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Why Cities Matter

Cities often form for obvious and ordinary reasons. An island in the Seine was a good place for Romans and Franks to defend themselves against Huns and Vikings. The tip of Manhattan is a splendid natural port, with access to a deep river that cuts more than three-hundred miles into the American hinterland. But the magic of urban density means that agglomerations of people come together for simple reasons and often achieve amazing things. Most of mankind’s cultural, economic, political, and social accomplishments have occurred in cities.   

Dominic Pacyga’s Chicago is a biography of a great and comparatively young city. It provides a comprehensive overview of Chicago’s meteoric growth in the nineteenth century and its survival in the leaner years of the late twentieth century. Along the way, Pacyga reminds us of the remarkable things that can result when human beings interact with each other in dense, urban areas.       

William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, which appeared in 1991, is the reigning interpretation of Chicago’s early growth. The city’s natural advantages—its waterways and its proximity to lumber and wheat and livestock—turned a dusty outpost on the American frontier into a metropolis of millions in a few short decades. Pacyga notes that “[t]he city developed into a vast marketplace for lumber, grain, livestock, and produce even as it became a distribution point for eastern goods such as stoves, clothing, and hardware.” 

In the twentieth century, we became used to accidental urban giants, such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Such places are self-reinforcing groups of people who value being near each other (and sunshine), but they could have been located anywhere nearby. No geographical feature determined the placement of Los Angeles. In the nineteenth century, by contrast, when transportation costs were high and natural resources were critical, urban locations in America were practically fixed by geography.   

Every one of the twenty largest cities in the United States in 1900 was on a waterway—from the oldest places that perched on the eastern seaboard’s natural harbors to the youngest city, Minneapolis, located on the northernmost navigable point of the Mississippi. Pacyga remarks that Chicago’s “canal proved to be crucial for the future of the city”: it made Chicago the linchpin of a vast watery arc that stretched from New York to New Orleans. As much as cavalrymen and cowboys, city slickers tamed the west by creating the transport network that brought the products of the prairie to the customers of the east.      

But Chicago did not grow from a city of 4,500 people in 1840 to a city of 3.4 million ninety years later merely as a center of water-borne, or rail-borne, commerce. The city’s vast size reflects its abundance of industrial entrepreneurs. Some, such as Cyrus McCormick and his mechanical reapers, made their inventions east and moved to Chicago to be close to agricultural customers. As Pacyga writes, “McCormick moved west because he felt that the natural market for the new machines would be on the prairie.” Others, such as George Pullman, produced their ideas in Chicago: “In the winter of 1857-58, he entered into a partnership with two brothers, Benjamin and Norman Field, to construct and operate sleeping cars on two Illinois railroad lines.” By connecting people, cities help the spread of ideas, which in turn lead to new inventions, like Pullman’s “Palace” cars, thus making  inter-continental transportation far more pleasant.        

Perhaps the most remarkable of Chicago’s collaborative inventions was the skyscraper itself, which did so much to change the shape of cities throughout the world. There is a lively discussion among architectural historians about who deserves the credit for inventing the skyscraper, roughly defined as a building that stands tall thanks to a load-bearing steel skeleton. The Chicago engineer and architect William Le Baron Jenney is often described as the “Father of the Skycraper,” but there is plenty of room to debate that title. Jenney’s claim is based on Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, which does have metal-framing, but only on two sides. Burnham and Root’s earlier Montauk building also had some iron-reinforced walls; such iron-frames were hardly unknown in industrial structures. The case gets even murkier because Burnham had once worked for Jenney, and for his fire-proofing contractor, the remarkable Peter B. Wight, a former disciple of John Ruskin who “proposed a fireproof iron-frame-supported column as early as 1874.” 

The quest for the skyscraper’s paternity often misses the far more important truth: the real father of the skyscraper was Chicago itself. In the wake of the Great Fire of 1871, the city attracted a remarkable collection of architectural and engineering talent that was needed to rebuild a city. After all, even with the buildings gone, Chicago’s future remained assured thanks to its enormous geographical advantages. Those minds then learned from each other and borrowed each others’ ideas and collectively remade architecture. Ayn Rand’s Frank Lloyd Wright, fictionalized as Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, is a particularly misleading portrait of an architect. Wright was no Gary Cooper-esque loner who sprang alone into the world as if from the head of Zeus. Wright was part of a chain of Chicago architects, and his ideas built on those of his mentor, Louis Sullivan, who had worked with Jenney himself. They were all part of the great web of creative interchange created by the city that emerged from Chicago’s canal and stockyards.           

Pacyga is interested in ordinary people, too. In 1900, Chicago attracted a gigantic inflow of immigrants, particularly Germans and Scandinavians. The city offered, after all, some of the highest wages on the planet. In later decades, Chicago provided a way out for many African-Americans, including the writer Richard Wright, fleeing the Jim Crow south. Cities such as this one have always had a comparative advantage in assimilating migrants, who have usually done well in Chicago and helped to give the city its character. When I was a graduate student in Chicago in the late 1980s, the blackboards still had bilingual signs in English and Polish.   

Through the 1920s, Chicago was run by native born Americans, such as Big Bill Thompson. A colorful character who once staged a debate with live rats, he was one of the city’s many powerful Republicans who “relied on their white Amercian-born base and on African-American votes." After all, Lincoln himself had first been nominated by the Republican Party in the Chicago Wigwam. The Republican Party’s commitment to prohibition gave it a natural appeal to Chicago’s bootlegging entrepreneurs, notably Al Capone, who had much to lose from the legalization of liquor.     

But Anton Cermak, a Czech immigrant and a determined “wet," bested Thompson and turned Chicago into a permanently Democratic city. As Pacyga tells it, “On April 7, 1931, Cermak beat Thompson by 191,916 votes, and the West Side Czech who Thompson had referred to as a ‘Bozo’ and a ‘Bohunk’ won all but five wards as Chicago placed the Democrats in power and set the stage for the 1932 presidential election.” Cermak and his successors forged a durable Democratic machine that maintained its power through patronage and neighborhood outreach. (Cermak himself died in 1933 taking a bullet that was meant for F.D.R. Pacyga repeats the much-disputed tale that Cermak told the President, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Others think that Cermak just uttered an expletive.)   

In the 1950s, Cermak’s machine was inherited by Chicago’s first Mayor Daley. Father and son, the two Daleys have led Chicago for forty-two of the last fifty-five years. The durability of their dominance is a puzzle that Pacyga could have done more to explain. In many large cities, such as New York, the New Deal and the expansion of relatively uncorrupt Federal patronage broke the back of older machines. In Chicago, the Daleys proved remarkably adept at surviving through changing times, much like the city itself. Indeed, one not insignificant reason for their success is that Chicago has managed to thrive despite the declining importance of the natural advantages that once determined the city’s growth.

Post-war urban America was hit by changing transportation technologies that enabled families to move to the suburbs and the Sun Belt. All but two of America’s ten largest cities in 1950 are less populated now than they were at the time. (The exceptions are New York and Los Angeles.)  Chicago is about 23 percent smaller today than it was in that year, but this decline is quite modest compared to the more than 50 percent population drops seen in erstwhile urban giants like Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis.    

Chicago’s continued survival is a reflection of sensible leadership and—even more importantly—smart people who learn from one another in skyscrapers and scattered neighborhoods. The death of distance may have made Chicago’s factories far less important, but globalization and new technologies have also increased the returns on being smart. Cities enable people to become smart by learning from other smart people. Like millions of others, I myself have done plenty of learning in the Windy City.        

Pacyga’s book is a fine introduction to Chicago’s history, though it tries to do so much that it lacks the unified narrative and overarching theme that made Nature’s Metropolis truly great. Pacyga’s Chicago is closer in spirit to Gotham, Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace’s wonderful history of New York up to 1898. If Pacyga does not quite reach their lofty heights, he has still produced a very fine volume that should grace the bookshelves of every Chicago buff and every urbanist.   

Edward Glaeser is the Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard. He directs the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

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