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Urban renewal, Chicago style
"About two o'clock we were awakened by a very bright light and a great noise of carts and wagons," Mary Fales remembered. She lived on Chicago's North Side with her husband, David. The window to their bedroom faced north, and Mary concluded that a fire had broken out in that direction. Fires were not uncommon in Chicago or other cities in America in the decades after the Civil War. Mary assumed that Chicago's fire brigade would get the fire under control.
David went outside to investigate and came back with alarming news. "David found that the fire was not at all on the North Side, but was burning so furiously on the South Side that the whole sky was bright," Mary wrote. Still, they did not feel threatened, for the Chicago River lay between them and the flames and would surely serve as a moat.
The flames hardly noticed the river. The updraft they created carried burning embers across the water and rained them down on buildings on the north bank. These structures, tinder dry after weeks without rain, exploded into a new front of flame.
Mary and David had no choice but to run for their lives. "I cannot convey to you how the streets looked," Mary told her mother afterwards. "Everybody was out of their houses, without exception, and the sidewalks were covered with furniture and bundles of every description. The middle of the street was a jam of carts, carriages, wheelbarrows and every sort of vehicle. Many horses were being led along, all excited and prancing, some running away."
Between the fire and the traffic jam, escape seemed nearly impossible. Many of the refugees retreated to the Lake Michigan shoreline. The fire pinned them on the beach, driving some waist deep into the water when the heat grew too intense. For hours they wondered if they would die by burning or drowning.
But the fire ran out of fuel before things came to that. And then from the heavens, seemingly sent by Heaven itself, rain began to fall. The drops were light and scattered at first, but they grew larger and more numerous. "I never felt so grateful in my life," Mary Fales said.
She surveyed the ruins the next day. "Every family I know on the North Side is burned out," she told her mother. "I can't enumerate them. It would be useless. It is sufficient to say, every individual one."
When Chicago officials did enumerate the losses, they discovered that 17,000 buildings had been destroyed or damaged. More than 300 people died in the fire, and 100,000 lost their homes. The core of Chicago, some 2,000 acres, was a smoldering ruin.
Indians on the buffalo prairies west of Chicago had discovered that regular burning of the prairie grasses rejuvenated them and kept the vast herds returning year after year. The 1871 Chicago fire now had a similar effect on the city. Chicago's rapid growth in the previous two decades had produced a hodgepodge of houses, shanties, shacks and derelict buildings that impeded redevelopment. Some owners of the structures and the land beneath them were willing to sell to developers, but others were not. And their refusal prevented large projects from moving ahead. The city as yet lacked ordinances to compel such sales.
The great fire solved the problem. It cleared the ground and bankrupted or demoralized many of the most recalcitrant. To facilitate reconstruction, the city streamlined the legal process of putting together large plots and launching the building of new structures.
The timing was perfect. America's industrialization was spawning novel construction techniques, which in turn inspired innovative design concepts. The best architects in America and some of the best in the world flocked to Chicago to take advantage of its suddenly blank slate.
The timing was perfect in another regard. A financial panic in 1873 triggered a depression that reduced the competition for architects, workers and construction supplies. And after the depression ended, rapid growth in the American economy enhanced the value of Chicago's location, where the commerce of the East met the resources of the West.
In most cities, replacing the inventory of major buildings ordinarily requires many decades or even centuries. The fire allowed Chicago to accomplish the same goal in less than two decades.
By the early 1890s the leaders of Chicago were looking for a way to proclaim to the world that the city was doing better than ever. The four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's European discovery of the New World gave them their opportunity.
The grounds of the Columbian Exposition, an early version of a world's fair, were dedicated in October 1892; the fair itself filled the warm months of 1893. Millions of people traveled to Chicago to marvel at the progress the city had made. The imposing array of buildings that scraped the sky above the city seemed a wonder of the age.
The Chicago skyline remains a wonder. Some of the buildings from that era persist, and they are complemented by newer structures inspired by the post-fire boom. But the city’s evolution since the 1890s has been incremental rather than revolutionary. Chicago has become more careful with fire.