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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Iliveinacity: Noburdenforshoulderssobig

Published: March 23, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

I live in a city, yes I do, made by human hands.
–Malvina Reynolds

Come witness remarkable moments in the great cities we call home and the people who made them. Third in a series.

I. “Zolstu vaksn vi a tzibile…”

It was merely a French transliteration of shikaakwa, the Illinois-Algonquian word for leek, a mild-flavored, slender relative of the onion that once grew wild on the American prairie. It seems odd that a metropolis renowned for its tough spirit should have taken a name so apparently refined. Oddly appropriate, in fact…

Of all the choice curses that exist in the Yiddish language, one stands out as my favorite: “May you grow like an onion: With your head in the ground and your feet sticking up!” Hear such an insult hurled and suddenly the onion family loses its air of delicacy, revealing an image truly befitting the city's legendary brawn: Pungent and loud in flavor, sprouting un-self-consciously from the plains, reaching and growing as high as it can. A worthy name! Chicago.

II. “Show me another city singing so proud”

While the rapid growth of most major east coast cities in the Twentieth Century was spurred by a mixture of finance and industry, Chicago's early development was fueled mainly by the latter. The city's heavy manufacturing base was made possible by its central location where a navigable river meets Lake Michigan.

The opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 connected the Great Lakes with the Mississippi. An overland connection between the two was also completed that year with the opening of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad. The projects enabled Chicago to become the nation's undisputed transport hub, both for rail- and water-based freight. These, with the proliferation of farming in the American Midwest, also gave Chicago the edge in becoming the center for a burgeoning meatpacking industry, and lent the city a uniquely independent, working-class character that was masterfully captured by resident poet Carl Sandburg:

“Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders…
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning…”

III. The Smoldering Lie

He confessed to fabricating the story years later in the Chicago Tribune. But in 1871, while reporting for the Chicago Republican, Michael Ahern effectively revised history in the interest of creating intriguing news copy…

On the evening of 8 October, in an alley behind the O'Leary house on DeKoven Street, an ordinary cowshed caught fire. Over the next two days, four square miles of the mostly-wooden city were obliterated.

Although neighbors came out right away to assist, and in fact managed to protect the O'Leary home, no fire alarm was pulled for forty minutes. Then the guard on watch mistook the glow in the sky for the re-kindled remains of a fire from the previous day, and so, dispatched firefighters to the wrong neighborhood.

The evening's winds pushed the flames northeast, toward the Chicago River. Downtown lay on the other side, and few residents there bothered to evacuate. Blowing sparks reaching the far bank found abundant fuel waiting in the form of wooden sidewalks and lumber- and coal yards.

The downtown area, hemmed in on three sides by the river and Lake Michigan, had few routes of escape. Firefighters from surrounding neighborhoods were slowed in their attempts to cross the river bridges by fleeing residents. As the blaze accelerated, general panic spread with equal speed.

An urban disaster raged uncontrolled for two days until rain brought it to an end. Over seventeen-thousand buildings, and a third of the city's property value, were destroyed.

While Ahern's story attributed the blaze to the overturning of a lantern by Catherine O'Leary's cow, the true cause was never discovered. Although he admitted the lie after her death, the story would become so rooted in popular legend in the intervening decades that Americans to this day blame the animal.

At the time, however, the conflagration was a fresh and painful tragedy, and the desire for a public scapegoat found an undeserving target in the cow's owner, a poor Irish immigrant. Mrs. O'Leary spent the rest of her life under a cloud of suspicion.

IV. The Spark that Endures

What exists in the dubious reputation of being Hog Butcher for the World that its keepers would find worth preserving? Any answer, however elusive, can be found only in the compressed hindsight of history. Here we find the unlikely city, known better for grit than glamour from its very beginnings, not merely emerging from ruin, but managing to sustain a surge in population from three-hundred thousand to 1.7 million in the ensuing three decades. Such is evidence of an enduring, intangible spark in Chicago that no rain can extinguish.

The adopted native son who penned the famous verse about his hog-butchering hometown would probably agree: Show me a city so proud just to be alive, and there you will discover the quintessential, resilient character of the American community, sustained with the tenacity of fire in the collective heart, and built by the common work of human hands.

[ Pastel on green canvas ]

[ Chronicles of a town in motion ]