January 23, 2009
On Chicago: The Horrifying Urbs in Horto
... A growing thirst for beauty has come upon the city, and architects are earnestly studying how to assuage it. In magnificence of internal decoration, Chicago can already challenge the world: for instance, in the white marble vestibule and corridors of The Rookery, and the noble hall of the Illinois Trust Bank.
At the same time, no account of the city scenery of Chicago is complete without the admission that the gorges and canyons of its central district are exceedingly draughty, smoky, and dusty. Even in these radiant spring days, it fully acts up to its reputation as the Windy City. This peculiarity renders it probably the most convenient place in the world for the establishment of a Suicide Club on the Stevensonian model. With your eyes peppered with dust, with your ears full of the clatter of the elevated road, and with the prairie breezes playfully buffeting you and waltzing with you by turns, as they eddy through the ravines of Madison, Monroe, or Adams Street, you take your life in your hand when you attempt the crossing of State Street, with its endless stream of rattling wagons and clanging trolley cars.
... The smoke of Chicago has a peculiar and aggressive individuality, due, I imagine, to the natural clearness of the atmosphere. It does not seem, like London smoke, to permeate and blend with the air. It does not overhang the streets in a uniform canopy, but sweeps across and about them in gusts and swirls, now dropping and now lifting again its grimy curtain. You will often see the vista of a gorge-like street so choked with a seeming thunder-cloud that you feel sure a storm is just about to burst upon the city, until you look up at the zenith and find it smiling and serene. Again and again a sudden swirl of smoke across the street (like that which swept across Fifth Avenue when the Windsor Hotel burst into flames) has led me to prick up my ears for a cry of "Fire!" But Chicago is not so easily alarmed. It is accustomed to having its airs from heaven blurred by these blasts from hell. I know few spectacles more curious than that which awaits you when you have shot up in the express elevator to the top of the Auditorium tower—on the one hand, the blue and laughing lake, on the other, the city belching volumes of smoke from its thousand throats, as though a vaster Sheffield or Wolverhampton had been transported by magic to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. What a wonderful city Chicago will be when the commandment is honestly enforced which declares, "Thou shalt consume thine own smoke!"
From: "America Today" by William Archer (1899). Reprinted in The Development of Chicago, 1674-1914 By Milo Milton Quaife
Photo Credit: Smoke obscures buildings on Michigan Avenue. DN-0006658, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society. Date Published: 1908