Where They Went To See The Future

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I was drawn to Florence, and I spent time there and started writing a novel about Fra Filippo Lippi, a foundling who helped create perspective painting. While I was working on the novel, I went back to the States and went to Chicago. I can’t remember why, but I remember that when I got there I went out on the Michigan Avenue Bridge and saw the plaques commemorating Marquette and Jolliet’s journey and looked around and there, right in front of me, was this powerhouse city, and running right through the center was the river on which Marquette and Jolliet had paddled their birch-bark canoes. Wow, I thought, what a place—and it’s so new. It rose up out of a prairie swamp and became the world’s first skyscraper city. No city had ever grown so fast.

I remember a Roman telling me, “You’re going to Florence? Pretty town, but the Florentines are just like their streets—narrow and full of s---.” When I think of Renaissance Florence’s labor riots and warring factions and second-city syndrome (Venice was the New York) and how it’s a river town back in the interior and its passionate interest in both architecture and money making—Florence and Chicago didn’t seem that different. I went back home and decided to write about Chicago.

What did you hope to learn?

I first went into history to find out who I am. My Slovak grandfather could hardly read or write, but he told me, “You are what you have been. Never forget that. Never forget your past.” I’ve always been interested in knowing what makes me different from Europeans or anyone else. Getting into nineteenth-century Chicago was a chance to understand how our national character took form. You know, John Keegan, the British military historian, has written about the first time he saw an American. He was a boy in England in World War II. His country was getting hit by U-boats and German bombers and seemed to be losing the war, and here comes the 8th Air Force, the Americans, with their optimism, their engineering battalions and their bulldozers. They’ve got chewing gum and Hershey bars and boastfulness and energy. And they don’t give a damn about class distinctions. This is how Chicago was seen in the nineteenth century: this extravagant optimism, this looking always to the future and absence of deference. These are American characteristics, and that’s who I am, in part, because of my history.

Does that mean all Americans can learn something about who they are from Chicago’s story?

I hope so. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Reading, Pennsylvania. My family were steelworkers and coal miners. People didn’t have a lot of money, but there was never any whining about things. There was always a sense that we weren’t going to be poor, that you could cooperate and beat this thing. And there was always laughter. I think that as more people from backgrounds like mine move into the field of history, there’ll be a more realistic appreciation of the struggles of working people, that they aren’t always victims, that they can change their own lives, make it on their own, by pulling together.

But in Chicago they went through hell some of the time getting there. The Great Fire, in 1871, destroyed everything. And as the film shows, the city didn’t just bounce back.

No, it didn’t. But there was a feeling in people that they really had to turn this thing around. They damned well knew that over-growth and shabby growth had produced the fire. They didn’t have enough firemen or fire engines, their sidewalks were made out of wood, and the building codes were ridiculously lax. The fire was, in some sense, nature’s revenge. Then in 1877 the railroad workers went on strike, bringing the city close to social revolution. And then the Haymarket riot took place in 1886. Police were killed at an anarchist rally and “the city went insane,” as one labor leader said, and you had the first American red scare.

It seems hard to say whether the city was a miracle or a disaster at that point.

You know, H. G. Wells visited Chicago. He was a socialist and was horrified by the city’s reckless, rampaging capitalism. He was right. The capitalists had too much power. But Dreiser came to the city and saw something Wells missed. There was grit and vitality even in the shabbiest neighborhoods, eagerness, hope, the desire to rise in the world. And even though he himself was poor, he felt that in Chicago he could be almost anything he wanted to be. This was a young person’s city, a city of young men and women like Jane Addams, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Dreiser, escaping the shut-in culture of prairie towns.

Just a decade after the fire they’re throwing up the first skyscrapers. Why was the skyscraper born in Chicago and not, say, in New York?

Some people say it was born in New York. Architectural historians will argue about this for the next millennium. But it’s true that the first skyscrapers with steel frames, fire-resistant materials, and fast electric elevators were built in Chicago. I think it was because of the city’s openness to ideas.