America To-Day, Observations and Reflections/Letter IX

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America To-Day, Observations & Reflections  (1900)  by William Archer
Letter IX


Chicago—Its Splendour and Squalor—Mammoth Buildings—Wind, Dust, and Smoke—Culture—Chicago's Self-Criticism—Postscript: Social Service in America.

New York.

When I was in America twenty-two years ago, Chicago was the city that interested me least. Coming straight from San Francisco—which, in the eyes of a youthful student of Bret Harte, seemed the fitting metropolis of one of the great realms of romance—I saw in Chicago the negation of all that had charmed me on the Pacific slope. It was a flat and grimy abode of mere commerce, a rectilinear Glasgow; and to an Edinburgh man, or rather boy, no comparison could appear more damaging. How different is the impression produced by the Chicago of to-day! In 1877 the city was extensive enough, indeed, and handsome to boot, in a commonplace, cast-iron fashion. It was a chequer-board of Queen Victoria Streets. To-day its area is appalling, its architecture grandiose. It is the young giant among the cities of the earth, and it stands but on the threshold of its destiny. It embraces in its unimaginable amplitude every extreme of splendour and squalor. Walking in Dearborn Street or Adams Street of a cloudy afternoon, you think yourself in a frowning and fuliginous city of Dis, piled up by superhuman and apparently sinister powers. Cycling round the boulevards of a sunny morning, you rejoice in the airy and spacious greenery of the Garden City. Driving along the Lake Shore to Lincoln Park in the flush of sunset, you wonder that the dwellers in this street of palaces should trouble their heads about Naples or Venice, when they have before their very windows the innumerable laughter, the ever-shifting opalescence, of their fascinating inland sea. Plunging in the electric cars through the river subway, and emerging in the West Side, you realise that the slums of Chicago, if not quite so tightly packed as those of New York or London, are no whit behind them in the other essentials of civilised barbarism. Chicago, more than any other city of my acquaintance, suggests that antique conception of the underworld which placed Elysium and Tartarus not only on the same plane, but, so to speak, round the corner from each other.

As the elephant (or rather the megatherium) to the giraffe, so is the colossal business block of Chicago to the sky-scraper of New York. There is a proportion and dignity in the mammoth buildings of Chicago which is lacking in most of those which form the jagged sky-line of Manhattan Island. For one reason or another—no doubt some difference in the system of land tenure is at the root of the matter—the Chicago architect has usually a larger plot of ground to operate on than his New York colleague, and can consequently give his building breadth and depth as well as height. Before the lanky giants of the Eastern metropolis, one has generally to hold one's aesthetic judgment in abeyance. They are not precisely ugly, but still less, as a rule, can they be called beautiful. They are simply astounding manifestations of human energy and heaven-storming audacity. They stand outside the pale of aesthetics, like the Eiffel Tower or the Forth Bridge. But in Chicago proportion goes along with mere height, and many of the business houses are, if not beautiful, at least aesthetically impressive—for instance, the grim fortalice of Marshall, Field & Company, the Masonic Temple, the Women's Temperance Temple (a structure with a touch of real beauty), and such vast cities within the city as the Great Northern Building and the Monadnock Block. The last-named edifice alone is said to have a daily population of 6000. A city ordinance now limits the height of buildings to ten storeys; but even that is a respectable allowance. Moreover, it is found that where giant constructions cluster too close together, they (literally) stand in each other's light, and the middle storeys do not let. Thus the heaven-storming era is probably over; but there is all the more reason to feel assured that the business centre of Chicago will ere long be not only grandiose but architecturally dignified and satisfactory. 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 waggons and clanging trolley-cars. New York does not for a moment compare with Chicago in the roar and bustle and bewilderment of its street life. This remark will probably be resented in New York, but it expresses the settled conviction of an impartial pedestrian, who has spent a considerable portion of his life during the past few weeks in "negotiating" the crossings of both cities.

On the other hand, I observe no eagerness on the part of New York to contest the supremacy of Chicago in the matter of smoke. In this respect the eastern metropolis is to the western as Mont Blanc to Vesuvius. 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 thundercloud 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!"

What a wonderful city Chicago will be! That is the ever-recurring burden of one's cogitations. For Chicago is awake, and intelligently awake, to her destinies; so much one perceives even in the reiterated complaints that she is asleep. Discontent is the condition of progress, and Chicago is not in the slightest danger of relapsing into a condition of inert self-complacency. Her sons love her, but they chasten her. They are never tired of urging her on, sometimes (it must be owned) with most unfilial objurgations; and she, a quite unwearied Titan, is bracing up her sinews for the great task of the coming century. I have given myself a rendezvous in Chicago for 1925, when air-ships will no doubt make the transit easy for my septuagenarian frame. Nowhere in the world, I am sure, does the "to be continued in our next" interest take hold on one with such a compulsive grip.

Culture is pouring into Chicago as rapidly as pork or grain, and Chicago is insatiate in asking for more. In going over the Public Library (a not quite satisfactory building, though with some beautiful details) I was most of all impressed by the army of iron-bound boxes which are perpetually speeding to and fro between the library itself and no fewer than fifty-seven distributing stations scattered throughout the city. "I thought the number was forty-eight," said a friend who accompanied me. "So it was last year," said the librarian. "We have set up nine more stations during the interval." The Chicago Library boasts (no doubt justly) that it circulates more books than any similar institution in the world. Take, again, the University of Chicago: seven years ago (or, say, at the outside ten) it had no existence, and its site was a dismal swamp; to-day it is a handsome and populous centre of literary and scientific culture. Observe, too, that it is by no means an oasis in the desert, but is thoroughly in touch with the civic life around it. For instance, it actively participates in the admirable work done by the Hull House Settlement in South Halsted Street, and in the vigorous and wide-spreading University Extension movement.

At the present moment Chicago is not a little resentful of the sharp admonitions addressed to her by two of her aforesaid loving but exacting children. One, Professor Charles Zueblin, has been telling her that "in the arrogance of youth she has failed to realise that instead of being one of the progressive cities of the world, she has been one of the reckless, improvident, and shiftless cities." Professor Zueblin is not content (for example) with her magnificent girdle of parks and boulevards, but calls for smaller parks and breathing spaces in the heart of her most crowded districts. He further maintains that her great new sewage canal is a gigantically costly blunder; and indeed one cannot but sympathise with the citizens of St. Louis in inquiring by what right Chicago converts the Mississippi into her main sewer. But if Professor Zueblin chastises Chicago with whips, Mr. Henry B. Fuller, it would seem, lashes her with scorpions. Mr. Fuller is one of the leading novelists of the city—for Chicago, be it known, had a flourishing and characteristic literature of her own long before Mr. Dooley sprang into fame. The author of The Cliff-Dwellers is alleged to have said that the Anglo-Saxon race was incapable of art, and that in this respect Chicago was pre-eminently Anglo-Saxon. "Alleged," I say, for reports of lectures in the American papers are always to be taken with caution, and are very often as fanciful as Dr. Johnson's reports of the debates in Parliament. The reporter is not generally a shorthand writer. He jots down as much as he conveniently can of the lecturer's remarks, and pieces them out from imagination. Thus, I am not at all sure what Mr. Fuller really said; but there is no doubt whatever of the indignation kindled by his diatribe. Deny her artistic capacities and sensibilities, and you touch Chicago in her tenderest point. Moreover, Mr. Fuller's onslaught encouraged several other like-minded critics to back him up, so that the city has been writhing under the scourges of her epigrammatists. I have before me a letter to one of the evening papers, written in a tone of academic sarcasm which proves that even the supercilious and "donnish" element is not lacking in Chicago culture. "I know a number of artists," says the writer, "who came to Chicago, and after staying here for a while, went away and achieved much success in New York, London, and Paris. The appreciation they received here gave them the impetus to go elsewhere, and thus brought them fame and fortune." Whatever foundation there may be for these jibes, they are in themselves a sufficient evidence that Chicago is alive to her opportunities and responsibilities. She is, in her own vernacular, "making culture hum." Mr. Fuller, I understand, reproached her with her stockyards—an injustice which even Mr. Bernard Shaw would scarcely have committed. Is it the fault of Chicago that the world is carnivorous? Was not "Nature red in tooth and claw" several æons before Chicago was thought of? I do not understand that any unnecessary cruelty is practised in the stockyards; and apart from that, I fail to see that systematic slaughter of animals for food is any more disgusting than sporadic butchery. But of the stockyards I can speak only from hearsay. I shall not go to see them. If I have any spare time, I shall rather spend it in a second visit to St. Gaudens's magnificent and magnificently placed statue of Abraham Lincoln, surely one of the great works of art of the century, and one of the few entirely worthy monuments ever erected to a national hero.

Postscript.—The above-mentioned Hull House Settlement in South Halsted Street, under the direction of Miss Jane Addams, is probably the most famous institution of its kind in America; but it is only one of many. There is no more encouraging feature in American life than the zeal, energy, and high and liberal intelligence with which social service of this sort is being carried on in all the great cities. This is a line of activity on which England and America are advancing hand in hand, and however much one may deplore the necessity for such work, one cannot but see in the common impulse which prompts and directs it a symptom of the deep-seated unity of the two peoples. Nothing I saw in America impressed me more than the thorough practicality as well as the untiring devotion which was apparent in the work carried on by Miss Addams in Chicago and Miss Lillian D. Wald in Henry Street, New York. And in both Settlements I recognised the same atmosphere of culture, the same spirit of plain living, hard working, and high thinking, that characterises the best of our kindred institutions in England.

A lady connected with the University of Chicago, who is also a worker at the Hull House Settlement, told me a touching little story which illustrates at once the need for such work in Chicago, and the unexpected response with which it sometimes meets. She had been talking about the beauties of nature to a group of women from the slums, and at the end of her address one of her hearers said, "I ain't never been outside of Chicago, but I know it's true what the lady says. There's two vacant lots near our place, an' when the spring comes, the colours of them—they fair makes you hold your breath. An' then there's the trees on the Avenoo. An' then there's all the sky." On another occasion the same lady met with an "unexpected response" of a different order. She was showing a boy from the slums some photographs of Italian pictures, when they came upon a Virgin and Child. "Ah," said the boy at once, "that's Jesus an' His Mother: I allus knows them when I sees 'em." "Yes," said Miss R——, "there is a purity and grandeur of expression about them, isn't there——" "'Tain't that," interrupted the boy, "it's the rims round their heads as gives 'em away!"

Apart from the Settlements, there are many energetically-conducted societies in America for the social and political enlightenment of the masses. I have before me, for instance, a little bundle of most excellent leaflets issued by the League for Social Service of New York. They deal with such subjects as The Duties of American Citizenship, The Value of a Vote, The Duty of Public Spirit, The Co-operative City, &c. They include an admirable abstract in twenty-four pages of Laws Concerning the Welfare of Every Citizen of New York, and the same Society issues similar abstracts of the laws of other States. They have a large and well-equipped lecture organisation, and they issue excellent practical Suggestions for Conferences and Courses of Study. The problem to be grappled with by this Society and others working on similar lines is no doubt one of immense difficulty. It is nothing less than the education in citizenship of the most heterogeneous, polyglot, and in some respects ignorant and degraded population ever assembled in a single city since the days of Imperial Rome. The spread of political enlightenment in New York and other cities cannot possibly be very rapid; but no effort is being spared to accelerate it. I sometimes wonder whether the obvious necessity for political education in America may not, in the long run, prove a marked advantage to her, as compared, for instance, with England. Dissatisfaction, as I have said above, is the condition of progress. We are apt to assume that every Briton is born a good citizen; and in the lethargy begotten of that assumption, it may very well happen that we let the Americans outstrip us in the march of enlightenment.