The White City

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The White City’s richest legacy is the confidence of its builders in the possibilities of urban life, their unassailable belief that the modern metropolis, with its enormous and multiplying problems, could be made over into a conscious work of art. But a great city is not a work of inspired scene painting, static and splendid. It is a living drama with a huge and varied cast and a plot full of conflict, tension, spectacle, and significance. And a big city’s volatile diversity and explosive energy—the very factors Burnham and Olmsted hoped to tame and discipline—enliven the drama and “bring the performers,” as Lewis Mumford wrote, “to the highest pitch of skilled, intensely conscious participation.”

Chicago’s visionary White City planner failed, in the end, to heed the lessons his own tumultuous city provided in 1893: that a city’s greatness is the result of an uneasy balance between order and energy, planning and privatism, diversity and conformity, vice and reform, art and enterprise, high culture and low culture, the smart and the shabby, the permanent and the temporary. Interesting cities are places of stimulating disparity and moral conflict, where crudity and commerce are often accompanied by memorable advances in the arts. And like Aristotle’s Athens, a city of filthy streets, chaotic markets, and scandalous sanitary facilities, they specialize in the making and remaking of interesting human beings—like the bright products of Chicago’s railway hinterland, Theodore Dreiser, Hamlin Garland Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, George Ade, Ida Wells, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who arrived in the city around the time of the fair.

The industrial metropolis, we tend to forget, was an absolutely new thing to this generation, its culture nothing short of revolutionary. To them it was as strange, exotic, and thrillingly new as Burnham’s city of wonders in Jackson Park.

“Chicago,” wrote Dreiser, “was like no other city in the world ... a city which had no traditions but which was making them.” Recalling those “furnace days” of his and Chicago’s life, he said that “it was something wonderful... to see a world metropolis spring up under your eyes.” Florence “in its best days must have been something like this to young Florentines...”