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Where They Went To See The Future

May 2024
12min read

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.

Donald Miller has never lived in Chicago, and he never thought of writing about it until he started noticing the curious ways its formative years reminded him of the flowering of Renaissance Florence. But once he got immersed in it he produced City of the Century, a sweeping history of the city from its earliest beginnings until after the 1893 world’s fair. The book was a prize-winning bestseller. Now WGBH’s American Experience series has produced a three-part, four-and-a-half-hour documentary based on it, which just debuted nationally on PBS.

Chicago: City of the Century tells the story of a place that grew from almost nothing into a world metropolis in mere decades and that during those years displayed all the virtues and hazards of being a uniquely American free-for-all. The film was produced, written, and directed by Austin Hoyt, whose previous credits include MacArthur , Reagan , and Carnegie . Miller was the creative consultant and is the most prominent of its many onscreen commentators.

He is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania, where he has taught since 1977. His other books include Lewis Mumford: A Life and The Story of World War II , a revised and expanded version of Henry Steele Commager’s classic volume. He has worked on or hosted many other television documentaries, including the 26-part A Biography of America and Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided. We spoke at his home in Easton about Chicago, his book, the new film, and why he is a historian.

“You can almost physically see capitalism growing there . . . land and empty air turning into wealth.”

Why Chicago?

I knew when I started the book that it would be a history of not just one city but America, because nineteenth-century Chicago was a raw, new, industrial metropolis cut out of the frontier. It was a product of so many of the forces that created America—westward expansion, commercial and transportation revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, the democratic revolution. They’re all right there. That it was a city of world importance came home to me when I was invited to Holland to lecture at Leiden University. The school was presenting a series of lectures on the dozen or so cities that had had the most significance in shaping history. The organizers picked just one American city, Chicago in the nineteenth century; the rest were classics like Rome and Athens. The historians agreed with the nineteenth-century Europeans who looked upon Chicago as the place to go to see the future, where the emerging forces of America were gathering.

And what did the future look like?

People saw the Industrial Revolution in full flush in Chicago. It was a colossus of production and the greatest railroad city in the world. It had mail-order houses that were the incarnation of speed and efficiency. It had sprawling plants like the Pullman works and the stockyards. And its giant corporations spawned giant labor organizations and strikes.

If there’s an Adam Smith city, it’s Chicago. Smith had two great ideas, economic individualism and the division of labor, and they’re both worked out there. We tried to put that into the movie very strongly. Austin Hoyt, the director, said that this was going to be a very fast-paced film. He wanted it to have a restless energy, like the city itself.

The story has a wonderful beginning.

One of the things that first excited me about the city was how it has a real creation myth. Jolliet and Marquette’s voyage—their exploration of the Mississippi and their arrival at the future site of Chicago—is an American Aeneid, a thrilling tale of origin and adventure. We don’t think of American cities that way. We think of Pilgrims plopping off boats, clearing out the wilderness, and throwing up picture-pretty churches. But Chicago was born in the age of discovery. Louis XIV was the king of France. North America was being settled from north to south, from Canada to the mouth of the Mississippi, not just from east to west. You get a sense that history could have happened in a very different way if the French had gone at colonization the way they went at exploration.

Did it happen where it did because of geography, because the spot was alongside a Great Lake and you could portage from there to a river to the Mississippi?

Yes and no. The location was sensational, but I buy Jane Jacobs’s idea that geography is not destiny. Cities are creations of the human will. Look at Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi. Cairo never made it. You can say that’s because it’s a swamp, but Chicago was a swamp. Enterprising hustlers drained it and built a great city on it. I agree with Aristotle that the city is the people.

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.

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.

Two Chicagos emerged after the fire. The second one was the skyscraper city, built inside a city that was itself new. It was remarkable. You didn’t have the gigantic firms you had in New York, like Woolworth or Singer, that were creating architecture as advertisements for themselves. Instead most of the buildings were put together by consortiums of business speculators. When Owen Aldis, one of these speculators, went to New York, he said, “Those are very impressive buildings, but they’re not designed to do what they’re supposed to do.” He said, “In Chicago we’re trying to draw life into the building, create flexibility so you can move partitions and walls as companies change.”

Aldis and the other speculators told the architects, “Keep it simple. The showplaces and the lobbies and the elevators have to be beautiful, but you can’t have a lot of artistic figure work on the thing. You’ve got to make it pay, or we can’t build it.” Pretty soon the architect John Wellborn Root, who resisted this at first, was writing that there’s beauty in simplicity. And Root himself admits that this idea, which led to a fresh new American architecture, came from business.

An awful lot in Chicago came from business.

An awful lot in America came from business. In graduate school, I never got an appreciation of the role businesspeople had in building the country. Even if you don’t like what they did—and much of what they did was sordid and selfishly excessive—you have to understand it. Otherwise it’s like saying we’re not going to study Stalin because he was wicked.

My book and Austin’s film show that Chicago’s not just a celebration of business energy. It’s very much a cautionary tale. If you put too much paternalism into your company town and really try to squeeze your workers—the way George Pullman did—they’ll revolt and you won’t have a town anymore. If you build a city in a shoddy way, it will burn down. If you go overboard, you’ll get caught and thrown out, the way Charles Yerkes, the street-car king, did. Yet as I say, a city like Chicago is self-correcting. It draws in the people—like Jane Addams and Clarence Darrow—who will change it.

“Chicago’s not just a celebration of business energy. It’s very much a cautionary tale.”

Why did you end your book—and the film—around the turn of the century?

I thought I’d write about Chicago till it reached the point where almost everything that it became could be seen. Everything, that is, except for the arrival of a large African-American population later on.

I started out thinking I’d do three books: Chicago, New York, in the period between the two world wars, and Los Angeles, from the 1950s on. And maybe go back to Franklin’s Philadelphia. That would be a life’s work, but I’d still like to do it. I’ve kept playing with Mumford’s idea that certain cities represent the character and spirit of their age, that civilizations write their biographies in the great cities they create. The people at WGBH feel the same way. They’re doing a film on Las Vegas and are talking about doing one on L.A., and of course they were involved in Ric Burns’s wonderful film New York .

I’m fascinated by cities because they’re rarely just one thing or the other: corrupt or clean, beautiful or ugly, dynamic or static, free-floating or planned. Great cities are the result of an uneasy balance between order and energy, restraint and opportunity, conflict and consensus. I think historians sometimes don’t appreciate the messy vitality of cities and that self-healing aspect. There’s tension all the time, and out of that tension—even out of the violence—can come astonishing creativity.


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