Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chicago, 1928

Courtesy of a fellow subscriber to a Facebook group devoted to "Forgotten Chicago", the fascinating book, Chicago in 7 Days was just brought to my attention. The book, published in 1928, was written by John Drury, a poet, writer, and later a radio host, much of whose work was based upon the Chicago scene. In the twenties and thirties he had an article in the old Chicago Daily News specializing in restaurant reviews, which becomes readily apparent when you read this little book. He was not related to the famous local TV news anchor of the same name.

Chicago in 7 Days is written as an account of a day by day tour given to a Miss Anne Morley, a self described "wide eyed visiting yokel from the Corn Belt." (We later learn that she hailed from Springfield). Day after day, the author takes Miss Morley on an exhaustive bus, streetcar, and elevated tour of the city, from the top to the very bottom. Miss Morley is shown neighborhoods where many life-long residents today wouldn't dare venture.

For example, stopping at an establishment for something to eat in the vicinity of Sacramento Avenue and Madison Street in East Garfield Park, Mr. Drury writes the following:
Because of its good food and pleasant appointments"  I explained to Miss Morley, "this place is popular with the beau monde of the far west side.
Today this area would be off limits to all but the hardiest urban pioneers and adventurers. The "beau monde" of the west or any other side for that matter, haven't been found in that part of town for years. In truth, many of the places our tour guide takes his intrepid guest would have been far off the beaten path for the average 1928 visitor as well. Hardly a stone is left unturned in their exploration of the city.

The ground rules are expressed at the outset: "We won't visit the stockyards." To our 21st Century ears, that might sound like an ironic remark, as if a gentleman would ever think of showing a young lady the brutal, mechanized killing industry that put our city on the map. On the contrary, Miss Morley is a bit put off that Chicago's number one tourist attraction at the time, might not be on her tour guide's agenda. The author puts her mind to rest, she would indeed get to visit the stockyards including its most gruesome features, but not before she saw the "fruits of our famous pioneer industries", that is to say the architecture, public works projects, and great cultural institutions that were all made possible by those industries.

There is an unabashed pride and optimism in Mr. Drury's words about this city. One can easily see the Chicago swagger and braggadoccio that is so off--putting to critics such as Rachel Shteir whose lambasting of Chicago in the guise of a book review was published in the New York Times earlier this year. That's not to say this little guidebook is a mouthpiece for the Chamber of Commerce. Far from it, Drury doesn't pull any punches, he takes Miss Morley through some of the most unflattering parts of the city, places with colorful names like Floptown, Bum Park, the Slave Market, and a place he calls simply, the "Underworld District". They visit the Western Undertaking Company which is:
particularly interesting because practically all persons who meet a sudden death in the north end of the Loop are brought here-that is, until such a time as the relatives of the deceased are located of notified by the police.
The couple visit the "Noose" Coffee Shop across from the Criminal Courts building and County Jail where the proprietor, Joe Stein:
provides meals gratis to condemned prisoners on the eve of their hanging.
Drury takes the lovely lady to Little Sicily on the near northwest side where:
at Milton and Oak Streets, we stood at Chicago's notorious "Death Corner"... where Sicilians are mysteriously shot to death every two or three weeks. And a shrug of the Sicilian shoulder is as far as the police ever get in their investigations.
And to the famous neighborhood on the south side, just west of the stockyards where in Drury's words:
in recent years, Back O' the Yards has been the scene of many gang murders and shootings, arising from the territorial disputes in distribution of illicit beer and alcohol.
In 1928 of course, the country was still under the grips of that noble experiment, Prohibition. Substitute the word "drugs" for "beer and alcohol", and he could have written those words today.

Despite the desperate conditions, Drury takes pains to point out that things were much worse in the past, that great strides were continuously being made to rectify the evils of poverty and its effcts. While walking through Floptown past the:
gnarled old men with yellow teeth, shabby young men with dirty wrinkled clothes, middle-aged men with doughy complexions, laborers, Mexicans, lumber- jacks, and drunks, 
he shows Miss Morley, Hobo College, an institution :
founded and conducted by Dr. Ben Reitman... for the betterment of the down-and-outer.
And they visited Chicago's legendary institution devoted to helping the needy of this city, the Hull House. Founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr as a settlement house and a place for social reform, the Hull House provided housing, educational opportunities and cultural activities for tens of thousands of individuals, mostly newly arrived immigrants on Chicago's west side. Unfortunately Miss Addams, who was still very much alive at the time of the writing, was not available  for a visit.

Of course not all of the seven day journey through Chicago ivolved visiting as Miss Morley called it: "how the other half lives." Starting from her base camp at the late, great downtown hotel the Sherman House, our travelers' urban excursions typically began mid-morning, and didn't end much before midnight. The first day is a whirlwind overview of the city, north, south, and west. Even the much overlooked east side is explored as the two find their all the way down to the residential neighborhood still known as "The Bush", adjacent to the now defunct United States Steel South Works plant.

Day two was devoted to Michigan Avenue (mostly south of the river), and the lakefront. It's interesting to note the contemporary sensibilities about architecture and other matters of the day. Drury singles out two specific buildings on that day's tour as "two of the world's greatest structures." His choice might come as a surprise given the number of notable Chicago buildings that were built before 1928. The first stop on the Michigan Avenue tour, number one on Mr. Drury's list of great buildings of the world, is Tribune Tower. The tower, the work of the New York architects Raymond Hood, and John Mead Howells, was selected the winner of a 1922 contest sponsored by the newspaper to build "the most beautiful office building in the world." The stiff competition included submissions from all over the world; many of them were, as was the winning entry, designed in the popular at the time, neo-Gothic style.  Drury spends several pages on the building, waxing poetically about its magnificence: the breathtaking design that makes the building appear to be reaching toward the sky yet remaining firmly planted on the ground, its cathedral-like entrance, the masterful stonework, the unforgetable view of the Chicago skyline between its flying buttresses thirty stories above the ground, and yes, he even goes on and on about the building's occupant, richly deserving in his opinion, of its self-proclaimed title: "World's Greatest Newspaper."

Surprisingly, for all the words Drury devotes to the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, directly across the street, is mentioned only in passing.

The "second burst of glory" in John Drury's collection of great buildings of the world found in Chicago, conveniently comes at the end of this particular tour sitting as it does at the other end of Michigan Avenue. My guess is that unlike Tribune Tower, this one would not rank highly on most lists of Chicago best buildings today. It's the Stevens Hotel, today known as the Hilton Chicago but best known to most long time Chicagoans as the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Its ornate Beaux Arts style,  Louis XV appointments, and especially its enormity overwhelms the visitor. These days, those of us who care about such things, marvel over the originality of the great architects of Chicago, John Root and Louis Sullivan for example. Back in the twenties, those architects' work already three decades old, was seen as "old fashioned." It was the architecture that looked back to the past for its inspiration, that was the current vogue. Another building that Mr. Drury lavishes praise upon, is the Classical Revival Elks Memorial at Lakeview and Diversey, a building well off the radar of most contemporary Chicago Architecture buffs.

Interestingly, under the heading of Architecture, the book's index lists, Classical, Colonial, Moorish, Reproduction of Parisian churches, Romanesque and Renaissance. However, the couple does explore a number of buildings that do not fit into any of those categories. These styles are described by the author as "modernistic" or "futuristic." Inside the long lost Union Station concourse, Miss Morley makes the observation:
I would say it looks unfinished...
Drury continues:
What aroused this thought in her was the appearance of square pillars of exposed fabricated steel, forming criss-crosses along the walls and lofty ceiling. "This exposed steel work," I asserted, "is an original innovation in terminal design. In fact, many of the more advanced modernistic artists claim that this is the first appearance of a typical American architecture. Because of its simplicity and directness, these artists believe that such an interior fulfills the purpose of art. They hold that art, particularly in the field of architecture, should reflect the present and not the past."
OK so Mr. Drury may have gotten his timeline a little mixed up; the appearance of a "simple", direct" and "typical" American architecture did not begin with Chicago's Union Station, not by a long shot.

Here's another passage from the couple's tour of the South Side:
Our walk then led north on Woodlawn Avenue to 58th Street.  
"What an odd-looking house," sang out Miss Morley, indicating a long, low, rambling house on the northeast corner.

"That," I replied, "is known as 'The Houseboat House because of its similarity to a boat, and is one of the show- places of the south side. It is easy to see that it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the foremost of American architects of to-day.
In case you haven't guessed it already, the house he's referring to is Robie House, one of FLW's most iconic designs. While Drury's writing on the subject may not shed much light on architectural history from a scholarly point of view, he does give us great insight into the way the average person looks at buildings, back then and today.

Miss Morley and her guide do eventually make it down to the stockyards where the visitor is at the same time repulsed and exhilarated by the goings on. "Gracious..." she says:
...the experience has a weird thrill with so much killing going on. I shall never forget it in all my life.
No sooner than the thought of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came into my head, Miss Morley brought up the muckracking novel. Always quick with the reply, her tour guide said:
"Yes," I said. "That novel caused as much of a stir when it appeared years ago as Uncle Tom's Cabin did earlier. Its expose of conditions in 'Packingtown' did much to bring about improvements in the meat-packing industry in Chicago. The deplorable conditions pictured in the novel are of course a thing of the past.
Of course.

In many parts of the book, Drury brings up Chicago's literary scene, even taking his guest to some of the hangouts of the famous writers of the time. He drops names of the likes of Theodore Dreisser, Ben Hecht, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson and others. Unfortunately, our wanderers never seem to meet up with any of these literary giants. No one would ever confuse this book with the works of the great writers whose paths crossed at some point with this town. What Drury's book lacks compared to the works of his literary idols is a critical edge and a sense of irony. Superlatives abound in desribing the assets of this city, and its problems are reported as matter-of-fact, they're little more serious than smashed bugs on a windshield. Drury even finds something positive written from perhaps the greatest cynic of all, H.L. Mencken, who wrote this on Chicago's literary scene:
In Chicago there is the mysterious something that makes for individuality, personality, charm; in Chicago a spirit broods upon the face of the waters. Find a writer who is indubitably an American in every pulse- beat, an American who has something new and pecul- iarly American to say and who says it in an unmistak- ably American way, and nine times out of ten you will find that he has some sort of connection with the gargantuan abattoir by Lake Michigan— that he was bred there, or got his start there, or passed through there in the days when he was young and tender.
No, you will not find within its pages of this book, an insightful critique of this town. That's part of its charm. It would be almost inconceivable to find such a book, even a visitor's guide, written in our own cynical age.

If you were to break open a compenprary guidebook to Chicago, you will notice the book more than likely covers only a sliver of a section of the entire city. The large swaths of "unworthy" areas are deemed so because authors and editors consider them to be short on interest and/or high in danger. Not so with Chicago in 7 Days. The greatest joy for me in reading this book was Drury's portrayal of a city of tremendous life and potential. He and his guest embark on a magnificent seven day journey exploring practically every nook and cranny of Chicago, discovering treasures in even the most banal of places. Those banal places are are woven in seamlessly with the landmarks, the places considered "worthy" of note as tourist destinations go. That in a nutshell, is the essence of what the eperience of any real city is all about.

Unfortunately, tourists in our day it would seem, are not by and large interested in exploring real cities.

Again that term, "Disneyfication" rears its ugly head. Chicago's North Michigan Avenue is a good example. In the book, Drury writes about the neighborhood then known as "Towertown", after the Water Tower. In the twenties, this was the heart of Chicago's "Bohemia" as Drury called it, referring not to ethnicity but its lifestyle. The neighborhood once abounded with cafes, nightclubs, bookshops, and art galleries, much like New York's Greenwich Village and San Franciso's North Beach back in their heydays. As its counterparts in other cities, there was a certain edge to Towertown, which only added to its appeal:
Anne saw a long, low, dimly lit room filled with swaying couples - long-haired men and short-haired women. A jazz orchestra in one corner at least provided time for the dancers. On the walls of the room my companion noted weird futuristic and impressionistic drawings and cartoons, as well as newspaper clippings and art pictures.

"This," I said, "is Bohemia in all its glory !"
This milieu would over the years combine with upscale shops making for an interesting mix. Towertown as it was, became history in the late sixties and early seventies as major projects like the John Hancock Building and Water Tower Place anchored a wave of commercial development that continues to this day. North Michigan Avenue now is Chicago's major shopping street and any trace of its "bohemian" past is long gone. As a result, the neighborhood is both perfectly safe, and perfectly bland. It's also highly successful, economically at least. It may have gained the world at the cost of losing its soul.

Chicago of the Twenties was anything but Disneyfied; it was real to the core. Its lifeblood as John Drury pointed out, was found in its steel mills, factories and stockyards. In them, and in all their "fruits", progress and the hope for a better future seemed to writers like John Drury to be boundless. Today that industrial lifeblood is all but gone, but the great institutions that were made possible because of the industries still hang on. That is testimony perhaps, to the greatest quality of this city, its willingness to re-invent itself. Chicago has been doing just that since its inception. Simply put, no city can re-invent itself without people believing in it.

The term "world class city" had not yet been coined in 1928 but I have no doubt it would have been used unsparingly in Drury's text if it had. Perhaps taking their cue from Chicago in 7 Days, more recent unabashedly overbearing accounts of Chicago testify to the fact that there are people who still believe in this city. Whatever your opinion of the grandiose rhetoric, I'd be inclined to put this city's future in their hands, rather than in the hands of the apologists and cynics who can come up with nothing better than: "well at least we're better off than Detroit."

It's a charming book, a fun read, and a fascinating insight into the spirit of a city in the midst of one of its golden ages.

If you have any interest in Chicago, its past, and how that past relates to the current city, Chicago in 7 Days is a must read. Pick up a copy if you can find one. Short of that, you can find a PDF version here.

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