Chicago is America’s most outstanding architectural city. Nothing compares to its skyscrapers, river and lake views and outstanding examples of building styles.
Once Chicago was a jumble of train tracks and stockyards, so how did it come to lead the City Beautiful movement?
In 2004 the book “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson took the best-seller lists by storm. Everyone to whom I ever recommended it found it an extraordinary read. The title hindered me from reading it at first. I believe the Devil is a real, single being, not humans we think are evil. That said, the villain of this book, Dr. H.H. Holmes, would certainly qualify as a human approximation.
Larson weaves the tale of Holmes’ gruesome murders with the amazing 1893 Chicago World’s Fair referred to as the White City. Today the remaining structure is the largest science museum in the world, the incredible Museum of Science and Industry, and the park land around it.
Juxtaposing by chapter the horrible acts of Dr. Holmes with the breakthroughs and charms of the World’s Fair makes non-fiction read like fiction. (The only quibbles with Larson are about dates and a few disputed claims. Holmes is terribly real.)
The recent book “City of Scoundrels” by Gary Krist is not about Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. That likely will be another book. The subtitle is “The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago.” It centers around 12 days in July 1919. Once again, if it weren’t true, you might assume it was largely fiction.
In a short period, a blimp crashes in the downtown Loop area, there is a gruesome murder of a little girl (similar to Aliahna Lemmon in Fort Wayne) that dominates the headlines, union unrest explodes into a transit strike (in the middle of the Red Scare, remember Russia had just gone communist) and racial riots.
1919 also included the Republican National Convention being held in Chicago (with a brawl between presidential hopeful Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden and infamous Chicago Mayor Big Bill Thompson, who wanted to destroy him) and the infamous Chicago Black Sox scandal.
Al Capone and prohibition play a part as do emerging young writers Carl Sandburg and Ring Lardner. Even papa William “Boss” Daley makes a youthful appearance as a member of one of the white (Irish in his case) thuggish gangs who attacked the blacks who were expanding into their neighborhoods.
The key point of the book is this: The irony of the corruption and chaos is that during this period Mayor Big Bill Thompson pushed the implementation of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. The Michigan Avenue bridge, the beginning of the Magnificent Mile of North Michigan Avenue and the start of the development of the lakefront resulted from Thompson scrambling to cover his other messes.
As the author points out, there was still plenty of corruption, but it was the emergence of modern Chicago.