Harold Platt gives shocking backstory to Chicago and Manchester in this massive and highly worthwhile book.
Chicago has been in the national news constantly in recent weeks.
Between being Ground Zero for Barack Obama’s presidential transition, the home of arrested and defiant Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and, last month, the site of the nation’s highest-profile labor action at Republic Doors and Windows, Carl Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders has filled the nation’s airwaves and contributed significantly to the depletion of whatever remaining lumber exists on the planet.
Those interested in learning more about America’s New First City have plenty of writers from which to choose.
From Upton Sinclair to Nelson Algren to Richard Wright to Mike Royko to the much loved and recently departed Louis “Studs” Terkel to current masters like Aleksandar Hemon and my former teacher Alex Kotlowitz, Chicago has been a much-chronicled City on the Make, to lift from Algren’s essay by the same title.
Today, I’d like to offer another, less well-known contribution that sheds a lot of light on the city’s development as well as its continual capacity for reinvention: Loyola University History Professor Harold Platt’s Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago.
Full disclosure: I have contacted Platt and shared my positive thoughts about his work over a breakfast with him and my father. Platt and I have also discussed a project on which we might collaborate.
The work is meticulously researched and, once one gains some steam, enthralling reading. The shock in Platt’s title refers to cities whose development augurs a new age for the country in which it is located. He effectively compares and contrasts the impact of industrialization and various reform movements in England through looking at Manchester and in the United States by examining Chicago’s development.
The product of many years of research, Shock Cities contains a provocative argument about the role of elites in shaping political change, the significance of the physical environment in that process, and the potential for reform movements that vary according to each country’s democratic rhetoric and practice.
Anyone who watched the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Region in 2005, for example, cannot help but wince while reading Platt’s descriptions of the plans generated and ignored repeatedly in mid-19th century Manchester to prevent similarly destructive flooding-destruction, of course, of which poor people bore the disproportionate load. Platt’s description of how upper class members steered sewage systems to their neighborhoods and then advocated an ethos of cleanliness is similarly poignant.
The book is not all depressing, though.
The descriptions of the reform movements is uplifting. Familiar characters like future Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams appear, cutting her spurs fighting pollution and the ward bosses as well as establishing the settlement house movement with women like Florence Kelley and Julia Lathrop, who later had a public housing development named after her.
Platt also talks at length about the emerging field of public health, which took hold in Chicago toward the late nineteenth and early 20th century.
In addition, Chicago lovers will find plenty of juicy nuggets to chew. To give just a few examples, a host of people who are now better known for having their names on streets and/or schools-beer brewer Michael Diversey, entreprenuer William Ogden, and attorney and horseback rider Paul Cornell immediately spring to mind-fill the book’s pages.
To do this kind of research about a single city would be impressive enough for one book, but Platt’s ability to conceive and then successfully execute his comparative framework is, well, shocking.
So … the next time you need an escape from Blago, Burris and the Politics of Hope, consider settling into Shock Cities. At 500 pages, it will undoubtedly take a while to wade through, but is more than worth the effort.