© 2013 Miro Roman

The Pig and the Skyscraper: Chicago : a History of Our Future

Author: Marco D’Eramo
Publication date: 1999

Arrival in Chicagoland

You expect the city of Al Capone- but what you find are pleasant boulevards coursing up and down between the neoclassical buildings of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The novels you read in school described Chicago’s slaughterhouses; instead, you see awe-inspiring skyscrapers. The city center unfolds, an architectural miracle that is to twentieth-century urban planning what Venice must have been in the fifteenth century.

You were thinking of a land-locked city plumped down in the American heartland, but instead you find yourself in a maritime metropolis. To an Italian, the word lake evokes mountain pools or the ponds of Roman castles; a fair-sized lake, for example, would be Italy’s Lake Garda or Switzerland’s Lake Zurich. What Chicagoans refer to as Lake Michigan is what we would call a sea: its boundless expanse stretches as far as the eye can travel, covering a surface area of some 60,000 square kilometers (150 km by 400 km)- roughly the size of the Adriatic Sea. Storm waves crash against the breakwaters, sending clouds of spray as far as Lakeshore Drive, which looks more like a seafront road than an’ urban expressway. The metropolitan area of Chicago appears to have arranged itself along Lake Michigan, a strip of almost 200 kilometers running from the state of Wisconsin (north of Illinois) south to Indiana. If Gary, Indiana, is already part of”Chicagoland,” it won’t be long before this immense coastal urban sprawl subsumes Milwaukee as well.

During winter, the ice of Chicago holds everything in its grip: skyscrapers, parks, the endless suburbs of single-family houses. In the more exposed coastal areas, waves that normally beat against the shore appear frozen in rnidsurge, like a series of overlapping steps, oblique slabs of bluish slate streaked with white that veer steeply down to the lake. Off the quays, the ice has sculpted chairs for those who fish, sitting with their lines dangling into holes in the lake’s surface. The authorities advise not to eat fish caught off the urban lakefront more than once a week and to steer clear of the bigger (hence older) fish that have probably eaten more than their fill in the polluted waters. Inhabitants pay no heed to such warnings,however- not surprisingly, considering that all of the city’s drinking water comes from the lake.

More than any other maritime city, Chicago finds itself blasted by winds; its nickname, the Windy City, finds its way even onto the sides of school buses. Pedestrians brace themselves against gusts that are violent enough to uproot traffic lights. The TV weather forecaster gives two temperatures: one for the air and the other for the wind (a bit like giving summertime temperatures for under the sun and in the shade). While the air temperature might be ten below, the corresponding windchill could drop to as low as minus thirty. Glacial winds arrive from the Northwest, from Alaska and the Arctic, sweeping across the great Canadian plain to descend upon Chicago. With winds and winters like these, the city’s elevated urban transit system is left exposed to icy blasts. Those who use it do so at their peril. Here, as elsewhere in the United States, you are punished for not using- or for not having – a car.

By the time spring comes, the sidewalks are already littered with cafe tables. With the slightest hint of warm weather, out come the bathing suits and halter tops. In summer, city dwellers descend in droves on the beaches, as on the great European lidos- Glifada in Greece or San Sebastian in Spain. Many of them go in for a dip. In 1919, the first great urban race riot broke out on the beach, when a
young Black man was killed for having swum beyond the invisible waterline that separated Black bathers from whites. During summers, the lakeside parks come to life, playing host to blues festivals, open-air concerts, barbecues, picnics, improvised volleyball games, evening promenades and cruising. On weekends, the lake’s pale blue swath is dotted with a myriad of white sails.

It is this sea that makes the social geography of Chicago so anomalous. In other cities of the interior United States, such as St. Louis, the wealthy tend to inhabit the west side, where fresh winds ensure a ready supply of pure air, while the poor are shoved to the polluted eastern zones, where the air arrives fully “processed” by the combined forces of industrial and human contact. (In London and Paris, too, the haute bourgeoisie have tended to settle in the west, leaving the east to the working classes.) In Chicago, the sea of Lake Michigan instead creates an insuperable barrier to the east, while the land stretches out flat as a pool table for hundreds of miles to the north, south and west. The most affluent quarter of the city thus lies along the shores of the lake, with the dividing line running north to south rather than east to west as in other cities.

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