Saturday, October 18, 2014

Post #6 American Capitalism Encapsulated: Chicago

6.  American Capitalism Encapsulated:  Chicago

       William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis, Chicago and the Great West (1991) is a logical segue from our earlier reading of Elliott West's The Way to the West.  Both authors stress the significant role of nature in the settling of the West: natural resources were as integral to progress as the human beings who used and/or abused them.  West and Cronon present definitive chronological histories of their subject areas, Cronon zeroing in on Chicago and its hinterlands.  As time progressed, the Windy City, like a cat with nine lives, recreated itself through stages of industrialism, finances and natural resources.

        Nature's Metropolis reads like a novel with intricate, twisting plots and heroes and villains; natural resources are the protagonists.  Cronon walks us through Chicago's phases of market development from eighteenth-century fur trading to nineteenth-century real estate (1830s), railroads (1840s - 1900),  grain sales (1850s - ), lumber trade (1870s - 1890s), meat packing (1870s - 1930s) and white collar corporations (1870s - ).  Each industry built upon the one before it to establish Chicago as the financial capital of the West.

       Cronon documents the city's growth through the lens of American capitalism, Chicago-style.  He explores the interconnectedness and interdependence of the growing city and its hinterlands.  He examines spatial and environment theories of city expansion, including Von Thunen's and central place.  Both hypotheses, he states, are "profoundly static and ahistorical," concluding that the Chicago area's growth pattern was unique and thus did not fit preconceived molds (282) .

      For Chicago, the commercial successes of each era encouraged the growth of the next, at the same time creating rifts when one outbalanced the other.  While city wheeler-dealers often tried to override the demands of country bumpkins, Cronon demonstrates that farmers and lumberjacks and cattlemen also displayed uncanny acumen to tip the balance in their favor.  The constant give-and-take between city and hinterlands bolstered Chicago's vibrant, healthy economy.  Cronon's dynamic industrialized West is a far cry from Frederick Jackson Turner's isolated, rural West.

       Several of Cronon's examples of Chicago's dynamism jumped out at me.  I grew up hearing the word "grange," but as a city girl I didn't understand its role; Cronon clarified it for me.  The efforts of Gustavus Swift and Phillip Armour to utilize every morsel of an animal's carcass was both ingenious and horrifying; there is good reason to be suspicious of Spam!  The retail empire built by Montgomery Ward was nothing less than revolutionary  -- from a one-page flyer to a catalog-order company that brought affordable and civilizing comfort into town and country homes alike.  I have long been intrigued by Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  How ironic that buildings which  displayed state-of-the-art technologies and revolutionary ideas were mere facades, not meant to last.  The fair mirrored Chicago itself, with its emphasis on the latest money-making projects and the disposal of outdated ones after humans depleted the necessary resources.  William Cronon covered a lot of territory in this book, as broad and inclusive as Chicago and its hinterlands.

No comments:

Post a Comment