Chicago: Violence and architecture

August 24, 2021
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I DO like Chicago, the lakeside city in the state of Illinois. The vibe, the musicals, the hustle and bustle of almost ten million people and then the glimmering city lights on Lake Michigan. Everything about it is completely wondrous: it’s no wonder Chicago is a star attraction on the list of US cities for tourists.

Chicago rose to prominence as a processing centre for livestock in the original cowboy era, the generation or so after the American Civil War. Cattle were driven (and later, sent by rail) from pastures in places such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to be butchered on an industrial scale in Chicago, and the meat then sent out to all the cities of the populous eastern states in insulated railway cars which were packed with ice.

Along with the fact that Chicago was located halfway between the Wild West cattle-herders and their eastern markets, an abundance of water, and cold local winters that made it possible to harvest huge amounts of ice, were the other reasons why Chicago was a good place for the meat-packing trade to flourish in the days before mechanical refrigeration had been perfected.

The city was rebuilt after a notorious 1873 fire. Twenty years after the fire, a World’s Fair was attended by 23 million people. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 showcased the massed use of electric lights for the first time in a great display of illumination that came to be called the ‘White City’. A visionary 1909 plan by Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett gave further shape to Chicago. And the city had more than its share of heroic public works as well.

For instance, in 1900, the flow of the Chicago River was reversed down a newly created ship canal in order to keep Lake Michigan and the city environs pure. Only a low ridge, less than five metres high, stood between the watershed of Lake Michigan and the watershed of the Mississippi River. The increasingly polluted Chicago River flowed sluggishly through almost flat terrain into the lake, with pollution observably making it as far as Chicago’s drinking water inlet, located two miles out in the lake at the time, in 1885.

The reversal of the river toward the Mississippi flushed the city’s wastes, including the effluvium of its many slaughterhouses and stockyards, into what is still called the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

This canal made it possible to link the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi, which is dredged to a depth of at least 9 feet (2.7 metres) all the way up to St Paul, Minnesota, for barge navigation. At the same time, a tremendous and unceasing flow of water out of Lake Michigan via the canal, and its length (28 miles or 45 kilometres), diluted the sewage and slaughterhouse waste to a degree considered acceptable by the standards of the time.

It thus became possible to tow barges from the Great Lakes all the way down to Galveston via Chicago, increasing Chicago’s importance even further.

When I was there, Chicago was a ‘sanctuary city’, meaning that its officials turned a blind eye to illegal immigrants. Sanctuary cities justified this policy on the grounds that illegal immigrants from countries such as Mexico (thought to number about eleven million across the USA) would be more likely to lead law-abiding lives and enrol their children properly in school, vaccinate their children, and so on, if they did not in fact fear deportation as a consequence of coming into contact with local officials. In effect, sanctuary cities took the view that federal immigration laws were as unworkable and socially harmful as Prohibition: a policy that led to the level of gangsterism with which the Chicago of the 1920s and 1930s was so notoriously associated.

The name Chicago is thought to refer to an abundance of wild garlic, known in current native American spelling from this region as shikaakwa. The explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was the first European known to have recorded Chicago as a placename, spelt Chécagou, in 1679.

Soldiers, trappers and farmers followed, and in 1830 a pioneering town was founded; a town that officially became a city on 4 March 1837. Chicago boomed into the third most populous metropolitan area in the USA after greater Los Angeles and greater New York. The population of greater Chicago today is almost ten million people.

I feel privileged to have visited Chicago. But, while I love the city I don’t look at things through rose-tinted glasses either. Everything has its negatives and downsides too.

I was staying at the Freehand hostel in the inner city for about 80 dollars a night. Freehand had a great range of facilities and was quite upmarket for that price.

I walked around the popular hub at Navy Pier and got some good snaps of the skyline at sunset — gorgeous! The streets are clean, and the city has a well-thought-out skyline where buildings cannot block other people’s views.

Youth under eighteen need adult company around the city and by the river after certain times at night! I liked this idea — it makes sense! I like that you have to be twenty-one years of age to purchase alcohol in the USA, not eighteen years of age like at home in New Zealand. Signs also prohibit cyclists from riding in pedestrian areas.

Regrettably, some of the public order issues in Chicago are more serious than that. Chicago has a history of violence, including murderous ‘race riots’ in 1919, which were really a pogrom against the city’s African Americans and something that happened in a lot of other cities in the USA at around that time.

And, the Chicago-gangster era of the 1920s and 1930s, fuelled by the profits of illicit booze-brewing and smuggling from Canada in the Prohibition era. As with the city’s legitimate industries, the fact that Chicago is a national transportation hub also made it the northern hub of the illicit booze trade.

In recent years, the city also gained the nickname of ‘Chiraq’ for its very high rate of gun violence, an echo of the 1930s organised-crime gangster era, except that now they are called ‘gangstas’, and aren’t so organised.

Often there are several shootings a day, dozens over a weekend. Over the July 4th weekend in 2017, more than a hundred people were shot in Chicago. There were 762 killings in 2016 in Chicago, a nearly 60% rise on 2015, and it is estimated that gunshot wounds in the city cost $2.5 billion a year to treat.

Part of the problem is that while Chicago, like Los Angeles and New York, has strict gun-control laws, the city is surrounded by other states and even parts of Illinois that have lax gun-control laws. The city of Gary, Indiana, where gun ownership is much more loosely regulated, almost abuts Chicago, and gang members have no trouble obtaining guns there and smuggling them into Chicago. Still, it is obviously a syndrome with many causes. Tightening up the gun laws in Gary would surely be only the first step toward getting Chicago’s culture of violence under control.

On a brighter note, the latest buildings include environmentally sustainable air conditioning through a chilled water system operated by a firm called Enwave Chicago. A company produces chilled water at five strategically located downtown Chicago plants, where they pump chilled water through a trench for miles underground. The chilled water is generated using environmentally sustainable techniques, which in Chicago mostly consist of the slow melting of ice frozen in winter and stored in giant blocks for summer.

In Toronto, Enwave employs the even more interesting method of drawing near-freezing water from the deep bottom of Lake Ontario for the city’s water supply and using the coldness of this deep water to cool the CBD on the way to the water treatment plant. Unfortunately, Lake Michigan is too shallow at the south end near Chicago, the headwater end of the lake that has normally drained north, for that to work.

I went on a river cruise organised by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which proved to be well worth it. There seem to be several architectural boat tours going, and this was just one of them!

I saw Jeanne Gang’s astonishing Aqua Tower, completed in 2010. Its undulating balconies serve as sunshades and also break up the flow of the wind around the building. Regular balconies would not do that, and in fact very tall buildings do not normally have balconies on the upper floors because it would be too windy outside. Thus, the building is even cleverer than it looks.

I loved the Marina Complex by Bertrand Goldberg, an apartment project with shared facilities that was intended to provide affordable inner-city accommodation for workers in the 1960s.

The first reinforced concrete building in Chicago was the Montgomery Ward Company Complex, 800 West Street, which was completed in 1908 and was perhaps the first building in the style that would later come to be known as Art Deco.

There were other architectural classics including the 1924 Wrigley building and the later 1974 Willis Tower, which was known as the Sears Tower in the 1970s and was the tallest building in the United States until the completion of the new building on the World Trade Centre site.

I loved the retrofitting of old industrial buildings into apartments. I wasn’t in this downtown precinct of Chicago for long enough, and it is one place I will always come back to.

Then I got a bit of a reality check. I found an article about ‘Tent City’. Tent City was a part of Uptown Chicago which was an area for homeless people to stay. Government agencies had set up schooling close by and other facilities to support the homeless people there. This sounded a lot like the ‘Hoovervilles’ of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The city gave the order in September for the residents of Tent City to move out or be bulldozed out, so they could begin construction on new condos, apartments and shops in the area. This drew immediate criticism, saying that the city was picking on the homeless rather than sorting out the actual cause of homelessness.

A group of people created the Tent City Organization in support of the many homeless people who have literally nowhere to go: all the shelters are full.

I found this statement online from one of the members of the organisation, and it resounds with logic: “House them in Uptown. Permanently. Before the viaducts close. Put your money where your mouth is. Start spending those 100’s of millions of CHA [Chicago Housing Authority] and Airbnb dollars. At the very least, designate another tent city area in Uptown, so at least people can fend for themselves. People have to be somewhere.”

(From ‘Yehuda’, ‘Alderman Cappleman’s “Abusive” is exactly the same thing as Trump’s Alternative Facts’, 8 May 2017,

It was quite sad really, and something I did not like about Chicago.

I think it is a serious issue, and Chicago is not the worst affected place. Statistically, among OECD nations, that is in fact New Zealand. But I saw more of it in Chicago because of what I had read about ‘Tent City’.

I do not prejudge people, especially the homeless. I don’t know them, and I don’t know each and every individual story as to why they are homeless. The homeless people I have talked to I don’t believe should be where they are. They are generally intelligent people and bad luck has resulted in them being where they are.

As one commentator on the website of the Memphis Flyer puts it: “Every successful person, if they are in any way honest, will admit to at least one, and usually a series of incredibly lucky breaks.” (From comment by ‘Jeff’ beneath Wendi Thomas, ‘The Power of Poverty’, Memphis Flyer, September 25, 2014.) All quite true. And then on the other hand there are people whose luck runs out or who never have much luck in the first place, usually because of where they don’t live and who they don’t know.

It was on a bit of a sour and serious note that I left Chicago. I definitely wanted to come back to the city. But I had to keep moving. I was headed for Montana, a serious distance away. But first, I wanted to see Milwaukee.

Note: see, further, Andy Dahn, ‘City shuts down homeless tent city in uptown’, CBS Local (Chicago), 26 September 2016; Stav Ziv, ‘Child homelessness in U. S. reaches historic high, report says’, Newsweek, 17 November 2014.)


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