Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age

Article excerpt

Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age. By Ann Durkin Keating (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Pp. X, 262. Illus., notes, index. Paper, $25.00).

I am reasonably certain that Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age will possess considerable appeal to anyone interested in the history of the Chicago region. I am quite certain that it will be much appreciated by those who like to try to read the history of a place in its built environment, since the book provides a wealth of information to aid those who, like this reviewer, are given to this kind of historical detective work.

Candor compels announcement right at the outset that there are hurdles to the enjoyment of this work. One is the sentences in the text that contain fugitive extra words, or lack a needed word, or bear some other tell-tale sign that the proofreader was absent without leave. Another is sentences here and there that would not pass muster with Messrs. Fowler and Cowers. Another is the occasional sentence that, although formally correct, is constructed in such a way that its meaning is not captured on a first read. There are also a few footnotes that consist, in large part, of information contained in the main text, even quite proximate main text.

In the end, however, these are small barriers to the reader's enjoyment, and especially so in the best parts of the book, those that illustrate the development of Chicagoland in the nineteenth century and, to a lesser extent, the early part of the twentieth century. The exposition starts with a review of the changes that occurred in the region's settlement patterns from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the arrival of the railroads at mid-century, then takes up, in turn, the development of the four kinds of railroad-age settlements into which the author sorts the region's population centers, namely farm villages, industrial towns, commuter suburbs, and recreational and institutional centers, and then turns to two examples of the conflicts that arose as the inhabitants of these different kinds of settlements confronted one another's competing visions of the good life as the region grew denser.

A knowledgeable reader might, I suppose, take issue with the classification to which a particular population center is assigned, or to the exactness of some parallel that is identified in the way different areas of the region were developing at a given time. But these would be decidedly minor cavils. The strong facts are that these parts of the book contain a great quantity, and a great variety, of information about the growth of the region during the period under review, that the story of that growth is well anchored to specific places and specific structures which mark the kind of development being explored, that the reader's grasp of the classification of the railroad age's population centers is much benefited by maps that show the distribution of those centers by reference to their original raison d'etre, that the written word is supplemented by an arresting collection of illustrations with interesting captions, and that abundant footnotes point the way to more information on most facets of the story. It is hard to imagine anyone, accomplished historian or curious dilettante, who would not find new and interesting information in this material, and a lot of other information which if not new is worth absorbing anew. …