Reading: Bunk Among the Ruins | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Bunk Among the Ruins 

Swept clean by the great fire, the city rebuilt itself on a scale suited to its enormous ambitions--and created a myth of itself that persists into the present.

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Traditional wisdom has it that the great fire of 1871 brought Chicago ruin and redemption. Evidence of ruin was plentiful from the start. Raging for 36 hours, the fire consumed 1,800 buildings, killed 250 people, and left 90,000 of the city's 330,000 residents homeless. Photographs taken after the fire reveal a panorama of rubble that eerily resembles the bombed remains of Dresden and Hiroshima in 1945. Little wonder that the fire's survivors, searching for language to describe the event, latched on to biblical images of fury and destruction.

Just as extraordinary as the fire itself was its aftermath. No sooner were the last flames extinguished than a second conflagration--a rage for building and urban development--was lit. The fire seemed to have wiped the slate clean, giving Chicagoans the chance to reconstruct the city on a scale suited to their enormous ambitions. The town the fire destroyed had been an overbuilt frontier settlement, haphazardly planned, constructed largely of wood, wallowing in a sea of prairie mud. The Chicago that emerged in the decades after the fire--its population trebled to a million by 1890 and topped two million by 1910--was a vast and astoundingly modern metropolis.

Accounts of the decades following the fire have generally been of two sorts. Histories, some as dry as the tinder that fed the fire, have assembled information about the people, money, and materials that contributed to the rebuilding effort. Writings by city boosters--ranging from inspirational poems and stories to popular histories and journalism--have passed on legends of dauntless self-sacrifice and swelling community purpose. Taken as a whole, these histories and legends have combined to tell a tale that has always managed to flatter the city's considerable vanity: a tale of destruction and, as the Chicago Tribune put it one year after the fire, of "the glorious resurrection which so quickly followed."

Ross Miller's American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago is a fire chronicle with a difference. Miller does join earlier historians in devoting much attention to the astonishing facts of the fire and its aftermath, from the 1,500-degree flames that swallowed wood and stone buildings alike, to the revolutionary buildings designed by Louis Sullivan and John Root in the 1880s and 1890s, to the pristine "White City" that was constructed at Jackson Park for the World's Columbian Exhibition in 1893. Miller uses photographs and detailed descriptions to show the Chicago of 1871 to 1893 busily engaged in the hard work of re-creating itself.

But what sets this book apart from other writings on the fire is its emphasis on the myth Chicago fashioned for itself during these decades. Drawing on an impressive range of sources, Miller shows how postfire Chicago cooked up a glorified view of itself as a city of unparalleled opportunity and destiny. This myth, he admits, helped fuel the city's recovery, filling folks with resolve when they were reduced to ruin. But he also describes what this new vision left out. American Apocalypse is a latter-day tale of two cities: the mythic place described by Chicago's boosters, and the gritty, often violent city the boosters tried to ignore.

In the years just after the fire, the men and women who cobbled together this myth found their handiest and most dynamic symbol in the fire itself. The postfire city's first novelists and historians repeatedly dragged out apocalyptic imagery to describe the fire, emphasizing the flames' "purifying" and hygienic effects, stressing how the fire had stripped the city of its architectural evils and disgraceful social conditions. Prefire Chicago had become a rigidly stratified city, with an unmistakable gap between its genteel upper class and its growing, resentful working-class population of Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants. According to the fire's first chroniclers, this rising tension between economic classes was simply burnt away by 36 hours of flames. But as Miller points out, these mythmakers borrowed apocalyptic imagery from the Bible and then turned it toward the most worldly of ends. The survivors of Chicago's apocalypse had been delivered from the past, they claimed, to create a heavenly city in which everyone would start over "in the race for fame and fortune," as the popular historian William Bross felicitously phrased it.

This cheery view of a city liberated from its unsavory past soon became the only myth in town. "Over a short period of time," Miller notes, "all experiences of the fire began to sound the same." In 1872, in the first Chicago novel published after the fire, E.P. Roe conjured up the image of a city in which "every barrier is burned away." Business joins art and robber baron is united with worker in Roe's vision of a town redeemed. The popular historian Joseph Kirkland raised the rhetoric to its goofy apotheosis when he solemnly proclaimed, "After all the ages of men's alienation, isolation, enmity, the race is at last one, in heart; and it needed the Chicago fire to make patent the blessed fact." References to Chicago rising like a phoenix from its ashes became as common in the city as the piles of ashes themselves. Shortly after the flames were out, the town's residents initiated the strange tradition of celebrating a catastrophe that had destroyed their homes, businesses, and neighborhoods.

In all fairness, willful optimism of this sort is understandable in a city where nearly a third of the people had been left homeless. Beneath the surface of many eyewitness accounts, Miller accurately detects a note of "barely submerged hysteria" that needed to remain submerged if the city were to rebuild quickly. Above all, what was needed after the fire was "civic pride" and "good propaganda" to buoy up the people's spirits as they started to pick themselves, brick by brick, out of the rubble.

Miller grants the need for an inspiring myth, but he also regards it as counterproductive in several ways. For one, the city's wish to see itself as liberated from the past prevented Chicagoans from learning from earlier mistakes: Chicago wanted to turn away from the past, not examine it. Miller points out that "the blaze had uncovered the shoddy way Chicago was built," but the architects of the 1870s ignored the mistakes and simply joined the "general frenzy of rebuilding." The result was equally shoddy buildings that amounted to little more than "elaborated recreations of what had stood before."

The mythmakers' view of a harmonious community no longer divided by class resentments--a "romance of classlessness," Miller calls it--merely covered up the presence of a growing and increasingly angry urban proletariat in the city. It took the Haymarket Riot of 1886, in which four strikers and eight policemen were killed, "to put an effective end to Chicago's fantasy of class harmony."

The heroes of American Apocalypse are those who saw through the myths. The novelists and architects of the 1870s joined the city's mythmakers and boosters in a compulsive effort to forget the past, the fire, and the more troubling aspects of the present. But the architects who came along in the 1880s--particularly Louis Sullivan and John Root--and the novelists who wrote about Chicago around the turn of the century observed the city with fewer illusions.

The most intriguing (and most likely to prove controversial) pages in American Apocalypse are those that trace a connection between the fire and the architectural innovations of Sullivan and Root. Both moved to the city just after the fire: Root was 21 years old, Sullivan 17. Due to their status as nonnatives, neither felt the rush of civic pride that swept the city after the fire; due to their youth, neither was able to participate in the first frenzy of rebuilding. Both were "outsiders who viewed the frantic and dangerously inadequate new construction that was going on in the name of the city's health as a "pathological' mirroring of the fire itself." Forced into several years of what Root later called compulsory idleness, the young architects, Miller writes, were "compelled to observe and imagine what they might one day do."

What they eventually did (together with Daniel Burnham, Dankmar Adler, William Le Baron Jenny, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others) was develop a school of architecture that stressed function and structure and eschewed superfluous ornament and frilly effects. Miller speculates that this new emphasis on structure arose out of these young architects' patient absorption in the city's ruins. The few remaining edifices and walls, Miller argues, revealed the purest architectural structures stripped of all unessential ornamentation. "The ruins provided a model of what architecture was at its most basic before artists 'improved' it. Sullivan's sense that 'form follows function,' Root's 'architectural expression,' and Wright's 'organic architecture' developed from reimagining the ruins, not simply as rubble to eliminate but as architectural elements on their own. . . . Stripped of all ornament and vanity by the leveling flames, the fallen buildings appeared as visions of the future." In his discussion of several of the important new buildings--Sullivan's Auditorium (1889) and Carson, Pirie, Scott (1899) buildings, and Root's Rookery (1886) and Monadnock (1891) buildings--Miller argues that their designs reflect the extent to which Sullivan and Root resisted the general tendency to ignore or repress the invaluable lessons of the fire's wreckage.

Miller also describes Chicago novelists of the 1890s and 1900s who refused to buy the city's myth of social harmony and cheerful progress. Novelists such as Henry Blake Fuller and Robert Herrick had a hard time finding any evidence of the purified community portrayed in 1872 by E.P. Roe in Barriers Burned Away. Instead, they frequently uncovered an impersonal, anarchic, corrupt modern city. In Fuller's The Cliff-Dwellers the new Chicago is represented by the 4,000 people who work every day in one of the city's new skyscrapers. The unqualified worship of money in the building destroys any real community and human affection, just as it frustrates the aspirations of artists and idealists. Chicago, according to Fuller, was "an arid country . . . an airless country."

Robert Herrick's The Web of Life gives an even darker view. The novel is set in 1894 in the midst of rising labor unrest and unemployment. The book's hero, a talented young doctor named Howard Sommers, keeps inadvertently discovering symptoms of the city's wretched state: dilapidated tenements, the aimless misery of the city's homeless, violence erupting regularly between police and strikers from the city's factories and railroads. In a passage Miller doesn't quote, Sommers brings together his impressions of Chicago: "Decay, defeat, falling and groaning; disease, blind doctoring of disease; hunger and sorrow and sordid misery; the grime of living here in Chicago in the sharp discords of this nineteenth century; the brutal rich, the brutalized poor; the stupid good, the pedantic, the foolish--all, all that made the waking world of his experience!"

These are clearly the words of a writer who wants to deliver the lowdown on Chicago. But they are just as clearly the words of a writer who can picture the misery of the poor in only the most abstract and distant terms. In fact, Herrick, like Fuller, had little understanding of Chicago's poor and homeless. He expresses anguish over their condition, but he simply didn't know enough to take us inside their world. Writers such as Herrick and Fuller, Miller argues, were transitional figures who rejected the "boosterature" of hacks such as Roe, but who were unable to turn out vividly realistic novels of their own. But they cleared a path for younger writers who had all the experience needed to explore in graphic, riveting detail the lives of the city's disenfranchised. One of these novelists was Upton Sinclair, who shocked the nation with his portrait of the Chicago stockyards in The Jungle. Another was Theodore Dreiser, who took his readers into the seamy lives of Chicago's rich and poor alike in Sister Carrie and The Titan. Ironically, it was these fervid foes of the myth of Chicago (together with Frank Lloyd Wright, who hated Chicago's slavishness toward business and who exiled himself from the city in 1909) who finally made the nation acknowledge Chicago's cultural vigor.

American Apocalypse is about Chicago as it developed a century ago, but it also aims to tell us something about the city today. The most obvious continuity Miller suggests centers on the image of a community of grotesque contradictions--a city, as a visitor in 1893 put it, where "the 'sky-scraper' and the shanty stand side by side."

A more startling suggestion involves the way the city has typically chosen to handle those contradictions. According to Miller, Chicago's celebration of the fire as an instantaneous solution to its social and architectural woes provides a key for understanding the contemporary city as well. Chicago of the early 1870s seemed to welcome the fire as a way out of problems it had never found the will to fully acknowledge or resolve. Miller suggests that in this regard the city of the 1870s not only anticipated Chicago today, but also proved representative of American urban life as a whole. In this view apocalypse becomes a troubling, periodic necessity in American cities, a catastrophe that people secretly expect and even crave. Indeed, the multiplying signs of social fracture in the city today--shiny new buildings west of the Loop; beleaguered, violent neighborhoods; crumbling public housing--suggest that there is some unspoken acknowledgment that only through catastrophe will Chicago begin to find solutions to its problems.

But it would be a mistake to push the similarities between Chicago then and now too far. Miller hints at times that the way the city of 100 years ago turned away from the past and hurtled into the future remains a part of Chicago's identity. But while many Chicagoans today still like to think of the city as big- shouldered and indomitable, Chicago is a changed place. The city of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was barreling forward, its population doubling every couple decades, "laughing," Carl Sandburg insisted in his famous poem, "as a young man laughs / Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle." Chicago today is still turbulent and diverse but no longer confident that it occupies a central and expanding place in the world. The familiar litany--a shrinking population, businesses departing for the suburbs and sunbelt, a public-school system labeled the worst in the country--hardly calls forth the image of a young city charging toward tomorrow. More and more, Chicago looks backward for a bold, arrogant vision of itself. The acid jokes going around last year about the mayoral election being between two dead men--Richard Daley Sr. and Harold Washington--revealed more than Chicago generally likes to concede.

Still, this sobering point isn't the whole story. Chicago may not be quite the arrogant place of 100 years ago--when Chicagoans were confident their city would soon pass New York in population, and boosters even proposed making Chicago the nation's capital--but arrogance and innovation haven't deserted the city. Nor has Chicago's genius for incongruity lessened--the city still clings to various idealized versions of its past while perpetuating the old myth of itself as a city turned resolutely toward the future. There are enough contradictions in that sentence to keep Ross Miller busy for years on a sequel. In the meantime, if American Apocalypse has a lesson for Chicagoans in 1990, it's that the city's present conflicts and disparities are only the latest installments in a tradition nearly as old as Chicago itself.

American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago by Ross Miller, University of Chicago Press, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Patti Green.

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