9 things you didn’t know about Chicago

St. Regis building, Chicago

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The real founding father
I just recently overcame my amazement that Alexander Hamilton was not Anglo-American but from the Caribbean island of Nevis, contrary to the lore of America’s Founding Fathers. Thanks to the musical, this has become common knowledge,.

But now I learn that Chicago was not founded by French fur traders but by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a black man from Haiti. Not until 2009 was a memorial erected for this pioneer, sponsored by another Haitian. Contemplating the bust of this man made me aware of how few memorials there are of non-whites. I was glad to see this one.

Bust of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, founder of Chicago,

Windy City
Muttering at the cold wind while dragging a suitcase to my hotel, I kept telling myself not to be surprised. After all, Chicago is nicknamed “the Windy City.” But other cities in the U.S. are even breezier. “Windy” was an insult leveled at the city by its late 19th-century rival, Cincinnati, Ohio, particularly in reference to Chicago’s baseball team, the White Stockings, founded with the express purpose of defeating Cincinnati’s team, the Red Stockings. These names were later shortened to what we now know as the White Sox and Red Sox, to fit better into newspaper headlines.

The Great Chicago Fire
Every American schoolchild knows about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and what caused it: Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.

This popular children’s song tells the story:

Late one night, when we were all in bed

Old lady Leary lit a lantern in the shed

And when the cow kicked it over

She turned around and said

It’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight

FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!

Such a lovely little ditty. And so much fun to sing at summer camp, as I can attest to from personal experience. The only problem is that it is pure fiction, invented by a journalist desperate to deliver an interesting article, a tactic which has recently gained in popularity.   

But seriously – all he could come up with was a cow?

If you’re going to make something up, you should plumb the depths of your creative well. I’d like to propose a few alternatives: Two teenagers dared each other to torch the house of the local oddball neighbor. Or: a train was running late and sped up so fast that its wheels caught on fire. Chicago was a rail hub then as now, so this version would track.

Another theory proposes that the fire was caused by meteorites that fell that night in Chicago and in other towns in neighboring states, where fires also occurred. The area was also suffering from a prolonged drought. Since everything –buildings, sidewalks, and bridges – was made of wood, the fire and a strong wind quickly burned through it all.

Who you callin’ Second City?
Chicago is called the “Second City.” This does not mean second to New York, and at this juncture, I wish to extend my most sincere apologies to New Yorkers; you have a great city and we all love it, but truly, it’s not the only one, and the fact that you refer to it as “the city” won’t make it so.

“Second City” refers to how Chicago rose from the ashes of the 1871 fire. Afterwards, Chicagoans did what German cities did after being bombed. They took out an old city map, gave it hard look, and said: “Eeehhh…we can do better.”

The architect Dankmar Adler then redesigned the city with a more generous layout, moving buildings back from the street and creating breathing room between them. This explains why I felt like I was in New York while walking around, but without the need to keep my elbows pinched against my ribs to prevent me from colliding with someone.

First a criminal, then a hero
Chicago’s architecture also profited from WWII in a surprising way. By banning the Bauhaus style of architecture, the Nazis sent the iconic architect Mies van der Rohe fleeing. Their loss was Chicago’s gain. His signature skyscrapers and those of his protégés now grace the banks of the Chicago River.

Frenchified
Like many American city names, Chicago’s name is a French contortion of a Native American word. Shikaakwa in the Algonquian language was the name for the garlic growing on what was then marshland, lending a certain pungent odor to the air.

And you call my river polluted?
As a native of the greater Cleveland area, I felt a distinct schadenfreude to learn some history about the Chicago River. Everyone gives my home city a bad rap because its river, the Cuyahoga (a Native American word meaning “crooked river”), was once so polluted that in 1969, it caught fire. Thankfully most of the people who remember this are either dead or don’t live in the same country I do (or both), so I don’t have to force a wan smile when hearing yet another joke about it.

Turns out the Chicago River was so dirty that city officials had to come up with an astounding idea to get rid of the stink: they built a canal to reverse the river’s direction to send all the sewage away from the lake instead of into it. It connected the Chicago River to the Mississippi River, lowering the level of the water and presto! The garbage flowed in the other direction, much to the dismay of anyone downstream.

But the canal also gave a huge boost to trade, as it gave the city access to the Mississippi River and thus the Gulf of Mexico.

On track for success
Chicago’s success stems partly from its juxtaposition between the Great Lakes’ western end and the eastern edge of the country’s breadbasket, the Great Plains. This location made it the crux of the train network taking shape in the 19th century.

The explosive growth of railroads triggered an innovation we now take for granted: internationally synchronized clocks. The necessity of coordinating train schedules across the vast North American continent inspired representatives from across the world to come together to create an internationally harmonized system of timekeeping.

The meeting place: Greenwich, England, hence the expression Greenwich Mean Time or GMT.

An outstanding building
A final fun fact about Chicago that towers above the others. On the last leg of a river tour of Chicago architecture, our guide pointed out the tallest building in the world to be designed by a female architect, Jeanne Gang, the St. Regis. Right there on the Chicago River, just before the mouth to Lake Michigan.

That brought a big smile to my face.

Brenda Arnold

Title photo (by Brenda Arnold): St. Regis building (the tallest building visible), the tallest building in the world to be designed by a woman, Jeanne Gang

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