An econo-environmental history of Chicago
December 11, 1991
"Finally," people thought when this book came out, "Chicago explained!" I did, anyway. That was not quite true; threads of Cronon's arguments had run many of the better histories and geographies of the great metropolis. But Cronon wove them together more deftly than anyone while adding essential new findings about capital flows.
By the way, Cronon's book about the Connecticut Indians, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983) shaped my own, much later history of Mid-Illinois. For more about Cronon's work, see his website.
Reviewed: Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon. W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1991
In the last century Chicago astonished the world, and in doing so helped remake it. The story of the city's growth from outpost to industrial colossus is well known, if not always understood. A generation of capitalists obliterated distance, reordered whole ecosystems, even reorganized time itself to the purposes of a new mass market. High school history to the contrary, it was not hogs and wheat and steel that made Chicago great but new ideas about how to make, move, and market these things.
The story is told by Yale historian William Cronon, author of the new book, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. The book has won universal praise as a minor masterpiece of its kind. Any author who can make arcana such as credit flows intelligible is an author worth his library card; for instance, Cronon's account of how the grain trade was transformed when corn and wheat ceased to be bought and sold in sacks is a marvel of exposition.
Cronon attempts a synthesis of the environmental and the economic approach to history. Chicago's location was an early advantage. But the city boasted no natural advantages that were substantially richer than those of a dozen other cities that pretended to the title of Gateway City to the West; its physical setting was swampy, its river port at best adequate, and the only mineral wealth of note was rock to build with.
A bevy of innovations quickly rendered place less and less relevant to the economy of cities. Cronon explains how, in the latter half of the last century, the market transformed "first nature"—the virgin countryside of the 19th century West—into "second nature," a countryside that has been mowed, sprayed, subdivided, and fenced into an essentially industrial landscape. For example, refrigeration made it possible for Chicago meat packers to transform prairies into feed lots for factories half a continent away.
The ecology of money was as vital as the ecology of nature to Chicago's expansion, according to Cronon. The reason Chicago became the Gateway City to the West instead of, say, St. Louis was because Chicago stood at the terminus of a chain of canals and railroads (and business relationships) that connected it to the banks and boardrooms of New York and Europe. St. Louis meanwhile—though better placed in other respects—was depended on its crucial early years on a river that led south to New Orleans and the southern hemisphere.
The result? "Geography no longer mattered very much except as a problem in management," Cronon writes, "The cattle might still graze amid forgotten buffalo wallows in central Montana, and the hogs might still devour their feedlot corn in Iowa, but from the corporate point of view they could just as well have been anywhere else."
Chicago didn't just loot the countryside, however, it transformed it. Cronon explains that the relationship between city and country is reciprocal, at least in economic terms. In the process of taking wealth from its rural hinterland, Chicago made new wealth possible by providing a market for what could be harvested there.
The familiar resentment expressed toward Chicago by small‑town Midwest finds its explanation in this highly unequal partnership. Downstaters resented (often with reason) the control that the city's bankers and grain traders and butchers held over them, but perhaps overlooked the fact that without those markets they would be backwaters—as, sadly, many of them are becoming again today.
Springfield has wobbled in Chicago's orbit for decades. The capital city's origins left it culturally sympathetic to the river town of St. Louis but it has been obliged to respond to the pull of Chicago's political and economic power. Under Thompson the capital was in effect transferred to Chicago, and while the election of the Charlestonian Edgar has slowed that shift somewhat Springfield will continue to function as a back-office operation for metropolitan Chicago.
But these shifts mean that Springfield functions less and less as even a symbolic opposite pole to Chicago's presence. As Chicago reorganizes its economy to these new realities, it—or rather the metropolitan agglomeration of which it is the enfeebled heart—is again drawing people and jobs from its hinterland. So concentrated have population and wealth become in the northeast corner of Illinois that the state's demographics are geographically unbalanced in a way not seen since the 1820s when virtually every Illinoisan who didn't wear animal skins lived south of Vandalia.
The eradication of place as an essential economic factor has transformed the concept of the "frontier." (Cronon turns Frederick Jackson Turner's famous thesis on its head in arguing that the settlement of the U.S. was an urban rather than a rural phenomenon.) Today, the commodities that make up a city's trade are unnatural resources—money, ideas, services that can be manufactured or grown almost anywhere.
For example, there is no reason for the Japanese to send their money to Schaumburg to buy cellular phones, the way New York once sent its money to Chicago to buy beef, except that Schaumburg is the place where the smart people are who know how to design them. Similarly, Chicago's auto plants now compete with Japanese plants—built in cornfields in McLean County. This most remarkable of 19th century frontier cities now functions in a world in which every place is its frontier. ■