To just flick a name at him and be done with it seemed the quick way, the easy way, the coward's way. Certainly not the Chicago way, where you help your pals and your pals help you. Manus manum lavat—one hand washes the other. Besides, I was intrigued by the question, so decided to not only pick a place, but remark upon it, here, thus both instruct those students lucky enough to have Bill as a teacher, and entertain of what readers of this blog aren't Russian spambots.
The Wrigley Building flashed to mind, first, because I've always loved the Wrigley Building, this terra cotta Spanish Revival Beaux Arts hodgepodge of a skyscraper, with its clock tower, glazed ivory skin and nickel skybridge. I figured I could backform some justification for choosing it: built in 1921 (and, quirkily enough, again in 1924, since the building is actually two separate towers with different addresses) it was always brightly lit, intended to be a dramatic lure to draw business across the river, on what was still Pine Street, because there wasn't much there: a few Gilded Age mansions and the old Water Tower.
That's why the Wrigley Building hosted a bank and a restaurant and other facilities, to service officeworkers marooned there while the city grew up around it (including, to my good fortune, the Chicago Sun-Times, whose squat gray trapezoidal monstrosity of a building, situated next to the Wrigley's beauty, was described by one wit—okay, me—as like placing an overturned galvanized metal bucket next to a spun sugar wedding cake. Gone now, replaced by the cool blue Marian skyscraper known as Trump Tower, for now).
I could talk about real estate development and the growth of the city. Redlining, speculation, inherent at its very birth, when Native-American land was platted up and sold off just 90 years earlier in the speculative frenzy that followed the opening of the Erie Canal.
Any idea which two? C'mon, you guys need to pay attention. The city and ... yes! Cook County. Bill has trained you well. A massive cube, it speaks of the wheeling and dealing, the way Chicago government has sparked and squelched, led and responded to, constant change in the city. The City Council where the 50 wards gather to receive their slice of the pie.
Not that either. The first two candidates were inspired by faulty thinking, focusing too much on the "location" part of the assignment. The more I thought, the more "essence" came to the fore. The essence of Chicago couldn't be the Wrigley Building, no matter how twee, nor City Hall. We aren't rococo architecture or shameless boodle. Important, but not what the city is about. Wrigley Field flashed, briefly, but was dismissed for the same reason. Chicagoans love sports. But we are not about sports. It is not our essence.
And then the choice came to me, fully formed, Venus on the Half Shell, the place that reflects Chicago's birth, entire existence, and life to come. Its past, present and future. The essence, the juice, wrung out and reduced to a dark liquid at the bottom of a retort. The key, as it were, to understanding everything that has happened and will happen here, whether the city will continue to thrive or flicker and fade, as so many cities have, becoming some vast American Naples where aging men with sports coats draped over their shoulders stand at espresso bars, squinting into our past, trying to detect a flicker of vanished glory.
Ready? Wait for it.
We would sit in the Grand Hall, itself a vast, almost sacred space. It is there—we are here—because Chicago is a portage. That is why Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet paddled here in September 1673. They were returning from their exploration of the Mississippi Valley, heading north to Green Bay, and were shown a shortcut; go up the Illinois River to the Des Plaines, then carry your canoes—in French, portage—to the muddy trickle of the Chicago River. From there up Lake Michigan to Green Bay.
That act of transfer is the essence of Chicago. From one river to another, at first, then from lake steamers to the rail system that spread out in all directions from Chicago. When Lewis & Clark set out West in 1803, they left from St. Louis, already a majestic, bustling city, Gateway to the West, while Chicago was a swampy nowhere with a trading post and that's it. But half a century later, with the advent of trains, Chicago, which was not on a mighty river, embraced the new technology, while St. Louis— worried especially about putting railroad bridges across their river — stuck with the old way, steamboats and the Mississippi. Both cities gambled. They bet on the past and lost. Chicago bet on the future and won.
There's a lesson there, kids.
Chicagoans weren't enamored with trains either, at first. That's why the station is on this spot, across the river, on what used to be the outskirts. To keep the damned contraptions, which did tend to explode, away from the glory of downtown. The first line was heading toward Galena, a prosperous lead-mining town that was the same size as Chicago when the first track was lain. But Galena, like St. Louis, wasn't a portage either, and so stayed a small 19th century relic known for its fruity wine and its connection to Ulysses S. Grant.
So why is being a portage important? Because there is profit in being the middleman. If you look at a layout of Union Station, you will see it is misnamed. It is not a station at all, in the sense that it does not sit on railroad lines passing through. It is really Union Terminal: because all routes end here. You cannot take a train through Chicago. Every line stops here, intentionally. There are north tracks, and south tracks, and one little feeder that connects, for moving stock, not passing through.
Why do you think Chicagoans did not want trains passing through their city without stopping? Discuss.
Freight was offloaded in Chicago, cars changed, handling and storage fees collected. Passengers poured out of one train to buy meals and gifts, maybe stay a night, then left on another. Chicago was the nexus where the developed East met the agricultural West. That was enough for Cyrus McCormick to bring his reaper works here, to be close to farmers who bought his threshing machines. That's why the commodities exchanges are here—because 150 years ago wheat and corn and oats were rolling into Chicago. The first ceremonial train to leave Chicago in 1848 returned with a load of wheat, purchased from a passing farmer. That's why mail order houses like Montgomery Ward and Sears grew up here — because here the tracks went out in all directions, the factories were nearby, and if you were shipping corsets to Los Angeles and New York and New Orleans, Chicago was the place to be.
That dynamic persisted, even after water traffic fell away. A century after McCormick brought his factory here, Douglas Aircraft started building planes in an old apple orchard northwest of the city. Convenient location. Close to all that steel coming out of Gary. After the war, the city took over the runways, eventually building an airport there, named for World War II hero Butch O'Hare. A plane couldn't fly all the way across the country in one hop in the 1950s, so they'd land in Chicago to refuel. A portage still. If you puzzled over the "ORD" on your luggage tags, it stands for "orchard," one of those little winks where the past shows up today and reminds those who notice.
The fact this waiting room isn't jammed with people is a reminder that technology changes. Trains to planes, planes to computers and the cloud. A few key battles in the communications revolutions were fought here — the first cell phone call placed by a member of the public was made during a stunt in the parking lot at Soldier Field, by the first company to sell car radios, in 1930, its name a mash of "Motor" and "Victrola" — Motorola.
A good student doesn't argue the question's premise, but I should end by pointing out that key though transportation is, one vital truth that makes a city like Chicago great is that it has many essences. With an eye to these very difficult times — a traitor and fraud in the White House, plague in the land, the economy cratering, and now civic unrest because the first three weren't bad enough, apparently — we could have met at the Chicago Fire Academy on De Koven Street, built, with a more nod to the symbolic than is common among city officials, on the exact spot where the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 began — and no, Mrs. O'Leary's cow did not start it by kicking over a lantern; that's just a xenophobic calumny that somehow buried into the public mind and became accepted as fact.
We could have talked about rebirth, about how that disaster and the city's frenzied re-building is what led to our future greatness, and quickly too. The flames burned away Chicago's past and left it with only future.
We might have met in Hyde Park, on Midway Plaisance, the mile-long street connecting Washington and Jackson Parks. Here was the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, another essence, Chicago as that glittering destination that rustics from Davenport come to witness wonders, a dynamic that was repeated artfully in the construction of Millennium Park. Like the ORD luggage tag, if you go to a carnival midway to knock down milk bottles, you're hearing a faint echo of the Midway Plaisance, which was jammed with sideshows, with Little Egypt dancing the hootchie-coo and the first hot dog stand.
When Prof. Savage raised this idea, I naturally assumed he would ask me to be waiting here, in Union Station, cross-legged on one of the massive wooden pews, cup of coffee in hand, to deliver this to you in person, after you shambled in, bemasked and bemused.
But that turned out to be a physical impossibility, as you have already scattered around the country. Which itself might be a hint of where Chicago is going — a source of virtual classes taught by people you never set eyes on about locations you perhaps haven't seen. Maybe that's an improvement. Wherever you go in life from here, keep an eye out for the portages — isn't that what Amazon is? The manufacturers of the world dump stuff at their feet, and they unpack it, box it back up and ship it down the line. The same dynamic with a new twist. Worked for them.
In closing, Chicago is a gift the past has given us that you can spend the rest of your life unwrapping. I know your professor has, and I have, and if you choose to stay or to return here, like us, you will not regret that decision, or at least not regret it much. Thank you for your attention.