First Published: June 3, 2016
Last Update: June 3, 2016
Deep Dish Pizza
Through rough translations of the Native American word shikaakwa meaning ramp (type of wild onion), the unofficial capital of the midwest got its name. There was a large presence of these onions along the shores of Lake Michigan and the river (Chicago River) where the city of Chicago would eventually be established, and what a city it would become. This part of Illinois was home to the Algonquain tribes of Mascouten and Miami, who were eventually driven out by New York State based Iroquois in the late 1600s. The Algonquains, with new French allies, were able to retake the lands about fifty years later. The area is situated at the northeastern corner of Illinois, where the state meets the lake between Wisconsin to the north, and Indiana to the east. The first European settlers came in the 1780s and a US military post was established in 1795. There were some clashes and wars with Native Americans, one of which resulted in a decisive War of 1812 Potawatomi victory in which Fort Dearborn was destroyed, and the US military suffered many casualties, many of whom died as POWs. Illinois gained statehood in 1818, becoming the 21st state in the Union, and Chicago, with a population of roughly 500 people, was officially granted a city charter by the state in 1837. The population grew as speculators and entrepreneurs saw significant potential in the town, perched conveniently along multiple important bodies of water and full of natural resources. Occasionally referred to as the “Heart Of America,” Chicago has been the main transportation hub for the Midwest since the advent of long distance railroads and Great Lakes shipping back in the mid 1840s. Its location made the city a perfect geographical liaison between the established east and the new territories to the west. As the railroad boom shrunk the nation, it had the opposite effect on the city. Its population soared from 4,000 to almost 100,000 in just over twenty years. By the 1850s, Chicago had more than thirty different railroad lines heading into it. Industry and manufacturing became sectors of economic importance, and agricultural goods, especially meat and livestock came and went to and from faraway places in refrigerated boxcars. This rapid expansion came at an environmental cost, however. The city was nearly at the same grade as Lake Michigan, which prevented the drainage of sewage and soon the entire city was so dirty and polluted that it was infested with diseases like Dysentery and Cholera. In a radical move, it was decided the entire city would be raised up by more than four feet. This was accomplished using early hydraulic jacks. Buildings as high as as five stories, more than 100 feet long, and over 23,000 tons in weight even stayed in operation while they were successfully lifted in a time when the power of heavy machinery was defined to how many workers you had on site.
During the 1800s, the industry and railroads attracted many skilled workers to Chicago, who immigrated mostly from Germany, Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, Ireland, and The Netherlands. By 1870, the population rose to 300,000 residents. Again, the immense growth of the city came at a cost. Numerous engineering shortcomings and undisciplined authorities led to massive vulnerabilities from disasters, both natural and man-made. Around 9 PM on October 8th, 1871, a fire broke out in a shed next to a barn on a farm owned by the O’Leary family which would be the origin of the Great Chicago Fire. The exact cause of the fire is unknown, but a popular story is that a lantern was kicked over by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. What made the fire so “Great” however, was that the region had been in a drought for months and the architecture at the time, even the roads and sidewalks, all used wood as the primary building material. The Chicago Fire Department was heavily under equipped and under staffed. To make things worse, the fire department had initially been sent to the wrong place, albeit quickly, and they soon relocated to the actual scene. The fire spread extremely fast, consuming an area of more than three square miles of the city, displacing more than a third of the city’s residents, and killing over 300 people. In the aftermath of the blaze, the city’s government, engineers, and businessowners vowed to rebuild stronger, bigger, and most importantly, smarter. Insurance companies were established and the city’s building standards were rewritten to incorporate fireproofing measures. Many businesses were rebuilt with better safety measures, with one hotel being proclaimed as “The world’s first fireproof building”. The only publicly owned building to survive the fire was the Chicago Water Tower, the country’s second oldest surviving water tower and an engineering inspiration that, yes, White Castle restaurants are modeled after. Twenty one years later, the city hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, which showcased the city’s engineering and industrial innovations. Architecture would play a large role in transforming the overall dynamic and appearance of the city, which was home to the world’s first skyscraper. Chicago was originally set on softer, swampy ground unsuitable for tall, heavy masonry buildings, but the innovative use of lighter steel frames led to the development of skyscrapers throughout the city, and the birthplace of modern architecture in the United States.
Chicago’s role as the nation’s freight hub cemented it as a commercial center which had a great influence on the US economy. Retail and advertising flourished around the turn of the 20th century and with the help of the world’s largest rail hub, the city was the perfect setting for the Chicago Merchantile Exchange, originally founded as the Chicago Butter and Egg Board. With all of this money came politics, and one of the possible origins of the nickname “Windy City”. Chicago’s income disparity was battled against by powerful labor unions as well as various muckrakers, like Upton Sinclair, who famously brought to light the poor working conditions and health and safety concerns within Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Race Riots occurred following the Great Migration as well as the end of the First World War. The first LGBT rights organization was established in Chicago, but police and political pressures soon caused it to disband. Prohibition also brought along bootlegging, speakeasies, and organized crime, some of which was led by notorious crime boss Alphonse “Al” Capone. And all of this was cascaded under a government which employed machine politics and political bosses like Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s mayor between 1955-1976. While controversial, at times corrupt, and mostly undemocratic measures and politics were used, Chicago experienced growth at a time when other Great Lakes cities were in decline. Daley’s administration was involved with building many infrastrucutre projects, helped spur economic expansion, and though he essentially ruled with an iron fist, Daley was able to do things most non-Boss mayors would not have been able to, which many historians believe was an effective, though unorthodox strategy in hindsight. He is regarded as one of the best mayors in American history. Other construction projects at this time included the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower), then the world’s tallest skyscraper, McCormick Place, the country’s largest convention center, and O’Hare International Airport, which is one of the world’s busiest. During the mid-1900s, Chicago grew into one of the most diverse cities in North America and in 1979, Jane Byrne became the city’s first female mayor. Byrne helped reduce crime in the city and bring the school system out of a financial crisis. Four years later, Harold Washington was elected the first black mayor of Chicago, who directed most of his efforts toward poor and historically neglected populations and neighborhoods. Richard Daley’s son, also named Richard was elected in 1989 and successfully held office for six terms.
Today, Chi-town is an economic and cultural powerhouse which still holds an important role in transportation and industry. Chicago is still considered America’s largest freight hub, but finance, science, and technology have defined the city’s economy growing into the 21st century. Chicago is home to a very diverse economy which spans from its robust retail presence to its equities exchanges. Many international banks and insurance companies are headquartered in Chicago, as well as Boeing, Kraft Foods, McDonalds, Sears, United Continental, and Motorola, among other Dow Components and Fortune 500 companies. Chicago’s commercial center is physically represented by the more than 1,200 high-rises which define its skyline. As of 2016, there are five buildings in the city taller than 1,000 feet (four of which are in the top ten tallest in the US), and 44 at least 600 feet in height. Because most of downtown was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, the city’s structures are noted for their originality rather than antiquity (with the most famous exception being the Water Tower). Many of the city’s landmarks and skyscrapers exist within The Loop, a five by eight block area of downtown surrounded by elevated train tracks. Tourism is also a large industry in Chicago, which attracts more than 50 million leisure travelers each year and was chosen as one of the Top Ten Cities in the US to visit by Conde Nast Traveler. Aside from the world famous Deep Dish Pizza, Chicago also claims stake in their all-beef hot dogs (Chicago-Style), pizza puffs, mass produced Gyros, jibarito sandwiches, and Chicken Vesuvio. There are a number of famous outdoor pieces of artwork peppered throughout the city, and there is a rich Jazz and Gospel heritage. There are five broadway style theaters in the city and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is considered one of the best in the world. There are dozens of museums and art galleries which bring curiosity and knowledge to the city’s more than 2.7 million Chicagoans. There are over 600 public schools in the district educating more than 400,000 students, and some of the best colleges and universities in the world including Northwestern, Loyola, DePaul, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Chicago, and the Illinois Institute of Technology. The medical school at UIC is the largest in the US. The city remains diverse with many large and defined neighborhoods featuring most of Chicago’s represented ethnic groups such as Chinatown, Humboldt Park (Puerto Rican), Pilsen (Mexican), Little Italy, Greektown, and Avondale (Polish).
Chicago, along with Boston, is one of only two American cities to continuously host a major professional sports team since 1871 with the Chicago Cubs having never moved from Chicago. Aside from the Cubs, the city is represented by the Bears of the NFL, the Blackhawks of the NHL, the White Sox of the MLB, the Bulls of the NBA, and the affectionately named Chicago Fire of the MLS. All of Chicago’s major league teams have won at least one Championship, with the Blackhawks and the Bulls being the historically most successful franchises. The Cubs have won three World Series titles to date, in 1907, 1908, and finally in 2016, ending what was the longest championship drought (108 years) in professional sports history. They play at Wrigley Field, the second oldest MLB park after Fenway Park in Boston. The White Sox had a similarly long championship drought, lasting from 1917 to 2005. The Bulls and the Blackhawks have done much better in recent years. The Bulls are internationally known thanks to their dynasty during the 1990s, in which Michael Jordan led the Bulls to six NBA titles in eight years, while the Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2010. The Bears have won more games than any other team in NFL history, and only the Green Bay Packers, their biggest rival, have won more championships. The Chicago Marathon has been run annually since 1977, except for 1987 when it was shortened to a half marathon. The race is one of the six World Marathon Majors and draws a field of 45,000 participants. Many international sailing events take place on Lake Michigan. The city is the third largest in the US and is proportionally gifted with a great deal of craft breweries of varying sizes and quality. Most of the city’s largest original breweries shut down with the advent of Prohibition, but today, there are many microbrews and brewpubs who produce some of the best beer in the midwest. Nationally known producers include Revolution Brewing, Finch’s Beer Company, and ABInbev’s wholly owned entity of Goose Island Beer Company. The neighborhoods north and northwest of the downtown area, especially those along the Blue, Red, and Brown lines of the “L” boast some of the most vibrant beer and nightlife neighborhoods in the country. There are some of the highest rated beer bars and brewpubs in the US located in Chicago as well, all of which helps spur on annual events like the Chicago Craft Beer Week, The Chicago Beer Festival, and The Chicago Beer Classic (formerly known as the American Beer Classic). There are also a handful of distilleries within the city limits. Some of the best night life neighborhoods include Wicker Park, River North, Logan Square, Division Street, Wrigleyville, and Lincoln Park. Boys Town is considered the center of Chicago’s LGBT community.
The Chicago Metro area is home to some 9.6 million residents, making it the third most populous in the United States. If considered as its own country, Chicago’s $630.3 Billion GMP places it as the 21st biggest economy in the world, according to the IMF. O’Hare International is the second busiest airport in the world by traffic (behind Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson), the Chicago area has more US highways than any other city, and more rail road frieght passes through the city than any other US metro area. As you would imagine, transportation has an elevated (no pun intended) importance in Chicago when compared to most major US cities. The governing body for the three main public transit agencies in the region is the Regional Transportation Authority, which was founded in 1974. More than 2 million people ride public transportation within the RTA’s sphere of influence daily. The RTA oversees the operations of Pace, the suburban bus system, Metra, an 11 line (2 planned) commuter rail system with 241 stations, and the Chicago Transit Authority, which runs the CTA bus service and the famous Chicago “L”. Originally beginning operations on June 6th, 1892, the South Side Elevated Railroad was the first elevated rapid transit line in Chicago. This makes the L the second oldest rapid transit system to have operated in the Americas, following the elevated lines of the 9th Avenue El in NYC, which no longer exist. It merged with others in the city, such as the Lake Street, Metropolitan West Side, and Northwestern elevated railroads to form the Chicago Rapid Transit Company, the predecessor to the current CTA. Significant portions of these lines exist today in the modern system with upgraded structures, modern trains, and electrification (the first trains were powered by steam). Since the merger, the ridership has grown with the city, and in modern history, it continues to rise at a steady rate for most of the areas served by the L. The fare has also rose to meet inflation and as of 2016, it stands at a flat rate of $2.25, the same as the Boston T.
The L, short for the word “elevated” is the fourth largest rapid transit system in the US at a length of 102.8 miles of standard gauge track, and with an average weekday daily ridership of 767,730, the L is the third busiest in the country, behind the Washington D.C. Metro and the New York City Subway. Chicago is 10th in the country with 26.50% of its commuters using public transit to get to work. There are 145 stations along 8 lines of the network, which all converge in the middle along The Loop in downtown, utilizing a hub and spoke design. The Red line is the busiest in the system, and along with the Blue Line, it runs 24/7. This makes the L, at least in part, one of the only rapid transit systems in the world with 24 hour service (NYC is the only other system in the Americas with 24/7 service). The network is electrified by a 600 volt, direct current third rail which powers 1,571 subway cars, which, like the trains in New York City, are mostly unpainted. The earliest trains were delivered in 1981 and the newest were rolled into operaion as late as 2015 with three model series’ currently in use. In 2013, it was announced that the two earlier series’ trains will be replaced by new CSR Sifang (from China) trains built at a new manufacturing plant in Chicago. Along with this, various service improvement and expansion plans are either in place or in the process of being proposed and approved. Recently, the entire southern portion of the Red Line was shut down and completely rebuilt at a cost of $425 million. Modernizations are taking place on the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line, and 4G coverage is being implemented on the underground portions of the Blue and Red line trains, with installation costs being paid for by Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. There are numerous line extention plans underway as well as proposals for additional lines, including the Circle Line, which would form a rapid transit beltway of sorts, reducing the travel time between two distinct outer stations on separate lines, and ameliorating the issues with the Hub and Spoke design. There is even a long standing proposal to replace the iconic elevated loop with an underground subway tunnel. While the official nickname “L” references the elevated aspect of the system, there are also underground, at grade, and open-cut, below grade sections of track used (much in the same way the NYC Subway includes portions that are at or above ground level). The L is a common sight around Chicago and has become one of the distinguishing features of the city. It has appeared in many hollywood movies and television shows as establishing shots for the city. In 2005, the rapid transit system was named as one of the “Seven Wonders of Chicago” by a poll administered by the Chicago Tribune.