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How Chicago Made the ‘Great West’

Editor’s Note: New Urbs occasionally reviews classics of urbanism and architecture, showing how these great books remain relevant to the public discourse about the future of our built environment.

[1]First published in 1991, Nature’s [1] Metropolis [1] is a fantastic book that well deserves its reputation as a classic. Part history, part sociological study, part economic analysis, and part ecological survey, William Cronon examines the growth of Chicago by studying the city’s 19th-century relationship to the larger “Great West” (more or less the once-sparsely settled regions between the Ohio River Valley and the Pacific). He does this by analyzing, in fascinating detail, the city and its surrounding territory in three areas: transportation (water and rail), physical commodities (grain, lumber, and meat), and capital. For each topic, he focuses both narrowly on how each developed and changed over time, and more broadly on how each affected the city and the larger Great West. I suppose to some this sounds boring—but as far as I’m concerned, Cronon nearly magically retains the reader’s interest throughout.

If Cronon has an overriding theme, it is that a sharp distinction between city and country, or between humans and nature, is an illusion, and a damaging one. Rather, they are all an interdependent whole, each continuously changing the other. This sounds like a cliché, but it is not one in Cronon’s hands. As he takes pains to make clear, Nature’s Metropolis is not a comprehensive history of the city or the Great West. Rather, it is a story about how the city shaped the Great West, while being shaped itself by the Great West. This shaping is primarily viewed through commodity flows, including the commodities themselves and how they were transported. Famous people are not the focus; culture and politics are only addressed in passing and where actually relevant; and, fortunately, ideology and political correctness make no appearance at all.

Cronon repeatedly refers to, and reacts to, “central place theory”—attempts to systematize and base in mathematics the growth of urban-rural systems such as Chicago. Cronon clearly thinks that while the theory has value, central-place theorists make claims of systematization that are inaccurate at best; the real world is a messier place than a mathematical theory allows for. And much of his book is an attempt to remove an artificial sharp distinction between rural and urban areas. Still, Cronon relies heavily on Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s concentric circle analysis, from 1826, of the zones that surround a city, from intensive agriculture closest to the city to wilderness at the farthest extent. Von Thünen, an economist, was focused on the economic viability of production, particularly as dictated by the cost of transport of different types of goods produced in different areas.  Chronologically, Cronon demonstrates how over time the zones around Chicago developed and changed, from covering only a few miles from the city center to stretching, by the end of the 19th century, all the way to the cities of the Pacific coast.

Cronon begins at the very beginning, when Chicago was merely a minor gathering place for American Indians and European traders, distinguished mostly by abundant wild garlic. (The name “Chicago” is a corruption of a Miami Indian word for garlic—just the first of many things I learned about Chicago from this book, even though I lived there for 12 years.) The Chicago River existed, but was short, silted and access to it was blocked by a large sandbar (and, famously, it flowed the other way from where it does now). Commerce via large-scale transport was therefore minimal. But once the Indians “sold” the local land to the white man in the 1830s, speculators and their closely allied teammates, “boosters,” swept in. Boosters appear again and again in Cronon’s work, both in Chicago and in other cities—men who preached the gospel of the inevitability of a city’s rise, and thus the opportunities available both for commerce and land speculation. Without boosters, Chicago would not necessarily have grown as it did, or ultimately occupied the position it does. Advertising, in other words, was a crucial feature of the city’s growth.

Not that the boosters were all that good at predictions—they mostly adjusted their hucksterism to fit what was happening around them, just projecting it into the future and giving it a hyper-optimistic gloss. Thus, they praised the inevitable rise of Chicago due to its proximity to water routes (the Great Lakes and, at first indirectly, and then directly through canals, the Mississippi)—but failed to predict the supersession of water by rail. Nonetheless, when rail arrived, and with it the increased dominance of Chicago over other contenders such as St. Louis, boosters quickly switched their tune and simply sang harder the praises of Chicago.

As water gave way to rail, more goods could be produced in more locations and shipped more quickly to the city for sale. And, in reverse, the city could ship to its hinterland more goods, both those produced in the city and those made farther east by the much more developed regions of the United States. Chicago’s role, and therefore its growth, was further enhanced by the Eastern rail systems terminating at Chicago and the Western rail systems originating at Chicago, requiring (at least initially) break-bulk trans-shipment through the city, which created all sorts of economic opportunities for local merchants and service providers, such as operators of grain elevators.

After covering transport, Cronon turns to physical commodities, beginning with grain (primarily wheat). Much of his focus is on the diminishing costs of transport, but even more is on the fascinating development of standardization in grain grading and the consequent ability to create a liquid market in a truly fungible good. This, together with mass centralized storage through the new technology of grain elevators, which allowed vastly lower holding costs, meant that fungible grain was traded easily and quickly, rather than trade necessitating the use of sacks of grain identified with a specific farmer until their final sale to the end user. The Chicago Board of Trade was intimately involved with these developments, which further resulted in the creation of the allied futures market, with its ability to reduce risks for farmers and provide additional liquidity for the market—and, not incidentally, to make huge fortunes for speculators and those willing to risk trying to corner the market.

The result was a backlash by farmers, most notably the Grange movement, who were incensed by what they saw as unproductive parasites profiting off the farmer’s labor. This ultimately resulted in state regulation of grain storage, transport, and sale to curb the worst abuses. Cronon has sympathy for the Grange, but, as he points out, in any market governed by abstractions such as grain grades, opportunities for profit exist in the ambiguities contained in the boundaries—and middlemen, whether exploiting ambiguities or “merely” brokering, experience profit as well as loss. This is shown by the failure of the Grangers in their attempts to eliminate the middleman—they were not efficient or good at it, and mostly simply absorbed “the middleman’s loss,” rather than his gain.

With grain, too, Cronon talks much about how the changing demand and structure of the grain market changed nature—this book is, after all, titled Nature’s Metropolis. What was once limitless prairie soon enough was plowed for grain, permanently changing, though always in shifting ways, the face of the land. This conversion from “first nature” to “second nature,” the latter often incorrectly viewed by city dwellers as “real nature,” is a theme Cronon returns to throughout his book.

After grain, Cronon turns to two other commodities that are nearly as equally fascinating—lumber and meat. Who knew that vast areas of what constitute Chicago’s modern near west side were once covered with square miles of stacked lumber, or that Chicago took in billions of board feet of logs, turned them into lumber, and sold them throughout the states of the Great West? Not me, at least. Unlike grain, though, lumber never developed the same type of ultra-efficient market, in part because it was never possible to fully standardize and turn fungible. And soon enough, the wood near to Chicago (which mostly arrived cheaply by water, at least at the beginning) ran out, and the lumber trade was ceded to other regions of the country. When lumber ran out, it left behind vast despoiled regions in Wisconsin and Michigan, the “Cutover,” which contributed to vast forest fires, further destroying first nature—and killing lots of people, including (amazingly) around 2,000 people at one time in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in 1871. The regeneration of the area into what it is today, for recreation and wood pulp, only took place decades later.

The history of meat in Chicago is better known than that of lumber, perhaps because meatpacking lasted much longer, into living memory, if only as a shadow of its former glory. Cronon covers how Chicago began with pork in competition with Cincinnati; moved into cattle as refrigeration technology, combined with the slaughter of the bison and the changing of western grazing land into range land, permitted greater trade in cattle; and ended, for a while, as meatpacker to the world. (Nearby Hammond, Indiana, was named for a man who moved there to harvest vast quantities of ice, to refrigerate meat, from the Calumet River.)  The business was predatory, in the sense that the giant meatpackers like Armour deliberately destroyed the local butchers throughout the Great West, but they offered the best prices and quality, so that destruction was functionally inevitable.

All these trades, especially railroads and meatpacking, required massive amounts of capital, so Cronon wisely covers capital separately and in detail, basically as another type of commodity. I found this section of the book less fascinating, since tangible goods are more interesting to me than abstract money. (I am very interested in tangible money, however.) Not that this section is uninteresting—in particular, Cronon did extensive original research into bankruptcy filings, to analyze who owed money to whom at various points during Chicago’s rise, and in particular who provided financing to Chicago merchants and manufacturers, and how. Here he shows how Chicago’s capital net, the area from which it received financing, was much wider than cities that thought they were competing with Chicago, such as Milwaukee or Minneapolis, or even those that really were competing but ultimately came in second place, such as Cincinnati and St. Louis (the cause of whose ultimate second-place finish Cronon assign to the railroads, as well as the Civil War). In this section on capital, Cronon also examines the spread of the capital-intensive market for farm machinery, which relied heavily on the development of efficient credit markets.

Finally, Cronon evaluates Chicago when it had clawed its way to the top, through the lens of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Cronon’s focus is less on the famous individual exhibitions and more on how the World’s Fair concealed the dependence of the city on second nature, and furthermore broadly concealed the web of relationships between the city and the Great West. In a similar vein, new suburbs were designed to offer a polished, sanitized version of the nature whose modification and production made the city possible.  Cronon’s point is, again, that a sharp division between “urban” and “rural” is a fiction—any city is a dynamic system of constant interplay and exchange between the two, and Chicago is a particularly dramatic exemplar of that principle. Even less are they opposed to each other, whatever city slickers or the Grangers may think—they instead need each other, often in ways that are totally invisible to both.

Charles Haywood writes from Indianapolis, Indiana. This article originally appeared at his blog, The Worthy House [2].

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "How Chicago Made the ‘Great West’"

#1 Comment By Cash On July 28, 2017 @ 10:25 am

Cronon’s explanation for why Chicago blew away New York when it came to putting up architecturally distinguished high-rise buildings, starting in late 19th century, is utterly brilliant. (New Yorkers were building monuments to themselves, while in Chicago the buildings were going up before they had tenants signed up. That distinction drove design and construction methods.)

He’s one of those rare historians whose insights are so sharp they become Ground Zero for how you think about the topic. Even if you disagree, you have to engage with what he wrote.

#2 Comment By Heyseed On July 28, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

Just which ‘urban-rural divide” is supposed to be debunked here? The fact that economically, the entire region is tied together as one big market does not prevent there from being serious cultural and political differences between rural and urban.

As a lifelong resident of rural Central Illinois, these kinds of essays always seem to me to be an effort to subliminally convince me that I should be glad that corrupt Chicago politicians completely dominate Illinois state government, and that I have a duty to root for the Cubs. Sorry, I’m not glad and I won’t.

#3 Comment By Rambler89 On July 28, 2017 @ 7:06 pm

An electoral map from the last election will show that the urban-rural divide is radical, and one of the fundamental realities of our time.

“Not that the boosters were all that good at predictions—they mostly adjusted their hucksterism to fit what was happening around them, just projecting it into the future and giving it a hyper-optimistic gloss.”

That describes New Urbanism to a T.

#4 Comment By Barry On July 28, 2017 @ 11:40 pm

Thanks for posting this!

#5 Comment By Scott Gibbons On July 29, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

great analysis and of much historical interest. however, natural resources and labor are much less important now and we live in a new economy. things are changing rapidly. The Rise of Power Cities and the Age of Trump [3]