Sunday, August 20, 2017

Those Were the Days

Ah nostalgia. How many of us think back to the good old days of our youth, when life was so much simpler? Yesterday I had the sweet experience of walking with my mother in the neighborhood in which both of us grew up. She and I passed the homes of childhood friends whose names we still could recall. We passed the church where both of us were confirmed and the parish school which both of us attended. That particular walk for me evoked so many memories of my childhood in the sixties, and one song in particular which brings me back every time I hear it to that exact place, Chicago's Palmer Square.

The song for what it's worth, is Get Together as recorded by a band called the Youngbloods. You may know the song from its refrain:

Come on people now, smile on your brother everybody get together, try and love one another right now.

Corny lyrics to be sure when you read them on a computer screen, but if you were around fifty years ago and remember what we were living through at the time, you might get the message it was trying to convey. I came to know the song as it was used in a TV public service announcement put together by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, as a call for brotherhood in a time of war and deep divisions in this nation and around the world. I also vaguely remember, back in the days when the guitar mass was the real thing, that song being sung in the church my mom and I walked past yesterday.

Despite the difficult times that inspired the lyrics of Get Together, the song brings to mind happy times of my life in that neighborhood which we left in the summer of 1968, exactly at the moment of the Democratic National Convention which was taking place only a few miles away. Of all the tumultuous moments of the sixties that I clearly recall, that convention, the anti-war demonstrations that accompanied it, the shameful actions of Mayor Daley on the convention floor, and the riots in part caused by over-zealous police that took place in Grant Park, are a blur to me as we were busy schlepping all our worldly possessions from one part of the city to another as all the mayhem was taking place.

Save for the chance to once again see the people I loved who are now gone, I don't have any particular urge to revisit the sixties. Between the the terrible racial divide, the assassinations, the Vietnam War, the burning cities, including Chicago, the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation, and all the other really bad stuff that was going down, the world really did seem to be spinning out of control, even to someone not even a decade old.

Yet it was the time of my childhood, and triggers such as the song Get Together bring me back to a time and place where I was safe at home with my parents on Humboldt Boulevard where I always felt I belonged, despite all the turbulence that was going on around us.

Such is nostalgia, the longing for a better, happier time, when you were safe and home, even if the reality was quite different.

I think that was the appeal to so many Americans of Donald Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again." It evoked for them a time, somewhere in the distant past, and a place, this country, that was simpler, happier, healthier, and stronger than it is now. The Great America for them was what Humboldt Boulevard and Palmer Square before August of 1968 were for me.

The problem is, those idyllic times and places never really existed, other than in our minds. My mother reminded me yesterday just how bad the neighborhood had become in the late sixties. Despite my parents' urge for unity and brotherhood, a family needs to take care of itself first, when it no longer feels safe in the place it once called home. So we became yet another family who fled the city for the suburbs during that terrible time.

As I mentioned, the sixties was a period that saw tremendous suffering around the world. Things settled down in the seventies to some extent with the end of the Vietnam War and the slow but gradual acceptance, at least in theory, that people of every color deserved their fair share of what this country had to offer. But the seventies also saw economic stagnation due to the energy crisis and other factors. International terrorism was on the upswing.  It was a time of  tremendous cynicism after Watergate and other political scandals. As a result, we didn't seem to believe much in ourselves anymore. The Reagan years of the eighties saw a decline of cynicism and a resurgence of prosperity for some, but the administration's emphasis on big business and its acceptance of making money at whatever cost, jump-started a trend toward the ever growing gap between the haves and the have nots in this country. The nineties saw even more prosperity, if you were in the right line of work. It was a good time to be in the tech industry as computers became an ever increasing part of our lives. The downside is that computers and other technologies did away with countless jobs that disappeared forever. Then came 9-11 and with it, the collapse of the old world order which imperfect as it was, at least enabled us to tell our friends from our enemies. After that came the economic collapse of 2008, from which many of us still have not recovered, despite the slow economic progress of the last eight years.

That in a nutshell is the state of this country during my 58 years on this planet, some good times, some not so good times, and some really shitty times.

Ah but at least we had good jobs, Trump supporters would point out, where you didn't need a college degree in order to raise a family while still maintaining a decent standard of living. That may be true, but if  my condensed Readers Digest view of the history of America since 1960 is any indication, you'll realize that the handwriting had been on the wall for a very long time. The country and the world have been changing at a lightning rate during my lifetime, (I've been around for a long time), and if you're not willing to change with it, you're stuck holding the bag. In fact the country has been changing rapidly ever since it was founded. Good, well paying jobs such as telegraph operator, blacksmith, mule skinner, log driver and lamp lighter were lost to new technology in the early twentieth century just as so many jobs were replaced by newer technology in the late twentieth century. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Still, millions of Americans bought into Trump's promise of bringing jobs and greatness back America. Who in their right mind could be against that?

Skeptics pointed out that you can't stop progress and turn back the hands of time.

So how's he done so far? Well he's proved the skeptics wrong. Donald Trump has indeed succeeded in turning the clock back, taking us back to yesteryear and bringing back things we never thought we'd see again:
  • Despite all we learned from Watergate, I haven't seen so much outright distrust of a president since Richard Nixon, and quite honestly, the potential trouble Trump has gotten himself into, makes Nixon's indiscretions look pale by comparison. 
  • Just over a week ago we were talking about the real possibility of using nuclear weapons on another country and that country using them on us. I haven't heard that kind of talk since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. 
  • Last week, Nazis and Klansmen openly marched and chanted slogans of hatred right in the heart of Thomas Jefferson country. I remember when Nazis wanted to march in the largely Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois in the seventies, but back then they were only a small fringe group who were the objects of scorn and ridicule by virtually everyone. Once they won their legal battle to march, they chose not to, out of fear of the consequences. To find a time when there was so little resistance to this kind of people, going all the way up to the President of the United States, you have to go back to the 1920s. 
  • Trump has tried to implement immigration bans that also harken back to the twenties, and through his rhetoric, has inspired fear and hatred of foreigners the likes of which we haven't seen since the Know Nothing movement of the mid-nineteenth century.
To be fair, job numbers and the stock market are up since Trump became president, and naturally he is taking all the credit, despite the fact that those numbers have been steadily increasing for the last several years under the previous administration. As we all know, what goes up must come down, and with his focus on de-regulating business and the markets, the chances of a catastrophic collapse harking back to 1929 may very well be looming in our future.

The good news is that maybe we won't have to worry about that because we'll be engaged in a nuclear war and we'll have bigger problems.

I'm not so big on nostalgia but I kind of miss the time, say about a year ago, when we didn't have to worry about this shit.

Man, those were the days.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Picasso Thing

This week during a ceremony in Daley Plaza commemorating the golden anniversary of the work of art known to every Chicagoan simply as "The Picasso", Mayor Rahm Emanuel called its introduction to the city a "critical inflection point in Chicago's story."

Almost fifty years ago to the day, that point wasn't lost upon Mike Royko, who in his Chicago Daily News column published the day after the unveiling of the fifty foot sculpture by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, called the event, not without a trace of irony, the "cultural rebirth of the city." True to his curmudgeon spirit, Royko continued:
Out there in the neighborhoods and the suburbs, things probably seemed just the same. People worried about the old things·would they move in and would we move out? Or would we move in and would they move out? 
But downtown, the leaders of culture and influence were gathered for a historical event and it was reaching a climax with Mayor Daley standing there ready to pull a ribbon. 
Thousands waited in and around the Civic (now Richard J. Daley) Center plaza.
They had listened to the speeches about the Picasso thing. They had heard how it was going to change Chicago's image.
When Mayor Richard J. Daley struggled, then finally succeeded to free the artwork from its shroud, Royko wrote that the Picasso was greeted by a spattering of applause, followed by lots of silence.

Royko, like many Chicagoans at the time, wasn't particularly taken by the sculpture.
They had hoped, you see, that it would be what they had heard it would be. 
A woman, maybe. A beautiful soaring woman. That is what many art experts and enthusiasts had promised. They had said that we should wait that we should not believe what we saw in the pictures. 
If it was a woman, then art experts should put away their books and spend more time in girlie joints.
Mike Royko was no art critic. But he was one of the best observers and chroniclers of the life and times of this city that you will ever read. He was writing at a time when this city was bitterly divided over race, class and ethnic identity which he alluded to in the column. That would all come to a head the following year as the city burned during the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Royko pulled no punches when it came to describing his passionate distrust of Mayor Daley, the Chicago Democratic Political Machine, and the moneyed establishment, all of whom exerted their considerable influence upon the city and in doing so, among other less charitable things, made the Chicago Picasso possible. To him, the Picasso was nothing more than a bone the powers-that-be threw at the people of this city, a silver lining within a cloud of greed, corruption and arrogance that controlled Chicago. And Royko famously made a living out of pointing out, as Jerry Garcia once sang, that every silver lining has a touch of gray. On someone's comment that the Picasso captured the "spirit of Chicago", Royko picked up on that point and ran with it:
...from thousands of miles away, accidentally or on purpose, Picasso captured it. 
Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the Summerdale scandal cops, the settlers who took the Indians but good. 
Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible... 
It has the look of the big corporate executive who comes face to face with the reality of how much water pollution his company is responsible for and then thinks of the profit and loss and of his salary. 
It is all there in that Picasso thing the I Will spirit. The I will get you before you will get me spirit. 
Picasso has never been here, they say. You'd think he's been riding the L all his life.
I suppose few Chicagoans at the time read that deeply into the Picasso; they just shook their heads and failed to see what all the fuss was about. After all, to them it was just a big pile of rusty metal that didn't really look like much of anything recognizable.

Fifty years almost to the day after its unveiling, the rusty Cor-Ten steel of both the sculpture and the building it stands in front of, has developed as promised, a lovely rich, deep bronze patina, Today taken out of the context of the time, Royko's words and the feelings of the average Chicagoan sound philistine and sacrilege. The Picasso is every much as beloved, and part of Chicago's iconography as the lakefront, the Water Tower, the Chicago Theater marquee, the Wrigley Building, and the Marshall Field clocks.

Just as most locals never set foot inside the Art Institute, Symphony Center, or other institutions of so called "high culture", I dare say that Chicagoans deep down consider the Picasso if not beautiful, at least something to be immensely proud of. Just as those esteemed institutions, the Picasso has put this city on the map of respectability. After all, being regarded only as the city of  hog butchering, Al Capone rat-a-tat-tat, and corrupt politicians, gets a little old.

Young man "owning" the Picasso
If you don't obsess over the silly question of what it is supposed to represent, the Chicago Picasso is indeed, to my eyes anyway, a beautiful object in its own right. The form of its graceful, sensuous lines set against the ninety degree angles of the surrounding buildings creates a powerful study in contrast, especially when the light is just right. But that's only the half of it. The Chicago Picasso has done what none of the other great works of public art that were inspired by it have managed to do. It has become part of the urban fabric, and in doing so, has transcended its role as a work of art.

When you think of objects of art in a museum, chances are you take them dead seriously, your immediate reaction is to look and not touch. If that thought doesn't happen to occur to you, there are guards to remind you. Likewise, for a while, the Picasso was cordoned off with chains so you could not get too close, presumably to prevent the natural inclination of children sliding down its base. Removing those barriers played a big role in humanizing the work.

In his speech the other day, Mayor Emanuel said the Picasso belongs to all of us, and that is certainly true. Today without the chains, day and night you can see children and adults as well, using the sculpture as if it were an enormous playground apparatus. It's hard to imagine that Pablo Picasso, himself a child at heart, would have objected. Less exhilarating but equally poignant is the crevice underneath the base which serves at times as a shelter for homeless people.

Daley Plaza, Chicago's agora, is hands down the city's most democratic public gathering space. True to the democratic nature of the place, during his speech the other day at the foot of the Picasso, there were demonstrators shouting Mayor Emanuel down.

As Daley Plaza's centerpiece, the Picasso has borne witness to important moments in this city's history for the last half century. Joy, tragedy, exaltation, frustration, anxiety, hope, and every other imaginable emotion have all played out in front of the sculpture. The plaza is the site of political rallies, demonstrations, celebrations, memorial services, ethnic festivals, a wide range of musical and dance performances, farmers markets and the annual Kristkindlmarkt, the most authentic German Christmas market anywhere this side of the Maginot Line.

In 1983 I was in front of the Picasso at a pep rally for the Chicago White Sox who were about to enter the post-season for the first time in my memory. Four years later I was there when the official announcement was made that Mayor Harold Washington had just died. A few weeks later I was present in the plaza as Eugene Sawyer, a good man who was appointed mayor by the City Council in the most shameful of ways, lit the city's official Christmas tree. I saw Lech Wałęsa there in 1989, soon after he led Poland to a peaceful revolution from its Soviet subjugation. I was there in the late seventies when Iranian students demanded that the Shah be ousted from power. I attended many more events, both happy and sad, at the plaza, that have faded into the recesses of my memory, save for the presence of the great statue and its somewhat ironic role  (given its iconoclastic origin) as a stabilizing force mediating the array of events taking place around it.

Today as we read and hear stories of the anniversary, reporters are still eliciting opinions from passersby over what they think the Picasso represents. For all his shortcomings, miscues and malaprops, Richard Daley the Elder set everybody straight when he said, hitting the nail right on the head: "with modern art, you're just supposed to use your imagination."

At the unveiling fifty years ago this coming Tuesday, either Daley, or his speechwriter came up with another remarkably prescient line:
We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.
Powerful words spoken by a man not known for profound utterances, how can it be you may ask that Richard J. Daley of all people, son and lifelong resident of the once hardscrapple, provincial neighborhood of Bridgeport, was instrumental in bringing the Picasso to Chicago?        

Daley prided himself on being a builder and Chicago is filled for better or worse, with roads, bridges, buildings, projects, institutions and monuments that are the direct result of his power and influence over his twenty one year reign as mayor of Chicago. In that respect, he was no different from other big city mayors of the fifties, sixties and seventies. Speaking from experience having lived through the era, people back then had a profound faith in the new; in those days the word "modern" was an unequivocally positive term.  No matter how banal, uninspiring, or purely awful it may have been, anything modern was unfailingly preferable to anything old. That is precisely why there was so little objection to the wanton destruction of some of Chicago's greatest buildings during that era, virtually all of them replaced by vastly inferior modern buildings.

That the Picasso was strange or didn't conform to Daley's expectations of what art should be didn't matter in the least, the fact that it was important and new was all he cared about. When he became mayor in 1955, Richard J. Daley could very well have not known Pablo Picasso from a hole in the ground, but shortly after learning that Picasso was the most important Modern artist around, Daley became the artist's biggest Chicago benefactor. And Picasso returned the favor.

The story goes that the architect William Hartmann of the architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill first approached Picasso in 1963 at his studio in Paris, Hartmann allegedly mentioned to Picasso that he was offering him a "site for the most important piece of sculpture in the United States." Never known for a small ego, those words were music to Picasso's ears. Back in Chicago, a man of no small ego himself, Daley was quite pleased, giddy in fact when Hartmann relayed the story that Picasso asked him if Mayor Daley was still in charge of Chicago. Despite the fact that they never met in person, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Hartmann reportedly offered the artist a check for a cool $100,000 for his efforts, which Picasso turned down. The sculpture would be Pablo Picasso's gift to the people of Chicago.

The work itself was the result of several years of sketches and three dimensional maquettes, some of which were displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1966. While the exhibition wasn't overwhelmingly attended, word got out that this would not be your grandfather's public monument. There was a bit of resistance to the construction of what for the time was a groundbreaking project. One alderman, a Republican of course, famously suggested that a statue of Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks be erected instead. There were also rumblings about Picasso's communist sympathies. But Mayor Daley put his foot down and insisted the project go forward, reportedly saying: "Leave the art to the artists, and the politics to the politicians."

Maquette and preliminary drawing of Chicago Picasso
that were exhibited at the Art Institute in 1966,
one year before the unveiling of the sculpture
In the end, it may seem impertinent to lump Chicago's Picasso with the expressways, universities, housing projects and all the other major public works projects built under Mayor Daley's watch, but there it is. Richard J. Daley forever changed the face of Chicago and not all of it for the good. Mike Royko was right about Daley about 95 percent of the time, but he fell a little short with the Picasso thing. It is a piece that defies categories. It can be whatever the viewer wants it to be. To Royko it may have been a metaphor for all that was evil and corrupt about the city. Conversely, it could be a beautiful object representing the more edifying aspects of the spirit of Chicago.  Or if you are so inclined, it could simply represent a woman, an Afghan Hound, a horse an insect, or most likely all the above. Like all good art, it makes you stop and ponder. You may not have the answer but sometimes all that's important are the questions.

Beyond its own merits, the Chicago Picasso opened the door, the flood gates actually, for public arts projects to flourish all across the city and the country. Ironically in this, the "year of public art", officially proclaimed by the current mayor in honor of the anniversary, we are learning of the possibility that some of the works of art mentioned by Rahm Emanuel in his speech in front of the Picasso, are themselves endangered, either by the elements, or by removal. It turns out that of all the works of public art in Chicago, only the Daley Center Picasso is protected by landmark status, ensuring that kids of all ages generations from now, will still be able to slide down its base, and that it will continue to stand watch over the ebbs and tides of the flowing river of Chicago history.

It didn't happen very often in this town, but in the case of the Chicago Picasso, Mayor Daley got the last laugh. This coming Tuesday morning, the fiftieth anniversary of the unveiling, I'll be looking toward the sky and tipping my hat to Hizzoner.

Ya done good with this one Mr. Mayor, real good.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Photographs of the Month

July 4 Pioneer Plaza

July 4, Chicago River at Michigan Avenue

July 4, North Park

July Margies Candies


July 10, Oak Park

July 12, Lincolnwood

July 17, Monadnock Building

July 22, Gompers Park

July 24, Chicago Portage National Historic Site

July 26, Council Ring, Jackson Park


July 27, Field Museum of Natural History

July 28, Quincy Street

Jul 28, Rookery Building

July 29, Rogers Park


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sphecius speciosus


It's a good week if you learn something new. It's an even better week if you lean lots of new things. I took this past week off to spend with my daughter which in itself was pure delight. On Monday we took our trip to the points of historical interest along the Stevenson Expressway. You can probably guess that was my idea. Tuesday was our day with Grandma. Then on Wednesday and Thursday at my daughter's request, we went to the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum. There's always plenty to learn at both institutions. At the MSI with the help of two examples, I taught my daughter the concept of the Foucault Pendulum, the remarkably elegant 19th century experiment that proved once and for all the earth does indeed rotate about its axis. We learned about how cow poop can be used to provide electricity on a farm and how much poop it would take to power a laptop, two wheelbarrows full in case you're wondering. I didn't know that. We saw New York Central steam locomotive number 999, the first machine to break the 100 mile per hour speed barrier, and saw a working replica of the Wright Brothers plane they flew at Kitty Hawk. After our visit to the museum, we walked through the future site of the Barack Obama Presidential Library and saw all the beautiful trees that will be sacrificed for the project. It broke both our hearts.

At the Field Museum of Natural History we visited their terrific exhibit on the history of life on planet earth. Apparently they haven't yet read the directive from Anthony Scaramucci claiming the earth is only 6000 years old. At the Field where they still believe in science, they seem to think the number is closer to 4.5 billion. We learned all about natural selection's role in evolution, more fake news apparently, at least according to the current administration, and a little about dinosaur identification. We bypassed our old standbys the classic dioramas, in favor of a special paid exhibit the nice cashier threw in for free called "Underground Adventure." I have to admit I would have been disappointed if I had to pay extra for the exhibit which tries to simulate the experience of finding yourself below ground. On view were gigantic animatronic earth worms, mites, slugs and other creepy crawly things you'd encounter beneath the soil if you were 100 times smaller than you are now. Unfortunately the exhibit couldn't decide if it wanted to be a theatrical show intended to scare your socks off, or an educational exhibit. Frankly it didn't do either very well, but I did bring one useful tidbit of information home with me from the exhibit.

It was related to something I had learned a few days earlier, but tucked away deep in my memory banks. It had to do with an infestation of wasps in the front courtyard of our building. Talking to our building engineer, I asked him in passing if there was anything that could be done about all the stinging insects. He said "Nah, they won't hurt anything, they're not interested in you, they're just interested in the cicadas." "Excuse me?" I said. He told me that he saw these wasps digging up cicadas, about twice the size of the wasps, and fly away with them. Now I've had a lifetime respect for wasps and their potential to inflict pain, but never realized their super-human, check that, their super-vespian strength, so I attributed the story to booze. But he assured me he was stone cold sober and telling the truth.

I promptly forgot the improbable story until visiting the Underground Adventure show where they had an exhibit on animals that live part time above ground and part time below. Low and behold, featured in the exhibit were wasps of the species Sphecius speciosus that exclusively go after cicadas. The common name for the species is get this, Cicada killer.

Somehow I managed to get through nearly sixty years of life without knowing this.

It turns out the name Cicada killer is a bit of a misnomer because the wasp doesn't actually kill the cicada, at least not immediately. Instead, venom from its sting paralyzes its victim which it then carries to its burrow. I should point out here that only the female of the species has a stinger so if  you see a male cicada killer wasp it is perfectly harmless. How can you tell the difference? Males are apparently half the size of the females, and they are far more aggressive, making a show trying to defend their territory. But like a Chihuahua, their bark is worse than their bite.

Anyway the female wasp does all the cicada "killing" for the purpose of laying its egg, one at a time, on its hapless victim. Once hatched, the wasp larva starts to consume the still living cicada, making sure its food source stays alive, that is until the larva becomes fully developed, which takes about two weeks. At that point it spins its cocoon from within which it will spend the winter. Pupation occurs in spring and the adult wasps emerge in early summer to continue the cycle.

Here are some other fascinating things I leaned about species Sphecius speciosus from the website, 10 facts about cicada killer wasps:
  • The female wasps are able to pre-determine the sex of their offspring. This is important because far more females are necessary to keep the species going than males. 
  • The female will provide two cicadas for every female egg and only one for each male, as the females literally do all the heavy lifting, while the males spend their time keeping the home fires burning, fighting with other stinger-less male wasps to protect their territory, and having a little fun on the side. Hey somebody has to fertilize those eggs. 
  • Some wasps have a preference for male cicadas while others have a preference for females, no one is quite sure why.
  • Sphecius speciosus is one of five species of the genus Sphecius found in the Americas. 
  • Not all wasps of the genus Sphecius are cicada killers, but all New World wasps of that genus are.
  • The word Sphecius is the Greek word for wasp. However the Cicada killer is often mistaken for, the more aggressive Vespa crabro or European wasp, the ones that would always scare the bejesus out of my classmates and me whenever they found their way into our classroom. That wasp is of a different genus altogether. Vespa you may have guessed, is the Latin word for wasp.
  • My friend the building engineer is absolutely right, the Cicada killer wasp is not the least bit interested in human beings. A female will sting you if you step on her or squeeze her in your hand, but it is not otherwise threatened by you in the least. 
Today, inspired by the beautiful light, and a plethora of wasps in our garden feasting upon the nectar of our hydrangeas, I was inspired to go out and take some pictures of our friendly neighborhood Cicada killers:








Alas I didn't see any wasps catching cicadas today. August, the big cicada season around these parts, is almost here, when the winged bugs emerge from their own underground lairs to find a mate and reproduce, hopefully for them, before they encounter a cicada killer wasp, I've just begun to hear the classic song of summer where male cicadas serenade potential partners in a sometimes deafening fashion. Given the bumper crop of wasps this year, the buggers are in for a big surprise.

When that happens, I'll be sure to be there with my camera.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Little Orange Dots



I've written before of the plans to build the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago. The project no doubt will be a tremendous boon to the city and to the community in which it resides. I'm happy the Obamas and the powers that be settled on the South Side of Chicago, because frankly, that's where the attraction belongs. I call it an attraction rather than a library because all of its holdings will be digitized, no papers will be stored on site. Perhaps Presidential Digital Repository would be a more appropriate term.

However as I've stated before, I'm less than enthused about the city's and the Obamas' cavalier attitude about building the proposed attraction on existing park land. It's clear where the former president's sympathies lie. Talking about the proposed Presidential Library/Digital Repository at the unveiling of the design, Obama said this:
It's not just a building. It's not just a park. Hopefully it's a hub where all of us can see a brighter future for the South Side,
Obviously to Barack Obama, to all the people working on the project, and to a great many Chicagoans, the benefits of having such an institution in the city, especially in a neighborhood that has seen better days, outweigh the loss of several acres of parkland. After all, it's just a park right?

Frankly I find this attitude, while understandable, grossly shortsighted. Our public parks are a public trust, they are meant for the use of the public, and should not be surrendered to private interests, even worthwhile ones. Unfortunately the city does this all the time when they rent out park space for commercial events such as the massive Lollapalooza Music Festival which will be taking place in Grant Park next weekend. This means that unless you're willing to drop hundreds of dollars on a ticket to the event, that enormous, important downtown public park will be off limits not only next weekend, but now for the setup, and for whatever amount of time it takes to clean up the mess.

What's more, many of our parks, including Jackson Park which is where the Obama Library will be built, are significant architectural landmarks designed by some of the greatest landscape architects this country had to offer. They are an important connection to our history as well as works of art in their own right, Compromising them is no different than significantly altering or tearing down our most beloved architectural landmarks. Sadly, we do that all the time.

Obviously this is a losing battle, and Chicago has taken the easy way out. This city has no intention of giving up millions of dollars of much needed revenue just so you and I can spend a summer afternoon strolling through Grant, or any other park that has some kind of paid festival going on, any more than it's going to give up the chance to be the home of the Obama Library. Still reeling from the potential lawsuit preventing the George Lucas Museum from being built on the lakefront, causing the Lucas family to give up their plans to build here, Mayor Rahm Emanuel doubled down on his efforts to not let that happen with the presidential library. Even the park's most visible advocacy group, the Friends of the Parks, has remained uncharacteristically silent on this one.

Two potential park sites were on the docket during the preliminary competition to bring the Obama Library to Chicago. The first runner up was on the western edge of Washington Park. I wrote about that site here two years ago. The site that was selected is on the western edge of Jackson Park, from 63rd up to 60th streets. One could consider Jackson and Washington to be one continuous park connected by the Midway Plaisance which surrounds 59th and 60th Streets in Hyde Park. The entire collection of parks and green space was the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux who are perhaps best known as the architects of Central and Prospect Parks in New York City. While altered substantially, both parks have retained much of the spirit of those two remarkable architects. Perhaps the greatest alteration occurred at the Jackson Park library site, where football and baseball fields used by Hyde Park High School were added decades after the park was built. Those facilities will need to be moved for the sake of the library somewhere, most likely elsewhere in Jackson Park.

What remains then of the site you may ask, once the ballfields are removed? Hundreds of trees, many of them mature maples, London planetrees, cottonwoods, lindens, honey locusts and many other varieties including red and white oaks which judging by their girth, were most likely around at the time of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Surrounding the ballfields, gentle berms create a varied topography breaking up the tedium of Chicago's flat landscape.

When my daughter and I visited the site the other day, orange spots were painted on the trunks of every single tree on the site, save for the immature trees planted on the parkways, indicating they were all slated for removal:

White oak (center) that was probably around at the time of the Worlds Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Trees of different varieties framing Hyde Park High School

London planetree with orange dot at its base, marking its doom, along with the rest of the trees pictured on this post.

Here is a link
to Blair Kamin's Chicago Tribune article on the unveiling of the design of the presidential library, the work of New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, that would occupy the Jackson Park site. From the rendering you can see that the parkways are untouched, but everything else, including the gentle berms and the century plus old trees are to be leveled.

As they say, you have to break an egg to make an omelette. I get it, you can't save everything, especially in a city that intends to grow and prosper. But this design appears to me that, just like the football field that was plopped down in the middle of the park, it was rendered without any consideration to the surroundings in which it is to be built. Jackson Park is a very special place and each segment of it was carefully designed to lead into the next. The Obama Library design as it exists on paper, could be plopped down into any part of the city. Its rigid, formal plan contrasts drastically with the free-form English garden style plan of Jackson Park.

To my eyes it would appear from visiting the site, that the design of the library could and should be altered to fit into the landscape, and in the process, save at least some of the century old trees. I'm not entirely against removing trees, even ones that have been around for over 100 years, for an important project, but you have to have an awfully good reason to do it. That would be the very least they could do.

But I wouldn't count on it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Stevenson Corridor

Of the tens of thousands of motorists who every day drive along the section of Interstate 55 that bisects the Chicago metropolitan area, (known to locals as the Stevenson Expressway), my guess is few of them consider that particular patch of concrete and its surrounding area as anything special, if they consider them at all. While it does provide a spectacular view of the city as you approach it from the southwest, to the uninitiated, the Stevenson, like most highways of its type, is nothing less than a brutal assault on the senses: a tedious landscape, flanked by uninspired shrubbery and architecture, littered with endless billboards, the typical detritus of our automobile/consumer culture. Some of the notable institutions the expressway passes are the largest single site jail in the Unites States, Cook County Jail, and the world's largest sewage treatment facility, the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant. That plant as well as the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal and the numerous industries served by it, produce the foul smell to which travelers on the highway have become accustomed. The rumble of freight trains, the blasts of their locomotives' horns, and the endless drone of rubber on the concrete pavement make for a sound landscape every bit as unwelcoming as the visual one. If that weren't enough, adding to the anxiety is the recent phenomenon of random shootings and other crimes taking place on the highway, not to mention the inherent danger of high speed motor travel, that contribute not a small about to the overall grimness of the place.

Heading eastbound on the Adlai E. Stevenson Expressway
No, you will not find the Stevenson, (named after former Illinois governor and UN ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson), and its environs in the guidebooks, or on very many bucket lists of things to do in Chicago. As it has for centuries, the corridor exists as a place you pass through to get someplace else. 

In spite of, or perhaps because of that, the Stevenson Corridor occupies the most historically significant geography in the entire Chicago metropolitan area. In fact, the very reason Chicago exists as all is because of the transportation corridor occupied now by the highway, that existed long before settlers of European descent set foot in the region.

If you're up on your Chicago history, or read my post on the Erie Canal, you understand why. In short, the land underneath the current superhighway, roughly between Ashland and Harlem Avenues, once served as the portage trail between the South Branch of the Chicago River, which flowed into Lake Michigan, and the Des Plaines River, whose waters eventually make their way into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. That seven mile Chicago Portage was for Native Americans and the Europeans who followed them, the shortest, most accommodating barrier between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River systems. Interest in the future development of Chicago goes all the way back 1673 when the explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, the first Europeans to set foot in the area, came up with the idea of building a canal that would connect the two waterways.

That canal eventually was built. Completed in 1848, the Illinois & Michigan Canal was much longer than Jolliet's conception, bypassing the Des Plaines, because that river was un-navigable for anything larger than a canoe for much of the year. Instead the I&M Canal made a 96 mile beeline straight to the Illinois River. Only traces of the I&M Canal exist today, it was made obsolescent not long after its completion by the advent of the railroad, and completely supplanted by the much larger Ship and Sanitary Canal. That notwithstanding. the I&M Canal was vital to the development of Chicago, as speculative investment capital in anticipation of its construction is directly responsible for turning a river trading post into a major city. Many of the same investors who built the canal turned their attention to the railroads and it followed quite naturally that Chicago would become the transportation hub of the Midwest. 

As it has for centuries, the Stevenson Corridor continues to be a major transportation conduit for Chicago, the Midwest, and the entire nation. The expressway is the final leg of I-55 which begins in East St. Louis, Illinois. It supplanted the first leg of legendary of Route 66 which as the song reminds us, wound
...from Chicago to LA, more than two thousand miles along the way.
In turn, Route 66 took much of the traffic off one of Chicago's most storied thoroughfares, Archer Avenue, originally an Indian trail, which followed the Chicago Portage and later the canal, all the way to Lockport, Illinois. 

As storied as Route 66, is the railroad line that follows the route of the canals and the Stevenson Expressway into Chicago. The tracks, now the property of the mega-corporation known as BNSF, were once the domain of the Santa Fe Railroad, upon which their legendary passenger train the Super Chief entered the city after its 36 hour 49 minute run from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. The Super Chief is gone but its tracks are still heavily used to carry freight trains into, out of, and through the city as well as Amtrak passenger trains headed to points west. Chicago's elevated rapid transit also makes a brief appearance alongside the Stevenson on old railroad right of way, in the form of the system's "Orange Line" connecting Midway Airport a mile south of the expressway, to Chicago's Loop.  

Finally, the Ship and Sanitary Canal which opened in 1900, continues, as its name implies, to be a navigation canal as well as a transportation system for a much less pleasant substance, Chicago's sewage. That natural byproduct of human development once ended up in the city's water source, Lake Michigan, via the Chicago River. The construction of the sanitary canal provided the means by which the course of the Chicago River could be reversed from flowing into the lake, to the Mississippi River system via the river and canal, in the direction of the less than appreciative residents of downstream towns such as Joliet, Illinois.  

While it may not be in the guidebooks,  the Stevenson corridor remains as vital to Chicago's present, as much as it was to the city's past.

This week, my daughter and I visited three sites, all footsteps from the Stevenson Expressway, that played a tremendous role in the history of the Chicago Portage. As such they are three of the most important historical sites in the city.

The Gap in the Divide

The City of Chicago sits on a continental divide, the St. Lawrence Divide to be exact, straddling two major watersheds, the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence, and the Mississippi River. A divide is simply the high point in a land mass between two bodies of water. Rain water falling on one side of the divide will eventually drain into the body of water on that side of the divide, while water falling on the opposite side will drain into the body of water on that side. When we imagine continental divides, we tend to think of great mountain ranges crossing a continent. As we have no mountains in Chicago, not even puny hills, the divide needn't be very high at all. The Des Plains River historically has flooded its banks to such an extent that in the most severe cases, flood waters from that river were high enough to breach the divide at its saddle, or lowest point, flowing over the divide and into the Chicago River, thereby temporarily reversing the flow of the Des Plaines. The historic saddle point of the St. Lawrence Divide where it intersects the water course in the city of Chicago, is located near 3100 W. 31st Street, in the neighborhood of Little Village. West of the divide there was once a large mass of flat land (even by Chicago standards), part of the Des Plaines River's flood plain, called Mud Lake. As you can imagine, Mud Lake was a poorly drained swamp that for part of the year was flooded enough to support canoes and other small boats. For the rest of the year Mud Lake was a flat dusty plain which made for relatively easy traversal. It was at this saddle point in the divide where Native Americans cut a notch into the land, breaching the divide, thereby creating during the rainy season, a continuous water path between the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers.  

The site of the historic saddle point of the St. Lawrence Divide in Chicago is now occupied by one of Chicago's newest parks, La Villita Park at 31st Street and Albany. That 22 acre park, dedicated in December, 2014, has an interesting history of its own.

The south entrance to La Villita Park at 31st and Albany in Chicago's Little Village Neighborhood
Where La Villita Park now resides was once the site of a large industrial complex whose occupants included a company that sold and  manufactured asphalt roofing products. In 1989, complaints from neighbors were received by the Illinois EPA about coal tar, a byproduct of the plant, that was present on their property. In 1993, the federal EPA got involved to force the owners of the property to clean up the site of the former plant. Community activists got into the act and working with the city, they turned what was once a toxic wasteland into a public park. You can read details of the struggle here, on the EPA website.

Part of the massive cleanup of the site involved covering the polluted ground with several feet of topsoil. The designers of the park put the new soil to good use, using it to carve berms that place the park several feet above the rest of its surroundings, creating a nice vista of the Little Village neighborhood to the west, and the aforementioned Cook Country Jail to the north and east.. I can't say for sure but perhaps in raising the park above its surroundings, its designers were alluding to the natural divide that the park sits upon. 

As far as I could tell, there is no reference to the tremendous historical significance of the site at the park. Perhaps some day...

The Trail Head

Lack of recognition is not the case with The Chicago Portage National Historic Site, at the western end of Mud Lake and the historic portage trail. Located in the suburb of Lyons, Illinois, the site, dedicated in 1952 is designated as an "affiliated area", owned an operated by the  the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, and listed by the National Park Service. By removing invasive species of plants such as European Buckthorn from the preserve, great pains have been taken to make the site look, feel and smell just as it did when eastbound travelers, first the Native Americans, then the likes of Father Marquette, Louis Jolliet and later, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle, disembarked from their canoes and made the relatively painless over-land journey to the South Branch of the Chicago River, seven miles to the east.  

From this website put together by the Friends of the Chicago Portage:
...nearly every site of Chicago’s origin’s has been destroyed. The remains of Fort Dearborn are buried under three layers of Wacker Drive, you can't visit DuSable & Kinzie's cabin, the Portage Trail is completely paved over and old “Mud Lake” is now the site of the world’s largest sewage treatment plant. The Chicago Portage National Historic Site is the only major remnant of the discovery and settlement of Chicago.
The last vestige of Portage Creek which once flowed into the Des Plains River.
Today its flow has been reversed to divert flood waters away from the river.

Water flowing through a swale after a heavy rain, into Portage Creek

The flooded Des Plaines River after a heavy July storm

The southern edge of the Chicago Portage National Historical Site and adjacent industrial land
which one day will hopefully be the site of a visitor center.

BNSF engines rumbling along the tracks marking the northern edge of the preserve,
reminding us of the tremendous significance of the area as a transportation corridor.

Composite photograph of a Bur Oak tree which as the didactic panel on the lower left explains,
more than likely was passed by explorers Jolliet and Marquette as they were led
through the Chicago Portage.


This statue of a Native American guide assisting explorers Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet
as the make their way along the Chicago Portage, greets visitors as they arrive at the Historical Site

Birth of the Canal

The last stop on our tour of historic sites along the Stevenson Corridor was another new Chicago Park District Park, Canal Origins Park. The park is located on Ashland Avenue, at the fork in the South Branch of the Chicago River where the notorious Bubbly Creek (the dumping ground for a century's worth of effluence from the old Stockyards), branches off from the river. It was on this spot on the Fourth of July, 1836, where city fathers and investors stuck their shovels into the ground marking the start of construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. 

The significance of the canal to the city cannot be underestimated. The timing of its conception and construction occurred during a very small window of opportunity that made the difference between success and failure for both the canal and the city. It was the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 connecting Chicago to New York, and with it, capital investments from that city, that made construction of the I&M, and the tremendous growth of the city happen. Had there been a delay of a decade or so in breaking ground for the canal, railroads by then would have gained a foothold in the Midwest, making the canal unnecessary, Had that been the case, Chicago, with its inhospitable swampy natural terrain, could very well have been bypassed in favor of a city built upon more solid ground.  

The workers who labored to build the I&M Canal were largely Irish immigrants, many of whom settled in the neighborhood of Bridgeport where the canal originated. The building of the canal meant that Chicago already had a significant Irish population at the time of the Great Potato Famine that devastated Ireland from 1845 until 1852. Naturally this city became a magnet for many if the 1.5 million people who emigrated from the Erin Isle after that calamity. Along with the opportunity to find work, and therefore survive, there was hardship as the Irish constituted the first underclass of Chicago. Many of them lived in shantytowns (or ghettos as we'd call them today), west and south of the Central Business District. Anti-Irish sentiment reached its peak after the Great Fire of 1871 which began in one of those shantytowns. A reporter for the Chicago Tribune years later confessed that he made up the story of the fire starting in the barn belonging to the O'Leary Family after the drunken Catherine O'Leary carelessly left a lit lantern in her barn after milking her cow. Despite the reporter's confession, Mrs. O'Leary never lived down the accusation and to this day is still blamed for the fire.

But the Irish did have a great advantage over the other immigrant groups who came to Chicago in the 19th century, they spoke English. Combined with strength in their numbers, and the Roman Catholic Church, Chicago's Irish gained a foothold into the organization of this city, first in the police force, then in politics. The Chicago Democratic political machine may not have been created by the Irish, but it was raised to an art by them and for a good long time, Bridgeport was the political geo-center of the City of Chicago. 

Today in Bridgeport, folks living in million dollar homes in new developments along the river, rub shoulders with the descendants of the old 11th Ward, a neighborhood where vestiges of the past such as the ancient Schaller's Pump, tenaciously clung to life and are only now beginning to disappear. The old Stearns Quarry was converted into a spectacular new park now known as Palmisano Park, which uses its site, a combination of the quarry, and a large landfill hill to great effect.

Likewise, Canal Origins Park takes full advantage of its riverfront setting to create an experience that recreates the natural setting (at least as much as possible in the middle of the city), combined with the experience of present day Chicago. Unlike the Chicago Portage site, with the exception of the river, which itself has been greatly altered, everything at Canal Origins Park is the work of human hands. The design of the park is the concept of earth artist Michael Singer whose plantings of native wild flowers dominate the setting. Cutting through the field of wildflowers, (or as a disgruntled neighborhood visitor to the park called them on my first visit to the park ten years ago, weeds), Singer created a narrow path leading from the street to the river, that is meant to evoke the canal. Along the sides of this path are ceramic friezes created by artist Phil Schuster and students under his direction that depict the story of the canal. Sadly, vandals have done a number on the panels and most of the didactic signage, defacing many them with graffiti. and other means. 

What you will not see at Canal Origins Park is any vestige of the I&M Canal itself, as the section of it at its source was replaced by the dredging of the Ship and Sanitary Canal in 1900.


Field of Black-eyed Susans, Rudbeckia hirta,
looking south east toward a bridge that carries the CTA Orange Line over Bubbly Creek 

Looking toward South Fork of the Chicago River, popularly known as "Bubbly Creek".

One man's wildflower is another man's weed.
Silphium lacinatum, commonly known as compass plant.
Kudos to my wife for the identification.

Path through park evoking the Illinois and Michigan Canal whose origins this park commemorates.
The path is lined with panels that tell the story of the river and the canal.

Details of one of the panels depicting an early resident of the area,


View from park of the fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River, looking toward Chicago Loop.
The new Chicago Park District boathouse can be seen across Bubbly Creek on the right.


These three places may not be on most folks' bucket lists, but they are places that hold the key to what made Chicago, Chicago. For anyone with more than a passing interest in this town, they're well worth the visit.

Here are the addresses and links to more information about the above sites:

Chicago Portage National Historic Site: 4800 S. Harlem, Lyons, Illinois

Canal Origins Park: 2701 S. Ashland Avenue
Canal Origins Park on Chicago Park District website

La Villita Park: Main entrance: 2800 S. Sacramento
La Villita Park on Chicago Park District website
A December 11, 2014 Chicago Tribune article on the opening of the park





Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Tale of Two Cities

New York City and Chicago are like two siblings born several years apart. The younger sibling, Chicago, is always in its big sibling's shadow, every day trying to prove itself. Meanwhile, the bigger, more successful sibling lives its life as if its pesky younger sibling didn't matter, or even exist. But the two are still family and the fact is, neither would be what they are today without the other.

Civic boosters love to brag about their city's beauty, its architectural gems, great institutions of higher learning, vast cultural amenities, engaging entertainment venues and splendid restaurants. But those things are the fringe benefits of what creates a successful city. Like the snooty character Maris Crane from the sitcom Frazier, who learns that the source of her family fortune is actually the manufacture of urinal cakes, it comes as a bit of a let down for some to learn that what really put their town on the map, are the more mundane items of life, things like fur pelts, metal ingots, bushels of wheat and corn, lumber and pig meat. It's not necessarily the production of these things that makes for a great city, as they are often harvested or manufactured elsewhere; more important are the resources to market and ship those commodities far and wide. The facility to create and nurture industry and commerce, and the transportation conduits to serve them, are the engines that throughout history, have created and sustained great cities.

They say the three most important factors regarding real estate are location, location and location. Perhaps never in the history of human beings creating cities, has there been a natural spot more ideally located to build a great metropolis than the thirteen mile long, hilly, wooded island at the mouth of the Hudson River called Manhattan. The body of water the Hudson empties into, New York Harbor, is one of the great natural harbors of the world, which itself empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Upstream, the Hudson River was a major gateway to the American interior. But that was not all. The port cities of Boston and Baltimore also had great natural harbors that emptied into the Atlantic. Philadelphia, another major port of the Eastern Seaboard, was built upon the banks of the Delaware River, about 50 miles upstream from its mouth, and the great ocean.

The real gold mine that wasn't immediately apparent to the early settlers of New York City, was a gap in the Appalachian Mountains called the Mohawk Pass. That geographic feature, formed by glaciers during the last ice age near the confluence of today's Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, meant there was no mountain barrier between New York City (via Albany, 150 miles upstream on the Hudson), and the midwest. No other major East Coast port could make such a claim. The only break in the great chain of mountains between Canada and the South, provided the opportunity for a canal to be dug in upstate New York between the Hudson River at Albany, and Buffalo, on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. If such a canal could be built, it would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, and open up a continent.

Erie Canal locks at Lockport, NY.
The difference in elevation between the Hudson River at Albany and Lake Erie
at Buffalo is 565 ft, requiring 35 sets of locks along the course of the canal. 
Two hundred years ago this week, politicians and other muckety mucks stuck their gold plated shovels into the dirt of Rome, New York, marking the beginning of construction of the Erie Canal, the 350 mile long ditch that at the time of its completion in 1825, would forever change the landscape of this country, and the destinies of two of its largest cities, New York and Chicago.

According to the 1830 Census, the six largest American cities all were major salt water ports, five of them on the Eastern Seaboard. In descending order they were New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, and Charleston, SC. That same year, with a population of about 100, Chicago, not yet a city, was a trading post, populated by a mix of French trappers and Potawatomie Indians. The natural geography of Chicago was not as advantageous as New York's as far as building a city. It too was at the mouth of a river that emptied into a major waterway. But unlike the Hudson, the Chicago River was a sluggish stream that was incapable of properly draining the flat topography on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan. Unlike Manhattan which rises several feet above the water level and seldom floods, the natural Chicago was a swamp much of the year. Even its name, taken from the Potawatomie word for the wild onions that grew there, (which you can still smell along the banks of the river on the outskirts of town), evokes the soggy character of the place. By 1830, New York already had an influence on Chicago as its richest man, John Jacob Astor laid claim to part of the fur trade in the distant outpost of the midwest. After the opening of the Erie Canal, New York money would float into Chicago by the boatload, both figuratively and literally.

While Chicago's pool table flat topography didn't make for a pleasant experience underfoot, it did provide the future city with a tremendous advantage over its competing Great Lakes settlements. It turns out there is an ever so slight continental divide, all of about 15 feet, that runs through Chicago, a few miles west of the lake. All the water east of the divide, drains into Lake Michigan, via the Chicago River, while the water west of the divide, slowly finds its way to the Des Plaines River west of the city. That river in turn, flows into the Illinois River, then the Mississippi, and ultimately into the gulf of Mexico. This very small divide meant that in 1830, if you wanted to travel from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi by canoe, from Lake Michigan you could enter the Chicago River and paddle upstream to its source, then portage, depending on the season, for about seven miles to the Des Plaines. During rainy season in spring, the portage distance was minimal or even non-existent. For centuries, Native Americans knew of the Chicago Portage as the most direct connection between the Great Lakes and the Great River. The first Europeans to cross the portage were French explorers Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette in 1673. The Chicago Portage would prove to be a geological godsend for Chicago, just as the Mohawk Gap was for New York City.

As the first half of the nineteenth century was the era of the great canals, New York investors became interested in building a canal that would connect the Chicago River with the navigable Illinois River which, together with the Erie Canal. would complete a transportation network bisecting the northeastern portion of the United States, spanning from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River.

Wild speculation due to the rumors of the imminent building of the western canal attracted investors from the east who hired surveyors to parcel up Chicago's land, then paid exorbitant prices for it. One of the first tangible results of the opening up of the Erie Canal as far as Chicago was concerned, was the ending of the peaceable existence between settlers of European origin, and the Native American residents of the region. For a century and a half, the Potawatomie could understand the ways of the white man as far as trading for goods and services were concerned. They could even accept European capitalism at its most basic level. The Native American people and the French trappers lived peacefully together in Chicago, intermarried, and respected each other's property, so long as the owner occupied his land. But cultural differences prevented the Potawatomie, as most Native American people, from accepting the European practice of buying and selling land as a commodity. To the Potawatomie, it made no sense that you could claim land you did not occupy, anymore than you could lay claim to the air or to water.

As the land of Chicago was subdivided and the easterners bought it sight unseen, the Potawatomie kept living upon land that was bought out from under them. Something had to give and as was the case one hundred percent of the time in conflicts between the Native American people and the settlers of European descent, the white man won. Land swaps (swindles if you prefer) were arranged, treaties were forged, and the Potawatomie, along with those of mixed Native American and European heritage who once called Chicago home, were displaced to reservations in the hinterland. Almost overnight, Chicago went from being a French (Catholic)/Indian outpost, to an Anglo (Protestant) city.

The first mover and shaker from New York to move here and call Chicago home, was real estate man, William Butler Ogden. Ogden was hardly impressed with the muddy, free-for-all backwater trading post when he first set foot in Chicago in 1835 . But along with the wild onions, Ogden could smell money. He made a tidy sum selling off some of the by then, over-inflated property his family had purchased before his arrival. Ogden stayed on in Chicago buying and selling real estate and making a fortune. The City of Chicago was formally incorporated on March 4, 1837 and William Butler Ogden was elected its first mayor. When the city became broke during a national panic, Ogden paid off the city's bills by issuing an IOU backed up by his own funds.

Both as mayor, which only lasted eight months, and thereafter, Ogden was instrumental in turning Chicago into a dynamic city. Ogden connected Chicago to its outlying farms by means of plank roads. He built bridges, including the first swing bridge spanning the Chicago River, and encouraged the growth of commerce and industry. With help from his New York investment friends, Ogden turned a backwater settlement into a major city that would be connected to the east, and the rest of the world, by means of the Erie Canal.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal flowing through Utica, Illinois
Ogden was a principal supporter and investor in the Illinois and Michigan Canal which upon its completion in 1848, would span 96 miles between the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport, to the towns of La Salle and Peru, Illinois, thereby completing the last link of the waterway system that would connect the Atlantic and the Mississippi, and all points in between.

By the 1850 Census, Chicago's population rose in twenty years from 100 to nearly 30,000. That was only the beginning. By greatly reducing the time it took to ship goods and transport people to and from the East Coast, the new system of waterways began the process of Chicago supplanting the great port city on the Mississippi, St. Louis, as the transportation hub of the midwest. But almost as soon as the I&M Canal was built, a new and far quicker (if not necessarily more efficient) means of transportation came along. St. Louis probably could have stemmed the tide of losing its role as a transportation hub, had it only accepted change and moved along with the times. But that city was in the grips of the steamboat industry who exerted its control over blocking the construction of a railway bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis.  Instead, a bridge was built about 200 miles upstream at Rock Island, Illinois meaning all trains coming from the west headed directly to Chicago. In contrast to the single-minded investors and city fathers of St. Louis, William Ogden, who was already heavily invested in the I&M Canal, made an about face and turned his interests, and those of his city, to the railroad, thereby leaving St. Louis and its moribund economic engine, in the dust.

This image illustrates the motive power of the Erie Canal in the 19th century,
horses, or in this case mules pulling a boat along their towpath.
By the 1850s, railroads had also taken away much of the business from the Erie Canal, yet the impact of that magnificent public works project, had already changed the nation in countless ways. The canal opened up the Midwest to the rest of the country, making places like Chicago possible. It provided a vast network of westward immigration, changing the primary axis of movement of the country from North-South, up the Mississippi River, to East-West, via the canal. Historians believe this had many profound implications for the development of the country, not the least of which being the exacerbation of the division between North and South which led to the American Civil War. The theory goes something like this: Southerners, who were for the most part sympathetic to slavery, moved up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers into southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. That move was countered by the western movement of New Englanders, most of whom were abolitionists, to the upper Midwest via the Erie Canal. Had it not been for the canal, the Union might very well have had to fight the war without the help of the key states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Nowhere was the objection to build the Erie Canal greater than in New York City. Believing the project to be a boondoggle, pork barrel that would only benefit Upstate New York, the city's politicians dubbed the project, "Clinton's Ditch" and "Clinton's folly", after its chief sponsor, New York governor DeWitt Clinton. The canal opponents were wrong. While the completed waterway did greatly benefit both the agricultural and urban areas of Upstate New York,  the canal also made New York City successful beyond its wildest dreams. Because of the Canal, of all the nation's great Atlantic sea ports, only New York had direct access to the Midwest. Lumber harvested in the great forests of Wisconsin and Michigan could be floated down rivers to be rough milled, then sailed down Lake Michigan to Chicago, where it would be cut to size and finished, then sent on to New York, from where it could be sent anywhere in the world. Crops shipped to Chicago via the I&M Canal would be stored in that city's enormous grain elevators, then sent east when it was needed. Pigs rendered into salt-pork in Chicago's packing plants, steel and all other manner of manufactured goods, made in Chicago, found their way east to New York and beyond. This movement of products, commodities, and people only intensified after the railroads were built between the two cities which followed the same route as the Erie Canal, taking advantage of the Mohawk Pass. Consequently New York became unquestionably the most important ocean port in the United States, and Chicago, the most important inland port. New York also became this nation's banking capital, thanks in part to the financing of the massively complicated and expensive construction of the Canal.

The tremendous opposition to the building of the Erie Canal begs the question, what if the Erie Canal had not been built? It's inconceivable that the westward expansion of the United States would not have taken place without the canal, it just would have been delayed a decade or two as railroads would have taken on the role that the canal served. But those decades were pivotal. Had the western migration of New Englanders been delayed for a couple of decades, they would not have tempered the migration of Southerners into the Midwest. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois may have remained slave states with their sympathies pointing in the direction of the Confederacy. It's hard to imagine such an Illinois electing Abraham Lincoln to Congress, let alone to the presidency of the United States. How Lincoln not being on the scene would have played out insofar as the Civil War and the issue of slavery in the United States is anybody's guess.

It's highly likely that had the Erie Canal not been built, Chicago would not exist, at least not as a major city. Without the influx of major investment from the east, a direct result of the Erie Canal, there would have been no capital to convert it from a swampy backwater marsh into a reasonable facsimile of a city. Much less would there have been the funds to build the Illinois and Michigan Canal which put the city on the map as far as being a transportation hub. With no canals and no Chicago money to build railroads that would go through here, it's very unlikely that the outpost swamp that Chicago would have certainly remained had it not been for the canals, would have been more than a whistlestop on the trunk line between Galena and Toledo, two towns that could very easily have been in contention for being the transportation hub of the Midwest.

When the Erie Canal was completed, New York was already a thriving city, the most populous in the United States . While the populations of most of the major U.S. cities increased incrementally during the 19th Century, New York's exploded after the construction of the Canal. The 1860 census showed that in the thirty years since the Canal's opening, the population of New York City (not including Brooklyn which at the time was a separate city) more than quadrupled. By 1880, New York became the first American city whose population topped one million. No other big American city grew as quickly, except that is, Chicago. In those same thirty years since the opening of the canal, Chicago's population went from 100, to 112,000, breaking into the top ten list of American cities. Ten years after New York broke the million mark, Chicago did the same, finishing for the first time as the second largest city in the United States, in the 1890 census.

The Erie Canal carried over the Genesee River in Rochester, NY by means of an aqueduct.
Unlike Chicago, Upstate New York municipalities such as Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse, to name a few,
already existed as cities before the canal, but their fortunes greatly improved when the canal opened.
It is absolutely certain that Chicago's astounding growth was a direct result of the Erie Canal, and almost certain that New York's was as well. It's all conjecture but without the canal, the first railroads headed east may have decided not to turn right at Albany, but head straight for Boston, where the entry of trains was not quite as prohibitive as on the isle of Manhattan. Had it not been for the canal system that went all the way to the Mississippi, the steamboat companies might not have felt as threatened by the competition and consented to the railroads crossing through their town. If that were the case, the trains originating in St. Louis (which certainly would have been the transportation hub of the midwest), might have made the more direct trip to Baltimore or Philadelphia, greatly increasing the profitability of those citys' ports.

No matter how you slice it, The United States would be a vastly different place had the state of New York chosen not to think big and build that 350 mile ditch. To those of us in Chicago who love this city, the next time we have dinner after we take in a game at Wrigley Field, visit the Art Institute, go to the theater, spend an evening at the Symphony, or just walk along the lakefront, let's all make sure to raise a glass to DeWitt Clinton and to all the workers who gave their blood sweat, tears, and some of them their lives, digging the Erie Canal.

Because without them, we'd be nothing.