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.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Photographs of the Month



Rookery, June 7

Monadnock Building, Federal Center, June 7

Monadnock Building North Entrance, June 7

Michigan Avenue Facades from Millennium Park, June 9

Crown Fountain, Millennium Park, June 9

Casa Bonita, June 16

Broadway and Montrose, June 19

Auditorium Building, June 20
Summer Solstice Sunset, June 21

Pittsfield Building, June 26

Pittsfield Building, June 26

Carbon and Carbide Building, Lincoln and Trump Tower, Illinois Center, June 26

Garland Court, June 26




The Likes of these Folks Part II: Honest Abe


But everybody likes Abe Lincoln don't they?
Bust of Abraham Lincoln in front of his tomb,Springfield, Illinois
Bronze reproduction of original marble bust
in Washington DC, by Gutzon Borglum
Photograph by Theo Iska

In preparing for this post, I conducted a survey, consulting the internet by Googling this question: "what do Southerners think of Abraham Lincoln?" From my very unscientific query of three or four internet forums, I concluded that the consensus opinion is the following: "a great majority of Southerners could (not) care less about Lincoln, while a small minority care deeply about him, and those people hate him." Many Southerners voiced the opinion that our northern myths about the South are all wrong, that indeed, save for a handful of lunatics, they are not still fighting the Civil War down there. Lincoln, contrary to what most Northerners think, is admired, albeit with reservations in Dixie. Heck, you'll even find a few statues of Honest Abe, if you look really hard. "Contrary to what you Yankees may believe..." one commenter noted, "...we don't spend a lot of time thinking about Abraham Lincoln down here, but then again, neither do you."

Clearly that last person hasn't spent much time up North. Here in the Chicago area alone there are at least seven public artworks dedicated to Lincoln, one of which is considered the finest portrayal of the man to be found anywhere. Lincoln's portrait can be found in schools, libraries, courthouses,  public buildings and private homes. Here in Illinois, the "Land of Lincoln" his likeness in even on our license plates. Our largest park and one of our longest streets are named for him. So are countless institutions and business including a notorious company that tows cars occupying private parking spaces. Here is a mock tribute to Lincoln Towing from Chicago's poet laureate, Steve Goodman:


Try as we might up here, it is impossible not to be confronted with Abraham Lincoln in one way or other on a daily basis. 

The Seated Lincoln, Grant Park, Chicago
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1908
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the consensus opinion of our sixteenth president in the Northern states is extremely positive, in some cases, bordering on veneration. As I mentioned in my original post on Confederate memorials, public monuments reflect a community's deeply held values. That goes for small objects of devotion as well as for great works of public art. In the United States, north of the Mason-Dixon Line that is, with the exception of Jesus, there is probably no human being who is more represented in images, monuments, or objects named in honor of him, than Abraham Lincoln.

It goes without saying that the relative lack of representations of Lincoln in the South, is a good indication of how they feel about him. In the North, most of us view Lincoln as the great Emancipator, the defender of the Union, and our greatest president. In the South, Lincoln is viewed (by some), as a racist, a tyrant, and a war criminal. Lincoln in some measure, depending upon your point of view,all of those things. Like all great historical figures, Abraham Lincoln's legacy is complicated. 

The linchpin of all the issues that led to the American Civil War was slavery. Defenders of the Confederacy as well as conservative critics of Lincoln, take great pains to minimize the issue, holding that the main reason for the southern states to secede from the Union, was not slavery, but the alleged violation by President Lincoln and his administration, of the principles laid forth by the founding fathers, that discouraged a strong central government, over the rights of the individual states. 

It's true that you will find in some of the Articles of Secession of the states of the Confederacy, mentions of unfair tariffs, taxes and other perceived over-reaches of the federal government. But he issue of slavery is mentioned in each and every Confederate state's declaration of independence from the United States. Some expressed concern about the expansion of slavery in the West, others, the violence brought upon by abolitionists, others, their economy's dependence on slaves, while others still expressed their concern about the refusal of northern states to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act by returning escaped slaves apprehended in their jurisdiction, to their southern owners.

While he considered the institution of slavery abhorrent, Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He understood that the agrarian economy of the South depended upon its slaves, and that the constitution (rightly or wrongly) protected the institution. In a letter to a Kentucky newspaperman,
Albert C. Hodges, dated April 4, 1864, Lincoln wrote this:

The Young Lincoln, Senn Park, Chicago
Charles Keck, c. 1945
I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgement and feeling. It was the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power.  
But Lincoln also believed that while the Constitution provided for the maintenance of slavery as it existed at the time of its writing, it did not provide for the expansion of the institution into new territories soon to become states. There is good evidence to back up the idea that the Civil War could have been prevented if the southern states had not "gone ape shit" (as a responder to one of the internet forums I read so delicately put it), over the expansion of slavery into the new territories. The general theory of the writer is that slavery in the South would have eventually died a natural death, just as it had in the northern states in the four score plus years since the founding of this nation. Had the southern states gone along with restricting slavery to the South, Lincoln, so the theory goes, would have been happy with the status quo and be willing to wait for slavery do die out on its own.

Detail of The Chicago Lincoln
Lincoln Square, Chicago
Avard Fairbanks, 1956
Abraham Lincoln did not believe that whites and blacks were equal. He did not advocate for the enfranchisement of African American people until late in the Civil War when he asked that black war veterans be given the right to vote. He thought the idea of people of the two races living together was untenable, and proposed the solution to that problem after abolition, was to send former slaves back to their ancestral home in Africa.

What about his role as the Great Emancipator? Well truth be told, the Emancipation Proclamation was an act brought forth by the War. Simply put, while Lincoln was not by any means a supporter of slavery, the Proclamation was a pragmatic move on the president's part to disrupt the Confederate war effort by inspiring slave rebellions, and recruiting black soldiers in the South to fight against the Confederacy. Slaves in border states supporting the Union, including Maryland resident Philip Reid who cast the Statue of Freedom which sits atop the US Capitol Dome, would not be freed until the end of the war.

Lincoln took executive powers to places it had never been and in some cases, hasn't been since. He famously suspended the writ of habeas corpus, meaning that suspects could be arrested and held without charge for an indefinite length of time, typically the duration of the war. He called up an army of 75,000 men without congressional approval. He shut down newspapers that printed negative editorials about him. He had demonstrators arrested. The list goes on and on. Tyrant was one of the milder terms used to describe Abraham Lincoln by his critics.

Of course the biggest gripe against Lincoln is that he was largely responsible for a war that would take 700,000 lives, the greatest number of Americans killed in any war, and he signed off on horrific tactics that caused tremendous devastation to the civilian population of the South.

Return Visit, Pioneer Court, Chicago
Seward Johnson, 2016
Historical figures are seldom one dimensional, because at the very nature of human existence is the struggle over the rights, needs and desires of disparate peoples. If Abraham Lincoln's motives were not pure, it was because he was a practical man who understood that good will alone could not save the nation. His primary concern, if you believe him, was the preservation of the Union. Despite claims to the contrary from the South, Lincoln firmly believed that secession was not a right guaranteed the states by the constitution. (After the war, that belief was confirmed by the Supreme Court.) Why then did he not seek legal redress to the issue rather than go to war(?) ask his critics. Well the answer to that question is obvious. As the Confederates by seceding from the Union effectively formed their own government, they clearly would not have recognized any decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Lincoln the Railsplitter, Garfield Park, Chicago
Charles Mulligan, 1911
That slavery was a secondary issue to Lincoln cannot be denied. Judging by the standards of our day and age, Lincoln's hesitancy to abolish slavery outright, and his general feelings about black people, are lamentable. But then, Abraham Lincoln was a man of his time, not ours. The bottom line is that an abominable institution was lost by the end of the Civil War, but not before nearly three quarters of a million people perished on the battlefield, and an untold number off of it. The union was reunited, but the hatred and division exist to this day. Lincoln admirers in both the North and the South suggest that had he not been assassinated just five days after the end of the Civil War, perhaps he could have helped heal the wounds that linger to this day. We will never know. 

A great symbol of our current division is the issue of what to do with our Civil War monuments. The argument to remove monuments to the Confederacy last month in New Orleans, and just this week in St. Louis, is that these symbols of the lost cause of slavery have no place in the diverse culture of 21st century America. The argument for leaving them where they stand is that while they may be offensive to particular groups of people, they are a part of history, and by removing them, we are denying our past.
As I've written in these last two posts, there are lots of things not to like about the Civil War heroes immortalized by monuments throughout the north. William Sherman and Phillip Sheridan both inflicted indescribable horrors in their campaigns against the people of the south. Their actions were authorised by Abraham Lincoln and Commander-in-Chief of the Union army, Ulysses S. Grant. On top of that, Sheridan waged illegal and unjustified war against Native American people in the West, under the watch of then President Grant. Before the Civil War, and his conversion to a supporter of human rights, John A. Logan sponsored legislation barring African American people from settling in the state of Illinois. And Abraham Lincoln was not altogether the great champion of the rights of black people that he is often portrayed. 

A question worth asking ourselves is this, if we take down all the statues of Confederate heroes in the South because they are offensive to particular groups of people, as many suggest, would it also make sense to remove the statues of Union heroes in the North? 

Bas-relief portrait of Lincoln in terra cotta
Sulzer Library, Chicago
Artist unknown, c. 1922
In light of the current removal of monuments in New Orleans and St. Louis, I expect to see a movement in the near future, petitioning that at least some of the statues up north, especially the ones of the more controversial figures like Phillip Sheridan, be removed from their public perches. Sheridan's Chicago monument has already been obscured by decorative trees planted in front of the sightline of the statue. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before the superb equestrian work, the creation of the same artist who carved the faces of four presidents on Mount Rushmore, will be taken off of public view. If that happens, the best case scenario is that it will end up in a museum, The worst, well, your guess is as good as mine.

It's a difficult and valid question. Some might suggest as a compromise, we could trade one Ulysses S. Grant for a Robert E. Lee, a Phil Sheridan for a Stonewall Jackson, and an Abe Lincoln for a Jeff Davis.

Personally I hope it doesn't come to that. There is no one size fits all solution to the problem of when monuments and the values of the community are no longer in synch. One solution, seen in New Orleans and St. Louis, is simply remove the offending monuments. Another one, suggested by the mayor of Richmond, VA, is to put the monuments in context, perhaps by installing didactic plaques describing the ins and outs of the person being depicted, why he's there, and why some people think he should not be. It may be a cumbersome solution but at the very least, it gets people to think about history.

The best for last, Abraham Lincoln, (Lincoln the Man, or The Standing Lincoln), Lincoln Park, Chicago
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1887
William Tecumseh Sherman famously remarked that "war is hell." The same can be said about history. It is truly disheartening to come to the realization that our heroes are not necessarily all they were cracked up to be, and that our villains weren't necessarily as evil as we made them out to be. They were after all, only human beings, just like the rest of us.

The following is an excerpt from a biography of the architect John Wellborn Root, written by his sister-in-law Harriet Monroe. This marvelous passage describes a fourteen year old's experience of war, and his brush with none other than General Sherman himself, as he marched his troops into the youngster's home of Atlanta. Much to the boy's surprise, the Sherman he viewed with his own eyes was neither the devil incarnate that he expected, nor the Augustus Saint-Gaudens version of him in Central Park:
Broken shells were children's playthings, and the two great armies playing their mighty game throughout that hot July made pretty fireworks on the mountain by night and dim smoky lines by day. The dreadful drama grew so familiar that people forgot it and even boys learned to keep out of range or to tempt danger, as boys will, careless of the present and fearful only of the Yankee monsters who might burn the city soon and massacre its inhabitants. For the negroes filled young minds with imaginary terrors, and pictured General Sherman as the giant of the fairy tale. I have often heard John tell of the entrance into the city of "Old Tecumseh," the ruthless conqueror about whose head the boy, in spite of fourteen years of wisdom, vaguely expected to find traces of this lurid halo of horror. But neither the glory nor the terror of war lodged in this grim, battered warrior, unwashed, unshaven, shabbily clad from soft hat to dusty top boots, who raised the Stars and Stripes over Atlanta and marched on to the sea.
I stand by my original statement that the future of Civil War monuments in both the South and the North must be decided by the communities where they stand, and not by the public at large, because it is the values of the community that are reflected in those monuments; they are the ones that must live with and answer for them. I truly respect what the mayor of New Orleans recently said in defense of removing his city's statues. But having given it a great deal of thought since he made his remarks, my preference at the moment, for what its worth, would be to follow the suggestion of the mayor of Richmond, and leave the statues where they stand, but putting them in proper context. The recent hubbub over these monuments is stirring the pot of history. It's getting us to talk about our past in hopefully a constructive way, which is a good thing. Leaving the statues where they stand, disturbing as they are to some, creates a dialogue about history, about who we are, where we've come from, and hopefully where we're going as a people.

Putting them behind lock and key, out of sight and out of mind, does none of that.

History can be a difficult thing. We should embrace that, not shy away from it.


BACK TO PART I

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Not Likely to Find the Likes of These Folks Down South

They say "history is written by the victors", but that doesn't seem to apply to the American Civil War. If you go down south, in practically every city, town, hamlet, you name it, in any municipality that can claim 100 souls or more it seems, you will find monuments to the leaders of a lost cause. Good luck on the other hand, finding tributes to the sixteenth and eighteenth presidents of the United States. Of course the reverse is true north of the Mason Dixon Line.

The issue of Confederate monuments has gotten a lot of press recently as the city of New Orleans removed four of their century old monuments. Gone from the Crescent City are likenesses of Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard, Robert E. Lee, and one monument to a white supremacist attack on an integrated police force.

Frankly, for this Yankee anyway, it's a little disconcerting to travel down South and see these tributes to a cause that I find indefensible. I can only imagine how African American people feel about them. Until about twenty years ago, it hadn't occurred to me that the feeling was mutual for visitors here, up from the South.

My friend in New York relayed the story of giving a tour of Central Park to a group of cadets from the Citadel Military Academy of South Carolina, led by the Commandant of the school. When they came upon the massive Augustus Saint-Gaudens monument to General William Tecumseh Sherman in Grand Army Plaza in the southeast corner of the park, the Commandant expressed indignance. Looking up at the statue of Sherman on horseback, led by a female allegorical figure on foot, the Commandant said to my friend: "there's a Yankee for you, riding while the lady walks." It wasn't the affront to chivalry that really offended that Southern gentleman. Sherman is most famous (or infamous, depending upon your point of view), for leading the Savannah Campaign, which left a trail of death and destruction between the cities of Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia between November and December of 1864. The campaign known popularly as "Sherman's March to the Sea" destroyed not only military targets, but infrastructure, industry, and civilian property, in a scorched earth policy designed to completely paralyse and demoralize the Confederate war effort and its citizens. It was a humiliation that has not been forgotten to this day, and of all the Union political and military leaders, in the minds of most Southerners, there is a special place in hell reserved for William Tecumseh Sherman.

As I mentioned in my piece last month about New Orleans and its statues, there is a slippery slope when it comes to removing monuments that are offensive to some people, namely, where will it end? As we just saw, the New York statue of General Sherman is highly objectionable to many Southerners. Should it  be removed?

What about Chicago's Civil War statues? These are some of our most treasured historical and architectural landmarks, memorializing men whose actions saved the Union and forever put to rest, in this nation anyway, the shameful institution of slavery. But in the process, these men also wrought considerable pain and destruction to a good many Americans.

The men memorialized by major public works of art in Chicago, all had significant ties to Illinois. Here's part of their story and their Chicago monuments:

John A. Logan
General John Logan Memorial, Grant Park, 1897
Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Alexander Proctor

One of Chicago's greatest works of public sculpture is the equestrian statue of Politician/General John A. Logan in Grant Park. The statue, dedicated in 1897, sits atop a prominent mound in the middle of a half-mile lawn corridor, making General Logan and his horse the focal point of the southwestern quadrant of the park. The sculpture is the work of two artists, Alexander Phimister Proctor who is responsible for the horse, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens who created the likeness of the General. The mound and pedestal are the work of architect Stanford White.

Judging from his provenance, you wouldn't assume John A. Logan would have become both a hero in the cause for the Union, and an advocate for civil rights. Hailing from Southern Illinois where sentiments were likely to fall on the side of the Confederacy, before the Civil War, Logan was a Douglas Democrat, not at all sympathetic to the cause of abolition. As a state senator, he fought for, and won legislation banning free African Americans from settling in the State of Illinois. He also actively upheld the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which compelled northern "free" states to send captured slaves back to their masters. Like Steven Douglas, Logan was hesitant to support taking up arms against the Confederacy after several southern states seceded from the Union. Logan remained resolute, even after the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter. S.C. on April 12, 1861. Unlike Douglas, who believed that Americans had one of two choices, either to be a patriot in the service of the country, or a traitor, Logan was still on the fence, preferring negotiation to taking up arms against fellow Americans, many of whom were friends and acquaintances.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Logan slowly and painfully adopted the position that negotiation was not working and the rebellion needed to be forcibly put down. While still a US Congressman from the state of Illinois, Logan entered the army in the rank of colonel. where he organized the 31st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment which served under his command. Despite being derided by professional soldiers such as General Sherman who had a deep founded mistrust of politicians, Logan served with distinction serving in the Western Theater under Ulysses S. Grant, in the Battle of Belmont and at Fort Donelson, where he received nearly fatal wounds.
Stanford White's mound was originally intended to be the final resting place
of General John A. Logan. Instead is is buried in Washington DC.
After that ordeal, Logan resigned his congressional seat and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. Logan's military fortunes advanced along with those of Grant as the war continued on, eventually rising to the rank of major general. During the War, Logan made a 180 degree ideological shift. He broke with his fellow Democrats who advocated a cessation of hostilities and peace with the Confederacy by allowing the Southern States to break with the Union, thereby preserving the institution of slavery, and a fractured country. Logan while still a Democrat in name only, put all his efforts in campaigning throughout his home state for the re-election bid of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln carried Illinois in that election, even the southern portion of the state, in no small measure because of the help of John Logan.

Logan's 21 remaining years were spent once again in politics, but this time as a Radical Republican. He was elected to three terms in the House, then appointed U.S. Senator to fill a vacancy. By that time his ideological conversion was complete and for the rest of his life, John A. Logan, far ahead of many of his peers, was a staunch advocate for the rights of African Americans, including their right to vote, which would not be granted in some parts of the country, for nearly one hundred years.

Phillip Sheridan
General Philip Henry Sheridan Monument, Lincoln Park, 1923
Gutzon Birglum

Another major factor in the re-election of Abraham Lincoln in 1864, was a glorious military victory in the Shenandoah Valley, just spitting distance from Washington DC. In one of the most dynamic public monuments of Chicago, sculptor Gutzon Borglum depicts General Phillip Sheridan aboard his horse Rienzi, rallying his troops who were in the midst a surprise middle-of-the-night attack from Confederate forces.

"Sheridan's Ride" is the stuff of legend. Finding himself twenty miles away from his army who was in the midst of the Shenandoah Campaign, Sheridan was awakened by the sound of artillery fire. He mounted his steed and made it to the front lines so fast that, in the words of one of his staff, "the devil himself could not have kept up." When he got there, he found his army in full retreat. Up and down the lines he rode, motivating and rallying his troops, reportedly telling them, "we're going back to our camp tonight boys, I'm sleeping in my own bed or I'm sleeping in hell." By four PM that day, Sheridan had reorganized his army and mounted a counter-attack against the Confederate army who had foolishly taken a break from their pursuit of the Union soldiers in order to rest, and reap the spoils of war that the retreating soldiers had left behind. The re-invigorated Union army under the leadership of their pugnacious general fully routed the outnumbered Confederate army, regaining control of the Shenandoah Valley,

So much for the legend. The story behind the Shenandoah campaign is less appealing. Ulysses S. Grant, who by that time, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army, understood that in order to win the war, it would not be enough to defeat the enemy on the battlefield, they had to destroy the enemy by eliminating its capacity to make war. This meant cutting off transportation and communication conduits, access to supplies, especially food, and demoralizing the civilian population who might assist them. The following are Grant's orders to Sheridan upon receiving his commission as commander of the Shenandoah campaign:
The people should be informed that so long as an army can subsist among them recurrences of these raids must be expected, and we are determined to stop them at all hazards...Give the enemy no rest. Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions, and negroes, so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.
Which is what they did. The following are the words of Civil War historian Jed Morrison:
Sheridan soon got to work. After several inconsequential skirmishes with (Confederate General) Early’s troops, he routed the rebels at the Battle of Third Winchester, and the follow-up Battle of Fishers Hill. Each of these engagements served to push Early deeper up the Valley. Then, in a short, violent campaign known to this day among Valley folk as, simply, the Burning, Sheridan led his troops on a 13-day rampage through the region, beginning on Sept. 26. The swath of destruction spanned 70 miles long and 30 wide. The men were ordered to spare homes, empty barns, the property of widows, single women and orphans, and to refrain from looting – but everything else was fair game.
Morrison's essay went easy on the Union troops. Sometimes, perhaps more often than most Yankees are willing to admit, the houses, and empty barns, the widows, single women and the orphans, were not spared the wrath of over-zealous soldiers and officers who didn't share the moral outrage about waging war on civilians of some of their peers. This was total war, and the Shenandoah Campaign would be the precursor to Sherman's March to the Sea. The devastating strategy worked, in less than a year, the Civil War would be over, at least officially. In the hearts and minds of many Southerners, it never ended.

Sheridan, the career soldier, indeed had a prolific career after the Civil War. He was sent to assemble a force along the US/Mexico border to help pressure France to give up their occupation of Mexico. He was called upon to help restore order in the Southern States during the period of Reconstruction. He was headquartered in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire and ordered buildings dynamited to help stop the spread of the conflagration. Fearing mob insurrection after the Fire, Mayor Roswell Mason called for marshal law in his devastated city. Under the objections of Illinois governor John M. Palmer, Sheridan assembled a militia of so called peacemakers, mostly green army recruits, to patrol the streets. The general consensus is that in their eagerness for action, Sheridan's militia wreaked more havoc upon Chicago than did private citizens. 

Sheridan was particularly ruthless in his dealings with Native Americans during the "Indian Wars" of the 1870s. President Grant named him head of the US Army's Department of the Missouri, the administration charged with the task of keeping the Plains Indians from straying from their ever diminishing reservations. Inspired by the scorched earth policy that he used in the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan attacked non-complying Indians where they were most vulnerable, during winter when the people needed to protect their food supplies. Sheridan placed the blame on the suffering of women, children and the elderly brought on by these raids, on the shoulders of the leaders of their tribes for refusing to follow the rules of the treaties, forced upon them by the American government. His message to tribal leaders was clear, pragmatic, and chilling:
If you don't choose your homes now it will be too late next year,. We will build iron roads, and you cannot stop the locomotives any more than you can stop the sun or the moon.
Even white Americans were aghast by Sheridan's alleged remark that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." He went to his grave denying he said those words, but they shall forever remain a part his indelible legacy as a significant cog in our country's shameful treatment of the Native American people.


Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, Lincoln Park 1891
Louis T. Rebisso
Ulysses S. Grant

In his entry on Louis T. Rebisso's massive 1891 memorial to Ulysses S. Grant, Ira Bach in his guidebook to Chicago's Public Sculpture has this to say:
Placing a stocky man on a long-legged horse may have been an accurate portrayal but it did not produce a satisfactory work.
It seems the sculpture, like the man it pays tribute to, just doesn't get any respect. For a long time, the dope on Grant was that he was a failure at everything he did. His dad enrolled him in West Point, where he finished toward the bottom of his class. He did a stint in the Mexican War but quit the Army as soon as he could. He tried farming, that failed. Then real estate, ditto. Then he went to work at his family's tannery in Galena, Illinois, but he failed at that too. He re-entered the army after Fort Sumter and quickly found himself in command of a brigade because there were so few men with military experience in Illinois. He quickly rose through the ranks because he, a mediocre commander, was promoted over the many miserable commanders in the Union Army. The battles he won were only successful because they were battles of attrition, he simply had more men to use as cannon fodder than the other side. And of course he ordered the scorched earth policy that devastated much the South. As the 18th President of the United States, he led one of the most corrupt administrations in history. And he was a drunk to boot.

That assessment, which dominated historical thought for one hundred years is partly true. But those of us living in the age of "fake news" can understand that the real U.S. Grant has got to be more complicated than that. After all, drunken failures don't win wars and go on to become President of the United States. Attesting to the fallacy that history is written only by the winners, the above account of Grant is a piece of revisionist history created during the Reconstruction era predominantly by writers with Confederate sympathies.

It's true that Grant's rise to greatness was born out of failure. At the Battle of Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee. Grant, who gained a reputation as a no-nonsense, tenacious leader, quickly moved up the ranks, commanding the Union Army of the Tennessee. While encamped at Pittsburgh Landing, Grant received orders from his immediate commander to remain encamped until a division of re-enforcement troops could arrive to augment the 45,000 already there. Meanwhile Grant had his green soldiers out in the open, practicing battle formations rather than digging in, preparing themselves for possible attack. That attack came on April 6, 1862, when the Confederates, under the command of P.T. Beauregard and Albert Sidney Johnston caught the Yanks off guard and overtook five divisions of Grant's army, forcing them into retreat. When the re-enforcements arrived the following morning, Grant regrouped his forces and retook the encampment, driving the Confederates back. Grant was brutally criticized for the original blunder and the tremendous casualties suffered at Shiloh which numbered around 25,000 on both sides. Unsubstantiated rumors surfaced that Grant was drunk at the time of the attack. The matter of what to do with Grant went all the way up to President Lincoln who had been frustrated with the lack of initiative among his top commanders. On Grant, Lincoln remarked, "I can't spare this man; he fights." Great returned to his command and went on lead his forces to vital strategic victories, the most significant of which were at Vicksburg and Chattanooga.

After Chattanooga, Lincoln promoted Grant to the top spot in the Union Army, answering only to the president himself. The president wanted a decisive victory, and he wanted it fast. Grant called upon his generals, Sherman, Sheridan and the rest, to finish the job by any means possible, even if it wouldn't be pretty or popular. We saw the results above.

As president, Grant oversaw the period of Reconstruction, another bone of contention in the South. His predecessor Andrew Johnson, against the wishes of Congress, at the time controlled by the Radical Republicans, trod lightly over the feelings of defeated Southerners. He vetoed any bill that came before him that granted the enfranchisement and other civil rights of freed slaves. In response, Congress passed new laws, restricting the office of president. When Johnson violated one of these laws, Republicans in the House, led by John A. Logan, filed eleven articles of impeachment against the president. Johnson hung onto his job by the slimmest of margins, one vote in the Senate.  In stark contrast, Grant supported the Enforcement Acts passed by Congress, that stipulated the federal government had the authority to step in wherever civil rights of African American people, including the right to vote, to serve on juries, to hold political office, and to receive equal protection under the law, were not upheld by the states. Needless to say, that did not sit well with the white population of the South. Adding to their resentment was the influence of Northerners who moved south after the war, some of whom gained considerable political influence, ostensibly to help along the policies of Reconstruction. Southerners saw these "carpetbaggers" as opportunists, taking advantage of their vanquished home, motivated by personal gain.

Reconstruction ended after the Democrats took over Congress and with that, many of the post-Civil War reforms in the South were swept under the rug. This was the period that gave birth to the "Cult of the Lost Cause" reviving memories of the glory days of the Confederacy. It was the time when the monuments to Confederate heroes were constructed, and when much of the negative press about Ulysses S. Grant was generated. Most significantly, it was the beginning of a particularly bleak period of misery and injustice for African American people.

Grant's legacy as president is a checkered one. The charges of corruption by members of his administration are well founded, but they never made their way up to the top. In his defense, Grant, a scrupulous and honest man, was a soldier, not a politician. As such, he made poor political decisions, trusting the wrong people to run his administration. He showed great compassion and concern for the rights of African American people in the South, but was criticized in the North for not doing enough to stem the tide of the Ku Klux Klan, and other white terrorist groups who formed after the Civil War. Despite the good intentions, in the end, Reconstruction was an unmitigated failure as far as bringing justice to African American people. His dealings with Native Americans are even more ambiguous. While publicly he professed concern about the plight of indigenous American people and pledged to make peace with them, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, he illegally violated treaties, by opening up that sacred land belonging to the Lakota people, to gold prospecting. The actions of his administration brought about the bloodiest Indian war in the West.

Grant served two full terms as president, declining to put his hat into the ring for the 1876 election. More failure lay in store as he lost most of his and his family's investments in a ponzi scheme. He spent the last years of his life trying to recoup that money by writing his memoirs which were published by Mark Twain. Grant died shortly after the memoirs were written, but the two volume set, of detailed accounts mostly of the Civil War was a tremendous success.

Ulysses S. Grant will forever be judged, not by his presidency, but in his role as commander-in-chief of the Union Army at the close of the Civil War. When he met with General Lee in the courthouse in Appomattox, VA. Grant's terms were unconditional surrender. Beyond that, Lee and his generals could have easily been charged with treason and hanged. Instead, Grant, recognizing the need for healing, allowed the defeated leaders of a lost cause to walk away from that courthouse with their dignity intact, and their swords still in their scabbards.

Grant won the war, but at a great cost. His decision to wage war against the people of the South was much like Harry Truman's decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan. It was total war, total destruction, in order to end the conflict, and all the killing, once and for all. It was a terrible decision to have to make, one that would forever demonize Grant in the eyes of most Southerners, but one that had to be made. Ulysses S. Grant, like Truman, accepted full responsibility for that call.

It had to be a lonely existence for him, living with the consequences of his decisions. I can't say that I agree with Ira Bach's assessment of Chicago's Grant Monument. Mounted aboard a passive animal, Grant and his horse sit alone, proud but not haughty, overlooking Lincoln Park and Lake Shore Drive. Horse and rider stand atop a massive Romanesque base making the monument visible from a good distance from many directions. The monument, imposing as it may seem, is quietly dignified. I can't think of a more fitting tribute to a good man who left behind a complicated legacy.


Then there's the most complicated character of them all, perhaps the most divisive president we've ever had, present company included.


ON TO PART II

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

The recent brouhaha over this summer's New York City Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar begs the question: can people really be that stupid?

OK I know things have been touchy, especially since Republican congressman Steve Scalise was shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter last week. The Trumpers are taking full advantage of the unfortunate incident to promote their world view that Democrats, liberals, progressives, Trump detractors, in other words, all the people who are destroying this country, are entirely responsible for the acrimony that is currently dividing the land. Then comes this Fox News report: New York is staging a play where an actor dressed as Donald Trump is assassinated at the end of the play. Given that limited information, even I would be appalled. Much as I can't stand Trump and all he stands for, I cringe at any suggestion that the president of the United States could or should be assassinated.


But let's get real, this is William Shakespeare. His Julius Caesar is a 400 year old play that everyone in this country with a high school education should at least be tacitly familiar with. For starters, there has been a long standing tradition of producers taking liberties with the staging and timelines of Shakespeare's plays. Then there's the work itself; the title character, no matter who he is dressed up to look like, doesn't get assassinated at the end of the play, but smack dab in the middle. The rest of  Julius Caesar deals with the consequences of the assassination. Things don't work out so well for the the conspirators, for Rome, or whatever government the producers wish to evoke, or in fact, for democracy. The play is after all, a tragedy, at least if you're paying attention.

The moral of the story, expressed in Cliffs Notes fashion that one would think, everyone should be able to understand is this: "be careful what you wish for."

Given that, the genius of producing the play with Caesar dressed as Trump, sends a not too subtle message to Trump detractors, myself included, that perhaps our single-minded obsession with the premature termination of this presidency by any means, needs to be re-examined.

That point was lost on many Fox viewers, (aka Trump supporters), who saw the on-stage murder of a character who looked like Trump, as a credible call to assassinate the president. At least two major corporate sponsors pulled the plug on their support of The Public Theater, the producers of the play. Even Shakespeare himself is taking a hit. Taking a cue from the president, who is himself chronologically challenged, repertory theaters around the country have been receiving threats from right wing nut jobs, because they too produce plays by that no good leftist snowflake known as "the Bard".

The nonsense started to calm down a bit after conservative media star Laura Ingraham tweeted: "How many would storm the stage if Obama was stabbed?" As many were quick to point out, in 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis staged a production of Julius Caesar where the title character was indeed dressed up to look like Barack Obama. Hardly anyone complained. It turns out that Delta Airlines, one of the sponsors who pulled the plug on their contributions to The Public Theater, continues to support the Guthrie, despite its alleged affront to the former president.

After it became clear that the hysterics were unjustified, with egg on their face, many of the play's detractors wisely dropped the subject.

But there are still folks out there who just don't, or won't get it. Here is a New Yorker article about a pair of right wing activists who disrupted the New York play during the murder scene. Not surprising, right wing commentators including Ingraham, and Donald Trump's personal lap dog, Fox's Sean Hannity, support the hecklers, proclaiming their removal from the theater, and subsequent arrest for trespassing and disorderly conduct, is a violation of the pair's "freedom of speech."

It just so happens that the other day was the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. I watched a TV documentary made by Robert Redford commemorating the event. It got me thinking about Richard Nixon and his fall from grace. Those of us who remember him tend to think of Nixon in broad generalities, his arms raised above his head while both hands give the "V" for victory salute, his head shake, his scowl, and his unfortunate, most famous quote, "I am not a crook." But Nixon was a very complicated man who accomplished a great deal of good, along with the bad, during his presidency. His fall was indeed as they say, "Shakespearian". I'm no expert on the Bard but I'm certain that you can find comparisons in many of his characters, King Richard II perhaps, or one of the King Henrys, to Richard Nixon.

Trump is not complicated in the least and is anything but Shakespearian. He's more like a cartoon villain. The one that comes immediately to mind is Snidley Wiplash, the mustachioed archenemy of the aptly named Royal Canadian Mountie, Dudley Do-Right from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. OK I'm dating myself, another one that comes to mind is Mr. Burns, the ancient robber-barron owner of the local nuclear power plant on The Simpsons. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Trump views the greedy, narcissistic Mr. Burns as a role model.

On the other hand, Shakespeare has Caesar say this shortly before he is murdered:
I could be well moved, if I were as you.
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.
But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks;
They are all fire and every one doth shine.
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: 'tis furnished well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive.
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he
Let me a little show it, even in this:
That I was constant Cimber should be banished,
And constant do remain to keep him so.
Come to think of it, didn't the Donald say something very similar, in not so many words, at the Republican convention in Cleveland last summer?
I alone can fix it.
Maybe there is something to this Trump/Caesar comparison after all.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Catastrophe and Catharsis

During WWII, my father was a forced laborer from Czechoslovakia, working and living in Berlin. Late in his life I talked to him in depth about what certainly had to be a harrowing experience, enduring not only the loss of his freedom, forced exile in the country that brutally occupied his own, and life under a tyrannical dictatorship, but also living in a city under constant bombardment courtesy of the Americans by day, and the British by night. "Oh it wasn't so bad..." he told me with a wry smile, "...I was a young man living in a city where all its male citizens were off at war." He didn't have to fill in the details.

Talk about making the best of a bad situation.

I thought of this the other day as I was doing some reading about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Through all the tremendous devastation and loss of life*, the city not only recovered, but it prospered. Only the hiccup of a nation-wide panic and brief depression in 1873 and 1874, prevented the city from being rebuilt in half a decade. By 1880 there was barely a trace of the fire at all.

"Chicago in Flames" The Great Fire of 1871
Hand colored Lithograph based upon a sketch by John R. Chapin
published by  Currier & Ives
That's not to say there was not great suffering for the survivors, many of whom with little or no resources found their lives would be never return to normal. Many Chicago Fire survivors left the city never to return. But far more came than left. Like my father who saw an opportunity and seized upon it in Berlin, people saw the tremendous opportunity of being part of rebuilding the devastated Chicago. Between the years 1870 and 1880, the population of the city nearly doubled to half a million residents. Ten years later, over one million people called Chicago home.

I've often thought about what Chicago would be like today had it not been for the fire. Mark Twain had the same thought 134 years ago:
New Orleans, I believe, has had the good luck--and in a sense the bad luck-- to have had no great fire in late years. It must be so. If the opposite had been the case, I think one would be able to tell the 'burnt district' by the radical improvement in its architecture over the old forms. One can do this in Boston and Chicago. 
In 1891, a writer for the journal Industrial Chicago put it more succinctly:
Those fires were fortunate events for the Garden City as a whole, and none profited directly from them, so much as art and architects,  for the flames swept away forever the greater number of monstrous libels on artistic house-building, while only destroying the few noble buildings of which Old Chicago could boast.
Would Chicago really be a much different place today without the Fire? After all, the die was cast for the contemporary city well before October of 1871. By then, all rail lines in the Midwest led to Chicago. At the same time, the Illinois/Michigan Canal was still operating, the only water transportation conduit between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The grain elevators and the commodities exchanges, both invented here, that would forever change the way farmers got their product to market, were well established by the 1870s and would be back up and running in a nick of time. Chicago as the transportation hub of the midwest, was already a major center of manufacturing, and much of that was untouched by the Fire.

By 1871, much of the physical layout of Chicago had already been established. The massive undertaking of raising the street grade was well underway. Chicago's property lots and rigorous street grid had been conceived, if not already established throughout town, and the boulevard greenway system and parks that would ring what were at the time Chicago's city limits had begun to take shape. Thanks to Potter Palmer and his speculative investments, State Street became the main commercial street of Chicago, taking the place of Lake Street, and with that, the major axis of the city turned ninety degrees from east/west to north/south, following the lakefront.

The major obstacle to the practical construction of tall buildings was overcome in 1864 as the first steam driven elevator was installed in Chicago in the Charles B. Farwell Store in Wabash Avenue. That alone did not solve the second obstacle, making elevators safe enough for people to want to ride in them. Great steps were made in that direction in 1870 when the first hydraulic elevator was initialed in the Burley and Company Warehouse on West Lake Street. We know that those contraptions became accepted, albeit hesitantly by the general public from the accounts of people being rescued from stalled lifts in Chicago's posh hotels during the Fire.

Chicago is known around the world for its innovative architecture, especially in regards to the construction of tall, commercial buildings. As the Mark Twain and Industrial Chicago quotes sited above suggest, we have the Great Fire to thank for that. But is that true?

Once the elevator became commonplace, the urge to cram as much rentable space into a single lot became inevitable, especially in the highly valuable property of the central business district. The race to build taller buildings was well underway before that famous blaze began near Mrs. O'Leary's barn after that long hot, dry summer of 1871.

On top of that, most of the architects who would create the new architecture that became known as the Commercial Style or the Chicago School of Architecture, including Dankmar AdlerWilliam HolabirdMartin Roche, and Daniel Burnham already lived in Chicago as young men at the time of the Great Fire. With the exception of Adler, all of these future shapers of Chicago's built environment came through in one capacity or other, the office of William LeBaron Jenney, who before the Fire was responsible for among other things, the original design of the three great West Side parks, Humboldt, Central (later named Garfield) and Douglas, and the boulevards that connected them.

The earlier generation of architects responsible for many of the buildings of the pre-fire city, most notably John van Osdel and William Boyington were still active and quite busy after the Fire. The tallest buildings in Chicago until 1895, were the works of those two architects. In fact Chicago, the Second City which sprung up almost as soon as the ruins from the fire to began cool down, didn't look all that different from the First City. You can see for yourself as a number of 1870s post-fire buildings still exist, many of them concentrated just north of the River on Clark and Wells Streets. There you can still find in tact, buildings graced by Italianate facades that were the fashion of the day, before and after the fire.

So as we've seen, the groundwork for the Chicago we know today was clearly laid well before the Chicago Fire. Would it then be reasonable to say that the Fire was a mere setback, delaying what would have been the inevitable development of the current city?

Author Ross Miller in his book The Great Chicago Fire, argues no, the conflagration was in fact Chicago's seminal moment, a catharsis that allowed the city to wash away all its past mistakes, and start from scratch, enabling Chicago to become much greater city.

Barely four decades old at the  time of the fire, Chicago was already developing bad habits. The insatiable lust for instant profit meant little attention was given toward the future.

The children of the the pioneers who settled this city, the folks whose names you see streets named after, as so often is the case, became used to a comfortable life with little sense of obligation:
Seen from a  distance, pioneers like Butler and Ogden became models of respectability, combining Eastern education with the demands of Western settlement, They became the Chicago establishment. Set up in fine houses and rich enough for philanthropy, Chicago's first generation had time for pieties and church-going. Fortunes already in hand, they looked for ways to spend their money and perpetuate their newly minted good reputations. Their sons and daughters, with the pressure of making money removed, lacked any direction. ... Playboys and dilettantes, especially before the fire, appeared to be Chicago's legacy. 
The fire was a truly democratic catastrophe, it wiped out the homes of the rich and the poor alike. Of course with greater resources at their disposal, the rich had a far easier time to get back on their feet, but the fire created a bond between people living in Chicago in October 1871, those who lived anyway. They had all been tested by fire, and survived. Consequently, the term "Chicagoan" gained currency throughout the world. Quoting from the introduction to Robert Cromie's book of the same title, Miller throws in this tidbit:
You could tell a Chicagoan in any city of the world, for he would not talk a minute, scarcely until he would let you know he was from Chicago.
Before the Fire, outrageous land speculation led to tremendous fortunes won but mostly lost. Shoddy construction, haphazard building techniques, and simple lack of attention to detail, led to a city that was an eight square mile tinderbox, a disaster waiting to happen.
On a strictly economic and political basis, Chicago in the months and years after the fire could be shown to have made a startling correction for four decades of nearly random, unplanned development, ...Real estate speculators who had suffered severe losses might in the future be less reckless; their buildings would be made of better materials. The fire because it "checked the too rapid rebuilding of the city in all directions", would lead to a rebuilding of the city's central business district. In addition, by getting rid of failing or marginal businesses, the fire could be seen as a purifying act.
A fitting metaphor could be the fires that periodically sweep through the Midwestern prairies, ridding the land of dead plants and providing nutrients to the soil to insure strong and healthy new growth. Chicago of course, is built upon those very prairies.

Just as the fire's tremendous devastation was made possible by a great storm of concurrent unfortunate events, the recovery of the city was made possible because it came precisely at the crossroads of 19th century technological innovation and creativity.
Out of necessity, the city was compelled to welcome experimentation. Chicago was burned out of an earlier and relatively primitive form of industrialization into the most modern. In this environment, techniques that might have remained dormant under normal conditions of urban growth were perfected and them rigorously tested. 
Finally, it there is any doubt that the fire inexorably altered the direction of the course of this city, take a good look at the list of Chicago architects who lived in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire. They represent an honor roll of builders who shaped the look of the city in the last half of the 19th Century and beyond. But there are two prominent names missing from that list, both of whom came to Chicago because of the Fire.

They are Louis Sullivan and John Wellborn Root.

I'll deal with them in my next post in my series on the tall buildings of Chicago.


* Until fairly recent times, city-destroying conflagrations were not uncommon. What is something of a mystery is the very unpredictable death rate caused by such calamities. I've always assumed that the 300 or so who died in the Great Chicago Fire was a remarkably low number, given the ferociousness of the fire and the enormity of damage it left in its wake. That is until I discovered that during the Great London Fire of 1666, all of six people perished. On the other hand, during the earthquake and resulting fires in San Francisco in 1906, nearly 3,000 people died.