You'll see it lovely. I never will. But it will be lovely."
-Daniel Burnham on the roof of the Reliance Building looking out over the city of Chicago
Exactly 100 years ago today.
These words were spoken by the great architect of Chicago whose impact on America still ripples today, thanks largely to his success in directing the World's Fair of 1893.
I just finished reading The Devil in the White City and these words show up near the end of an amazing book as the author, Erik Larson, provides the falling effects of the pivotal characters in his novel and in history. Though in the epilogue, the words to me serve as a prologue to the 100 years since they were uttered. In fact, I believe they perpetuate one of Larson's major goals of the book as he himself states that
Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.
Last night I got to experience this lovely city while at the Taste of Chicago. In the heart of Grant Park, with the magnificent skyline surrounding me, I gathered with a group of friends to watch 4th of July fireworks bursting forth from the harbor. The small group I chilled with was one among hundreds of thousands of people resurrecting a faint remembrance of President Obama floated in the cool night air--the last time this many people were gathered there. This time people did not stop in harmonious awe for the historical election, yet the influence of exploding fire was mesmerizing for most of us. Afterward we had the freedom to prance on Michigan Ave.--which was designed by Burnham--without the hinderance of blasted cars or buses. Save some times where crowds prematurely started running at the sound of a pop, some ganja scents in the air, and some sirens for emergency--all of which are inevitable at something of this magnitude--the evening matched the loveliness Burnham dreamed of.
However, as I read Burnham's words myself I couldn't help feeling twinges of pain, knowing that for however lovely Chicago really is, for the moments that it seems to shine as brightly as the White City, the deep corruption, hyper-segregation, widespread violence, and profuse death still roar from the streets like a lion defending his territory. The Black City was not destroyed by the force of the World's Fair; instead it thrived as evidenced by Dr. H. H. Holmes, America's first mass murder. The roots of a glorious, yet dark, past have allowed Chicago to grow massively, but the growth--masked in many ways as a beautiful city--cannot hide how troubled it truly is.
As with the bid for the World's Fair, Chicago is now at center stage for the 2016 Olympics as the heavy favorite. The city will have much time to prepare, unlike Burnham and Co., but the process I'm sure will be eerily similar. Buildings and parks will be created for the event alone; jobs will be created only to be lost; money will be spent, but more will be made; stars will be born and their fame will carry them. Yet in the darkness, the true city will scurry about like a rat without being thought of or bothered. The figurative cliché may ring true: You could get away with murder.
I can't help but agree with Burnham in so many ways. I'm just beginning to learn how lovely Chicago really is. However I'm also learning that the problem is that it's just too easy to say it's lovely from a rooftop and much harder when staring The Black City right in the face.