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Thursday, December 08, 2005



this ap piece on the pace of change in chicago made my head wobble for a moment as i tried to comprehend its irony.

"It's about business and making Chicago safe for business, and if that means flushing a historic name down the toilet, that is what will be done," Fine said. "All you need to know is Chicago is tearing down real Victorian buildings at the same time it is putting up fake Victorian streetlights."
it makes me wonder just how much of their own history some chicagoans truly understand.

chicago was always the city of the future, the beacon of revolution, postmodernity and everything after in the western world, risen from nothing to a global metropolis in thiry years, was built, burned to dust and built again but larger. chicago was the avant garde of communism, of socialism, of anarchism, of suffrage, of vice, of art, of architecture, of commerce, of capital, of labor, of unity and of chaos -- it's been said that, in the fin de siecle, civilization peered into the unknowable through the lens of chicago. and it was terrifying. said historian perry depuis of the global reaction to the haymarket riot:

It was front-page news around the world. Remember Chicago is the world's window into the future. People from around the world really saw it as what city life was going to be like for them perhaps 10 or 20 years down the road. And when you got into the labor violence, what appeared to be proletarian riots, it was very frightening to people in many places around the world.
chicago was the seething cauldron from which the new world would be cast, for better and for worse. chicago was the white city of the exhibition masking the revolution of louis sullivan and the mountain range of the prairie built by man with the thinnest verneer of beaux arts, hastily applied by those sensitive to chicago's sudden detachment from all which came before it, who vaguely questioned -- without comprehending -- the consequences of abandoning the ancient anchor of western civilization. it was the plastic chicago of henry adams, the abandonment of old tradition and the adoption of the ideal in a "rupture in historical sequence":

One sat down to ponder on the steps beneath Richard Hunt's dome almost as deeply as on the steps of Ara Coeli, and much to the same purpose. Here was a breach of continuity -- a rupture in historical sequence! Was it real, or only apparent? One's personal universe hung on the answer, for, if the rupture was real and the new American world could take this sharp and conscious twist towards ideals, one's personal friends would come in, at last, as winners in the great American chariot-race for fame. If the people of the Northwest actually knew what was good when they saw it, they would some day talk about Hunt and Richardson, La Farge and St. Gaudens, Burnham and McKim, and Stanford White when their politicians and millionaires were otherwise forgotten. The artists and architects who had done the work offered little encouragement to hope it; they talked freely enough, but not in terms that one cared to quote; and to them the Northwest refused to look artistic. They talked as though they worked only for themselves; as though art, to the Western people, was a stage decoration; a diamond shirt-stud; a paper collar; but possibly the architects of Paestum and Girgenti had talked in the same way, and the Greek had said the same thing of Semitic Carthage two thousand years ago.
if chicago now risks death to grasp for some semblance of its shallow roots in victorian lampposts and department store names, it is only because it has spent its whole history destroying history and now is finding how disorientingly little there is left to stand on when the past has been made to dissolve under the applied force of man's ideas alone.

as chicago continues to fade now from the forefront of the world, perhaps it is appropriate that latter-day chicagoans disavow the thoughts and words of their revolutionary ancestors to cower in reactionary fear of what the cult of speed and perpetual change has wrought, left to dogmatically console themselves by protesting new stadiums and new buildings and really just about anything new.

but that will not and cannot constitute a preservation of the history of chicago -- for chicago was built as a city without history, only a future, for better and for worse.

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