My wife and I took a four-hour tour of Chicago yesterday under the auspices of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical literature. Some of the tour was focused on the religious history of the area; much of it wasn’t.
We drove, for example, by the Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago (1842). (The city’s First Presbyterian Church burned down during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.) This was the church attended, in its glory days, by such local luminaries as Gustavus Swift (the meatpacking entrepreneur), Marshall Fields (the department store pioneer), and George Pullman (developer of the Pullman sleeping car for railroads)
All of which puts me in mind of Carl Sandburg’s famous poem “Chicago”:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people, Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
Anyway, the church has nine stained glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany — whose work I have always loved. Today, its congregation has dwindled, but it remains really interesting. About a hundred people attend services in Second Presbyterian on any given Sunday, half of them from Africa. I’m told that they’re some of the most entertaining and energetic worship services in the city.
We drove through the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, which features — for good or ill — about thirty buildings by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, co-founder of the so-called “Bauhaus” architectural movement. I first studied his work with a really fine German teacher in high school; I’ve never much cared for it, though, I’m afraid. But I’m sympathetic to what he was trying to do.
There was a great deal of German influence here in the latter half of the nineteenth century but, when World War One cut off European immigration, the meatpacking and other industries in Chicago turned to the American South and Southwest for inexpensive labor. That’s when Hispanics and especially blacks began to move to Chicago. (Blacks now constitute roughly a third to a half of the city’s population.) So one of the streets that we drove along was “Muddy Waters Drive,” named after the famous Blues musician, in the “Chicago Blues District.”
Several monumental churches that we passed, now largely black, were originally built as Reformed Jewish synagogues for mostly German/Austrian congregations. Among these enormous churches is the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s headquarters for his Operation Push (“People United to Save Humanity,” as it’s modestly titled).
End of Part One.
Posted from Chicago, Illinois.