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.

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