Chicago from the Second Story on Up

August 19, 2008

The Great Chicago Fire of 1878 was a seminal moment in the history of the city.  Tragic at the time, it’s probably the single greatest reason for the thriving modern city.  It provided a chance to start over with a plan.  The rebuilding effort gave great architects like Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham a blank canvas from which to create a revolution in city planning and building design.  Even today, politicians and local activists decry the development of some public property as being opposed to Burnham’s master plan of the city.

Ironically, the city actually looks nothing like Burnham’s plan. A huge tapestry with a reproduction of the city plan hangs in the lobby of a prominent downtown skyscraper – open to visitors who take the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Modern Skyscraper Tour.  The plan shows a radial street plan converging at a single city center and a grand boulevard similar to the Champs Elysées in Paris.  Chicago actually has a regular rectangular street grid.  Burnham’s major boulevard actually ran perpendicular to Michigan Avenue (the Magnificent Mile).  The most lasting legacy is the preservation of the waterfront for public use.  However, much of the current waterfront park system was really made possible by landfill (debris from the fire and, later, engineered soil fill) into Lake Michigan.

Ultimately, economics superseded the plan and the laws of supply and demand resulted in a construction boom in the central area of town nestled between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.  Today, locals call this area The Loop.  It’s so named because the elevated light rail system (called the “El”, get it?) forms a closed circle around the business district.  Much of the El runs through the city, above the streets, providing an interesting view of the city from the second floor up.

Another irony of Chicago’s role as an architectural leader is that the soil is really lousy for supporting large structures.  So while cities like Paris and New York were busy digging subways through rigid limestone, engineers in Chicago were faced with soupy clay.  Two subway lines do run through the city, but old construction accounts indicate that the work almost collapsed several buildings.  Many of the major innovators in geotechnical engineering did their pioneering work in Chicago.

The El is now over 100 years old.  Decades of expansion and repair have done little to change the overall look and feel of the system.  To fit on the narrow elevated tracks, the cars are narrower than in most new transit systems.  To get close to someone in Chicago, you need only ride the El into the loop during rush hour.  The transit authority faces a serious challenge of accommodating the all-time high level of ridership, while the government becomes more reluctant to fund public transit.

Like the reopened speakeasies and blues bars, the El connects people with the city’s rich history.   Unlike some other historic ghosts, the El is a functioning reality that the city cannot live without.

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