Saturday, October 10, 2015
Book Week #7: "I should like to have been at Chicago a year ago"
When the University of Chicago Press asked me to write a book about Chicago, my first thought was: "But I live in Northbrook ... and I was born in Cleveland!" Which sort of dictated how the book was written, from an outsider's perspective, about newcomers who arrive at Chicago and try to make their way. The result was my seventh book, "You Were Never in Chicago." One essential quality is that, no matter when you arrive at the city, you are always made to feel you just missed the Big Moment. Trying to explore and, perhaps, debunk this notion, I took what were considered essential moments in Chicago history and began leaping back to see what they actually thought about the place. Guess what: they tended to look backward toward some mythical better time, too.
The carnation-wearers, the bamboo-cane leaners, the nudge-and-winkers, the organ-grinders, the First Ward Ball revelers, in grand procession headed by Bathhouse John Coughlin, proudly leading his “harlots and hopheads, his coneroos and fancy-men, his dips and hipsters and heavy-hipted madams” to use Nelson Algren’s piquant description, “coneroo” being slang for a con man.
That city, that world, is gone—or so the common wisdom goes—replaced by the dull, packaged, homogenized present, our tepid moment of compromised mediocrity. The funny thing is, people always feel that way—pick whatever era in history seems most exciting, most distinctive, real and alive, then examine that period closely; you will find that Chicagoans of the time were also nostalgic, also troubled by what they considered society’s decline, also confronting a problematic present while mourning some imagined superior past. Take 1927—a giddy whirl of bathtub gin and tommy guns and flappers in sheer silk dresses doing the Charleston. Chicagoans back then were aghast at their city’s criminality.
“We are known abroad as a crude, ill governed city. We are known for our ugliness,” Chicago treasurer Charles S. Peterson bemoaned in December 1927, when forming a committee to bring another world’s fair to Chicago—1933’s Century of Progress—in an attempt to dilute the city’s gangland reputation by recapturing the lost promise and excitement of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, a grab at the fading memory of innocent joys: the White City, the Ferris Wheel, and Cracker Jack.
Leap back to the 1893 world’s fair, however, and Chicagoans, while certainly basking in the glow of their renewal, also despaired whether the city would prove worthy of all the attention. They worried about disease, about being up to the task of hosting multitudes, and they steeled their resolve by remembering the city’s courageous, unified, and tireless response to the Great Chicago Fire.
“Our first duty, gentlemen of the City Council of Chicago, is to keep the city in a healthy condition, so that when the world comes here it will not enter upon a charnel house,” said mayor Carter Harrison Sr., in his inaugural address on April 17, 1893, a month before the fair opened, calling it, “the most trying period of Chicago’s history, except when the besom of destruction passed over it at its mighty conflagration.”
Yet at the time of the Great Fire, in October 1871, Chicagoans saw not only heroism, but also a sinful city scourged. “Fleeing before it was a crowd of blear-eyed, drunken and diseased wretches, male and female, half naked, ghastly, with painted cheeks, cursing and uttering ribald jests as they drifted along,” the editor of the Chicago Tribune wrote to the editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, describing the fire. For strength, beleaguered Chicagoans recalled the difficulties of the city’s founding. “The rain that helped put out the flames created pools of mud, reminding survivors of the city’s swampy foundation,” wrote historian Ross Miller.
But at the city’s swampy foundation . . .
Charles Fenno Hoffman approached Chicago on a frigid New Year’s Eve 1833, five months after Chicago had incorporated as a town, at a meeting where 12 residents voted yes and one voted no. The night before Hoffman’s arrival was spent twenty miles away, east along the lakefront in “a rude cabin built of stems of the scrub pine, standing behind a sandy swell about 200 yards from shore.”
The twenty-seven-year-old New Yorker lay huddled in a buffalo skin, with his saddle for a pillow, listening to experienced Chicago hands trade stories of the money to be made, of the “meanness, rapacity, and highway robbery (in cheating, stealing, and forcibly taking away) from the Indians.” Hoffman felt “indignation and disgust” at the practices described, but also a certain regret.
“I should like to have been at Chicago a year ago,” he told his cabin mates.
You get the picture. Hoffman hadn’t even gotten to Chicago yet and was already wishing he had arrived sooner—a common sentiment in an era when real estate prices could soar by the hour. There is a tendency to denigrate the present, whatever it is, because we know so much about it, while romanticizing the past, whatever it was, because its less pleasant details grow fuzzier with each passing year, accentuating the cherished highlights even more. This impulse can be particularly acute for newcomers, who missed the great era of the day before yesterday, arriving, as they must, in the confusing, compromised swirl of today, and so can be left with a permanent sense that the party is always ending just as they show up. The party is never now.