Making a More Perfect City
Utopianism in Chicagoland
See Illinois (unpublished)
Another selection from my unpublished guide to Illinois history and culture. Illinois has a rich history of utopian social experiments, the most famous of which are found Downstate. But while few Illinoisans think of Chicago when you say “model city,” Chicagoland also has a rich tradition of such experiments.
As the 20th century neared, it was plain that Chicago no longer worked. A few influentials concluded that only way that Chicagoans might escape Chicago’s baleful social effects was for them to clean it up or redesign it—in effect, reform the physical city—or to escape it altogether into new planned cities built from scratch that would have social evils designed out of them. Not all of these model cities were built for people to live in, and one was not built for people at all, but Chicago came closer to turning itself in a real City Beautiful than any other, and to this day is graced by an exemplary system of parks and formal boulevards that, if they never realized their potential, was not for their want of good design.
It being easier to build a city from scratch than rebuild an existing one, much of Chicagoland’s would-be utopians looked to the city’s unbuilt hinterland. As a result, Chicago’s suburbs were the scene of some of the first and best planned communities in the country and one notable attempt at a model factory town.
The real town of Chicago having proved itself dangerously less than perfect by 1870 or so, a few people—visionaries or crackpots, take your pick—decided to build alternatives to it in the form of model towns of one sort of another. The founders acted out of humanitarian impulse or business need or religious fervor or civic philosophy.
Historian James Gilbert singles out for special study three "perfect cities" in Chicago—the 1893 fair, Pullman village, and the Moody Bible Institute. But there were many others. One of the early ones was the campus in Lake Forest of Lake Forest College. That syvan retreat blended the social ideals of the Old Europe with early 20th century planning ideals. As described by Arthur Miller, Lake Forest historian, the College was seen as a society in microcosm where social classes lived together in a harmony reinforced by shared daily experiences and interdependence. The English Great Hall at Commons for example “recreated the feudal togetherness of the lord's hall: here all classes—students, faculty, and administrators—convened for meals.”
The campus is of a piece with the town whose centerpiece it was intended to be. Its plat was drawn up in 1857, only five years after the debut of the model for such layouts, Llewellyn Park in New Jersey. Certainly its architect, the landscape gardener Almerin Hotchkiss, incorporated all the essential elements of that picturesque suburban style, from curving streets to park-like landscaping.
Those elements also informed the layout a few years later of Riverside, one of the first of Chicago’s railroad suburbs and still arguably the best-designed. Robert Fishman, author of the 1987 book, Bourgeois Utopias, is not the only expert to conclude, “If there is a single plan that expresses the idea of the bourgeois utopia, it is Olmsted’s Riverside.”
The settlements that were then sprouting along the rail lines leading out of U.S. big cities offered the more thoughtful developers an opportunity to build not only new towns but new kinds of town—a countrified city whose low densities and green spaces would be a balm to the residents and, by relieving overcrowding, to the city too. Among the first of Chicago’s railroad suburbs took root at the first suburban stop on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. Eastern investors organized as the Riverside Improvement Company in 1868 commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted to plan a new town there. Called, Riverside, the project occupied 1,600 acres of prairie on the Des Plaines River and near the tracks of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, some nine miles from downtown Chicago.
Olmsted is best known as the designer, architect-in-chief, and superintendent of New York City’s Central Park, a project that put his name on the map as a landscape designer. Like so many thinkers, Olmsted by the 1860s concluded that the suburb was the most attractive solution to the stresses (mainly psychological) of city life. Olmsted envisioned the suburbs as opportunities to build not only new towns but new kinds of town.
Olmsted’s ambition was not to reject the city—which he sensibly saw as essential to modern life—but to save people from it by giving them a rural retreat to which they might repair each day to heal themselves from the poisons of the city. Just as he conceived the urban park as a kind of in-town suburb, he conceived the suburb as a sort of private park.
Most suburbs were, and are, laid out; Riverside was designed. Olmsted and partner Calvin Vaux planned the water supply, drainage, lighting, schools, neighborhood play spaces, and recreational facilities including seven hundred acres of land for public use, including a boating pond and a 160-acre reserve along a three-mile stretch of the Des Plaines river. An astounding 86,000 large trees and shrubs were planted to achieve an effect of the sort that Mother Nature might have done, if she had better taste.
In this setting Olmsted laid out what we still think of as the classic suburb. The generous setback requirement— thirty feet from the street—produced deep landscaped front yards that merged into a not-quite-public-not-quite-private ornamental space that gave the impression of houses sitting in a park. Curved roadways were adopted, to fit the site, but more importantly for their symbolic value. Taking a meandering road implied that the traveler was not in a hurry, that he not only had leisure but that he knew how to use it, in contemplation and enjoyment of nature. Thus was this most clichéd of subdivision features born as a kind of poetic metaphor. Olmsted did not invent the curvilinear street layout but at Riverside he applied it so skillfully as to make it the desired form of residential subdivision to this day.
Accommodating daily trips into the city by the male breadwinners (and also for the bread makers, as the town would have to be supplied by bakers and other provisioners from the city) was a central goal of the design. Olmsted envisioned a landscaped pleasure drive connecting Riverside to Chicago. This drive would have been Cook County’s Champs Elysses, had not financial losses from the Chicago fire and the panic of 1873 forced the developers to abandon it.
The project’s backers went bankrupt but over the longer term the investment proved a success. The town which began as an experiment was soon being widely hailed as a model, and today survives as monument to the best of 19th century town planning. Only Pullman is physically so intact, but Riverside also remains close to the social ideals that informed its origins, and the entire village was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1970.
The town is more mature but otherwise remarkably unchanged in 180 years, thanks to the determination of its residents to preserve what remains a handsome place to live. Typical of such places, a village that once touted as the newest thing today touts its lack of what has since come to be thought of as modern character. (The Village of Riverside lights its streets with gas lanterns rather than electric street lights.) Property values—the ultimate test—have remained strong.
Riverside was and remains a utopia in the narrowest sense. Socially it is indistinguishable from a dozens of other upscale Chicagoland suburbs of that era. But if no one part of Olmsted's scheme was exactly new, no one combined them as well. Strictly speaking, Riverside was a triumph of landscape design rather than urban planning as it has come to be understood. But it is informed by enough ideas about the function of towns to qualify as a planning triumph.
Olmsted however has much to answer for. Today’s "New Urbanists" sneer at Olmstedian "horse and buggy" suburbs, in large because their public ways offer too much park and not enough people. Other find fault with his layouts on grounds of transportation efficiency. Cars disgorging from cul-de-sacs on few connecting arterials like a theater crowd trying to squeeze out of too few exits. In his history of American suburbs, Philip Langdon noted that both visitors and residents in Riverside have something in common: They both get lost. “Major roads start off in one direction and unexpectedly arc off in another,” he wrote. “Clarity vanishes.”
Another central tenet in Olmsted’s planning religion—beauty in nature (if not quite natural beauty) —is still animates the more ambitious subdivision planning. (The editor of Olmsted’s letters, Victoria Ranney, plainly sought in the 1990s to apply the same principles in her Lake County housing development, Prairie Crossing.) But just as Mies’ rigorously conceived modern building became glass boxes in the hands of lesser practitioners, so countless suburban developers have since taken his main points and somehow managed to miss the point, applying his notions without his attention to detail.
Union Stock Yard
One of the best early model towns in Chicagoland was not built for humans to live in. The new Union Stock Yard opened in 1865 in the town of Lake, four miles southwest of Chicago’s city center, in what was then still the suburban fringe of Chicago. Occupying several hundred acres bounded by Pershing and Ashland avenues and 47th Street and Halsted streets, the complex was planned by engineer Octave Chanute for the consortium of railroad and packing magnates who developed it. Built from scratch, it had a coherence and practicality that the workers’ neighborhoods that grew up outside never did. The stock yard complex was in terms of sanitation and design superior most of the Chicago that humans dwelt in, and not much its inferior in cleanliness.
Holy Town of Zion
Godliness is one of the virtues widely advertised as suburban, and indeed Chicago’s hinterland appealed from the start as a refuge for believers in what was by mid-1800s clearly a place in which godlessness was rampant. The pious sought to build self-sufficient communities in which virtue would stand a fighting chance. Nauvoo and Bishop Hill became the most famous such efforts in Illinois, but Chicagoland was home to a few.
Zion, today a town of some 23,000 in far northern Lake County, is known chiefly as the site of one of the world’s largest nuclear-powered generating stations. In the earlier part of the 20th century it was known for power of a different kind. John Alexander Dowie, a Scottish faith-healer, in 1899 announced that from this rather scruffy bit of the Lake Michigan shore midway between Chicago and Milwaukee would rise a new city of Zion, to be build by followers of his Christian Catholic Apostolic Church.
Ben Hecht wrote that Dowie was one of the few exceptions to what Hecht called “daisy-chain messiahs” that then made life in the city so entertaining. “He was a man of frightening virtue.” His ambition was to build a self-sufficient City of God where residents could reduce commerce with a corrupting world. The city offered the chance to, in Dowie’s words, live in the world and yet not be of it—a commonly felt impulse in the Chicagoland of those years, felt in varying degrees by the parish patriot, the suburbanite fleeing the city, and the businessman in his private club. Dowie’s plan for a place where his people could work and play, insulated from a sinful world, for example, was a pitch indistinguishable from that made by suburban residential developer.
Zion's planning eccentricities owed to zealotry and the founder’s vanity. (The street layout resembled the British flag, and the streets were given Biblical names except for two named after his hometown in Edinborough.) However, Dowie’s Zion did share with model suburbs and model towns like Pullman other crucial assumptions. The chief of these was the belief that the environment was instrumental to morals, that place shaped character, that conduct followed environment as naturally as water followed the contours of a hill. By not only banning vice, as commonly defined, but providing healthful alternatives through wholesome play and self-improvement, he would make it easy to do right and hard to do wrong.
As happened in Nauvoo and Bishop Hill, the energy of the founder’s followers created something like a miracle of town-building. Fired by faith, Dowie’s followers created the new town almost instantly. Within a few years Zion’s population reached 10,000.
While Dowie’s Zionites did not live as one family—each built a comfy house—Dowie, like the Swedish Eric Jansson of Bishop Hill, sought to control the means of production communally. The church owned most commercial establishments and all industries, including the economic heart of Zion, a lace factory run by skilled workers he imported from England.
Dowie, like the Mormons of Nauvoo, considered democracy too crude an instrument for God’s purposes. His intention was to establish a theocracy, a Christian republic. Like the Taliban or the Iranian mullahs, Dowie believed that, as he put it, “where God rules, man prospers.” The new town was to be a place where the tenets of that church would govern every phase of life. God of course made his rules known through the person of Dowie, who looked over Zion with what one follower called, not complainingly, “supreme untrammeled, and unquestioned authority in all matters.”
The list of prohibitions given force by the municipal code would daunt a saint. One source summed it up thus:
In addition to supervision of speech and press, the Zion hierarchy added to its censorship of individuals their diet, amusements, hygiene, and love making. The use and sale of liquor, tobacco, playing cards, oysters, pork, and clams were prohibited by an early city code. Through a special ruling obtained from the Illinois Commerce Commission, no trains stop in Zion on Sundays. Drug stores, saloons, pool halls, bowling alleys, and theaters to which admission was charged, were forbidden. Doctors were banned. Courtship in public parks was taboo. Bathing beaches were divided into three parts: one for single girls, one for single men, and between them a section for married couples.
Profanity was prohibited—at least, in public—by municipal ordinance . . . . Any business for gain on Sunday, including the sale and delivery of newspapers or merchandise, was illegal; and it was unlawful “to disturb the peace and good order of society by labor” on Sunday. Athletic exhibitions were illegal, if an admission fee were charged. Baseball and other games were not allowed in the streets on Sunday. “Nothing disloyal to the word of God” was permitted to be taught in the public schools of Zion. This led to the teaching that the world is flat, and of other poetic inferences from scriptural description of natural phenomena for which science provides a totally different explanation and nomenclature.
Historians these days tend toward a more polite generosity about people who paddle in the backwaters of mainstream society, but chroniclers once were more confident in their biases. The project inspired the ridicule that such ventures usually excite among the educated. The authors of the 1939 Federal Writers Project guide to Illinois note that the town was founded “by a man who believed the world to be flat despite his having taken a trip around it.” Lloyd Lewis, noting perhaps irrelevantly, that many of Dowie‘s followers were illiterate immigrants, pronounced them “pathetically loyal and crack-brained.”
Perhaps because those followers were not not as crack-brained as Lewis assumed, Dowie’s environment failed to induce saintliness in its residents in spite of its institutionalized municipal bossiness. When he died, factions battled, politically and otherwise, over the legacy of the founder, and what Dowie would have called the forces of darkness had triumphed in Zion by mid-century. In 1939 the overseer who had run the town since Dowie’s death was voted out, the town’s land and buildings were transferred to individuals, and Dowie’s governing apparatus, as well as his ideals, gradually crumbled as immigrant unbelievers chipped away at it with their votes. Nonetheless, the old impulses lingered into the 21st century. When the nation dropped Prohibition in 1933, Zionites voted to keep their town dry, which it remained, save for new parts of town annexed after 1934. By 2004 voters were pushing to end the ban on booze sales, saving souls then being less vital than saving local restaurateurs.
Approaching the twenty-first century, Zion’s past as religious community survives mainly in the street names and the city seal. The town is perhaps best known for fighting—and losing—a 1980s court battle to keep a cross on the seal, which also features a Zion Banner in the center beneath the words, “God Reigns.” (Atheist Rob Sherman prevailed in that case.) The town survived even if the dream did not, and today’s Zion is all but indistinguishable from its sister Lake County suburbs.
As happened at Nauvoo and Bishop Hill, Zion was left with many relics of the experiment in Christian community that took place there. Sadly, some of the most impressive of the artifacts of John Alexander Dowie’s Christian Catholic Utopia did not long survive its collapse. The Administration Building was razed and the College Building, center of Zion’s parochial schools, burned to the ground. Shiloh Tabernacle was destroyed by fire in 1937, as was it successor, the Zion Auditorium at 27th Street and Enoch Avenue; the latter building burned in 1959 (but the Passion Play it was built to house is still performed). A candy factory from 1916 was razed in 2004.
A few buildings remain to suggest the scale of Zion’s enterprise, and its eccentricity. Over the years, Zion Home, a block-long frame building that opened in 1904, served as a hotel under many names—Zion Hospice, Elijah Hospice, North Shore Inn, Zion Hotel. The hotel, with more than 300 rooms, is considered by locals to be the largest all-frame building in the world; in addition to sheltering visitors to the church’s headquarters, it housed converts to the church while their new houses were a-building.
The 25- room, three-story Shiloh House was built for Dowie in 1903. It is described by the faithful as a parsonage, but most others call it a mansion, complete with separate staircases for the servants and “the Master.” Dowie designed the roof to symbolize the Holy Spirit emanating from Zion City. Journalist Lewis probably was not alone in finding it an “idiotically designed dwelling.” Idiotic or not, it has been restored to its original condition, symbolic roof and all, and since 1967 has housed the Zion Historical Society, which maintains it and its collection of local artifacts; the latter include personal items of the Dowie family, Zion lace and related lace artifacts, and leg braces no longer needed by those healed by Dr. Dowie.
Pullman the town was a nonsectarian Zion. It had a prophet in charge too, in the person of George Pullman, who had made himself rich manufacturing the first comfortable railway sleeping car. The machines were so popular that railroad companies enlarged the tunnels and bridges on their lines to accommodate them. (Abraham Lincoln performed his last service for the railroad industry by his death; his body was hauled from Washington, DC, to Springfield aboard a lavishly appointed Pullman sleeper, which functioned as a rolling advert for Pullman's product.)
That first product was followed by equally popular variations in the form of restaurant and “parlor” cars that became standard on all the better trains. By 1893, Pullman had enough business to keep 14,000 workers busy.
On account of this boom, Pullman decided during the mid-1870s to shift the whole of his operation to Chicagoland. He would not locate in Chicago proper, however, whose tax collectors he regarded as many of his successors regard OSHA inspectors. His new factory went up instead just beyond the southwest city limits, thirteen miles from the Loop on forty-five hundred acres of land on the west shore of Lake Calumet.
Like any frugal manager Pullman sought to control all aspects of the operation including—perhaps especially—the workers. Thus was Pullman town born. It was not the first such community to be planned; the industrialist pretty plainly borrowed ideas from Saltaire, for example, an experimental industrial community in England’s York. However, Pullman is widely reckoned to have been the first model, planned industrial community in the U.S. It shared with its European predecessors the conviction that the way to improve factory productivity was to improve its workers, and the way to improve workers was to improve their physical and social environment.
Work on Pullman’s town began in 1880 and it welcomed its first resident in 1881. By 1893 Pullman housed 12,600 residents, including 5,500 of the parent company’s 14,000 employees. No expense was spared to provide a plush maze for these lab rats. It amenities matched those of any self-respecting suburban complex of equal size of that day—unheard of luxury in housing meant for mere workers. It offered piped-in water and gas, paved streets, its own school, church, hotel (the Florence, named after the magnate’s favorite daughter, still standing and again a working hotel), a food market, shops, a library, a theater, all in a mixture of Gothic and Queen Anne styles. Pullman also offered parks where workers might celebrate what little leisure they enjoyed—all handsomely landscaped and meticulously maintained at company expense. Sewage was carried off and used to fertilize the company farm that also returned milk and fresh vegetables on the owner's shrewd investment in muck.
Judged in terms of health and beauty, Pullman was indeed a model town. It was one of the three or four great tourist attractions of Chicago during the World Columbian Exposition; 10,000 foreign visitors alone came out to see what was arguably the real White City of the future. Said historian William Adelman in a 2003 public television documentary about Chicago, Pullman the Epcot of that time, "Epcot" being Walt Disney's term for experimental prototype community of tomorrow.”
If Riverside was an expression of aesthetically enlightened capitalism, Pullman was at first glance seen as socially enlightened capitalism, at least by those who did not live there. From the tenants point of view, living there entailed costs other than rent. Pullman owned every brick of it, and ran it as a personal fief. Leases read like catechisms, with instructions on housekeeping and bans on smoking and similar bad habits. Pullman reserved the right to toss out tenants with only ten days’ notice, which enabled him to keep the town free of such vermin as union organizers. Pullman did not see the need for police stations, orphanages, or like governmental institutions meant to solve problems that its proprietor did not intend his town to have.
Pullman believed two vices kept workers from maximum efficiency, and thus the company from maximum profits. One was drink, the other was unions. (The two were related; union organizers frequented saloons, not because booze was there but because that’s where workers hung out.) Pullman would immunize his workers against these contagions through means of uplifting culture—reading, theater, crafts. Facilities for these amusements were lavishly provided; saloons, gambling houses, dance halls, and brothels, predictably, were banned. (The ban did not prevent Pullman residents from enjoying working-class amusements, it only required them to go outside of Pullman to do it, to places like "Schlitz Row," a street of saloons and beer gardens built by that Milwaukee brewery a few blocks to the west of Pullman.)
These ambitions toward social control were common enough among reformers; what made Pullman’s town different was that he had the power of ownership to effect changes that most reformers only dreamed of—and would never have tolerated themselves. One worker, much quoted by historians, put it, “We are born in a Pullman house. We are fed from a Pullman shop, taught in a Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church, and when we die we shall be buried in a Pullman cemetery and go to a Pullman hell.''
Pullman intended his town to be a moneymaking enterprise. In addition to rent, for example, Pullman the landlord sold his tenants water and gas at a profit. When depression caused his business to slump toward the end of 1893, Pullman the factory owner began to cut the wages of his factory workers. This was standard practice for a boss. But Pullman the landlord did not reduce his workers’ rents, or what he charged them for electricity and water. This kept his company in the black, but only by putting his tenants into debt. The cost to him in resentment proved crippling.
A strike was inevitable. American Railway Union members walked out in May 1894. Many of the strikers were not only workers but tenants. In addition to the usual complaints about wages and working conditions, Pullman had to contend with the resentments that his ham-handed administration of the town had engendered. Pullman “won” the strike, thanks to federal troops, but he lost the war for the hearts of his workers. So bitter were feeling toward this modern lord of the manor that after his death in 1897—a death hastened by the stress of the strike, according to biographers—his family ordered his body encased in concrete beneath an elaborate monument to forestall its desecration.
James Gilbert concluded, with most commentators, that Pullman’s utopia was based on self-delusion. His Pullman ultimately failed as a town as well as a social experiment. The City of Chicago annexed it when it absorbed the rest of Hyde Park Township in 1889. The non-factory property was sold, and the parks, streets and schools taken over by the City of Chicago. The residential buildings began to be sold to private owners in 1907. Eventually, the Hotel Florence became a flophouse, and, during the 1920s, George Pullman’s temperance town boasted several speakeasies—the final revenge on the boss’s busybody-ness.
A failure as social planning, Pullman was rather more prescient as urban planning. By placing all of the dry goods shops together in a covered shopping arcade, Pullman’s architects blended Euro-style high street markets and the department stores then flourishing in Chicago, presaging in a general way the suburban malls of later generations. The social ambitions of the George Pullmans are still shared by developers, and the principles that landscape engineer Nathan F. Barrett and architect Solon Beman expressed in the layout for Pullman are echoed in hundreds of city plans of this day.
Harvey, in southern Cook County, twenty miles from downtown Chicago, today is a nondescript suburb indistinguishable in appearance from smallish (population 30,000 or so) and struggling factory towns all over Chicago’s hinterland. At one point however Harvey made three claims to the world’s attention. It was the site of Illinois' first orphanage for African American children, which was opened in 1899 by Amanda Berry Smith; the 1980 movie, "The Blues Brothers," was filmed here; and it was once, briefly, a model town.
Turning Chicago into a model community free of such viruses as alcohol and vice was a daydream of Turlington Walker Harvey. Harvey was a patron of evangelist Dwight Moody, a Billy Graham of his day, who had thrilled hundreds of thousands in a series of massive revivals in Chicago during the run of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The vision of the ideal town preached by Moody was to be made real at Harvey’s new town.
The perfection to be achieved not physical but social. Alcohol was ruining America, or at least Americans, and Harvey’s new town would have none of it. Moody and leading Chicago philanthropists joined Harvey in purchasing shares in the planned temperance haven. What Harvey & Co. hoped for was a town not only without taverns but without the gambling dens and whorehouses that attend them, a place where sober and sober-minded people could live a Christian life as they understood it.
Harvey laid out the town in 1892. Historian Gilbert points out in Perfect Cities that Mr. Harvey wrote restrictive covenants into every land contract that forbid “any . . . dangerous, vexatious or offensive purpose or establishment whatsoever.” The factories of that day usually managed to be dangerous, vexatious, and offensive, but Harvey made a profitable exception for them. But while prosperous, Harvey never became quite the temperance haven its founders hoped. The depression of 1893–94 caused land values to crash, taking Harvey’s own fortune with them, and with it his clout over the town, and its residents wasted little time in voting to make the sale of liquor legal.
Model towns like Zion and Harvey sought to lift the residents’ moral values; by the 20th century, the perfect town was being seen in terms of higher real estate values. What its developers proudly called ”Chicago's dream child, Its first made-to-order suburb,” was begun in 1925 in the form of Westchester, at the western edge of Cook County between Harrison and 22nd Street. Samuel Insull backed the project in the hope of cashing in on the 1920s housing boom. He picked a site of more than 2,600 acres around the terminus of his Westchester rapid transit line. The el would make the lots convenient and thus attractive—trips to the Loop were 12 cents each way, via 180 trains that ran each day over the Garfield Park line—and the people who would live on the lots would bring business to his transit line. The site was fully equipped in now-accepted style—streets and utilities, plus golf courses and a forest preserve.
Previous model towns had promised to keep out vice, or pollution, or the wrong kind of people. Westchester promised to keep out people, period. The developer was keenly aware that buyers were keenly aware of what had happened in every other popular suburban town—the minivillas, and bungalows swamped by six-flats and then apartment blocks. Westchester promised to erect stout zoning barriers to such densification so that “for the first time the householder need have no fear of the future.”
The same cannot be said of the developer. Westchester never realized Insull’s dreams for it, for reasons that had more to do with the economy than with its planning precepts. He envisioned a built-out city of fifty thousand people; in 2020 it was home to not quite 17,000.
The animus that architect Frank Lloyd Wright felt toward Chicago never left him, and he became a prophet of suburbanization. His planning precepts anticipated much of the past 70 years of suburban development, with its reliance on the personal automobile and low-density development. But as critic Herbert Muschamp once put it, Wright was not against cities, exactly, only against cities he didn’t design. The city he did design was Broadacre City, which was to be everything Chicago was not. The architect introduced his scheme multi-centered, low-density auto-oriented suburbia in 1932 in the book, The Disappearing City, and revised and expanded the concept until his death in 1959.
If Wright’s Boadacre did not inspire postwar development patterns, it anticipated them brilliantly. In Broadacre City, writes historian Peter Hall, Wright wove together virtually every strand in American anti-urbanist thinking. The plan laid out a now-familiar network of superhighways linked to a regular grid of arterial roads. The major intersections were the natural sites of large “markets”—embryonic Woodfield Malls—as well as for churches and other institutions of mass civic and cultural life. Schools and houses were to occupy zones separate from highways and their associated commercial districts.
Broadacre City today is usually dismissed as a rationale for sprawl. In fact, Wright had proposed not a new kind of suburb but a new kind of city. Wright deplored the suburban expansion already underway, by which the 19th century industrial city he hated (of which Chicago was the American archetype) appropriated the countryside. His Broadacre City was not a city set in the countryside, a la Ebenezer Howard’s turn-of-the-century Garden City concept. Rather, it was the countryside converted into a city that would be an improvement on both. No mere dormitory, its spread-out parts would compose an urban whole, with each family enjoying access not only to small farms, orchards, and recreation areas, but to light industry and other urban facilities, all within 10-20 miles of their house . . . . Broadacre City offered a means by which ordinary Americans might live in what the great urbanist Lewis Mumford called “romantic isolation and reunion with the soil” while enjoying urban economic opportunities and recreations. Broadacre City was Wright’s White City, certainly, but one that owed as much to Dan’l Boone as to Dan’l Burnham.
A real Broadacre City of a sort was built after World War II in the cornfields southwest of Chicago. Park Forest was one of the first and most famous of the planned communities built in the postwar U.S. Developers Nathan Manilow, Carroll F. Sweet and Philip M. Klutznick designed it as a new town for house-hungry war veterans, and in its formative stages was dubbed “GI Town,” so popular was it with returning soldiers with new families when it opened in 1948.
Park Forest developers sought to create a ready-to-live-in community for middle-income families with young children. The first of the baby boomers toddled about in a town equipped with plenty of open space and parks, a shopping center, churches and public buildings, and schools within walking distance. Children were crucial in the design and the marketing; advertisements reminded moms that the arrangement of houses—around a cul-de-sac equipped with fenced-in "tot yards"—enabled every mother to keep an eye on her youngster without leaving the kitchen—the perfect ‘50s maternal dream. Such provisions less amenities than essential features in a town in which, by 1950, nine of ten couples had young children.
Unlike George Pullman, Park Forest’s developers were not attempting to reform its residents. (The sole social engineering was the developers’ insistence that Park Forest be open to people of any color.) Whereas Pullman sought to form the resident to the town, the developers of Park Forest more modestly wanted to fit the town to the residents. In doing so, they proved to be wiser developers, and arguably better planners. In his pop sociology classic, Organization Man, William H. Whyte noted that suburbs like Park Forest are popular because they fit the way the people in them like to live. “Perhaps not since the medieval town,” he wrote, “have there been neighborhood units so well adapted to the predilections and social needs of its people.”
The “White City”
Utopias usually work only in books, not in the real world, and certainly not in a world as indecorously real as 19th century Illinois. Chicago created one nonetheless, at least for a little while. The “White City” of the World Columbian Exposition was an urban Utopia, the ideal city made temporarily real. It delighted most visitors, and set a standard for urban planning that has misled planners of real cities for decades.
The White City had an impact on architecture, nudging the trade toward neoclassicism and away from vernacular American styles. Its well-structured outdoor spaces also excited a passion for civic design—what has been called a new architecture of areas rather than merely of buildings. The result was the City Beautiful movement. Its adherents believed that beauty was the key to virtue, that people led ugly lives because lives in ugly places. The solution—rather, one aspect of the solution—was to make cities beautiful. Chicago was not the inventor of the notion but it was a famous showcase for it. While other reformers concentrated on improving sanitary conditions or opening missions like Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago, the City Beautiful leaders (upper-middle class, white, male), believed the emphasis should be on creating a beautiful city, which would in turn inspire its inhabitants to moral and civic virtue—and indeed Chicago’s own lakefront has been largely turned into a permanent World’s Columbian Exposition.
The story of the 1893 fair has been told and retold. We will here only summarize. The decision was made for a grand exposition to commemorate the discovery by Columbus of the New World, and Chicago, as the newest great city in that new world, argued forcefully to host it. The city seized the world’s eagerness to show itself to Chicago as an opportunity to show off Chicago to the world. The exposition grounds—rose from the more than 650 acres of muck that was then the undeveloped Jackson Park. In six months, the fair attracted more than 24 million visitors—as many as one in ten Americans went to Chicago to see it.
The World’s Columbian Exposition was conceived, ultimately, as a demonstration of a social Utopia, the Perfect City, to borrow the title of the useful 1991 history by James Gilbert, in which notions about order and the civilizing power of art were expressed architecturally. These were not wholly new notions, and the fair mainly confirmed tendencies already evident, but it struck a soothing chord with an anxious public that resonated for years with people—developers and architects and city planners—who cater, ultimately, to that public.
All utopias are experiments in illusion, but the illusion of the white city was deliberate. its “stone temples” were temporary steel-frame sheds lathered with white plaster. Dazzlingly vulgar, orderly, safe, and clean—the contrast to the real Chicago would not have been more dramatic.
The results have been described again and again. As it was the centerpiece of many a tourist’s visit to the city, it is the centerpiece of many an historian’s tour of Chicago golden age. Historian Donald Miller, summarizing the fair for a 2003 PBS documentary about Chicago, explained how visitors were whisked from Loop hotels aboard excursion boats to Jackson Park, landing and then emerging into the dazzling Court of Honor “And here's the new Chicago.”
If the touring public did not notice the old Chicago, journalists and the more determined travelers did. Much has been made then and now of the “two Chicagos” that were thus put on display—the ideal White City of the fair and the dark city of the “real” Chicago behind it, teeming and noisy and dirty and polyglot. Boosters failed to appreciate the extent to the which the White City made the real one look all the more shabby and grim, which rather undercut their hopes to impress the world by putting on such a gaudy show.
That the fair was the official rejection of everything that made Chicago Chicago was pointed out by impertinent visitors even at the time, and by historians ever since. What was on display was not a better Chicago but an un-Chicago. Indeed, in the end the World’s Columbian Exposition proved to be a model for no city. Architecture critic Alan Hess in a 1998 article notes that world’s fairs were in effect out-sized department stores—and the great department sores such as Marshall Field’s were mini-world’s fairs. “The new department stores on the outside resembled fragments of the White City,” Hess wrote, “but on the inside they evoked the hodgepodge of experience and visual stimulation and curiosities and entertainment offered by the Midway.”
The Century of Progress exposition
Having created one highly popular disposable Utopia, Chicago in the 1930s set out to build another one. A Century of Progress International Exposition festooned Northerly Island for the summers of 1933 and 1934, during which time nearly 40 million people had dropped by.
The Century of Progress was ill-named. The century of progress it was intended to celebrate was Chicago’s, as it marked the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the city. Yet it was organized at a time when the city had been moving backward for decades. Since the World Columbian Exposition, the city’s reputation had been sullied by gangsters and barnyard politics, the World War I Red Scare, street warfare between blacks and whites in 1919. Because of the economic crash, new construction in Chicago all had but stopped. So many people were out of work that fears of the workers' revolt that never quite materialized in the 1870s and ‘80s were revived.
Civic self-confidence—never before in short supply in Chicago—was scarce. Like its more famous predecessor, the fair was the gift of the city’s wealthy. (No tax money was used, mainly because Chicago didn’t have any.) No surprise that the fair turned out to be a paean to commerce, as informed by consumer science. If the icon of the 1893 fair was the classical sculpture, that of the 1933 version was the gadget. Nearly two dozen corporations built pavilions in which to deliver their pitches for new cars, dishwashers, and air conditioning. (The most lavish of these was the Ford Building.) Its unofficial motto: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms” would not have sounded as sinister in 1933—at least in the U.S., but it must have struck residents of the Fascist Europe of the time like a cold dank wind.
Just as the World Columbian Exposition had offered carnival rides and faux streets from exotic cities, this part of the 1933 fair had its sideshow aspects. (“Living babies in incubators” was one exhibit.) The star of the fair was stripper Sally Rand, she of the famous fan dance. Robert Rydell has noted that Rand’s calculated undress was meant to spoof Chicago matrons who were calculatedly overdressed, but it was not the prospect of social comment through dance that excited the yokels.
The 1933 fair was supposed be a celebration of the past, yet its architecture was aggressively modern, and the utopia it hinted at—unlike that of the 1893 fair, which was rooted in the classical past—was to be found in the future. As popular entertainment the fair was a success, and it wasn’t bad as prognostication either. The future, it turned out, would be very like the world’s fair and Century of Progress, whose sanitized urbanism has survived instead in the department store and the enclosed malls that descend from it (the White City of the current era is Woodfield, the massive mall in suburban Schaumburg), and kindred shopping malls across the region. ●