A Middle-Western Miracle Chicago – American Travel

IMAGINE a young demigod, product of a union between Rodin’s “Thinker” and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and you will have my symbol of Chicago.

Chicago is stupefying. It knows no rules, and I know none by which to judge it. It stands apart from all the cities in the world, isolated by its own individuality, an Olympian freak, a fable, an allegory, an in-comprehensible phenomenon, a prodigious paradox in which youth and maturity, brute strength and soaring spirit, are harmoniously confused.

Call Chicago mighty, monstrous, multifarious, vital, lusty, stupendous, indomitable, intense, unnatural, aspiring, puissant, preposterous, transcendent—call it what you like—throw the dictionary at it ! It is all that you can do, except to shoot it with statistics. And even the statistics of Chicago are not deadly, as most statistics are.

First, you must realize that Chicago stands fourth in population among the cities of the world, and second among those of the Western Hemisphere. Next you must realize that there are people still alive who were alive when Chicago did not exist, even as a fort in a swamp at the mouth of the Chicago River—the river from which, by the way, the city took its name, and which in turn took its own name from an Indian word meaning “skunk.”

I do not claim that there are many people still alive who were alive when Chicago was n’t there at all, or that such people are feeling very active, or that they re-member much about it, for in 102 years a man forgets a lot of little things. Nevertheless, there are living men older than Chicago.

Just one hundred years ago Fort Dearborn, at the mouth of the river, was being rebuilt, after a massacre by the Indians. Eighty-five years ago Chicago was a village of one hundred people. Sixty-five years ago this village had grown into a city of approximately the present size of Evanston—a suburb 0f Chicago, with less than thirty thousand people. Fifty-five years ago Chicago had something over one hundred thousand in-habitants. Forty-five years ago, at the time of the Chicago fire, the city was as large as Washington is now—over three hundred thousand. In the ten years which followed the disaster, Chicago was not only entirely rebuilt, and very much improved, but also it in-creased in population to half a million, or about the size of Detroit. In the next decade it actually doubled in size, so that, twenty-five years ago, it passed the million mark. Soon after that it pushed Philadelphia from second place among American cities. So it has gone on, until today it has a population of two million, plus a city of about the size of San Francisco for full measure.

There are the statistics in a capsule paragraph. I hope you will feel better in the morning. And just to take the taste away, here ‘s another item which you may like because of its curious flavor : Chicago has more Poles than any other city except Warsaw.

One knows in advance what a visitor from Europe will say about New York, just as one knows what an American humorist will say about Europe. But one never knows what any visitor will say about Chicago. I have heard people damn Chicago—”up hill and down” I was about to say, but I withdraw that, for the highest hill I remember in Chicago is that ungainly little bump, on the lake front, which is surmounted by Saint Gaudens’ statue of General Logan.

As I was saying, I have heard people rave against Chicago and about it. Being itself a city of extremes, it seems to draw extremes of feeling and expression from outsiders. For instance, Canon Hannay, who writes novels and plays under the name of George A. Birmingham, was quoted, at the time of his recent visit to this country, as saying : “In a little while Chicago will be a world center of literature, music, and art.

British writers will be more anxious for her verdict than for that of London.. Thy music of the future will be hammered out on the shores of Lake Michigan. The Paris Salon will be a second-rate affair.”

Remembering that the Canon is an Irishman and a humorist—which is tautology—we may perhaps discount his statement a little bit for blarney and a little more for fun. His “prophecy” about the Salon seems to stamp the interview with waggery, for certainly it is not hard to prophesy what is already true—and, as everybody ought to know by now, the Salon has for years been second-rate.

The Chicago Art Institute has by all odds the most important art collection I visited upon my travels. The pictures are varied and interesting, and American painters are well represented. The presence in the institute of a good deal of that rather “tight” and “sugary” painting which came to Chicago at the time of the World’s Fair, is to be regretted—a fact which is, I have no doubt, quite as well known to those in charge of the museum as to anybody else. But as I remarked in a previous chapter, most museums are hampered, in their early days, by the gifts of their rich friends. It takes a strong museum indeed to risk offending a rich man by kicking out bad paintings which he offers. Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has not always been so brave as to do that.

“Who’s Who” (which, by the way, is published in Chicago) mentions perhaps a score of Chicago painters and sculptors, among the former Lawton S. Parker and Oliver Dennett Grover, and among the latter Lorado Taft.

There are, however, many others, not in “Who’s Who,” who attempt to paint—enough of them to give a fairly large and very mediocre exhibition which I saw. One thing is, however, certain : the Art Institute has not the deserted look of most other art museums one visits. It is used. This may be partly accounted for by its admirable location at the center of the city—a location more accessible than that of any other museum I think of, in the country.. But whatever the reason, as you watch the crowds, you realize more than ever that Chicago is alive to everything—even to art.

Years ago Chicago was musical enough to support the late Theodore Thomas and his orchestra—one of the most distinguished organizations of the kind ever assembled in this country. Thomas did great things for Chicago, musically. He started her, and she has kept on. Besides innumerable and varied concerts which occur throughout the season, the city is one of four in the country strong enough to support a first-rate grand opera company of its own.

About twenty-five musicians of one sort and another are credited to Chicago by “Who ‘s Who,” the most distinguished of them, perhaps, being Fannie Bloom-field Zeisler, the concert pianist. But it is the writers of Chicago who come out strongest in the fat red volume, among followers of the arts. With sinking heart I counted about seventy of these, and I may be merely revealing my own ignorance when I add that the names of a good two-thirds of them were new to me. But this is dangerous ground. Without further comment let me say that among the seventy I found such names as Robert Herrick, Henry B. Fuller, Hamlin Garland, Emerson Hough, Henry Kitchell Webster, Maud Radford Warren, Opie Read, and Clara Louise Burnham—a hatful of them which you may sort and classify according to your taste.

Canon Hannay said he felt at home in Chicago. So did Arnold Bennett. Canon Hannay said Chicago re-minded him of Belfast. Arnold Bennett said Chicago reminded him of the “Five Towns,” made famous in his novels. Even Baedeker breaks away from his usual nonpartizan attitude long enough to say with what, for Baedeker, is nothing less than an outburst of passion: “Great injustice is done to Chicago by those who represent it as wholly given over to the worship of Mammon, as it compares favorably with a great many American cities in the efforts it has made to beautify itself by the creation of parks and boulevards and in its encouragement of education and the liberal arts.”

Baedeker is quite right about that. He might also have added that the “Windy City” is not so windy as New York, and that the old legend, now almost forgotten, to the effect that Chicago girls have big feet is equally untrue. There is still some wind in Chicago; thanks to it and to the present mode in dress, I was able to assure myself quite definitely upon the size of Chicago feet. I not only saw them upon the streets; I saw them also at dances : twinkling, slippered feet as small as any in the land; and, again owing to the present mode, I saw not only pretty feet, but also— However, I am digressing.. That is enough about feet. I fear I have already let them run away with me..

A friend of mine who visited Chicago for the first time, a year ago, came back appreciative of her wonders, but declaring her provincial.

“Why do you say provincial?” I asked.

“Because you can’t pick up a taxi in the street,” he said.

And it is true. I was chagrined at his discovery—not so much because of its truth, however, as because it was the discovery of a New Yorker. I always defend Chicago against New Yorkers, for I love the place, partly for itself and partly because I was born and spent my boyhood there.

I know a great many other ex-Chicagoans who now live in New York, as I do, and I have noticed with amusement that the side we take depends upon the society in which we are. If we are with Chicagoans, we defend New York; if with New Yorkers, we defend Chicago. We are like those people in the circus who stand upon the backs of two horses at once. Only among ourselves do we go in for candor.

The other day I met a man and his wife, transplanted Chicagoans, on the street in New York.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Three years,” said the husband.

“Why did you come?”

“For business reasons.”

“How do you like the change?”

The husband hesitated. “Well, I’ve done a great deal better here than I ever did in Chicago,” he said. “How do you like it?” I asked the wife.

“New York gives us more advantages,” she said, “but I prefer Chicago people.”

“Would you like to go back?”

The wife hesitated, but the husband shook his head.

“No,” he replied, “there ‘s something about New York that gets into your blood. To go back to Chicago would seem like retrograding.”

Among my notes I find the record of a conversation with a New York girl who married a Chicago man and went out there to live.

“I was very lonely at first,” she said. “One day a man came around selling pencils. I happened to see him at the door. He said: `I ‘m an actor, and I ‘m trying to raise money to get back to New York.’ As I was feeling then I’d have given him anything in the house just because that was where he wanted to go. I gave him some money. `Here,’ I said, `you take this and go on back to New York.’ `Why,’ he inquired, `are you from New York, too?’ I said I was. Then he asked me : `What are you doing away out here?’ `Oh,’ I told him, `this is my home now. I live here.’ He thanked me, and as he put the money in his pocket he shook his head and said : `Too bad! Too bad!’

“That will show you how I felt at first. But when I came to know Chicago people I liked them. And now I would n’t go back for anything.”

There is testimony from both sides.

With the literary man the situation is, perhaps, a little different. New York is practically his one big market, place. I was speaking about that the other day with an author who used to live in Chicago.

“The atmosphere out there is not nearly so stimulating for a writer,” he assured me. “Here, in New York, even a pretty big writer is lost in the shuffle.. There, he is a shining mark. The Chicago writers are likely to be a little bit self-conscious and naive. They have their own local literary gods, and they ‘re rather inclined to sit around and talk solemnly about `Art with a capital A.’ ”

Necessarily, when the adherents of two cities start an argument, they are confined to concrete points. They talk about opera and theaters and buildings and hotels and stores, and seldom touch upon such subtle things as city spirit. For spirit is a hard thing to deal with and a harder thing to prove. Yet “greatness knows itself.” Chicago unquestionably knows that it is great, and that its greatness is of the spirit. But the Chicagoan, debating in favor of his city, is unable to “get that over,” and is therefore obliged to fall back upon two last, invariable defenses: the department store of Marshall Field & Co. and the Blackstone Hotel.

The Blackstone he will tell you, with an eye lit by fanatical belief, is positively the finest hotel in the whole United States. Mention the Ritz, the Plaza, the St. Regis, the Biltmore, or any other hotel to him, and it makes no difference; the Blackstone is the best. As to Marshall Field’s, he is no less positive: It is not merely the largest but also the very finest store in the whole world.

I have never stopped at any of those hotels with which the New Yorker would attempt to defeat the Blackstone. But I have stopped at the Blackstone, and it is undeniably a very good hotel. One of the most agreeable things about it is the air of willing service which one senses in its staff. It is an excellent manager who can instil into his servants that spirit which causes them to seem to be eternally on tiptoe—not for a tip but for a chance to serve.. Further, the Blackstone occupies a position, with regard to the fashionable life of Chicago, which is not paralleled by any single hotel in New York. Socially it is preeminently the place.

General dancing in such public restaurants as Rector’s—the original Rector’s is in Chicago, you know—and in the dining rooms of some hotels, was started in Chicago, but was soon stopped by municipal regulation. Since that time other schemes have been devised. Dances are held regularly in the ballrooms of most of the hotels, but are managed as clubs or semi-private gatherings. This arrangement has its advantages. It would have its advantages, indeed, if it did nothing more than put the brakes on the dancing craze -as any one can testify who has seen his friends offering up their business and their brains as a sacrifice to Terpsichore. But that is not what I started to say. The advantage of the system which was in vogue at the Blackstone, when I was there, is that, to get into the ballroom people must be known; wherefore ladies who still have doubts as to the propriety of dancing in a public restaurant need not, and do not, hesitate to go there and dance to their toes’ content.