Re-inventing Chicago: From America’s slaughter house to world-beating city

Anyone working near French Market in Chicago is spoiled for choice when it comes to sizing up lunch options. The 30 or so food stalls under one roof serve up everything from Vietnamese noodle soup to Italian smoked-meat sandwiches. It’s a gastronomical dream.

Established in 2009 next to Ogilvie train station, the market is just one of a number of relatively new institutions that have help to bring about a change of fortunes for West Loop. The area is situated just a stone’s throw from the main downtown area known as the Loop, but for many years it was looked down upon by those with money to spend. But now even the well-to-do are coming to this neighbourhood to visit some of the swankiest restaurants in town (some where you need to book months in advance to get a table).

This was once on the edge of Chicago’s meat packing district, but has more recently been compared to trendy Soho in New York. What has happened here has not only transformed the neighbourhood, but it has helped transform the city as a whole, which in the 1970s was on its knees.

Take a stroll around West Loop and you’ll find the towering headquarters for the likes of aircraft manufacturer Boeing and hotel group Hyatt, as well as offices of big name consultancies including PWC. High-end retailers and top restaurants now occupy buildings which used to be markets and other structures associated with the meat packing industry. When Chicago’s industries started to pack up, the city needed to re-invent itself. It rose to the challenge.

Chicago River

Building Chicago

When Chicago was incorporated as a town in 1833 it had a population of just 350, but just 15 years later it had grown significantly and was home to 16,000 people. The rapid expansion was down to building of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, which connected the Gulf of the Mississippi to the Atlantic and opened in 1848. Thousands of labourers flooded into the area to help with its construction and Chicago became a boom town. More than three million tonnes of goods entered Chicago via route water trade routes in 1869 – an amount 700 times higher than 25 years earlier.

One of the early uses for the new waterway was carrying grain as it provided Illinois farmers with better access to eastern markets. In downtown Chicago the Board of Trade was opened to facilitate sales. This institution is now based in a wonderful 1930 Art Deco building in West Jackson Boulevard, with a large statue of the goddess of agriculture Ceres on the top. Things have however moved on considerably since the days when transactions were yelled across the trading floor – today everything is done by computers.

“The growth of Chicago in population and wealth has been truly astonishing,” wrote John Lewis Peyton in 1855. “A few years ago she was an inconsiderable village, and is now among the most populous cities in the Union…. Her rapid progress ceases to be a matter of surprise, when we consider the advantages of her natural position, the number and extent of her public improvements, and the energy and enterprize [sic} of her citizens. She has a good harbor and a vast and increasing trade…..”

In 1865 – the year the American Civil War ended – and the first Union Stockyards opened in Chicago. Refrigerated trains travelling on newly established railroads which criss-crossed the country allowed meat processed in the city’s slaughterhouses to be sent far and wide. In the early 1870s Chicago’s stockyards processed more than one million hogs a year and a similar number of cattle.

By the 1900s the slaughterhouses supplied 80% of America’s meat and covered almost a square mile in the southwest of the city. At peak the stockyards could handle over 100,000 animals in more than 2000 pens. “The skyscraping wealth of downtown Chicago was indeed founded on bodies – of cattle and also, let it be acknowledged, of men and women,” wrote the historian David Reynolds in his book, America: the Empire of Liberty previewing the skyscraper boom that was to come.

Steel and furniture city

Chicago was far more than just a place where meat was processed and grain was traded however. This was a steel city, where the end product was used to make rails and coaches – and later increasingly in buildings. By 1948 the steel industry and associated trades employed more than 50,000 people on the southeastern edge of Chicago.

Novelist Upton Sinclair described in his 1906 book, The Jungle a Chicago, a steel mill with “three giant cauldrons, big enough for all the devils of hell to brew their broth in, full of something white and blinding, bubbling and splashing, roaring as if the volcanoes were blowing through it – one had to be heard in the place.” And then one of the cauldrons started “a cascade of living leaping fire, white with a whiteness not of earth, scorching the eyeballs.”

The plush ‘Pullman Palace Cars’ – which were the height of luxury at the time – were built in Chicago, along with other railroad stock. George Pullman, the founder of the manufacturing company, even built a town which he named Pullman, some 15 miles south of downtown Chicago, to house his factories and 10,000 workers.

But Pullman ran into trouble in 1894 when his employees went on strike over wage cuts he imposed, while leaving the rents in the town unchanged. Not for the first time, rioting broke out in Chicago and was property was destroyed. “The paternalism of Pullman is the same as the self-interest of a slave holder in his human chattels,” the leader of the American Railway Union said as the strike threatened to spread beyond the city. “You are striking to avert slavery and degradation.” It was only stopped after the Democrat administration passed a law making it illegal to prevent the delivery of US post, which the strike was on course to do. The army was brought in and Pullman was able to hire new workers.

Chicago also became the furniture making capital of the US, with some 276 firms employing 28,000 people on the western side of the city at its peak. By 1900 Chicago had 60 breweries as well, producing more than a hundred million gallons of beer each year.

With more and more people flooding into cities in search of work – from both across America and overseas – large metropolises like Chicago struggled to cope with essential services. In an amazing feat of engineering the city decided to change the direction of the River Chicago though a series of locks and canals so that waste flowed away from Lake Michigan, rather than being emptied into it. Those living downstate can’t have been pleased as they got Chicago’s sewage. But it was innovations like this that enabled the city to carry on supporting a growing industrial base and more inhabitants.

Emerging from the rust

Chicago’s industrial success wouldn’t last forever though. Chicago lost its status as America’s furniture capital in the 1920s. And following the growth of interstate trucking which decentralised the meat packing process, the last of the city’s stockyards closed in 1971 after a period of decline. By 1985 the steel industry was also on the verge of extinction. Many companies choose to moved south where operating costs were lower.

Chicago and the Midwest gained the name ‘Rust Belt’ on account of its declining industry, but it began a long fight back. Key to its strategy was attracting white-collar jobs to the city. The Sear’s Tower in 1974 – now Willis Tower – breathed new life into the local economy and was the US’s tallest building until One World Trade Center in New York was completed in 2013.

City on the banks of Lake Michigan

Chicago has been lucky to prevent development along the banks of Lake Michigan, something that was important for architect Daniel Burnham in his famous 1909 Plan of Chicago which detailed a well organised and scenic cityscape. As well as the 25 miles or so of lake trails, locals and visitors alike can also enjoy the ‘River Walk’ along the River Chicago. Started in 2001 and developed in sections, this walkway is lined with relaxing wine bars and cafes. It is hard to imagine that this water is where the city’s industrial waste was once once dumped.

Millennium Park opened in 2004 and has fast become an important centre point for the city. People have gone crazy about piece of public art here called Cloud Gate, but better known as the Bean, where on the curved shiny surface you can see skyline reflections. And at nearby Crown Fountain, a rotating selection of around a thousand faces are projected on giant slabs while children splash around in the water. What is now Millennium Park used to be little more than railway yards and rubbish dumps.

The Bean at Millennium Park

From baseball and fine dining to famous deep pan pizzas and hot dogs, there is plenty to keep bringing people to Chicago. Michigan Avenue has so many upmarket stores that it has been called Magnificent Mile. And Chicago is the sort of place where packed guided cruises sail along the River Chicago and everyone can consider themselves an architecture critique.

But not everyone falls in love with Chicago. “I have struck a city – a real city – and they call it Chicago….,” wrote Rudyard Kipling around 1900. “Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.” Not many modern day travellers would agree with his assessment of the city.

Lake Michigan

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