Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Chicago History Museum and Old Town

A few days ago, I drew up an ambitious plan for today . . . and decided this morning to put it aside in favor of exploring the city's north side.

First stop: the Chicago History Museum. I started out in its permanent Chicago: Crossroads of America exhibit, which interprets the history of Chicago and northern Illinois from the time of its settlement by Native Americans to its rise as a meat processing, industrial, and transportation center. As might be expected, the exhibit is vast and sweeping, and I really can't do it justice.

Not surprisingly, a significant portion of it focuses on the October 1871 fire that destroyed about four square miles of the city, killed more than two hundred people, and left roughly a third of the city's residents homeless. 19th century Chicago was ripe for disaster: the rapidly growing city consisted of densely packed wood-frame buildings, and many homeowners kept hay and livestock in adjacent wood-frame barns. (Contrary to popular legend, Catherine O'Leary -- whose status as an immigrant and a Catholic made her a handy scapegoat -- and her cow are not to blame for the the fire.)

The diorama above is actually located in another section of the museum, but I'm including it here because it conveys the scale of the devastation. (This diorama is one of a series that was built in the 1930s. Generations of Chicagoans have known and loved them.)

The Chicago: America at the Crossroads exhibit many artifacts from the fire, including this fused-together cluster of marbles.

Paradoxically, the fire paved the way for rapid expansion. Donations of money and supplies poured into the city, its building codes were revised, and business owners and land speculators rushed to rebuild. The city's architects pioneered the use of structural steel frames, which made it possible to build unprecedentedly tall buildings with unprecedentedly large windows -- thus helping to give modern Chicago its distinctive character.

Many of the new steel-framed buildings featured decorative terra cotta tiles that were produced in the city. Visitors are encouraged to touch this tile, which was produced by the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company.

The exhibit also highlights the labor struggles that accompanied the city's rise to industrial power. One section focuses on the Haymarket Riots, which remains one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in American history. During an anarchist-led 4 May 1886 rally protesting police violence against striking McCormick Harvesting Machine workers, someone hurled a bomb at the police line. Eight police officers and four workers died as a result, and authorities responded by arresting and trying eight people who had either helped to organize the rally or were otherwise involved in the city's anarchist organizations. Despite the absence of credible evidence tying the eight anarchists to the bomb-thrower (whose identity is still unknown), all eight were convicted and four of them were hanged.

The exhibit features fascimiles of the first and second versions of the flyers publicizing the rally; the museum's Research Center holds the originals. The original, which contains the sentence "Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force!" was pulled at the urging of anarchist labor activist August Spies, who asserted that he would not take part in the rally if this statement appeared on the flier; the revised flier appears on the left. His insistence that the flier be revised was of little interest to prosecutors, who introduced both versions into evidence. Spies and three other Haymarket defendants were hanged on 11 November 1887 -- and became labor movement martyrs.

The exhibit also focuses on another widely known aspect of Chicago history: its reputation as a hotbed of organized crime. Throughout the 20th century, Chicago was not only home to gangsters such as Al Capone but also to a large publishing industry that sought to capitalize upon the public's appetite for lurid gangland tales -- as evidenced by this pulpy 1931 Lake Michigan Publishing Company item.

Chicago: Crossroads of America also highlights the fairs and expositions that made the city the subject of global interest. Above, a scale model of the stunning Art Deco Chrysler Motors pavillion erected for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition.

An adjacent temporary exhibit focusing upon the city's Lincoln Park neighborhood is downright lighthearted at times -- as evidenced by the hat that Mrs. Walter Krutz created by crocheting together segments of cans of Meister Brau. The brewery that produced Meister Brau ceased operations in 1978.

Another permanent exhibit focuses on Chicago as it existed during Abraham Lincoln's lifetime. It consists chiefly of portraits of notable Chicagoans, but two haunting artifacts -- a plaster death mask of Lincoln's face and the bed upon which Lincoln died -- stand at its entrance.

I spent quite a bit of time in Out in Chicago, which focuses on the history of the city's large and varied lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. It traces the economic and social changes that made it possible for sexual orientation and gender identity to become organizing principles of people's lives, highlights LGBT individuals as varied as those created by educated and affluent settlement house women and rough-and-tumble slaughterhouse and factory workers, traces changes in conceptions of sexuality, gender, and family, and documents the emergence of LGBT social, political, and economic institutions. Photography isn't permitted in the Out in Chicago exhibit, so I can't share any of its riches with you. All I can do is encourage you to see it if you can.

After a leisurely lunch, I explored the adjacent neighborhood of Old Town on foot. Old Town was initially settled by Germans and was rebuilt after the 1871 fire gutted much of the neighborhood. For much of the twentieth century, it was home to substantial numbers of artists, hippies, and lesbians and gay men -- many of whom were gradually priced out of the neighborhood. It remains a tranquil and pleasant place.

West Eugenie Street is home to many Queen Anne townhomes -- which reminded me instantly of Albany, New York's Center Square neighborhood.

More ornate row homes at the corner of West Eugenie and Crilly Court . . .

. . . just a short distance away from modest homes that housed working-class people. These houses must have been built after the 1871 fire but before passage of the 1874 city law barring construction of wooden structures.

This little house at 350 Menomenee Street may not look like much, but it really is: it is one of the few surviving fire-relief shanties built by the Chicago Relief and Aid Society in the wake of the 1871 fire. These two-room shanties were, at a cost to the city of approximately $100 each, transported by wagon to fire-devastated lots and provided shelter for displaced homeowners. The legacy of the 1871 fire is ever-present, and sometimes it manifests itself in the most unexpected ways.


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