CHICAGO ! Chicago ! queen and guttersnipe of cities, cynosure and cesspool of the world! Not if I had a hundred tongues, every one shouting a different language in a different key, could I do justice to her splendid chaos. The most beautiful and the most squalid, girdled with a two-fold zone of parks and slums, where the keen air from lake and prairie is ever in the nostrils and the stench of foul smoke is never out of the throat; the great port a thousand miles from the sea; the great mart which gathers up with one hand the corn and cattle of the West and deals out with the other the merchandise of the East; widely and generously planned with streets of twenty miles, where it is not safe to walk at night; where women ride straddlewise, and millionaires dine at midday on the Sabbath; the chosen seat of public spirit and municipal boodle, of cut-throat commerce and munificent patronage of art; the most American of American cities, and yet the most mongrel ; the second American city of the globe, the fifth German city, the third, Swedish, the second Polish, the first and only veritable Babel of the age; all of which was in 1871 a heap of smoking ashes. Where in all the world can words be found for this miracle of paradox and incongruity?
Go first up on the tower of the Auditorium. In front, near three hundred feet below, lies Lake Michigan. There are lines of breakwater and a lighthouse inshore, where the water is grey and brown, but beyond and on either hand to the rim spreads the brilliant azure of deep water—the bosom of a lake which is also a sea shining in the transparent sunlight. White sails speckle its surface, and far out ocean-going steamers trail lazy streaks of smoke behind them. From the lake blow winds now soft and life-giving like old wine, now so keen as to set every nerve and sinew on the stretch. Then turn round and look at Chicago. You might be on a central peak of the high Alps. All about you they rise, the mountains of building—not in the broken line of New York, but thick together, side by side, one behind the other. From this height the flat roofs of the ordinary buildings of four or five storeys are not distinguishable from the ground; planting their feet on these rise the serried ranks of the heaven-scaling peaks. You are almost surprised to see no snow on them; the steam that gushes perpetually from their chimneys, and floats and curls away on the lake breeze, might well be clouds with the summits rising above them to the sun. Height on height they stretch away on every side till they are lost in a cloud of murky smoke inland. These buildings are all iron-cored, and the masonry is only the shells that cases the rooms in them. They can even be built downward. You may see one of them with eight storeys of brick wall above, and then four of a vacant skeleton of girders below; the superstructure seems to be hanging in air. Broader and more massive than the tall buildings of New York, older also and dingier, they do not appear, like them, simply boxes of windows. Who would suppose that mere lumps of iron and bricks and mortar could be sublime? Yet these are sublime and almost awful. You have awakened, like 'Gulliver, in a land of giants—a land where the very houses are instinct with almost ferocious energy and force.
Then go out on a cable car or the electric car or the elevated railroad—Chicago has them all, and is installing new ones with feverish industry every day—to the parks and the boulevards. Along Lake Shore Drive you will find the homes of the great merchants, the makers of Chicago. Many of these are built in a style which is peculiarly Chicago's own, though the best examples of it are to be seen in the business centre of the city. It uses great blocks of rough-hewn granite, red or grey. Their massive weight is relieved by wide round arches for doors and windows, by porches and porticos, loggias and galleries, over the whole face of the building from top to bottom. The effect is almost prehistoric in its massive simplicity, something like the cyclopean ruins of Mycenae or Tiryns. The great stores with the open arches and galleries make up a combination of solid strength and breeziness, admirably typical of the spirit of the place. On the other side of the Drive is the blue expanse of Lake; in between, broad roads and ribbons of fresh grass. Yet here and there, among the castles of the magnates, you will come on a little one-storeyed wooden shanty, squatting many feet below the level of the road, paint and washed-out playbills peeling off it, and the broken windows hanging in shreds. Then again will come a patch of empty scrubby waste, choked with rank weeds and rubble. It is the same thing with the carriages in which the millionaires and their families drive up and down after church on Sunday. They are gorgeously built and magnificently horsed, only the coachman is humping his back or the footman is crossing his legs. These are trivialities, but not altogether insignificant. The desire to turn out in style is there, and the failure in a little thing betrays a carelessness of detail, an incapacity for order and proportion, which are of the essence of Chicago. Never was a better found vessel spoiled for a ha'porth of tar.
It will be well worth your while again to go south to Washington Park and Jackson Park, where the World's Fair was held. Chicago, straggling over a hundred and eighty-six square miles, was rather a tract of houses than an organic city until somebody conceived the idea of coupling her up with a ring of parks connected by planted boulevards. The southern end of the system rests on the Lake at these two parks. Chicago believes that her parks are unsurpassed in the world, and certainly they will be prodigiously fine—when they are finished. Broad drives and winding alleys, ornamental trees, banks and beds of flowers and flowering shrubs, lakes, and ornamental bridges, and turf that cools the eye under the fiercest noon—you bet your life Chicago's got 'em all. Also Chicago has the Art Building, which is the one remaining relic of the World's Fair, and surely as divinely proportioned an edifice as ever filled and satisfied the eye of man. And always beyond it is the Lake. Seeming in places almost to rise above the level of the land, it stretches along the whole western side, so that Chicago is perhaps the only one of the world's greatest cities that is really built along a sea-line. Sparkling under the sun by day, or black beneath a fretwork of stars by night, it is a perpetual reminder that there is that in nature even greater and more immeasurable than the activities of Chicago.
The Art Building aforesaid is now the Field Columbian Museum, having been endowed by a leading citizen of that name with a cool million dollars. Other gifts, with dividends contributed by holders of exhibition stock, brought up the total to half as much again. Chicago has a University hard by, which has come out westward, like Mahomet to the mountain, to spread the light among the twenty-five mil-lion souls that live within a morning's journey of Chicago. This University has not been long in existence; in a short time it has received in benefactions from citizens of this place nearly twelve million dollars. Think of it, depressed Oxford and Cambridge—a University endowed at the rate of half a million sterling a year! Two other prominent Chicago men found themselves in Paris a while ago, when a collection of pictures were being sold ; promptly they bought up a hundred and eighty thousand dollars' worth for the gallery of their city. There is hardly a leading name in the business of the place but is to be found beneath a picture given or lent to this gallery. And mark that not only does the untutored millionaire buy pictures, but his untutored operative goes to look at them. It is the same impulse that leads school teachers of sixty to put in a course at the University during their summer vacation. Chicago is conscious that there is some-thing in the world, some sense of form, of elegance, of refinement, that with all her corn and railways, her hogs and by-products, and dollars, she lacks. She does not quite know what it is, but she is determined to have it, cost what it may.
Mr. Phil D. Armour, the hog king, giving a picture to the gallery, and his slaughter-house man painfully spelling out the description of it on Sunday afternoon—there is something rather pathetic in this, and assuredly something very noble.
But there is another side to Chicago. There is the back side to her fifteen hundred million dollars of trade, her seventeen thousand vessels, and her network of ninety thousand miles of rail. Away from the towering offices, lying off from the smiling parks, is a vast wilderness of shabby houses—a larger and more desolate Whitechapel than can hardly have a parallel for sordid dreariness in the whole world. This is the home of labour, and of nothing else. The evening's vacancy brings relief from toil, the morning's toil relief from vacancy. Little shops compete frantically for what poor trade there is with tawdry advertisements. Street stretches beyond street of little houses, mostly wooden, begrimed with soot, rotting, falling to pieces. The pathways are of rickety and worm-eaten planks, such as we would not tolerate a day in London as a temporary gangway where a house is being built. Here the boarding is flush with the street ; there it drops to it in a two-foot precipice, over which you might easily break your leg. The streets are quagmires of black mud, and no attempt is made to repair them. They are miserably lighted, and nobody thinks of illuminating them. The police force is so weak that men and women are held up and robbed almost nightly within the city limits; nobody thinks of strengthening it. Here and there is a pit or a dark cellar left wholly unguarded for the unwary foot-passenger to break his neck in. All these miles of unkempt slum and wilderness betray a disregard for human life which is more than half barbarous. If you come to your death by misadventure among these pitfalls, all the consolation your friends will get from Chicago is to be told that you ought to have taken better care of yourself. You were unfit; you did not survive. There is no more to be said about it.
The truth is that nobody in this rushing, struggling tumult has any time to look after what we have long ago come to think the bare decencies of civilization. This man is in a hurry to work up his tallow, that man to ship his grain. Everybody is fighting to be rich, is then straining to be refined, and nobody can attend to making the city fit to live in. I have remarked several times before that America is everywhere still unfinished, and unless the character of the people modifies itself with time I do not believe it ever will be. They go halfway to build up civilization in the desert, and then they are satisfied and rush forward to half-civilize some place further on. It is not that they are incapable of thoroughness, but that in certain things they do not feel the need of it. In Chicago there is added to this what looks like a fundamental incapacity for government. A little public interest and a small public rate would put everything right; both are wanting. Wealth every man will struggle for, and even elegance; good government is the business of nobody.
For if Chicago is the lodestone that attracts the enterprise and commercial talent of two hemispheres, it is also the sink into which drain their dregs. The hundred and twenty thousand Irish are not a wholesome element in municipal life. On the bleak west side there are streets of illiterate, turbulent Poles and Czechs, hardly able to speak a word of English. Out of this rude and undigested mass, how could good government come? How could citizens combine to work out for themselves a common ideal of rational and ordered civic life? However, Chicago is now setting her house in order. It is thought a great step forward that there are now actually one-third of the members of the municipal body who can be relied upon to refuse a bribe. Some day Chicago will turn her savage energy to order and cooperation. Instead of a casual horde of jostling individuals, she will become a city of citizens. She will learn that freedom does not consist solely in contempt for law. On the day she realizes this she will become the greatest, as already she is the most amazing, community in the world.
( Originally Published 1907 )