(return to Chicago essays)

full size imageChicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving. Adams answered, for one, that he did not know, but would try to find out. On reflecting sufficiently deeply, under the shadow of Richard Hunt's architecture, he decided that the American people probably knew no more than he did; but that they might still be driving or drifting unconsciously to some point in thought, as their solar system was said to be drifting towards some point in space; and that, possibly, if relations enough could be observed, this point might be fixed. Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there. (Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1918)

Because what follows is a complex, discursive, and wide-ranging argument, I wish to begin with a statement of my thesis. The last decade of the 19th century set the terms for a new plastic, adaptive form of urbanity, first in America and then throughout the globe. This novel cityscape made information and not material goods the principal capital traded in the urban market, and anticipated the dominant forms of a century and more of city culture.

But to see this nascent form of a cybercity in 1893 or 1900 requires that we look at the artifacts of city building differently, observing the ways that the physical city was simultaneously the subject of representation, the trading-house for representations, and a means of representing values and ideas essential to the culture and economy of the modern. At the same time, novel forms and media that arose at this moment made possible the recasting of the city image and the city-as-ideology, and, more slowly and subtly, re-formed the city itself. Using Chicago as the prime testing-ground demonstrates some of the ways the physical city of the fin-de-siecle presaged and enabled the virtual city of a century later.

The end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th brought Chicago to the front of the list of great urban centers across the globe. Writing at the end of that era, Henry Adams, the philosopher, historian and ironic observer of American life, recollected his epiphany upon seeing the city and the Columbian Exposition in 1893: Chicago was the exemplification of the national culture, and it was at the same time the conclusion of the process of American coming-to-power: “Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there”.

But to look at Adams’s statement in its discursive context is to see that he was making other proposals as well, some broader, some more local. When he spoke of “Chicago” he was actually speaking of the ideal city, the White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and proposing that “white cloud” to be the place within which one might find the form and content of modernity. Adams proposed that one could not embrace the modern or understand it without in some way coming to terms with the multiplicity of forces that were held in unity in that complex extravagance of neoClassical didacticism turned to urban form on the edge of a grimy Midwestern American industrial and commercial city at the turn of the century.

full size image Adams’s writing was deliberately allusive, even cryptic. One hint to his intentions lay in his transfer of the city name Chicago from the city proper to that assembly of temporary exhibits, waterways, landscape and buildings located on Chicago’s still half-developed South Side, an isolated island of high-architectural pretension surrounded on three sides by grimy wood-frame neighborhoods and industrial zones, and on the fourth side by a body of water that the entire nation viewed not as a natural feature so much as a node in a global transportation system for goods and capital. Other writers, more overt in their moralism and their Social Gospel ideologies spoke of the White City and the Grey, or the Dream City and the Real. Adams, however, seemed never to have observed the city proper at all; he seemed to have arrived directly at the Fair, resided on its grounds, eaten only in its restaurants or in the homes of the architects and designers from the east who were his friends and were now the architects and designers of his new urban utopia. Still, for him the Exposition was Chicago, and Chicago was the model of “American thought as a unity”.

full size image In his isolationism, Adams might seem to have been the exception among visitors to Chicago in 1893. As most of the guidebooks and observations of the time noted, two options presented themselves to the visitor. One involved a systematic, studied campaign of research within the Fair proper; in this program, the Exposition’s planners were to be commended for applying the urban grid to the task of rapid education even as they disguised it within a membrane of picturesqueness and sublimity. This was a program that went to the skeletal core of the Exposition and did its work within the industrial-technological paradigm, the one that had produced the superb vaulting iron-and-steel frames that made the monumental halls possible, and thereby made possible a vision of the new city that combined organizational coherence with sheer profusion, in numbers and in scale of the objects produced for study and use.

full size image Yet as Clarence Day noted in his breezy reminiscence of the Fair (published in Life With Father in 1935), or Frances Hodgson Burnett, in her story of orphans found at the Fair, Two Little Pilgrims’ Progress (published in 1895), most visitors to Chicago in 1893 weren’t there to engage in such systematic education. They were there to participate in perhaps the earliest incarnation of what would be termed, in a century’s shift to postmodernity, the festival city, the city as sensuous entertainment. Their campaign most often involved an impressionistic ramble through the grounds and exhibits of the Exposition, standing at certain vistas to drink in the vastness of its avenues and the scale of its buildings, caressing with their eyes the sensuous texturalism of its architectural facades, traveling by mock-gondola its formal waterways, and then, after a stroll or two through the inner cities of goods and products arrayed within the buildings, an adventure along the Midway, looking at the Hottentots in their bare-breasted primitive magnificence and then sitting down for beer at the German brewery-restaurant before riding up Ferris’s super-scaled Wheel, from which they could look down at the entire Fair laid out below in its canny mix of picturesque irregularity and comforting grid. At the top of their tour, they could also look eastward at the blank of Lake Michigan and westward past the edges of the city to the prairie, while to the north they could see the original city, with its novel skyscraper office buildings and its newly constructed civic monuments the Art Institute, Orchestra Hall, and the like.

Theirs was an excursion that could easily extend beyond the fairgrounds, into the city, into the downtown, with its dense commercial core, into the immediately surrounding ring of manufactories and warehouses, where the machines they had strolled past in the exhibition halls of the Fair were already at work making shirts and shoes, canned meat and spherical boring tools, and then outward past that to the next ring, of residences small bungalows, brick and stone two-and three-flats, and the increasingly magnificent houses of the merchants who had, before the crash of 1892-93, been rapidly building a new neighborhood of palaces on the near-North and near-West sides of the city. Henry Adams might have stolen the name of Chicago to append to the Great White Cloud; the civic reformers might excoriate the City Real as the Grey City, the Dark City: these urban tourists would instead experience that reality as a fantasy and a spectacle, as all tourists do. Daniel Burnham might trumpet the Columbian Exposition as a vision of the new urbanism, and Adams might argue its combination of tradesmanship and aesthetic historicism were the type of the new American unity; these visitors actually experienced the new American city as that unity, and they did so applying new forms of apprehension, of assimilation, of celebration, forms that would set the terms for the reinvention of American urbanity and the renaissance of Chicago at the turn of the millennium, a century later.

Still, Henry Adams’s declaration deserves our respect. By appropriating the name of the city and applying it to the Exposition, Adams was obliquely proposing that the city itself was and could be this new unity, and simultaneously predicting that the festival-fantasy model of a city exemplified by the World’s Columbian Exposition would eventually become the type of the American city, once the dross of industrialism and the inefficiencies of wage-slavery capitalism had been drained from the urban environment.

What Henry Adams proposed in that cryptic phrase has since become commonplace knowledge - a description of the place of the city within twentieth century American culture or, more appropriately and accurately, the culture of modernity in America. Adams’ year was the right year - or perhaps we should say, both his years were telling: 1918, at the end of the first World War, when the forces of modern life had shown their darkest sides, and 1893, when, in Chicago, the assembled millions from throughout the globe came to view the dominating landscape of the modern city and the sum of modernity that it contained, both in its larger identity, as Chicago, and in it more compressed, utopian form, as the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Like the city or not, the foreign and national dignitaries who assembled there accepted the thesis that Chicago (as city, as Exposition, and as the sum of the two) was one statement, perhaps the statement of the urban present and future, the container of the central energies of modernity: capital, commerce, transportation, the centripedal immigration of people, goods, and information, and their deployment through ever-more efficient means of production, distribution and consumption. With its rationalist grid laid across the flat lake-deposit landscape, marching steadily northward, southward and westward decade after decade, Chicago patterned the forces and the consequences of a free-market efficiency yoked by rationalist ideologies. From a marshy estuary to a trade center and now to the Dream City, Chicago drew the attention of the globe.

Adams noticed this, and sought to explain it; he applied the then-common knowledge, since obscured, of geography, continental imperialism, commercial progress, national evolution.

“That the Exposition should be a natural growth and product of the North west offered a step in evolution to startle Darwin,” he reported, “but that it should be anything else seemed an idea more startling still; and even granting it were not - admitting it to be a sort of industrial, speculative growth and product of the Beaux Arts artistically induced to pass the summer on the shore of Lake Michigan - could it be made to seem at home there? Was the American made to seem at home in it?”. For Adams, the location of the Exposition marked Chicago’s role as a city on a vital trade-route (“he seemed to have leaped directly from Corinth and Syracuse and Venice, over the heads of London and New York, to impose classical standards on plastic Chicago,” Adams wryly proposed); whether it would be a temporary or a permanent urban identity he left open.

Adams’s bemused noncommittal attitude wasn’t shared. Most writers, builders and visitors of the two new cities called Chicago were certain of the ascendance of both types of urbanism and urbanity, and equally certain that the future of the American city lay precisely in the making of one unity, one Chicago, out of the two, the grimly efficient commercial center and the idyllic fantasy of the Fair. They were optimistic this would soon occur, and they had good reason to be. The rapid elevation in Chicago’s status from provincial capital to international symbol was the result of a concordance of circumstances which themselves represented new forms of urban conceptualism: concerted public marketing by urban booster institutions; the appearance of a new global information system, eager to trumpet the modernized urban landscape and in need of raw materials to feed its own markets; the opportunities for self-invention offered by the location of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago; and, perhaps most significantly, the maturing of new modes for representing urban space and the urban environment.

Chicago was, by the opening of the Columbian Exposition in 1893, the premiere booster town; it had won its title by hard work and experience over much of the 19th century. Beginning with the necessary self-inflation of the early transportation years from the 1830s through the early 50s, maturing with the competition for rail hub status and then for marketplace share in the resulting competitions with St. Louis and Denver, among others, Chicago was an old hand at self-definition and self-advertising when the fire of 1871 made a new set of demands. Before the fire, Chicago had coined herself with a series of phrases like “Queen City of the Plains” and other transportable monikers; afterward, she became the phoenix, rising from her ashes, proving the depth of her capital, the reach of her transportation system, the drive and energy of her population. By the Columbian Exposition of 1893, Chicago had one of the most sophisticated urban booster traditions, and one of the most extensive information producing- and distributing-networks in the world. Rand McNally was in Chicago, so were a number of other publications and publishing companies, early advertising and public relations firms, and some of the most prominent urban architecture and design firms.

Capital, expertise, vision, an established information infrastructure. All of these were virtues of the urban center of the 19th center; that is to say, they were simultaneously myths made by concerted invention, and survival characteristics of the new industrial-capitalist metropolises of the period. The Columbian Exposition seemed to stand aloof from that model of urbanity-as-efficiency; in the eyes of most viewers and visitors, it represented a new model of the new city, though not for all the usual reasons we historians of the Fair have harped onB its architecture, its neoclassicism, its proposal, even, of the new city as simply a container placed protectively around marketable consumer goods. Instead, we might consider integrating Henry Adams’s conception of an appropriate approach to the Fair, with that of the majority of participants: we might, in other words, take Adams at his word that Chicago was an original type of urban unity, and imagine the Fair as expressing that type. To do so would require, however, that we concede both forms of apprehension - that is, Adams’s obsessive study of the Fair-as-material-library, and most visitors’ experience of Exposition-as-sensual experience, as what the next century would call edutainment. In uniting these two seemingly opposed forms of approach, we must then consider that the Fair had a unique property as a city, a property of self-conscious rhetoric, a more-or-less controlled program of seduction, direction, and persuasion. The Fair is significant because it was, in itself, a new mode of information about urbanism and urbanity: its form followed its function perfectly; it was what it advertised, it was what it argued. And in this the White City was simply one part of that phenomenon writ largely across the topography, mental, cultural and geographical, of Chicago. For by the end of the century, the city had itself come to be a similar information-machine, a language, a narrative, a technology, and a message.

The history of the Fair reminds us to be careful here. Adams himself was interpolating from the Exposition to the city, and we will too, but in so doing we need to recognize that this unity Adams saw was a unity formed of often conflicting parts. The Columbian Exposition was a new form of information system, but it was also, like many other forms that came into being at this juncture, deeply conservative in many of the messages it conveyed. That is what is so distracting about the surface of the White City, its neoclassical cladding; we are hard put, in the face of such bold statements, set in the old iconography of elite culture, to remember that we are looking at new messages communicated by a radically transparent new form of information-giver. Our very obsession with these statements of ideology reaffirms the bold novelty of this architecture-as-information-system that was, also, the White City.

Let us place this in visual form.

full size image A view by photographer Charles Dudley Arnold of the Exposition seen from the roof of the Manufactures Building, might seem to be the perfect exemplification of the White City, with its representation of the facades in a form even whiter, purer and more airy than they were, and its presentation of the space in a form even more orderly, more monumental, more powerful than visitors at ground level might ever have found it. And it does so with a form utterly appropriate to the task; or more accurately, it does so in the form of the taskB that is, it is, in its own surface (the matte richness and purity of the platinum print), in its scale (double-elephant or mammoth-plate plus, 22x30 inches or so) and in its own formal organization within its rectangle.

Still, to set this aesthetic separate from the aesthetic shown in this view, would be to miss the central import of this moment in urban representation and, more largely, in the instantiation of modernity. Consider a view of the interior of one of the halls, Agriculture, one of the views most praised and discussed by viewers, purchasers of the souvenir books and photographs, and critics. Though we must now speak of two objects, to restore them to their original state we must also recognize that they are, in fundamental ways, to be understood as one thing: that is, the photograph, and at a further remove, the platinum print or the halftone as it appeared in a book like, say, The White City: As It Was. We consider, then, the photographic representation of this decorative array of goods, and also that decorative array itself as well. In both cases, the narrative is the same: raw materials (peaches, corn, beans, hominy, apples) have been refined so that their density as product has increased. They have been ordered, measured and rationalized, and also contained and preserved as cans, as jars, as photographs. Then they have been set within a decorative and narrative context pyramids of cans, ziggurats of jars, aisles (or, more appropriately to the scale, streets), or books of photographs or photographs-and-text. Then they have been presented as commodities for consumption visual and physical consumption.

This phenomenon of display was deeply impressive to the consumer of the late 19th century. It was clearly a new occurrence. As David Nye pointed out in Consuming Power, the tin can itself was a synthesis of these new forces, combining not only new ways of preserving food, of presenting food, of representing food (on labels, in a catalogue) not just of preserving and presenting, but also of displacing nature fruits, vegetables, meat so that it divorced itself from the event of its making so far that even cowboys in the American west found it a completely novel system of nutrition canned tomatoes that could be carried as a source of sodium, water, carbohydrates, and antiscorbutic vitamins, with only their labels to remind the range rider that he was actually eating something that had once come from soil, perhaps the soil he had left back east when he emigrated to the rangelands, or could be found in the kitchen gardens of the ranch for which he worked.

Turn-of-the-century Americans (and Europeans, too) saw this process as the embodiment of their moment. The White City’s displays of consumer commodity capitalism within the great walls weren’t, then, at odds with either the railroad-shed engineering or the neoClassical cladding of the Exposition itself. Just as the tomato in the can bore little or no resemblance to a real tomato and instead became something new and yet also something more than its predecessor, so also the exhibitions within the Fair, and the fair itself, came to have a similar synthetic unity. Can to tomato: facade to interior display. But also: canned tomatoes as new unity to World’s Fair as new unity. And also: Canned tomatoes as instantiation of modernity; Manufactures Building or Agriculture Building as instantiation of modernity.

We must be careful of this argument, and not only because it is necessary to understand how the apparent conservatism of neoClassical display at the Fair, and the broader issues of conservative cladding or presentation could be at one with the intent modernity of the interiors of these building and the larger processes they stood for. We want to be careful for another reason. We have thus far been entertaining the argument that the White City was a system for transmitting information and ideology; it was also the sum of those often conflicting bodies of information and ideologies. Yet it was also not Chicago; Henry Adams was making the conflation of city and Fair ironically, knowing that all his readers would recognize the pain in this irony, the pain of not living up to the dream of a perfect urbanity, of making instead a resolutely imperfect one.. And here we can, once again, return to our analogy of the tomato can, with its nutritious but utterly transformed interior product, preserved and rationalized within an exterior that was also nutritious of information and transformed from its physical identity as a tin can to an instantiation of modernity. So also with the White City and Chicago. We can think of the White City as something contained within the larger city; we can think of it as an opposition to the larger city; we can think of it as a unity with the larger city. And I think all three of these positions can fruitfully coexist in a discussion; after all, they did freely coexist in the discussions of the significance of the White City and the Grey during the years between 1892 and 1900.

full size image A similar coexistence can be posited regarding time, in particular, the question of 1893 as a single moment, as a piece of a larger narrative, or as a narrative in itself. It would be a loss of richness and detail not to talk about this moment in global urbanism as, simultaneously, one moment, a loose agglomeration of moments bound together, and also a narrative and a part of a larger narrative, that is, a dynamic process of change, in which nothing remained exactly as it was for even an instant. Indeed, I think we can and should imagine that part of the impetus to the celebration of modernity in city environments and in the representations of those environments, was precisely how rapid the change, how dislocating and terrifying for viewers, and also how open to reinterpretation of almost any sort this cultural space could be. Anyone reading the popular fiction of 1893, whether in the popular weekly national journals or in the form of published novels must recognize the American city, Chicago in particular, to be valuable as the locus for the projection of moral confusion and also an environment requiring the imposition of moral clarity: city as evil environment; city as place of hope and possibility; city as simply there, as a geological feature might be, only set upon a very, very active seismic map.

full size image If we accept the position that the White City was a paradigm for a novel way of being urban, it would be logical to recognize that the Exposition was also something invented and honed by the elite who made and organized urban environments, from architects and engineers to the precursors to what will later be called urban planners, though at this moment these professions often overlapped, in the architect’s office or in the architect himself. full size imagefull size image The architect Daniel Burnham was fresh from the triumph of the Reliance Building, whose first stage was finished in 1890, and whose second stage, rising high above its surroundings in 1893, set the precedent for the modern skyscraper. Combining a steel-frame skeleton and light, hollow floor tiles laid across steel joists, the Burnham firm’s design made possible a facade that was, for its time, almost inconceivably light and airy.

full size image At the same moment that it was completing the Reliance’s upper floors, the Burnham firm was constructing the Monadnock Building, a hybrid of traditional and avant-garde engineering, completed in 1891. This was a building designed to the conservative predilections of the business community, and its sober, massive presence gave little indication of the promise implied within its later southern half.

The Monadnock was not simply a single work of architecture. It was also a linchpin inserted into the complex structure of the downtown. A view of this downtown area from an 1893 guidebook produced by Rand, McNally, gives some indication of this feature, and of the larger sense in which a planned urban environment was simultaneously being constructed on Fairgrounds and downtown alike:

full size image Viewers today will be struck by the differences between the landscape design of the White City and its downtown counterpart. The overtly picturesque qualities of the Wooded Isle, the Venetian nostalgia of the waterways with their hired gondola-taxis, and the elaborate white facades made of temporary plaster, all contrast sharply with the powerful thrusts of the downtown structures, set within their efficient, utilitarian grid. But in fact much more was shared than might appear: the interior engineering, especially, but also the sense of a concerted heroic urban environment engendered out of a collaboration among multidisciplinary city builders. full size imageFor it is worth noting that Burnham himself didn’t design the Reliance, or the Monadnock, or the Rookery; they were the products of his partners and employees, of Atwood, Shankland, Root and even Frank Lloyd Wright. Surrounding his buildings were those by others, many of whom were essential to the Exposition: Louis Sullivan and Holabird most immediately. Burnham’s position as Director of Works at the Exposition thus represented the confirmation and institutionalization of what was more intuitive and informal in the historically imbedded downtown. Burnham brought his colleagues together, brought together the engineering feats of the new building methods, and the conservative Renaissance Revivalism of high taste in his moment.

But architects and engineers, city planners and builders were only one part of that phenomenon known variously as The World’s Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair, and the White City. All those terms, hugely popular at the time, make clear that something larger was being described and analyzed than simply the physical environment. It was not the city’s nor the state’s nor the nation’s exposition. It was the world’s. It belonged to the world, it was directed to the world, and it contained, in miniature, or perhaps more accurately, it preserved in condensed, intensified form (as did our canned tomatoes) the world. What was there was the world, and what was not was terra incognita. It was the world’s fair, in that it belonged to the world, but it was also a declaration, as a number of pundits and poets and even one playwright, pointed out at the time: the world is fair. This world of efficiency, of consumerism, of propriety and order and monumentality, of human density and free-market exchange this world is fair. Most of those who used this pun meant by fair: beautiful, good, worth the effort, rewarding, giving pleasure, even utopian. A few, however, looked to the other meaning of the word fair as: just, equitable, morally and ethically correct. In this regard, the declaration the world’s fair meant something drastically different. It returned to Horatio Alger’s vision of the new urban-capitalist environment as something fair in the Spencerian sense, in that it made possible the survival of the fittest, made sure that those with the right virtues, of “luck and pluck”, industry, probity, honor, capacity to defer gratification, and readiness to help others but recognition that one’s first allegiance was to oneself: that those ones like, for example, Ragged Dick the shoeshine boy turned, eventually Bank President, or Mark the Match Boy, destined for a similar elevation - those ones would flourish while the miscreant, the lazy, those without drive, would fall. The World’s Fair: meaning: This world’s fair.

In language, then, as well as in visual form, the Exposition was a trope for the larger city, Chicago.  The Exposition resulted from the success of Chicago and its powerful elites in harnessing the forces of modern economics, labor, manufactury, of capitalism most broadly defined, and creating from these an efficient environment-as-machine for making wealth. In this regard, both the physical Fair and the ideological Fair were invented, and honed, by Chicago’s information industry, and then retaken by that industry to apply again, with greater sophistication, to the larger city. Writers, photographers, mapmakers, lithographers, advertisers, publishers, urban capitalists: all embraced the new language of urban modernity with deep enthusiasm and no small mastery, not least because many of those individuals had learned their craft down there in Jackson Park. They applied it to the Exposition, to the White City, but they also turned it back to the larger city as well, particularly after the Fair was over. In addition, they set their presentation of the city-as-modernity in a larger context of global information imperialism. When William Henry Jackson, the American landscape and railroad photographer, teamed up with Joseph Gladding Pangborn, the most celebrated public relations professional in the United States, and perhaps the very first to declare that profession as profession, and with Marshall Field, department store visionary, sponsor of the World’s Fair, and founder of what would soon become the Field Museum of Natural History, the result was the World’s Transportation Commission: a project that lasted close to two years and circled the globe, assembling the materials for a huge museum of the world’s transportation, but more accurately a museum of modern information, for it included everything from railroads to telephone exchanges, from telegraph transmitters on the Siberian Railway to samples of newspapers from Australia and mail boats from Indonesia. Chicago assembled these, Chicago organized them, Chicago presented the narrative of global modernity because it could, because it wished to, and because it was already the center for this global information imperialism, if only for a few years or decades.

Chicago rose to that eminence in part because the White City was only one among a number of new global information systems that came into being from the same technological and capitalist innovations that were remaking Chicago and the urban industrial matrix more generally. The Union Stockyards are in this regard exemplary. They were a triumph of efficiency, of assembly-line practice, applied to an absurdly intractable problem, namely the conversion of pigs, cattle, sheep and horses into food that could be cheaply gathered, preserved, stored, transported and distributed. full size imageIts success was legendary, and became one of the bragging points for the city. When stereographic photographers came to Chicago, or came at least from the city to this place, to the stockyards and packing houses, to describe its novelty, its modernity, they came bearing the tools of new, similarly modern, similarly mass-production and assembly-line media. These they then deployed to blanket the modernized globe with organized narratives of mechanization and its triumph over nature. This was the dominant pattern: new forms of representation and presentation of the urban capitalist milieu came into being and demonstrated their possibilities on other phenomena of that same revolution.

It might seem a bit metaphysical to suggest this correspondence by yoking together mass-market stereo photography with Chicago’s role as in Sandburg’s words “hog-butcher to the world”, but the historical record provides the connection. For just a few years after Oliver Wendell Holmes presented his essays on the wonder of the stereograph, other authors were using similar language to describe the new forms of the meat-packing industry. full size imageThe first two major applications of the moving-belt, steam-powered assembly line in America were directed toward hog-dressing and toward the production of photographic materials. In both cases a similar ethos of modernity was at work: the use of highly rationalized technologies, assembled together into a linear, even narrative pattern, to simultaneously discriminate and disassemble the rawest forms of nature and then to reorder, reorganize, repackage and redistribute that energy and materiality along new pathways within a national and global economy. The result in both cases would be a new unity of humankind within a new unity of consumption: Here is Holmes, writing in 1859 and again in 1861 in the Atlantic Monthly: “The stereograph is to be the card of introduction to make all mankind acquaintances … when a man wishes to see any object natural or artificial, he will go to the Imperial, National or City Stereograph Library.” That these stereographs would include a shoe lasting machine, linen looms in a Willimantic, Connecticut factory, a series of views of the Chicago packing yards, and an instructive set which, followed sequentially, presented in an educational format the stages of meat-packing from live animal to finished butcher product - all that might have surprised more sedate Victorian prognosticators. But Holmes would not have been either surprised or disappointed to see companies like Keystone and Underwood & Underwood producing educational sets of hundreds and even thousands of views.

True to Holmes’s prediction, these new educational stereo sets drew together a number of the strands of modernity: the homogenization of individuals, cultures and peoples into a unified agglomerate: “all mankind”; the replacement of direct sensory experience with an engaging simulacrum; and the centripedal drawing-in of this new body of information into a centralized “Imperial” “National” or “City” location.

This was Chicago in 1893: An architectonic encyclopedia of modernity, a version in stone and steel of the promise of complete information. Like the Keystone and Underwood view sets, it was the assembled simulacra, the magnet drawing to a center, the condensed, compressed dense super-matter of information about modernity, contained within the very structures of the modern. So to boost Chicago, to advertise its character, to describe its nature and then to dispel that newly synthesized and rationalized urban nature back outward along the information trade-routes of the modern globe: to engage in that process was not simply to declare the nature of the modern environment but to simultaneously declare it while making it, declare modernity by making modernity.

Chicago was not just there, it was necessary, that is to say, it fulfilled a need for content, for physical presence, for raw material to be converted by the mass production technologies of information, particularly visual information, that came to the fore in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. At this moment, then, we are moving, albeit temporarily, from the city as itself a cybernetic display, to the city as the source for cybernetic displays.

And there were a host of new processes available in a steadily expanding cascade over the period from the early 1850s until the peak of halftone and the arrival of radio, motion picture, and sound recording media around 1920. The most important was photography, broadly defined as a stream or process that might subsume the primitive daguerreotype of 1851, the ambrotype of 1854, the wet-collodion negative wedded to the albumen print, the mass-market “cabinet photographs” and “stereographs” of 1859-1910, the rotogravure reproductions of the 70s and 80s, and the halftone reproductions in books after 1888 and newspapers after about 1892. All of these provided conduits for new information about the city. When the Boston luminary Abbott Lawrence died in 1852, Southworth and Hawes produced a commemorative daguerreotype. Not coincidentally, it presented the capitalist master of the new industrial mill town system in the cladding of historical Boston - the new recast within the traditional. full size imageWhen San Francisco’s reputation as the terminus for the gold fields unleashed a storm of demand for information, a daguerreian panoramist went to the immense effort to produce a seven-plate sweeping view of the newly built houses and buildings, the harbor teeming with abandoned ships, a shack occupied by three women and, finally, the new warehouses where goods were offloaded and stored before transportation to the hills; the result unleashed a torrent of panoramic photography that peaked with Eadweard Muybridge’s gigantic portfolio panoramas of the late 70s, and lasting until the earthquake and fire of 1906 and beyond.

full size image When that city’s substantial Custom’s House was completed, George R. Fardon rushed to photograph it for inclusion in his photographic book on the city, published in 1856; when Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, photographers raced to make its portrait; when the World’s Columbian Exposition ground was broken, Charles Dudley Arnold was there with his mammoth-plate camera to begin the process of creating the narrative of the Fair from its first raw materials through each stage of construction to its completion and occupation.

But these formed only one of the threads; this one led from urban phenomenon to photograph suggesting the genres of documentation and photographic journalism. In fact, equally prevalent were responses to the demands of audiences, sometimes for pictures, sometimes for evidence, sometimes for mementoes postcards, and their carte-de-visite predecessors. When around 1886 it became feasible to efficiently reproduce photographs for larger audiences using the gravure process, printers and gravure book publishers sought images of resonant subjects; this probably accounts for the range of images of Haymarket Square in Chicago produced between the riots and the end of the Progressive era. One, produced in 1892, filled out a book of views of Chicago meant for the Columbian Exposition audience; the Haymarket Square riots of 1886 were still fresh, and the news media had returned to that subject as a reminder of the dangerous effects of labor unionization, brought to topicality by the recession and panic of that moment. When, in 1906, another, drier image was published, it was meant almost certainly for one of the “educational sets” of stereos and cartes that were being marketed with great success to middle and upper schools.

full size image New media and new information technologies needed content to generate an audience and hence to break into the front of the information competition, and outmoded media simultaneously sought ways to repackage new content to remain dominant. In older media, this meant striving to find ways either to recast the new into the older traditions, older forms that had been appropriate to, say, the lithograph or chromolithograph. In 1892, Currier and Ives produced a chromolithograph of the City of Chicago, from an original drawn by one C. Parsons. The view was a typical high-angle city view of the sort one saw almost universally after about 1835 depicting city after city. But this was 1893 in Chicago: both the medium and the form were antiquated.  The view was made to satisfy the demand for images of Chicago stimulated by the Columbian Exposition after all, if 27 million people visited the Fair, and only one in 1,000 bought the image, still that was a print run of 27,000, a bestseller number at the turn of the century. So Currier and Ives, by now heavily beset by new reproduction technologies and largely a purveyor of nostalgia, commissioned and then produced this view.

In so doing the firm was not only imbedding modern Chicago in an older historical and even historicist system of representation. It was also yoking an older image-making technology to a difficult subject. Previously, views of cities in this form were best handled when the city was small; the higher up the angle, the better the resulting coherence, within the limits of the dramatic ranging along a continuum between a landscape and a map, the high-angle view could be more aesthetically engaging at a lower angle, more informative at a higher angle. When the city grew too large, however, the bird’s eye view could not successfully mediate between the two imperatives of drama and factuality, and so the usual resolution was to reject that mode of representation in favor of others, most commonly by assembling details of specific portions of the city. This was a method applied not only to the chromolithograph; it can be seen in the ways companies like Rand McNally resolved the problem of the “view book” that stole some of the best techniques of the high-angle bird’s eye city view, and reapplied it to a book form, either as guidebook, or as tourist keepsake. Currier and Ives, however, tended to produce more painterly views, reminiscent of watercolors from a century or more previous, like their view titled Central Park - the Drive. full size imageTo apply such a picturesque mode brought with it the attendant associations that had accreted over that century; it imparted a mannered gentility to the scene, by drawing on the stock vocabulary of Victorian landscape imagery: Claudian trees, the country-manor propriety to the New Yorkers strolling or trotting, and the nearly invisible, faux-manorial buildings in the background.

Currier and Ives’s view illustrates some of the ways new information technologies drew together novel forms and traditional ones. The effect was not simply formal; Currier and Ives’ close up painterly views recast the city as a place of civility, continuous with older walking cities on the continent but more accurately using the fictive nature of the process to invent a new old New York.

Equally important was the ways imagery and technology interacted. The version of a city invented in this view was at least in part the result of Currier and Ives’s decision to treat chromolithography as a reproduction method first and an information-bearing system second. In this as in so many of their pictures, the picture was painterly, and the reproduction was mechanical and modern and mass-produced-efficient. But that was not exactly the case with the bird’s eye view of Chicago from the lake, made in 1892. Here the decision to retain a conservative pictorial method and apply it to an inappropriately scaled subject resulted in a very different, even impressionistic, view of the city. In the foreground, the rendering was relatively primitive, reminiscent of the earliest high-angle views of American cities, like the famed view of Savannah in which the commercial connection to the motherland appeared in the form of ships bound in and out of port. Currier and Ives borrowed from that long heritage within the cityview tradition, and linked it to the equally venerable boosterist theme of commercial and trade preeminence, long an established fact for Chicago. But again, conservatism shaded toward anachronism: Chicago’s role as a transportation hub appeared in the form of ships and steamers; the rail grid had far less prominence, and the rapid transit system that had just opened was not visible at all. This was, then, an image of the city as if it had been drawn in 1870 or perhaps 1880, and then extended to the horizon.

But accuracy was not the rationale for this image, I think. The theme, I would suggest, came to dominate the information the point of the image was: Look how very very big this city is! Look how extensive is its grid, and how successfully it has triumphed over the topography! It spreads not just toward the horizon, but toward and beyond it, to the infinite.

Currier and Ives’s chromo exemplifies the application of mass reproductive media, and it suggests some of the ways specific media carried with them residues of older forms of representation. This view was a vestigial remnant, and not part of the dominant stream of modernity which we are seeking to isolate within the larger sweep of urban representation. The real news lay with the new media and their aggressive seeking out of new forms, materials, messages, and environments to which to apply themselves. This process recapitulated the duality between radical new means of production, and radical new means of reproduction. The chromos of Currier and Ives took the reproduction technologies and applied them to blanket a target audience with a unified vision, albeit conservative, of the new urban milieu. The importance lay with the capacity to cheaply produce, quickly market, rapidly deliver, and inexpensively sell one or a small number of images of the city.

This was a method that applied more broadly think of the most obvious example, namely Frances Hodgsen Burnett’s novel about the Columbian Exposition. Here was a novelist whose hugely successful juvenile fiction, first That Lass o’ Lowries in 1877 and then Little Lord Fauntleroy of 1886, had been based on her childhood in England. When she wrote about the Fair, she titled the novel Two Little Pilgrims’ Progress, and used the original Puritan text as the basis for her story about the elevation of two rural orphans to the apotheosized regions of the White City where, within the magical logic of the event and of the juvenile fiction form, they were discovered by a lost uncle, and restored. Burnett’s decision to present the Fair within the context of A Pilgrim’s Progress reaffirmed the ways new forms of publication and distribution juvenile fiction, mass-market publication, rapid book distribution along shipping lines and through the newly arriving chain bookstores and the national wholesalers of books could and did still produce, distribute and market conservatising themes and images of the city.

Still, while I wish to do justice to the conservative threads of the weave of city image that was Chicago, I do so within the context of radical novelty and reinvention that dominated this instantiation of urban modernity. full size imageIf we take photography, for example, we can easily look to the photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, photography of Chicago, but photography that can most easily be seen when applied to New York. full size imageRiis’s images certainly recapitulated older representational models, even to the point of reaching past Victorian sentimental chromos (like the view, made at Riis’s direction, by the professional Richard Hoe Lawrence, and titled by Riis “Prayer Time at the Five Points House of Industry,”) back to Baroque and even Renaissance religious imagery, with a picture like the so-called “Slum Madonna.”

If we look for a moment at the lighting in these two pictures we will note something else, something much more arresting and novel: the lighting. In Prayer Time the lighting is at least to some extent Baroque with its radical chiaroscuro and its Caravaggiesque use of lighting emphasis to draw the children and their white nightgowns out of the dark background. full size imageIn the more thematically and compositionally conservative Slum Madonna or Italian Mother and Child,  the lighting is utterly different. It is pitilessly complete, utterly and democratically cruel in its revelations, harsh in its delineations, like a slap at the face and not a gentle invitation to come out of the darkness. This was to become a central theme of Riis’s slum work, and one of its most important contributions to the linking of method and subject in the modern city and its representation. Electrical lighting was still to some extent a novelty both on the streets and within the buildings of even major American cities like New York and Chicago. Riis’s photographs, however, came about, he originally reported, precisely because of the invention of a new method of flash-lighting photography, a method that could drill down into the cracks in wood and reflect the grease on surfaces, even faces. Riis’s own photography began with overexposure with a 20-times-overblasted view of the poverty cemetery called Potter’s Field in New York an overexposure so drastic one cannot help but wonder if Riis believed, at least unconsciously, that enough light could eventually even reveal the nature of Death. And his pictures applied or, he confessed, wildly overapplied, flash powder so that the pictures came to look like this so that light not only revealed everything, but it also changed everything it awoke, if not the dead of Potter’s Field, at least the one of 4 pedlars who slept at the rear of #10 Ludlow Street East, or those who crowded in at 54 a Spot to capture a few hours before the streets and the prospect of temporary urban labor required them to arise and go.

Riis’s photographs delivered on the larger promise of electrical lighting, a promise that finally all crime and iniquity would be revealed, would have to emerge from the darkness, to be judged and then eradicated. The modern city would be the bright city full of lights, no lurking shadows, as the books of a previous generation, like James D. McCabe’s Lights and Shadows of City Life, published in 1872, had declared to be the underlying condition of urban life. Riis organized his pictures into narratives that depended upon this trope, but banished shadowy evil to the past, to be wiped aside in the full light daylight and flash light of modern scientific photography.

full size image Perhaps more striking in this regard is the photograph by Lewis Hine in which Tommy Noonan Demonstrates the Virtues of the Ideal Necktie Form. There, in a nondescript shop window, lit by electrical light, a small boy of perhaps 8 years of age serves as a living breathing mannequin, lit on the dramatic stage of city commerce, crowded up with onlookers. Here, again, we see the medium of photography, the method of the photographer, the novelty of the technological, economic, and geographical circumstances all conspiring together to make a picture that lays the modern city open, lit by the bulb over Tommy’s head. Hine was an ironist; his picture was meant as an indictment of child labor, but that is not the point. The point is that even to critique the modern one must apply the tools of modernity, as did Hine, with far less conservatism, and far more verve, than did Riis.

Riis, Hine, Sigmund Krausz of Chicago, and many others, saw the innovations of electricity to be simultaneously a character of the modern city and a means to make it clear. But these photographers had a difficulty in their work, and that lay with the question of urban geography. For, as Currier and Ives, and as Rand McNally even more clearly showed, one of the indispensable elements of urban modernity as represented by Chicago and New York was the rationalized grid that characterized its development, made possible its near-limitless expansion, and now promised to turn the urban environment from a picturesque, irregular, pleasantly or perhaps terrifyingly fluid landscape into an efficient system within which information and goods could be quickly and interchangeably moved..

This was a matter photography could not easily set forth, at least in its essential form. But in some ways that was not a disadvantage, for it encouraged the continual remaking of composite media photo books, fold-out vest-pocket panoramas that served as tour books and maps and souvenirs all at once, panoramic photographs, captive-balloon photographs, halftone reproduced images that amalgamated photography, lithography and writing into one unity.

All of these made possible the formation of a new system for representing the city, a system that would, inevitably, transform the image of the urban environment and, perhaps more slowly, change the city as well. For, as we shall see, each of these innovations made possible new forms of flexibility in the creation and organization of individual images of the city, of groups of images, of narratives, and finally of the broadest, composite image of the city as a whole, summed from all the various materials a viewer might find.

But the possibility for such a radical redefinition of the American city did not necessarily mean that the old paradigm of the urban center was wiped away and a new one chalked in on the tabula rasa. For each of the contributors to the creation of the city retained both visionary possibilities and conservative yearnings. Makers of images, systems of image-making, the city itself as raw material, and the audience or more appropriately audiences for the resulting representations: each of these retained allegiance to older notions of the ideal human environment, and so the resulting products-- images, but also eventually, new city plans and cities themselves came into being while beneath their glossy booster surface they retained the pentimenti of the older city, and of older cities more generally.

We can see this perhaps most graphically in a book generally considered a classic of urban literature: Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. That is after all a novel of great place-sense, a novel based in large part upon the premise of Darwinian environmentalism. Dreiser began with the thesis that the urban environment shaped its creatures and therefore required that both the novelist and his readers, become viewers and geographic viewers at that, in order to get some sense of the fate of Sister Carrie herself and, through her, understand the temper of modern humanity. Dreiser proposed a form of urban geographical determinism, right from the very first page, one that moved along both horizontal and vertical axes. On the horizontal, there was Carrie’s “pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken,” a train-journey’s trip, complete with her introduction to the dandy-seducer Drouet, that would replicate other horizontal journeys along the transportation grids that linked village to town to city and within the city neighborhood to neighborhood, residence to department store to commercial establishment to factory. And from the large from Columbia City to Chicago downward and inward to the intent and detailed Carrie’s travels in Chicago, cast in zones, then neighborhoods, then buildings and then, finally, rooms of more and more claustrophobic spatial shrunkenness and concurrent intensity and then back outward from Chicago to New York, in the company of Hurstwood and finally, there, too, down and in, into a recapitulated intensity of local status residence, place of work, theatre.

There was, also, the vertical axis. Consider these opening sentences of paragraph three: “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.” There it is: the vertical axis, defined as “falling” into virtue, or in this case, rising into vice. Carrie, as we know, falls into vice and then rises into virtue, at least seemingly though, we must also remember Dreiser’s cynical final vision of Carrie, not moving forward, or backward, upward or downward, but rather rocking, rocking rocking, in motion but not moving. This is Dreiser’s naturalism at work, but within this dour Darwinianism is a deeper and more nuanced, and more typical picture of the dual vectors of urban life at the turn of the century. In Blake Fuller’s The Cliffdwellers, we see the vertical model recapitulated the higher up you are, the higher up you are; when you fall, you go down. In The Rise of Silas Lapham, we see in Boston again that duality: Lapham has risen, (and he will fall), in a passive voice that suggests his limited powers to control his own destiny. As with Sister Carrie in her rocker, so with Silas Lapham in his carriage, with his racing horses pulling him: he moves but goes nowhere.

To Dreiser, however, we may reserve the greatest praise for his acute visual sensibility: Dreiser, after all reports from the first that the urban environment is a sensual immersion experience; to understand those “large forces which allure, with all the soulness of expression possible in the most cultured human ” we must look at the most particular of things and people, revealed in “the gleam of a thousand lights... a blare of sound, a roar of life... a vast array of... appeal to the human senses.”

Still, with all this apparent attentiveness to his task as the inventor of a new form of value-neutral, even scientific method to the writing of the new city, Dreiser did still adhere to the old stories, the old city. His was, after all, a place that corrupted, a city recapitulated New York’s Darkness and Daylight, Helen Campbell’s moralistic “investigation” of that great metropolis, published in 1897, three years before Sister Carrier. And that book, too, recapitulated James D. McCabe Jr.’s Lights and Shadows of New York Life, published in 1872 and sold by subscription, door to door and by mail-order catalogue to small town and rural dwellers across America. Each of these reinforced Dreiser’s horizontal axis simple country, Sodomitic city and proposed, as Dreiser did not, a similar vertical axis the higher up you were on the economic and social and cliff-dwelling axis, the closer to heaven. This, in turn, found its precedents in that utter paradigm of urban Darwinisticism, Horatio Alger, who, in Ragged Dick, his first and probably best novel, set virtue simultaneously in the country (from whence Dick’s first patron came) and uptown, whence Dick was to find his female interceding angel and rise to her hand some six or seven novels later.

Dreiser locates his vision of the urban future in two sites Chicago and New York, but it is Chicago that Dreiser believes is truly the representation of the stripped radical novelty of the new modern American city. For it is onto Chicago that Dreiser directs his powerful, swooping geographical searchlight, taking the reader from site to site, along the streets, into the buildings, along the storefronts, onto the factory floor and the department store kiosk. For him, the new value-neutral Darwinian science of naturalist writing had to describe with minimal inflection, had to organize with the understated democracy of the geographical grid, had to trace with narrative force but without teleological tendentiousness the patterns of life within the new grid of the modern city: the life of individuals like Carrie, the life of democracy, the life of capitalism, the life of cities themselves.

Dreiser put his emphasis on Chicago for a number of reasons. He himself knew the city well and had worked there. He had a sister who emigrated from Wisconsin to Chicago and fell into the hands of the vicious, disappearing from their parents’ grace as if dead. But he knew New York as well, and the novel makes clear Dreiser himself believed the place to set such a naturalist’s investigation was in the new cityscape at the edge of the Great West.

 In this he was not alone among the makers and purveyors of information, of stories and pictures, about modernity.  Newer cities had the advantage over older; there was less to “overwrite” - in traditions, in representations, in the buildings and cityscapes themselves. Cities like Philadelphia and New York, already proud of their linkage to traditions, their city centers often fully overlaid by significant major buildings owned or occupied by government, established commercial establishments, or the like, increasingly represented themselves as mature environments, and their representations from the novels of Henry James to the paintings of William Merritt Chase reflected that urge to unite past and present.

New cities like Chicago, however, had the opportunity to propose themselves as if just writ across the frontier of landscape and culture. City centers less developed, urban topography less tortuous, capital flow more centralized and so more powerful and monumental in ambitions: all these factors contributed to a very different self-representation. This urge coincided with new forms of representation photography most prominently, but also chromolithography and other forms of mass-market printing including, after the mid 80s, halftone and other rapid, inexpensive forms of graphic reproduction. At the same time, new demands for new types of representation resulted in engrossing variants on older forms, as the cheapness of applying old technologies combined with a shortage of the new methods to encourage hybridizations. Thus we might see, simultaneously, street photographs of downtown areas bustling with people, aerial and panoramic photographs that held the city within their 360-degree grasp, view books using primitive line drawings converted to litho, highly sophisticated high-angle block-by-block receding bird’s eyes with each building and its tenants mapped and noted, and handmade, watercolor maps loaded with information about lot and building, all vying with each other, each serving different functions of the new multivalent urban center.

Functionality and atavism, then, conspired together to retain older forms, even while new systems of visually encapsulating the city, converting the result to commodity, and then marketing it, came to popularity. To compare the older models of lithographic bird’s eyes, for example, to the photographic panoramas made from balloons by the Lawrence Company, is to see this process at work: No longer idealized, painterly colored representations dotted with iconic details (ocean-going vessels, churches, warehouses, and the like), Lawrence’s captive-balloon views presented the city with startling visual verisimilitude, but packed within a system of representation that declared modernity, rationality, transparency: the large-scale panoramic photograph, with its black-and-white textuality and its exaggerated linear perspective.  Lawrence’s views weren’t simply made: they were then reproduced in half-tone books for mass distribution, inserted into mass-market magazines, and used in the newspaper press as part of larger campaigns to describe, celebrate, and direct the flow of the urban environment. And yet, while Lawrence’s pictures promised to supplant the older lithographic bird’s eyes, other older forms held on because their methods of representation, even though old-fashioned, were particularly appropriate to the service they fulfilled and the market niche they served. This was the case in Chicago with the phenomenon of the fire insurance maps, which were water-color representations using sophisticated color coding to condense complex messages about the nature of each lot, each block and each building, to viewers who needed to know, quickly and with great accuracy, just how fireproof each piece of property was.

The collage of urban visions that resulted might seem contradictory but, in active form, that is, as it might have affected visitors and residents of that time, it was a densely woven pattern but a pattern nonetheless. To explore this, we may end with a thought-experiment based in the Chicago of 1893. A visitor comes to the city, brought there by excursion train from Buffalo, New York, and, before that, from a smaller town in the upstate rural areas, a town older, established in the colonial era, once prosperous, now down-at-heel because the new farming regions of the Great West have destroyed its economic base by lowering agricultural commodity prices to unheard of levels; destroyed as well by the rise of Chicago as the trade, processing, transportation and distribution hub of the nation too far away to be of immediate benefit. This visitor travels upon the rail lines that converge in Chicago; she arrives to stay in the downtown, in one of the luxury hotels along the new avenue, Lake Michigan Avenue. Her hotel, the Leland, built before the Fair, is substantial, and its location, at the corner of Jackson and Michigan, gives her views of the lake park built on the landfill that is steadily moving Chicago eastward into the lake, and of the Art Institute, just completed on the site of the old Exposition building. Her hotel is fireproof; she pays a lowered tariff because the Fire Insurance Map ensures its substantiality-- made of brick and surounded by fireproof brick structures, located along a wide avenue with access for fire equipment.

She acquires in her travels a guidebook to the Columbian Exposition, a copy of Rand McNally’s aerial guidebook to Chicago’s downtown, and a small collection of views, stereo and cabinet, of the city to serve as mementoes. She is one form of consumer of the new city, and in the process, she uses these novelties in the process of walking through, comprehending, traveling, and then assembling a composite impression of that city.

She looks in particular at one new object, the Art Institute of Chicago, built in 1892 on the ambiguous boundary between Michigan Avenue with its modern skyscrapers staring out at the lake and in at the dense city’s inner core, and the warren of railway tracks and boat docks for offloading and transfer of goods; noisy, dangerous, in constant motion. full size imageShe enters this citadel of global culture and finds it brimming with the loot of capital applied to the desires of the rich for pictures of other moments when capital and urban energy created culture and urbanity views of Venice from the Baroque and Rococo, a soon-to-be-disputed “lberti, Durers, Rembrandts, and Amodern” pictures of the American landscape by figures as radical as Whistler and Homer. Along the frieze above the architrave of the building are written the names of the assembled greats who now occupy this moment and this place: Caravaggio, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Tintoretto and the rest.

She walks northward along Michigan to the Chicago River and, at one of its bridges, looks toward the Lake. full size imageShe is glancing back at the view we saw first in the Currier and Ives chromo were we to take a magnifying glass, we might see her there. She has, however, already purchased a photograph of the River, by S.L. Stein, that shows it as a impressionist’s dream, in which the energies of capitalism and the new urban milieu are rendered not simply attractive but beautiful, in which smoke becomes atmosphere, in which Dreiser’s dour naturalism is recast as something closer to a muted Spencerian paean of praise to the forces of the modern, harnessing nature, transforming raw materials into finished goods, arching over rivers and brining all the world instantaneously to one single spot. All of these elements are imbedded in the materials she carries back with her to her town outside of Buffalo, New York: the guidebook, the Rand McNally urban panoramic book, the cartes-de-visite, and her copy of William Henry Jackson’s The White City (As It Was). They are the repositories of the city, and now she is, too; and the city itself has triumphed it has succeeded in instantiating itself as the type of modernity. As the light dims, the lights themselves come up, glittering the city and illuminating its darkness. All is contained, all is revealed, all is conveyed.

Today we find ourselves in a position similar to that experienced by the denizens of Chicago at the turn of the century; on a global scale, we have found new technologies of representation at precisely the same moment that significant new forms of urban space and urbanity are emerging. But to look at these as unconnected would be to miss the lessons of a century ago; in G.P.S. and GIS we have forms of representation that promise universal applicability but in fact reinflect the information about the city form in both blatant and subtle ways, diminishing our knowledge of some aspects of the city while at the same time making remarkably clear patterns previously hidden from view or too vast in scale to be understood. Here and now, again, we find older systems of representation still holding out against the promises of new technologies, allied with conservative traditions of city-making and urban epistemology, even as the new technologies have begun to transform our systems of imagining urban space. full size imageWe look at the promise of the global information infrastructure, and declare at this moment that it makes possible a radical reconstruction of epistemology. We build not instant cities but, as Italo Calvino called them, invisible cities, GeoCities (to use the trademarked phrase now owned by the cyberspace corporation Yahoo!) that appear to have the radical non-narrative, nondirective completeness promised at the turn of the century by cities like Chicago. We can enter at any place and know at any moment where we have been and where we are going. We are on a grid as rigorous and revelatory as the grid upon which Chicago was built. But unlike the visitor of that moment who had to move along that grid from point to point, whether in the actual walk from the Leland Hotel to the mouth of the Chicago River, or cybernetically, virtually, by moving from page to page along Rand McNally’s informational guidebook we can, we believe, leap from place to place, defying structure, making our own structure, linking at will in hypertext. This promise, too, however, is imprisoned in the media of this moment, and so hemmed in, qualified, by the vestiges of conservatism, in the mental set of makers and in our own mental sets, as well as the residues of older systems of representation and instantiation that served as models and precedents for this new system. We turn on the computer, log onto AOL, call on google.com for a search of Chicago insurance rates and to our surprise find that we are looking at a fire insurance map of Chicago’s lakefront from 1886. We press the “View” and then the “page source” of the picture we have been seeing and we are plunged into a chaos of data whose organizing systems are virtually impossible to ascertain. Yet if we are used to the system, experienced in coding it, in making hypertext pages and the like, we know that the dense mysterious thicket of symbols has hidden within it the orders we seek, and the orders imposed upon it by makers and consumers. Beneath this is the other order, imposed by the makers of the map more than a century ago, and beneath that the order of the city itself as it was in 1886 or, in this case, as it was in 1886 and then transformed between 1886 and 1892, when small bits of colored paper were glued on various blocks to delineate each of the changes in building type and function over each year. Like the visitor to the city of 1892, we think we are looking at Chicago “the first expression of American thought as a unity;.” And in so doing, we imagine that we are bringing that past order into a new an present order of a radically different type. Perhaps we are.

Last updated 16th November 2000