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Onions, forts and massacres

The Potawatomi Indians were the first folks in town, and they gave the name ‘Checaugou’ – or wild onions – to the area around the Chicago River’s mouth. Needless to say, they weren’t particularly pleased when the first settlers arrived in 1803. The newcomers built Fort Dearborn on the river’s south bank, on marshy ground under what is today’s Michigan Ave Bridge (look for plaques in the sidewalk marking the spot at the corner of Michigan Ave and Wacker Dr).

The Potawatomi’s resentment mounted, Dr Phil wasn’t around at the time to intervene, and bad things ensued. In 1812, the natives – in cahoots with the British (their allies in the War of 1812) – slaughtered 52 settlers fleeing the fort. The massacre took place near what is today Hillary Rodham Clinton Women’s Park. During the war this had been a strategy employed throughout the frontier: the British bought the allegiance of various Indian tribes through trade and other deals, and the Indians paid them back by killing American settlers. The people killed in Chicago had simply waited too long to flee the rising tension and found themselves caught.

After the war ended, everyone let bygones be bygones and hugged it out for the sake of the fur trade.

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Real estate boom

Chicago was incorporated as a town in 1833, with a population of 340. Within three years land speculation rocked the local real estate market; lots that sold for $33 in 1829 now went for $100,000. Construction on the Illinois & Michigan Canal – a state project linking the Great Lakes to the Illinois River and thus to the Mississippi River and Atlantic coast – fueled the boom. Swarms of laborers swelled the population to more than 4100 by 1837, and Chicago became a city.

Within 10 years, more than 20,000 people lived in what had become the region’s dominant city. The rich Illinois soil supported thousands of farmers, and industrialist Cyrus Hall McCormick moved his reaper factory to the city to serve them. He would soon control one of the Midwest’s major fortunes and have a big mansion on Astor St.

In 1848 the canal opened; shipping flowed through the area and had a marked economic effect on the city. A great financial institution, the Chicago Board of Trade, opened to handle the sale of grain by Illinois farmers, who now had greatly improved access to Eastern markets.

Railroad construction began soon thereafter, and tracks radiated out from Chicago. The city quickly became the hub of America’s freight and passenger trains, a position it would hold for the next 100 years.

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Bring on the bacon

By the end of the 1850s, immigrants had poured into the city, drawn by jobs on the railroads that served the ever-growing agricultural trade. Twenty million bushels of produce were shipped through Chicago annually by then. The population topped 100,000.

The city’s location smack dab in the middle of the country made it a favorite meeting spot, a legacy that continues to this day (which is why you’re paying out the nose for your hotel room). In 1860 the Republican Party held its national political convention in Chicago and selected Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, as its presidential candidate.

Like other northern cities, Chicago profited from the Civil War, which boosted business in the burgeoning steel and toolmaking industries, and provided plenty of freight for the railroads and canal. In 1865, the year the war ended, what took place profoundly affected the city for the next century: the Union Stockyards opened on the South Side.

Chicago’s rail network and the invention of the iced refrigerator car meant that meat could be shipped for long distances, satiating hungry carnivores all the way east to New York and beyond. The stockyards soon became the major meat supplier to the nation. But besides bringing great wealth to a few and jobs to many, the yards were also a source of water pollution.

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Stop the bacon!

The stockyard effluvia polluted not only the Chicago River but also Lake Michigan. Flowing into the lake, the fouled waters spoiled the city’s source of fresh water and caused cholera and other epidemics that killed thousands. In 1869 the Water Tower and Pumping Station built a two-mile tunnel into Lake Michigan and began bringing water into the city from there; they hoped this set-up would skirt the contaminated areas. Alas, the idea proved resoundingly inadequate, and outbreaks of illness continued.

Two years later, engineers deepened the Illinois & Michigan Canal so they could alter the Chicago River’s course and make it flow south, away from the city. Sending waste and sewage down the reversed river provided relief for Chicago residents and helped ease lake pollution, but it was not a welcome change for those living near what had become the city’s drainpipe. A resident of Morris, about 60 miles downstream, wrote: ‘What right has Chicago to pour its filth down into what was before a sweet and clean river, pollute its waters, and materially reduce the value of property on both sides of the river and canal, and bring sickness and death to the citizens?’ The guy had a point.

The river occasionally still flowed into the lake after heavy rains; it wasn’t permanently reversed until 1900, when the huge Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal opened.

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Burn baby burn – chicago inferno

On October 8, 1871, the Chicago fire started just southwest of downtown. For more than 125 years, legend has had it that a cow owned by a certain Mrs O’Leary kicked over a lantern, which ignited some hay, which ignited some lumber, which ignited the whole town. The image of the hapless heifer has endured despite evidence that the fire was actually the fault of Daniel ‘Peg Leg’ Sullivan, who dropped by the barn on an errand, accidentally started the fire himself and then tried to blame it on the bovine. (The Chicago City Council officially passed a resolution in 1997 absolving the O’Leary family of blame.)

However it started, the results of the Chicago fire were devastating. It burned for three days, killing 300 people, destroying 18,000 buildings and leaving 90,000 people homeless. ‘By morning 100,000 people will be without food and shelter. Can you help us?’ was the message sent East by Mayor Roswell B Mason as Chicago and City Hall literally burned down around him.

The dry conditions and mostly wood buildings set the stage for a runaway conflagration, as a hot wind carried flaming embers to unburned areas which quickly caught fire. The primitive, horse-drawn fire fighting equipment could do little to keep up with the spreading blaze. Almost every structure was destroyed or gutted in the area bounded by the river on the west, what’s now Roosevelt Rd to the south and Fullerton Ave to the north.

Mayor Mason did earn kudos for his skilful handling of Chicago’s recovery. His best move was to prevent the aldermen on the city council from getting their hands on the millions of dollars in relief funds that Easterners had donated after the mayor’s fireside plea, thus ensuring that the money actually reached the rabble living in the rubble.

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Make big plans

Despite the human tragedy, the fire taught the city some valuable lessons – namely, don’t build everything from wood. Chicago reconstructed with modern materials, and created space for new industrial and commercial buildings.

The world’s best architects poured into the city during the 1880s and 90s to take advantage of the situation. They had a blank canvas to work with, a city giving them lots of dough, and pretty much the green light to use their imagination to its fullest. The world’s first skyscraper soon popped up in 1885. Several other important buildings also rose during the era, spawning the ‘Chicago Style’ of architecture. Daniel Burnham was one of the premier designers running the show, and he summed up the city’s credo best: ‘Make no little plans, ’ he counseled Chicago’s leaders in 1909, ‘for they have no magic to stir men’s blood… Make big plans.’

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Gimme a break

Labor unrest had been brewing in the city for a few years. In 1876, organized strikes began in the railroad yards as workers demanded an eight-hour workday and rest breaks. The turbulence spread to the McCormick Reaper Works, which was then Chicago’s largest factory. The police and federal troops broke up the strikes, killing 18 civilians and injuring hundreds more.

By then, May 1 had become the official day of protest for labor groups in Chicago. On that day in 1886, 60,000 workers went on strike, once again demanding an eight-hour workday. As usual, police attacked the strikers at locations throughout the city. Three days later, self-described ‘anarchists’ staged a protest in Haymarket Square; out of nowhere a bomb exploded, killing seven police officers. The government reacted strongly to what became known as ‘the Haymarket Riot.’ Eight anarchists were convicted of ‘general conspiracy to murder’ and four were hanged, although only two had been present at the incident and the bomber was never identified. A sculpture marks the square today.

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The White City debuts

The 1893 World Expo marked Chicago’s showy debut on the international stage. The event centered on a grand complex of specially built structures lying just south of Hyde Park. They were painted white and were brilliantly lit by electric searchlights, which is how the ‘White City’ tag came to be. Designed by architectural luminaries such as Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan and Frederick Law Olmsted, the fairgrounds were meant to show how parks, streets and buildings could be designed in a harmonious manner that would enrich the chaotic urban environment.

Open for only five months, the exposition attracted 27 million visitors, many of whom rode the newly built El train to and from the Loop. The fair offered wonders heretofore unknown to the world: long-distance phone calls, the first moving pictures (courtesy of Thomas Alva Edison’s Kinetoscope), the first Ferris wheel and the first zipper. Businessmen were in awe of the first vertical file (invented by Melvil Dewey, of Dewey Decimal System fame) and children were taken with a new gum called ‘Juicy Fruit.’ It was at this fair that Pabst beer won the blue ribbon that has been part of its name ever since.

The entire assemblage made a huge impact worldwide, and the fair’s architects were deluged with commissions to redesign cities. The buildings themselves, despite their grandeur, were short lived, having been built out of a rough equivalent of plaster of Paris that barely lasted through the fair. The only survivor was the Fine Arts Building, which was revamped to become the Museum of Science & Industry.

Around this time, society legend Bertha Palmer was following the lead of other Chicago elite by touring Paris. A prescient art collector, she nabbed Monets, Renoirs and other impressionist works before they had achieved acclaim. Her collection later formed the core of the Art Institute.

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The great migration

In 1910 eight out of 10 blacks still lived in the southern states of the old Confederacy. Over the next decade a variety of factors combined to change that, as more than two million African Americans moved north in what came to be known as the ‘Great Migration’.

Chicago played a pivotal role in this massive population shift, both as an impetus and as a destination. Articles in the black-owned and nationally circulated Chicago Defender proclaimed the city a worker’s paradise and a place free from the horrors of Southern racism. Ads from Chicago employers also promised jobs to anyone willing to work.

These lures, coupled with glitzy images of thriving neighborhoods like Bronzeville, inspired thousands to take the bait. Chicago’s black population zoomed from 44,103 in 1910 to 109,458 in 1920 and continued growing. The migrants, often poorly educated sharecroppers with big dreams, found a reality not as rosy as promised. Chicago did not welcome them with open arms. In 1919 white gangs from Bridgeport led days of rioting that killed 23 local black residents and 15 white ones. Employers were ready with the promised jobs, but many hoped to rid their factories of white unionized workers by replacing them with blacks, which further exacerbated racial tensions. Blacks were also restricted to living in South Side ghettos by openly prejudicial real-estate practices that kept them from buying or renting homes elsewhere in the city. The South Side remains predominately black to this day.

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Booze fuels the machine

Efforts to make the United States ‘dry’ had never found great favor in Chicago; the city’s vast numbers of German and Irish immigrants were never ready to forsake their favored libations. During the 20th century’s first two decades, the political party that could portray itself as the ‘wettest’ would win the local elections. Thus the nationwide enactment of Prohibition in 1920 (the federal constitutional amendment making alcohol consumption illegal) was destined to meet resistance in Chicago, where voters had gone six to one against the law in an advisory referendum. However, few could have predicted how efforts to flout Prohibition would forever mark Chicago’s image on a global scale, thanks to a gent named Al Capone.

An important year for the city, 1933 saw Prohibition repealed and a thirsty populace return openly to the bars. Another world’s fair, this time called the Century of Progress, opened on the lakefront south of Grant Park and promised a bright future filled with modern conveniences. Then, in the same year, Ed Kelly became mayor. With the help of party boss Pat Nash, he strengthened Chicago’s Democratic Party, creating the legendary ‘machine’ that would control local politics for the next 50 years. Politicians doled out thousands of city jobs to people who worked hard to make sure their patrons were reelected. The same was true for city vendors and contractors, whose continued prosperity was tied to their donations.

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Da mayor #1: Richie J Daley

The zenith of the machine’s power began with the election of Richard J Daley in 1955. Initially thought to be a mere party functionary, Daley was reelected mayor five times before dying while still in office in 1976. With an uncanny understanding of machine politics and how to use it to squelch dissent, he dominated the city in a way no mayor had before. His word was law, and a docile city council routinely approved all his actions, lest a dissenter find his or her ward deprived of vital city services.

Under ‘the Boss’s’ rule, corruption was rampant. A 1957 Life magazine report called Chicago’s cops the most corrupt in the nation. Although Daley and the machine howled with indignation over the article, further exposés by the press revealed that some cops and politicians were in cahoots with various crime rings. None of this was news to the average Chicagoan.

Chicago’s voting practices were also highly suspect, never more so than in 1960, when John F Kennedy ran for president of the United States against Richard Nixon, then vice president. The night of the election, the results were so close nationwide that the outcome hinged on the vote in Illinois.

Mayor Daley called up Kennedy and assured him that ‘with a little bit of luck and the help of a few close friends, you’re going to carry Illinois.’ Kennedy did win Illinois, by 10, 000 votes, and that granted him the presidency. For many, that was the perfect embodiment of electoral politics in Chicago, a city where the slogan has long been ‘Vote early and vote often, ’ and voters have been known to rise from the grave to cast ballots.

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Hippies & riots come to town

The year 1968 proved an explosive one for Chicago. When Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, the Chicago’s West Side exploded in riots and went up in smoke. Whole stretches of the city were laid to waste, and Daley and the many black politicians in the machine were helpless to stop the violence. Worse yet, the city’s hosting of the Democratic National Convention in August degenerated into a fiasco of such proportions that its legacy dogged Chicago for decades.

With the war in Vietnam escalating and general unrest quickly spreading through the US, the convention became a focal point for protest groups of all stripes. However, regardless of the tempest brewing, conservative old Mayor Daley – the personification of a ‘square’ if there ever was one – was planning a grand convention. Word leaked out that protesters would converge on Chicago, sparking authorities’ plans to crack the head of anybody who got in the way of Daley’s show. Local officials shot down all of the protesters’ requests for parade permits, despite calls from the press and other politicians to uphold the civil right of free assembly.

Enter Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale and David Dellinger – members of the soon-to-become ‘Chicago Seven.’ They called for a mobilization of 500,000 protesters to converge on Chicago. As the odds of confrontation became high, many moderate protesters decided not to attend. When the convention opened, there were just a few thousand young protesters in the city. But Daley and his cronies spread rumors to the media to bolster the case for their warlike preparations. Some of these whoppers included claims that hippie girls would pose as prostitutes to give the delegates venereal diseases and that LSD would be dumped into the city’s water supply.

The first few nights of the August 25–30 convention saw police staging midnight raids on hippies and protesters attempting to camp in Lincoln Park. The cops went on massive beating sprees, singling out some individuals for savage attacks. Teenage girls were assaulted by cops who shouted, ‘You want free love? Try this!’. Journalists, ministers and federal Justice Department officials were appalled.

The action then shifted to Grant Park, across from the Conrad Hilton (now the Chicago Hilton & Towers), where the main presidential candidates were staying. A few thousand protesters held a rally, which was met by an overwhelming force of 16,000 Chicago police officers, 4000 state police officers and 4000 members of the National Guard armed with tear-gas grenades, nightsticks and machine guns. When some protesters attacked a few officers, the assembled law enforcers staged what investigators later termed a police riot. Among the lowlights: cops shoved bystanders through plate-glass windows and then went on to beat them as they lay bleeding amid the shards; police on motorcycles ran over protesters; police chanted ‘Kill, kill, kill!, ’ swarmed journalists and attempted to do just that; and when some wounded conventioneers were taken to the hotel suite of presidential candidate Gene McCarthy, cops burst through the door and beat everybody in sight.

The long-term effects of the riots were far greater that anyone could have guessed. The Democratic candidate for president, Hubert Humphrey, was left without liberal backing after his tacit support of Daley’s tactics, and as a result, Republican Richard Nixon was elected president. Chicago was left with a huge black eye for decades.

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Polishing the rust

Meanwhile, the city’s economy was hitting the skids. In 1971 financial pressures caused the last of the Chicago stockyards to close, marking the end of one of the city’s most infamous enterprises. Factories and steel mills were also shutting down as companies moved to the suburbs or the southern US, where taxes and wages were lower. Chicago and much of the Midwest earned the moniker ‘Rust Belt,’ describing the area’s shrunken economies and rusting factories.

But two events happened in the 1970s that were harbingers of the city’s more promising future. The world’s tallest building (at the time), the Sears Tower, opened in the Loop in 1974, beginning a development trend that would spur the creation of thousands of high-paying white-collar jobs. And in 1975, the Water Tower Place shopping mall brought new life to N Michigan Ave.

The city’s first and only female mayor – the colorful Jane Byrne – took the helm in 1979. She opened Chicago up to filmmakers, allowing the producers of The Blues Brothers to demolish part of the Daley Center. Moviemaking remains an important city revenue generator today.

Byrne’s reign was followed by that of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, in 1983. His legacy was the success of the African American politicians who followed him. Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun’s election to the US senate in 1992 can be credited in part to Washington’s political trailblazing. Jesse Jackson Jr and Barack Obama are a couple of other names that come to mind.

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Da mayor #2: Richie M Daley

In 1989 Chicago elected Richard M Daley, the son of Richard J Daley, to finish the remaining two years of Harold Washington’s mayoral term (Washington died in office).

Like his father, Daley had an uncanny instinct for city politics. First, he made nice with state officials, who handed over hundreds of millions of public dollars. Among the projects that bore fruit were an O’Hare airport expansion, a huge addition to the McCormick Place Convention Center and the reconstruction of Navy Pier. He also restructured old, semi-independent bureaucracies such as the Park District and Department of Education. And he entertained the city as well. Daley proved himself prone to amusing verbal blabber, such as this classic, his explanation for why city health inspectors had closed down so many local restaurants: ‘Whadda ya want? A rat in yer sandwich or a mouse in yer salad?’

Despite falling to the third-largest US city, population-wise, in the 1990 census (behind New York and LA), the ’90s were a good decade for Chicago. In 1991 the Chicago Bulls won the first of six national basketball championships. The 1994 World Cup soccer opening ceremony focused international attention on the city. And in 1996 a 28-year-old demon was exorcised when the Democratic National Convention returned to Chicago. City officials spent millions of dollars spiffing up the city, and thousands of cops underwent sensitivity training on how to deal with protestors. The convention went off like a dream and left Chicagoans believing they were on a roll.

And when you’re on a roll, who else do you thank but the guy who seems to have made it all possible? Daley won his re-election bids in 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007, pretty much by a landslide every time. If he finishes out his current term through 2010, he’ll become Chicago’s longest-running mayor. The previous record holder? His dad, who was Chicago’s mayor for 21 years.

That’s not to say the guy doesn’t have issues. In 2003 he bulldozed the lakefront commuter airport of Meigs Field in an autocratic show of power. In 2005, the ‘Hired Truck scandal’ cast an awkward shadow over his administration, when it was discovered that city staff had been accepting bribes in exchange for giving lucrative trucking contracts to companies that never actually did any work. The investigation later widened to include more aspects of the city’s patronage system.

Shiny Happy City

A lot of Chicagoans sigh when they hear about the shenanigans at City Hall. Then they point out all the flowers planted along the streets downtown, and how the once-trashed sidewalks are now clean. What’s a little graft when the city looks so good?

Take Millennium Park for example. Sure it was four years late in opening and hundreds of millions of dollars over the original cost estimate. And a buddy of the mayor’s held the contract to build it, until he had to be fired for not getting the job done properly. But damn, look at that gleaming park now. It’s sensational and the whole world agrees.

Uber-buildings like the Chicago Spire are once again soaring above the clouds, and the city is ambitiously planning for the 2016 Olympics.

As a wise man named Burnham once said, ‘Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work.’ Apparently the city continues to take his advice

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Shiny Happy City

A lot of Chicagoans sigh when they hear about the shenanigans at City Hall. Then they point out all the flowers planted along the streets downtown, and how the once-trashed sidewalks are now clean. What’s a little graft when the city looks so good?

Take Millennium Park for example. Sure it was four years late in opening and hundreds of millions of dollars over the original cost estimate. And a buddy of the mayor’s held the contract to build it, until he had to be fired for not getting the job done properly. But damn, look at that gleaming park now. It’s sensational and the whole world agrees.

Uber-buildings like the Chicago Spire are once again soaring above the clouds, and the city is ambitiously planning for the 2016 Olympics.

As a wise man named Burnham once said, ‘Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work.’ Apparently the city continues to take his advice

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