Chicago: A Biography by Dominic Pacyga

The story of Chicago is an epic one, full of many acts of ingenuity, wonder, greed, and tragedy; all the best and worst characteristics of humanity on a grand scale.

Chicago: A Biography

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 978-0226644318
Author: Dominic A. Pacyga
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Length: 472 pages
Publication Date: 2009-11

No book that deals with the history of a city like Chicago could ever be small. A city the size of Chicago is essentially a small country. Thousands of books have already been written about various aspects of the city, from biographies of the city’s politicians, artists, personalities, and captains of industry to histories of particular businesses, neighborhoods, events, and vices. It’s a city that even has an encyclopedia dedicated to it (the Encyclopedia of Chicago courtesy of the Chicago History Museum).

So doing a history of the city in one volume is a daunting (if not impossible) task. Dominic Pacyga admits as much in the preface to his book Chicago: A Biography. His stated aim is this:

Put simply, my goal is to try and tell the story of Chicago through events major and minor that I believe explain its importance to America and the world.

Pacyga is professor of history at Columbia College in Chicago. His immense knowledge of and love for the city glimmer throughout this fact-filled, heavily-annotated, captivating book. He traces Chicago’s history from the initial surveys of the swampy area where the river meets the lake made by Fathers Marquette and Jolliet in the 17th Century (and their contacts with the Pottawatomie Indians) all the way to 2008 as the ever-changing global city has one of its own (Barack Obama) elected President of the United States.

Pacyga touches on all of the major events and players: Haymarket, the Pullman Strike, the opening and closing of the Union Stockyards, Jane Adams, Bronzeville, Mayor Bill Thompson, Al Capone, Mayor Richard J. Daley, MLK Jr.’s marches for open housing, the ‘68 Democratic National Convention. It’s the Chicago consumed by the Great Fire and rebuilt according to designs by architects like Louis Sullivan, William Le Baron Jenney, and Daniel Burnham. It’s a cosmopolitan Chicago that now only resembles the Chicagos of Sandburg and Algren in character, having long-since given up butchering hogs and having tamed some of the wilder parts of its Neon Wilderness.

Pacyga supplements his story with numerous fascinating photos and illustrations (some from his personal collection), like the one from 1870 showing the now iconic Water Tower and Pumping Station. They are seen from a wooden sidewalk and are surrounded only by one small house and another large building off in the distance. They are the tallest buildings in the picture. Today they are overshadowed by the gleaming skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue.

Throughout all of this, Pacyga doesn’t let the reader forget that, just as important as its history and its historical significance, Chicago is a place that many people have called “home”. It’s a city first settled by Haitian immigrant Jean-Baptiste Pointe de Sable that has been subsequently remade by waves of people from the Eastern United States, from Europe, from the small towns of the Midwest, from the Deep South, and now attracts people from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

What started as a fur-trading outpost on the southwest side of Lake Michigan developed into an industrial center, and continues to evolve today as a global city of millions of people. The story of Chicago is an epic one, full of many acts of ingenuity, wonder, greed, and tragedy; all the best and worst characteristics of humanity on a grand scale. Pacyga does an exceedingly well job of covering this story, showing how outside forces such as the development of the railroads, the Second World War, and deindustrialization helped shape Chicago and contribute to its character, and how certain characters were either shoved along by those forces or managed to harness them, for better and ill.

In condensing the history of Chicago into 400 pages, a lot of ground is covered and skimmed, and some things are simply left out. There are times when I wished Pacyga could have added more detail here or told a longer story there. Of course, that might have as much as doubled, tripled, or quadrupled the size of the book. Those new to Chicago and its history will find this book to be a great place to start. For those who know something about it already, they will find a comprehensive history that is bound to show them something new about this ever-changing city.

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