Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Eight Great Books About Chicago

Calling Chicago history 'fascinating' is a hard sell. Chicago's stories admittedly don't have quite the excitement of, say, a French Canadian exodus turning New Orleans into a rich mix of Cajuns, gumbo and partying, or oil and movies transforming arid the arid desert and chaparral of Southern California into an entertainment paradise. Instead in Chicago we have the histories of railroads, fixing drainage problems, and abstracting the sale of grain into futures contracts.

We forget about this stuff in school civics classes but it takes on more meaning when we grow into an economic frame of mind. The Chicagoization of America, not what I'd call a great book but an interesting one, credits Chicago with having created the blueprint for American city development. Early New York in relation to the rest of the U.S. was a microcosm of the relationship between Europe and the U.S. as a whole, where aristocratic lineage trumped self-determinism. Chicago wasn't previously settled by pilgrims or displaced Europeans and then organically grown from a series of villages and crossroads. It was built from dust by plain-speaking, unpedigreed opportunists who wanted to get rich. Within a short 75 years or so Chicagoans reinvented American business with the railroads, grain and livestock much like Google and Yahoo in our own times reinventing the economy out of the internet. Other cities in America, also lacking a ready-made European heritage to start from, grew up following Chicago's path.

To get your head around Chicago history, think of an arc beginning around 1850, an arc that hasn't yet come to rest anywhere to delineate multiple ages and eras. We're still on that arc, and it's still all about opportunity and money. There are no traces left of the World's Columbian Exposition or the Stockyards; the Illinois-Michigan Canal is paved over with the I-55; we barely care about the few extant buildings from before the fire. Why? The sentiment and urge to preserve for posterity is driven by the memory of different eras, for example when New York was colonized by the Dutch, when Paris was occupied by the Romans. Chicago started out as stepladder to somewhere, and its arc is about more ladders and bigger steps. We discard the older steps like the Stockyards. Our architecture, a source of exhilaration to visitors and residents alike, are the living symbols of this arc.

So Chicago history does get pretty interesting when you see it as a successful epic experiment to build and invent an American city from scratch. Here are eight books which tell different sides of that story.

Chicago Days : 150 Defining Moments in the Life of a Great City. When a friend has just moved here, this is the book you give to welcome them to Chicago. More a coffee table item then a book, it consists of single-page descriptions of great events in the city's history, with photos. It covers items of a wide range of interest, from the textbook historical to pop culture landmarks (St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Babe Ruth's "called shot" at Wrigley Field, and John Dillinger's shooting).

The Devil in the White City. This is an absolutely gripping read, whether you want to learn about Chicago or not. It pulls a literary tour de force of interleaving three co-occurring true stories: the building and occurrence of the World's Columbian Exposition, the story of a serial killer who built a murder mansion posing as a hotel near the fair, and the story of the lunatic who assassinated the Mayor of Chicago. It's the story of H.H. Holmes, the serial killer that is the biggest draw of course, but along the way you get possibly the best available description anywhere of the most spectacular (and equally most forgotten) fair ever built. Reading that Walt Disney's father Elias Disney was a laborer on the fair, makes a tantalizing connection to modern times.

The Outfit. Chicago's mob is less glamorous and less storied than New York's, but there are some big stories here, such as how the power roles with Capone's mob became the structure for Chicago government and that of many other cities, and the role Sam Giancana may have played in the JFK assassination and Marilyn Monroe's death. The real star of the book is Murray Humpreys, aka "The Camel", the Outfit's lawyer. Under his quiet leadership for decades the Outfit outwit the law at every turn. He is also credited with inventing "taking the fifth" in the courtroom.

Nature's Metropolis. Here's a book for the more committed reader to learn about the history of Chicago's early development. It tells the story of how fixing the big drainage problem, reversing the direction of the Chicago river, building railroads fit into the grand scheme to make Chicago the next big American city. He puts it in a socio-geographic-economic framework in which rural and city areas co-evolved to meet each others' needs. The author is at his most brilliant where he describes how technology growth and the American psyche fed and transformed each other. For example, because railroads created an unprecedented time-travel of goods across America, a mental construction of the railroads as an information network took root in peoples' minds, and that guided the ongoing development of the railroad. The author even manages to sell the commoditization of grain as a great story, as he outlines the transformation of farmers selling their own bags of grain to pooling it according to quality and type and moving it around as though it were a liquid. A truly great book.

The Chicago River; a
Natural and Unnatural History or The Chicago River; an Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterways. Harlem Ave and Interstate highway I-55 (known locally as the Stevenson Expressway) is not a place you'd go to for a picnic, for shopping or for much of anything. For thousands of Chicagoans and suburbanites its a flyover spot from home to work. But what occurs there are three features which comprise the entire reason for Chicago's existence: (1) the continental divide that slopes one way towards the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River system, and the other towards the Mississippi passes through there; (2) it's close to two rivers that connect with each of those watersheds (the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers); and (3) the spot itself, wet enough to be called "Mud Lake" during rainy times, and a Portage (place to carry a canoe across) during dry. Settlers as early as DuSable got dollar signs in their eyes when they contemplated an uninterrupted waterway from the St. Lawrence to New Orleans, and the Indians even showed them how to do it by canoe. But for that geographic sweet spot, tagged "Le Portage-e de Checago" at the time, there would be no Chicago. Since the spot is 17 mere feet above Lake Michigan, you can't go and "see" the slope, or even appreciate it on Google Earth. Both of these books contain illustrations that spell out the details of this magic spot; both are worth owning.

Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City . When I was looking for books about my new South Side neighborhood, I was surprised to hear from the bookseller at Chicago's AfroCentric Bookstore that this 1945 sociology study remains to this day the best portrait of the social and economic forces that have shaped the African American experience in Chicago. History that has been marginalized in American education, such as the great migration of blacks from the south to Chicago, is described and its legacy analyzed. There are ingenious assessments of social themes that run through urban black culture, including clothes-consciousness, the complex feelings around light-skinnedness and "passing" for white, and a range of adherence to the law including such categories as "church minded", "non-church respectables" and "upper shadies". The books social science tone and the preponderance of charts and graphs make it a book you might not read cover to cover, but still worth the read in pieces.

Sin in the Second City. Another location in Chicago which is no tourist draw, the Hilliard Homes at Cermak and State, was once home to the most notorious red light district in American history, known as the Levee. Specifically, the corner of 21st and Dearborn (now nonexistent) was the location of the Everleigh Club, an brothel run by two sisters from Virginia that redefined the word opulent. What made the Everleigh Club stand out from the dozens of competitors in the Levee was the idealized presentation of its girls as immaculate angels from a fantasy world, a formula which Hugh Hefner would practice in Chicago 100 years later. Another startling revelation is that an old-fashioned "dirty word" comes from the name of a real person: Suzy Poon Tang was a harlot whose reputation so preceded her arrival in Chicago that chiefs of the Levee cooperated to share her among their various houses. It's even speculated that the phrase "get laid" comes a play on name Everleigh. This book paints a detailed picture of what must have happened behind those doors, how the madams of the houses were the Paris Hiltons of their day, the political and moral forces that created vice laws in America, and eventually brought the whole Levee down.

Recommended Links:

Geography of Chicago's Portage:
The Levee and Everleigh Club

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