Shock City to Chic City; the Transformation of Chicago

By Channick, Herbert S. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Shock City to Chic City; the Transformation of Chicago


Channick, Herbert S., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Chicago: A Geography of the City and its Region. By John C. Hudson. With Chicago Portfolio, 84 plates, edited and curated by George F. Thompson. (Santa Fe, Chicago and other cities: The Center for American Places and The University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp 356. illus., maps, charts, index. Cloth, $45.00).

Chicago: Metropolis of the Mid-Continent, Fourth Edition. By Irving Cutler. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006. Pp. 384. illus., notes, bib., appendices, index. Cloth, $57.50; Paper $22.95).

Millenium Park: Creating a Chicago Landmark. By Timothy J. Gilfoyle. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. 361. color plates, halftones, maps, tables, appendices, notes, index. Cloth $45.00).

City 2000. Ed. Teri Boyd. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006. Pp. 276, photographs, essays, fiction, poetry. Cloth $49.95).

In his 1963 work, Victorian Cities, British urban historian Asa Briggs coined the term "shock city" to describe those cities that flourished as a result of the industrial revolution but at the same time were afflicted by slums and seemingly intractable social and environmental problems. For Briggs, Manchester was the prototypical shock city of the 1840s; Chicago the shock city of the 1890s.

When this reviewer first arrived in Chicago in the 1950s, the shock city label seemed to still fit very well indeed with widespread governmental corruption added to the unwelcome characteristics described by Briggs. And the city's air was incredibly dirty. I had grown up in Philadelphia, which I had never considered to be a particularly clean city, but I was entirely unprepared for the effect of a normal working day in Chicago during the long heating season. By afternoon, collars, shirt cuffs, and fingernails were lined in black, and I soon learned not to put drafts of contracts, briefs, or legal memoranda on the window sill behind my desk in what was then known as the Field Building, 135 South LaSalle Street, one of the city's most prestigious office addresses. If I did, in a matter of minutes the top page would be covered with a fine layer of soot.

Career developments took me away and then brought me back in the late '60s, and it seemed as though I had returned to a different city. Winters were still cold, but the soot was largely gone and the air seemed as clean as that of any of the major cities of the Northeast. In the interim Chicago had largely stopped relying on bituminous coal and turned to oil or natural gas to heat its homes and offices and to power its factories, and the railroads that crisscrossed the city were now largely diesel or electric powered. Bituminous coal was still used by electric power plants and the nearby steel mills but the dust at least was not spread through every street in the city. Further, reacting to increasing pressure from environmentalists and the government, the operators were adopting technological advances that greatly reduced soot and other pollutants, although this important struggle goes on to this day, particularly with respect to invisible pollutants such as greenhouse gases.

Other significant changes for the better had also begun to take place. German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe arrived in the city in 1938 to become head of the architecture program at the Armour Institute of Technology, later to become the Illinois Institute of Technology. Completed in 1951, his"glass houses"at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive had an enormous impact on the architectural world. Soon other outstanding buildings in the Miesian style such as as Skidmore, Owings and Memll's Inland Steel Building and C. F. Murphy Associates' Civic Center (now the Richard J. Daley Center) followed and Chicago was hailed, nationally and internationally, as a center of modern architecture. Frank Gehry, probably today's most celebrated architect, has described Chicago as "the best architectural city in America" and a place where "the body language of the city is more in the spirit of Paris" than any other American city. …

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Shock City to Chic City; the Transformation of Chicago
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