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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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This month the Gapers Block Book Club is reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, the best-selling story of architect Daniel H. Burnham, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and serial killer H.H. Holmes. In honor of the book and our upcoming book club discussion, Brian Sobolak and Alice Maggio traveled around Chicago to document places mentioned in book and to discover what, if anything, remains of the White City.

(Essay by Brian Sobolak, captions by Alice Maggio. Photos by both.)


A portion of the "New" Maxwell Street is being smooshed aside this year when a Whole Foods, Linens-N-Things and DSW put their mark on the South Loop. Another instance of a common event in recent Chicago history: a small piece of memory disappears with each cinderblock placed in the parking garage. Some remember Maxwell Street as it was, and as the current administration has shown, it's better to replace it than to wallow in the past. The Whole Foods will be organic!

And the "old" Maxwell St.? The horsecarts are long gone of course. What wasn't destroyed by the Dan Ryan has been gobbled by UIC; the old core of the market has been replaced by condos and a few pieces of Generica: Quiznos, a sports bar.

The process of deciding what to keep and what to destroy in a city is often violent, but rarely planned. It seems that no one yet has found the recipe of what places should be preserved versus what must be removed for "progress." Perhaps because the idea of progress has shifted so much. Stateway Gardens were once progress; now they're mostly gone. And the site of the "Century Of Progress" was destroyed to make an airfield; itself also destroyed to make a park and pavilion. Progress indeed.

It's not hard to imagine how the original Jackson Park might have looked 150 years ago: a mucky soup of a lake shore filled with swamp and nastiness. What's harder to imagine is the smells that would have accompanied a nascent Chicago: no deoderant, horse dung, steam engines, big industry with its march of meatpacking, and the mud that must surely have been everywhere.

Amid so much filth, it's not hard to see how a few civic-minded individuals could dream to build a big, white city: a showcase of beauty in a place that probably wasn't.

And what of that beauty remains? As our tour around Jackson Park, Englewood and the near South Side shows, very little. As the memory of the Ferris Wheel, Wild Bill, and Mr. "Mudgett" faded, so did the place where they played. The Midway is an empty plaza now, intimidating to cross from any direction. Jackson Park only has a few tokens left to remind one of the White City: a lagoon, a statue, one building.

And walking near the Holmes Hotel at 63rd and Wallace, it's easy to imagine the amenities of early Englewood: the library, the post office and what was probably a street car garage were nearby. It's wooded and green, and close to where shopping and trains would have been. Except for the psychopath, it was probably a charming place.

And over time, that charming was bulldozed. The site of the hotel is a parking lot for a grocery store, and the bulk of Jackson Park is a golf course. Just like the Midway minus a grand Ferris wheel, so much of the place feels like what it used to be: utterly empty.

As my partner for this trip said, the places are marked more by their absence than their presence. It's true: with our Bean and our Hancock, it's hard to imagine what the White City was. Will the Bean be there in a hundred years? And should it be?

One of the hardest questions to answer is: how much history do we need? How much memory must we keep? If you were to visit the sites mentioned in the book as we did, you'd probably answer, "Probably more than this."
— Brian Sobolak

View the accompanying photo essay »


About the Author(s)

Brian Sobolak and Alice Maggio are members of the Gapers Block staff.

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