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Chicago's meteoric rise in documentary form
on September 6, 2009
I am from Chicagoland originally so I ordered this DVD with great interest. How much I didn't know!
Like other reviewers have stated, to them Chicago is a city of African Americans and Poles. What this DVD chronicles, however, is the city's first 80 years, from its days as a stinking city along Lake Michigan of the 1820s, to the 1871 fire that destroyed a fourth of the town to the end of the 19th century when Chicago had become the largest city in the hinterland and had hosted the largest World Fair up to that time. Chicago had undergone a fast metamorphosis that no other town in the US can replicate.
Its location along Lake Michigan had made Chicago an ideal spot for trade and routes to the Mississippi. We learn about the building of canals linking the lake to Illinois rivers flowing into the Mississippi, canals that were built primarily by the Irish. The other large ethnic group in town were the Germans, who disliked the Irish immensely. They were, as the narrator mentioned, the "group that drank on Sundays." Imagine that! Neighborhoods were often defined by natural barriers such as canals and rivers.
Prominent industrialists and merchants like Marshall, Pullman, McCormick helped design the Chicago Loop area, but it was the laborers who made the city. From hog slaughters to tunnel and canal diggers, factory workers, sky scraper builders, all of them contributed to the fast rise of this city. People flocked here for jobs. The Irish moved here to get away from the English back East.
With this migration west came ethnic groups that before had not been dominant. Overcrowding resulted, and with that came political corruption, gambling, prostitution, drug abuse and the leading people of those vices. Religious, political and ethnic clashes opened, and one understands why even today Chicago is one of the most ethnic segregated city.
"Chicago, City of the Century" is an excellent work of social history offered in archival photographs (thanks to the Chicago Historical Society) and narrated by Chicago historians. Presented in three DVDs (the fourth one is more interactive), three of them 90 minutes long each, the viewer gets a great overview of how fast the Chicago rose to prominence. It's only a shame that the documentary ends in 1897. American Experience should make a second part to this, chronicling Chicago of the 20th century, when its neighborhoods became more eastern European; Poles crowded out the Irish, and Jews moved in near the German neighborhoods. At any rate, this production would interest anyone fascinated by social history and American emigration: what happened in Chicago between the drinking Irish and Germans offended many hard-working Protestant women in town; when women won the right to vote in 1920 they were a pivitol reason why Prohibition was passed a decade later (and why so many once-wealthy German brewers were economically ruined)
Kudos to the Illinois Department of Commerce and the Community of Affairs/Illinois Bureau of Tourism for funding this production.