- Historic Sites
Where They Went To See The Future
The story of Chicago in the nineteenth century is the story of the making of America, Donald L. Miller says. A new PBS documentary based on a book he wrote shows why.
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
A certain kind of incandescence took place early in Chicago, and a lot of it was luck. That entrepreneurial energy at the beginning was what made the place go. I think it could have gone under in 1836 or ’37. There were already around 4,000 people in the town, but the money to build a canal across the portage dried up, and a panic made ghost towns of many Midwestern settlements. However, William B. Ogden was there. He had come from New York a few years before and gotten involved with the canal, and New York money wanted there to be a Chicago. And the minute the canal was finished Ogden dumped money into a competing technology, railroads.
And then Chicago grew so terribly fast.
Looking at it, you can almost physically see capitalism growing there. It isn’t Samuelson economics—numbers and graphs. It’s land and empty air turning into wealth. The skyscrapers, a market working. People make it happen in this mudhole, which is a kind of Midwestern Monopoly board. I think Austin did a terrific job with this cinematically.
He was fascinated by the idea that cities don’t just go through stages where there’s frontier and then cleared land, and then a town that slowly evolves. Often these towns spring up way ahead of settlement, as Chicago and San Francisco did, and they become spearheads.
In the beginning it’s man versus nature, elemental forces—earth, mud, cattle, pigs, fire. Later there’s a real battle for control of the city, with strikes and terrible ethnic tensions and anarchism and political corruption. Then it’s time to make it civilized. We need a fair; we need a downtown; we need a Marshall Field’s, and suburbs, and streetcar lines, and parks. I think Austin got Jane Jacobs’s idea, without ever reading her, that cities are self-healing.
The process really was chaotic at times, wasn’t it?
Yes. It flew out of control. You had all kinds of corporate corruption and ecological scandals and land grabs and the creation of unlivable environments. Then people started to realize that there had to be some sort of balance. By the end of the century the business community said, “Well, yeah, we’ve got to do something about it if we’re going to live here and our children are going to go to school here.” So out of self-interest, they started a beautification program. The 1893 world’s fair was supposed to be a model for a new kind of city. But Chicagoans like Louis Sullivan and Theodore Dreiser also saw that too much discipline could ruin a city.
Too much discipline?
Sure. Overplanning can kill, but Chicago’s a lesson, I think, about how you can humanize a city without destroying its vitality, without turning it into Brasilia.
So what held it together in those early years?
Two things are happening at the same time in American cities in the nineteenth century. They’re coming together and they’re flying apart. What the hell is holding them together? And what the hell is making them fly apart? We wanted to get at both questions in the film. And Austin and I had an agreement very early. He said, “Just forget political correctness. We’re not even going to think about that. We’re going to tell the story the way it happened.” The book everyone’s supposed to read about Chicago in high school is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Everybody gets crushed in that book. Everything bad happens to Jurgis Rudkus, and then, ta-dah, socialism saves him and promises to save the city. There’s the future up on a soapbox. It’s unconvincing to students. They start asking how people actually made it in America, because you don’t hear much about that. The working people did it through community cooperation and solidarity, starting savings and loan societies and so on. Austin kept saying, “How do you put that into a film?” But I think he got it in there. This is the first film I’ve seen that really describes the process.
But there were big losers too, of course.
Oh, yes. Big losers. The French lose. The Indians lose. When Easterners start to arrive and bring capitalism, you can almost see it, like a seed. There’s a sense of saving and of valuing land as a commodity. It’s reflected in the grid of streets, which turns land into real estate, meaning the Indians and the fur traders, who have a barter economy, must go.
“As Theodore Dreiser once put it, Chicago was Florence in buckskins.”
This was a city built for business. Its leaders were risk-taking capitalists who believed that the most a businessman could do for the people was create jobs, and that jobs would draw more people, making Chicago the magnet city of the Midwest. And later on, when these corporate titans finally got involved in the creation of cultural institutions, that was seen as a natural byproduct of economic prosperity, as it was in Renaissance Florence. To them, as to the Medici, culture and capitalism were perfectly compatible. As Theodore Dreiser once put it, Chicago was Florence in buckskins.
And an interest in Florence was something that drew you to Chicago.
Well, I finished my biography of Lewis Mumford in the late eighties, and Mumford asked me what I was going to do next. I said I’d like to write another biography, and he said, “Why don’t you write the biography of a city?” He meant a book that focuses on the events that shaped the city’s character and spirit. A good biography, as I see it, is a concentrated metaphor, not a birth-to-death chronicle. It’s like the difference between squeezing all the juice out of a lemon and taking that nice little piece for a martini that captures its essence.