Levee District made for very interesting clashes, if not just a brilliant competitive positioning as a business, it is a great microcosm for the state of progress in the city, and country, at that time. While Burnham and industry's leaders were attempting to create a grand vision for Chicago and to establish and process for the city to implement it, this district was allowed to flourish because of the corruption of local officials and the general acceptance of most of the city's leaders that vice was just a given result of growth and it was at least concentrated in one area. This finally changed in the next decade as pressure increased from religious and moral leaders in the city and across the nation on city officials who finally had no choice but to act to clean up the district. This coincides with starting the first projects from the Plan, widening streets into avenues, building bridges, relocating people.

Overall it was a time of transition, with governments slowly taking initiative to shape our landscapes, both physical and morally. I suspect this may be a trend to watch in future books.

Both books were enjoyable reads. Carl Smith's review of The Plan of Chicago was written for the original's 100th anniversary. I found it a surprisingly written with a good pace and level of detail. I would have loved more illustrations, but maybe I'll just have to go find and explore a copy of the actual Plan. 4/5 stars. Sin in the Second City was a great story, but the story was challenged at times, and as compelling as the Everleigh sisters were, the reform efforts just were as juicy tales so the book is a little choppy and slow at times. Although it did make me want to visit their original establishment in its heyday as I cannot quite fully imagine what it was like. But I doubt my wife would approve of such research, even with time travel. 3/5 stars.

1900: Wizard of Oz

To wrap up one century and move into another I switched from book to essay, returning to one of my all time favorite topics: Is the Wizard of Oz and allegory of late 19th Century populism? (If there was any lingering doubt as the the nerdiness of this entire endeavor, let it now cease.)

I read Henry Littlefield's 1964 paper that suggests L. Frank Baum was an active observer of the growing Populist movement of the late 1800s centered around William Jennings Bryan and the promise of bi-metalism as a solution to western farmers' economic ills. While later scholars, including David Parker's 1994 paper refute the direct allegory suggested by Littlefield, it is regardless a great illustration of the forces and parties at play in the country at that time, even if it is a total coincidence. (After reading a Baum biography a few years back, I personally agree with the coincidence theory, or at least indirect influence, as Baum was likely more directly influenced by women's rights and other issues of the day, which are also more pronounced in the later Oz books.) (See what I mean by nerdiness?)

The Kansas setting of Dorothy's home represents a time of hardship for western American farmers on the plains. On top of severe weather, they were caught in an economic storm of low commodity prices and increasing shipping rates from the expanding railroad empires. At the same time the industrializing eastern cities were discovering escalating conflicts between the labor classes and the ruling capital owners. All of these parties were, of course, looking for political support of their causes. In fact, it was viewed almost as a zero-sum game: power could not support equally labor, capital, and the farmers.

In this world there were several individual who crusaded for, or represented the characterization of each of the factions. Bryan, with his single issue platform of bimetalism (which would cause inflation and help farmers at the expense of eastern industrialists) was the most prominent. William McKinley (or his predecessors) is another prominent character on the national scene as the ruling party controlled by those of money.

Against this backdrop it is easy to see how a story with the cornucopia of characters in Oz can be an allegory of the times. Scarecrow as farmers. Tin Man as labor. Cowardly Lion as Bryan. And powerful entities controlling different factions and vying for control: the Wicked Witch of the East (Eastern capitalists) who had enslaved the Munchkins (laborers), the Wicked Witch of the West (McKinley) who had conquered the Winkies (recently acquired Philippines), and the Wizard himself, who ends up having no real power (perhaps Mark Hanna, a politcal powerbroker?)

And did I mention Dorothy's magic shoes that prevail at the end are silver?

Regardless of whether Baum intended the story to be an allegory, or if he was simply naturally influenced by major story lines of the day, it is a fun exercise to the look at the Turn of the Century issues from various constituencies' perspectives.

(Disclaimer: I discovered the original Littlefield essay in high school history class when the teacher had us find out who the various characters represented as a homework assignment. In the pre-Internet days, this was quite a challenge and may or may not have included consulting with upperclassmen for clues. In graduate economics courses I reread the original article along with several criticisms, which I just revisited.)