WHAT A GREAT CITY MIGHT BE--A LESSON FROM THE WHITE CITY
John Coleman Adams
The New England Magazine New Ser.14 (March 1896):3-13.John C. Adams (1849-1922) attended school in his native Malden, Massachusetts before entering Tufts University. He graduated in 1870 and two years later also completed studies at that institution's associated school of theology. From 1872 to 1880 he served as pastor of the Newton, Massachusetts Universalist church. He was called successively to Lynn, Massachusetts for four years, Chicago for six years, Brooklyn for eleven years, and--in 1901--to All Souls' Church in Hartford where he remained until his death more than twenty years later.While many observers during the great Chicago Exposition, made public their impressions of the artistic and industrial phases of the White City, and much was written of its dramatic side, the stream of incident flowing through the six months of its existence, the human procession marching and countermarching in its avenues. there is one whole aspect of the Exposition which received altogether too little attention. Yet it is a side which contained much food for thought certainly as any other for the American citizen. Nothing in any of the exhibits within the walls of those great buildings, illustrating the achievements of human skill and power, was half so interesting, so suggestive, so full of hopeful intimations, as the Fair in its aspect as a city by itself. In the midst of a very real and very earthly city, full of the faults which Chicago so preeminently displays, we saw a great many features of what an ideal city might be, a great many visions which perhaps will one day become solid facts, and so remove the blot and failure of modern civilization, the great city of the end of the century. The White City has become almost a dream; but it is well to go back to it, after this interval, and study anew some of its lessons.
Adams wrote more than ten books, virtually all dealing with religious themes. He was a progressive liberal by disposition and his sermons and teachings proved especially attractive to young people who found themselves at variance with the beliefs of their parents. Much of this progressive philosophy flavors Adams's analysis of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 as a model city with lessons to teach those grappling with municipal affairs. Although he may have lacked practical experience in such matters, he had a special interest in the archaeology and topography of London. His studies of these subjects may have led him to consider the problems of American cities and to suggest an approach to solving them by looking to the Fair as an example.
In the first place, when one entered the gates of the White City, he felt that he was in the presence of a system of arrangements which had been carefully and studiously planned. The city was orderly and convenient. The plotting of the grounds, the manner of their development, the placing of the buildings, the communicating avenues and canals and bridges, all exhibited a prevision, a plan, an arrangement of things with reference to each other. The problem of the architect, the landscape gardener and the engineer had been thoroughly thought out before the gates were opened. The result was preeminently satisfying. The features of the Fair could be studied as a whole, or the details could be taken up without loss of time or distraction of attention. The mind was helped and not hindered by the planning of the various parts. They seemed to be the details of an organism, not the mere units of an aggregation. The buildings were not a heap and huddle of walls and roofs; they were a noble sketch in architecture. The streets were not a tangle of thoroughfares representing individual preference or caprice; they were a system of avenues devised for the public convenience.
Of course every dweller in a great city will recognize the fact that these particulars represent just what most of our larger cities are not. If we except some of the newer cities of the West, we have extremely few in which there are any evidences of deliberate and intelligent plan, the perception of the end to be attained, and the effort to gain that end. Life in our cities would be vastly easier if only they had been planned with some reasonable foresight as to results and some commonsense prevision in behalf of the people who were coming to live in them. The great blemish upon our cities is the fact that their natural advantages have been squandered by uses which had no forethought of future needs. The blunders and stupidity of those who have developed them have laid heavy expense upon those who shall come after and try to remodel the territory they have spoiled. That work has hardly begun. When it is undertaken there will be anathemas profound and unsparing upon the shortsightedness which permitted narrow streets and omitted frequent parks and open squares; which reared monumental buildings, and failed to dig tunnels for local transportation; which carried sewage away in drain pipes, only to bring it back by the water tap.
Of course the answer and defence made to this complaint is a general denial of the possibility of doing otherwise, and a claim that the conditions in the two cases were all so different that it is unfair to expect like results. The claim may be partly conceded. The American city is, in general, a surprise to its own inhabitants. It grows beyond all prophecy; it develops in unexpected directions; it increases in territory and population at a pace which is scarcely less than appalling. All these conditions make foresight difficult and possibly debar hindsight from criticism. But the trouble has been that the builders of our cities have been blind because they would not see. They have erred because they chose. They have neglected opportunities which offered. When London suffered from its great fire in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren was ready with admirable plans for rebuilding it with broad streets conveniently arranged, with such a quay as the Victoria Embankment, and with beautiful buildings advantageously disposed. But his plans were not adopted, and an opportunity was lost which will perhaps never recur, of making London a beautiful, well-arranged city. Boston had a like opportunity under a like calamity, and likewise refused it. She threw a tub to the whale of travel and traffic in the shape of a few parings of territory to widen streets; but the whale still chases her perplexed and weary citizens through crooked and narrow thoroughfares. For many years it has been possible to forecast the growth of our cities as certainly as it was possible to predict that the daily population of the White City would be anywhere from 100,000 to 800,000 people. Our mistakes are therefore gratuitous and wilful.
But there were other hints of the order which might exist in our great cities, conveyed in the general cleanliness and neatness of the Exposition grounds. The management had grave difficulties in its way. It had to contend with a great untaught multitude which had never learned in real cities how to be neat in this mimic one. They were as careless and untidy here as they were in their own cities and towns. They littered the ground; they covered the floors; they filled the waters with the rubbish of lunch baskets and the debris of unconsumed luncheons; they tore up their letters and tossed the tatters into the air, they threw away in one building the cards and circulars they had collected in others. But every night when they were gone the patient attendants did their best to clean up after them and to present the grounds fresh and bright for the new crowd next day. When shall we carry the same methods into our municipal affairs ? Why may we not at once take a hint in our every-day towns from this city of a few weeks? There is no reason (save such as are discreditable alike to our minds and our morals) why New York and Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, should not be swept and scrubbed every night in preparation for the uses of every new day. Sometime they will be. Perhaps that day will come all the sooner for the lesson of the White City.
It may be cited as an evidence of what the American populace might be trained to do in the care of its own city premises, that no great multitude of people ever took better care of itself nor showed more love of order in behavior than the throng which came and went every day through the gates of Jackson Park. That fact has been too often cited with praise to demand any emphasis here. It is only called up to show that the American people possesses that self control which can be made the basis of municipal neatness and order. The American citizen understands that he can have a good time without boisterousness or disorder. He knows that the good order of a crowd is only the good order of every individual in it. Once teach him that neatness in the streets can only be secured by the care of every man, woman and child who walks those streets, and we shall be as distinguished for our clean cities as we are for our well-behaved and good natured crowds.
A word ought to be said just here in behalf of those excellent officials whose personal bearing and courteous, intelligent manner of performing their duties were almost ideal. Many witnesses have testified to their value as an object-lesson in the possibilities of a police force; though perhaps no one has spoken more forcibly than Mr. John Brisben Walker, who called them "not bulky, burly punishers of the law's infractions, but public servants placed there to aid in maintaining the law by advice and assistance, ready at all times with kindly word of information, alert to the necessities of visitors and determined to make the day of each in their precincts as pleasant as possible." If one were to sketch a picture of the policeman of the future he could not do better than get a Columbian Guard to pose as a model,--a good specimen of physical manhood, not chosen for his "pull" or his political utility, or for his mere brute bulk, but selected on account of his fitness, drilled into perfect familiarity with his duties, mindful of his own responsibilities to law, and discharging them with intelligence as well as conscientiousness. It may be remarked incidentally that it would have been entirely feasible to secure such a sketch, because the White City policeman, unlike the policemen of so many cities, was a tangible reality at the points when he was needed. He was no absentee official, either in mind or body, but was always visible when on duty, and that, too, in every part of the territory he was set to guard.
But the White City presented yet another hint of a possibility of every great city, in the remarkable safety which it afforded its temporary citizens. Every provision was made to take care of the people and to guard their lives and limbs. The sense of absolute safety within those avenues was delicious. The visitor could give his whole mind to the business in hand without one thought of peril--of falling into any hole, of being hit by any missile. Coming to these grounds from the crowded thoroughfares of Chicago, where the sharp gong of the street cars and the rumble of vehicles was an interminable reminder of the constant threat to personal safety in the crowded streets, it was an unspeakable and indescribable relief to move freely in the midst of the great throngs and not feel in imminent danger. The visitor did not have to think of his personal safety at all. The slow watering-carts and the occasional ambulance on its errand of relief were all that interfered with pedestrians. The railway overhead and the lagoon at one side furnished all the rapid transit without interference of any sort with the sightseers. Suppose that the same sort of care were taken of our lives and persons in a modern great city. It would be worth one's while if he could be as safe in Brooklyn or New York as he was in the streets of the Exposition. But he never will be as long as selfish and mercenary corporations are allowed to capture our thoroughfares and disregard the rights of the people in their use of them.
A word might not be out of place just here as to the provisions made for the comfort as well as the safety of these people. It was possible to do in the Fair what you cannot do in any city that I know of. You did not need to walk five minutes if you were thirsty without finding a place where you could slake your thirst. And there were no open bars at the Fair, either. Water was there for the thirsty, free as air, if you wished it free, at a penny's cost if you felt that a drink could not be real unless you paid for it. I have sometimes thought that the cause of temperance could be promoted by a little more attention to the physical fact that men will get thirsty, and that a cool fountain once in every half mile of sidewalk would discourage the trade of the saloons. In a great city you cannot get a cup of cold water even if you want it without begging for it like a tramp,--and much harm comes therefrom. In the great White City you could not get a glass of strong drink unless you went into a restaurant and sat down at a table; and there was no actual suffering, apparently, on account of the absence of the open bars. Possibly there may have been some connection between these facilities for quenching the thirst in a harmless way, and the marked absence of drunkenness in the White City. If it should ever become impossible to obtain any food in our restaurants less obnoxious to the digestion than welsh rarebits and mince-pies, the people could scarcely be blamed for the dyspepsia which would surely ensue.
Much the same things might be said of the facilities for cleanliness and comfort which in the White City were so amply provided. It was a decided novelty, anywhere in America, to be in a miniature great city, where for a nickel one could get at frequent intervals clean hands and face and a smooth head of hair. But the novelty was of a sort which commanded universal approval. Everybody liked the arrangements at the Fair; and everybody would doubtless like to see similar arrangements in his own city. Who will be first to furnish them ? A good profit awaits his investment.
No doubt the people who did not go to Chicago are saying even now: "Let us hear no more of the beauty of the buildings at the Fair,"--being like those Athenians who wearied of hearing Aristides' praises continually dinned in their ears; and those who went there are never quite ready to forgive any lack of enthusiasm on that theme. Let me rather do my duty by the most wonderful revelation of the century to Americans, than ease the unwilling minds of those who still sit in the darkness of ignorance. Inquiry was made of several of the most critical observers of the World's Fair what in their judgment would be its most marked and impressive effect upon American thought and enterprise. The unanimous opinion was that it would give a great impulse to architecture, to the construction of civic buildings, to the study of artistic effects in public and private constructions. Not that anybody expects to see those great buildings reproduced anywhere else. That would be to repeat the old stupidities of our architectural bungling and botches, which have given us Greek temples for dwelling houses and an enlargement of the settler's log cabin for a church. But there will be a new spirit growing out of the discovery of what is possible in the way of beautiful public buildings. We have had very little so far in our national life; and we have had, certainly until this latest time, extremely little good private architecture. After the awful monotony of ugliness in the domestic and public architecture, of cities like Brooklyn and New York and Philadelphia, the White City was not only a revelation but a benediction. But it forecast a duty, too. It is time we awoke from our nightmare of ugliness and builded better. We are on the eve of a great revival in architecture. When it comes we shall not find men building barns for city halls and court houses and churches, nor making houses by the mile, so like each other that a man could not tell his own house in the block by broad daylight except for its number or some private chalk-marks.
The American visitor to the Fair was permitted another sensation as unusual as it was agreeable, and as strange as it was unexpected. He was treated to the extraordinary experience of feeling that all this beauty, order, protection and display were for his sake, to minister to his enjoyment and to his ease. He knew that the White City was built and furnished on his account, and that everything had been done with a view to making him feel at home in the enjoyment of his inheritance. There was not another place in America where the American citizen could feel so much of the pride of popular sovereignty as he could after he had paid his half dollar and become a naturalized resident of this municipality. Once within those grounds he was monarch of all he surveyed. He could go anywhere. He could see everything. He was welcome to all that he found inside those gates. He could feel for once in his life that he was not liable to be snubbed by the police, nor bullied by car-conductors, nor brow-beaten by salesmen. His temporary citizenship entitled him to the same large privileges which are his by right in any permanent city-- with this difference, that for once his title was recognized and his rights respected. It was a great experience for the patient, submissive, long-suffering American. It gave him a hint of his own deserts. It taught him what he had a right to expect by virtue of his citizenship. It revealed to him what a mock-freedom is really his, when every petty upstart, clad with a little brief authority, feels at liberty to domineer over him. We imagine that we, the people, are the state, and we pride ourselves upon our sovereignty. But was ever a monarch so shame-faced, so put upon, so humiliated? Let this "popular sovereign" try to walk the streets of his own city with any such feeling as filled his heart in the White City, and see how mortifying a lot is his. If he meets a policeman he cannot help feeling afraid under some very innocent circumstances, that he may be arrested merely for being out of doors. If he attempts to cross a street, the swift and death dealing trolley- or cable-car will soon teach him that the public thoroughfare does not belong to him but to some corporation. If he enters these or any other public vehicle, he realizes that they are run, not to accommodate him, but to make money for somebody else. The sidewalks are not his, but the grocer's, the furniture dealer's, the house builder's and the street contractor's. Even in his own house, the dust from ill- kept streets, the crash and racket over bad pavements, teach him that the city is cared for, not by a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but by a government of the politicians, by the politicians, for the politicians. But, perhaps, as he understands all these things, he will long for a day to come when he can walk abroad with uplifted head, in the comfortable assurance that the city belongs to him and not to the corporations and the politicians.
Such an era of real liberty in which the city is devoted to the good of the citizen, is perfectly possible, but only under the same conditions as those which made the White City so conspicuous. The splendid administration of that six-months' city was secured by enlisting in its service the best brains and the best dispositions available. The talent and the character of at least one city government in America were level with the task which was set for them. The source and secret of the order, the safety, the beauty, the devotion to the good of the people, which were found in that one small municipality, lay in the fact that the best were called upon to produce the best. Those beautiful grounds were planned by the best minds that could be brought to the undertaking. The beautiful buildings were decorated by the best artists who could be secured. The president of the Directory was one of the foremost business men of Chicago. The executive talent in that wonderful city (which abounds in that particular commodity) was laid under contribution to administer the enterprise. It was a clear case of cause adequate to effect. When our great cities can and will observe the same law; when they realize that it takes the best to make the best; when they feel that personal comfort, safety, and enjoyment are worth having and worth working for; then indeed we may expect to see the ideals suggested in the White City realized in Boston, New York, Brooklyn and Chicago, in every great city in the land.
The great White City has disappeared. Its walls have fallen, its attractions have vanished, its glories have faded like the summer which marked its life. But in its place, heirs of its uses, its beauties, its order, we shall yet see springing into being throughout the land cities which shall embody in permanent form the splendors, the noble suggestions, the dignified municipal ideals of this dream city. In the day in which the better, the best, American city shall become a common spectacle, we shall perceive how much sooner it came by reason of the vision of the White City which we all beheld upon the shores of the great lake.
Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: email@example.com To Top of Page To Homepage