Chicago Wiping Its Face Off

It was free day at the Chicago History Museum and I was pleased to refresh the broad strokes of Chicago history.
Chicago: swamp of destiny. Inhabited by the Algonquian for 1000s of years before French explorers rolled through. Chartered as a city in 1837 with about 4,000 residents, by 1870 Chicago had become the second largest city in the America with 299,000 residents. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned it all down and Chicago became a different place again.

The Fire feels like a wall keeping away the more distant past of the city. Only seven buildings from old Chicago stand today. It almost seems like the pre-1871 city of Chicago should go by another name, that we would remember it better.


Interesting to imagine this inaccessible place: old Chicago, the damned wooden metropolis on the lake built against the withering wind of the prairie. A floating city of boats in Lake Michigan. Migrant people dense on the land. I can imagine the strange lighting. (Interesting also to imagine the way this land was used and inhabited by Native Americans, unwrap how the land has been bent from its prehistoric form.)
In deeper prehistory (and editorial), I think Chicagoans and Great Lakes people all should rep their limestone bedrock. Limestone is sound rock to stand on. You could seriously be standing over something much worse.


So the dreadful fire of 1871 wiped off the city’s face and Chicago boomed again. By 1900 it was home to 1.7 million people. (I try to imagine so many rooms being built and inhabited.)


The Chicago History Museum tells the city’s history through the changes of its industry. Chicago was once a renowned capitol of diverse industries, such as steel, lumber, fur trading, railroads, meat packing, beer making, furniture making, candy, leather, television, motion pictures, finance and more. A pattern emerges: Chicago innovates an industry, dominates it for a while, then gradually loses its hold until it completely disappears. A confluence of geography and infrastructure (especially transportation) keeps the city relevant.

A sort of discontinuity is central to the city’s identity. Very little of the city remains the same from 100 years ago. In Europe, you share many city vistas with a person of the Middle Ages; in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, you can stroll city geography preserved from the 1700s; in Chicago, you are hard pressed to find any building from the 19th century. Even the celebrated Chicago Water Tower, which predates the fire, was actually re-built in 1913.

Chicago plows over its past and plants within it. The people of Chicago are left with myths, their imaginations, and an immensely complex urban infrastructure made by people in the past. The city has unconscious agreement and affinity with the generations of builders and demolishers who came before, anonymously working in industries we forgot ever existed. It seems sometimes you can sense the people who filled this space before.

(All images are dioramas from the Chicago History Museum)


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