Interviews

Q&A: COVID-19 and the Blaze—Carl Smith and the Great Chicago Fire, Part 2

Part 2 of Two Parts. Read Part 1 here.

Like the rest of the world, Atlantic Monthly Press and Northwestern University historian Carl Smith weren’t planning on COVID-19. But that’s the reality they faced when Smith’s Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City was published as planned in August. In my review of the book, I noted that the devastation of the fire resonates on unexpected levels for any Chicagoan—indeed, any human being—in this historical moment of worldwide disease. Smith and I talked about this when we sat down recently via Zoom to talk about the fire and his book.

 

Your book is coming out in the middle of COVID, and there is a parallel there between the devastation in the city and how the city was knocked on its butt then, and what’s happening now. Is there anything that people today can get a sense of what the future may hold for Chicago, given what happened after the fire?

I’ll answer that question, but, if you’ll forgive me, I want to first talk about some of the difficulties answering that question. One is that this epic fire, terrible as it was, was over in 30 hours. The other thing is that this pandemic is this almost invisible enemy as opposed to the visible manifestation of the fury of the fire and the devastated city. And, also, that was 1871, and this is 2020.

There are some timeless things about disasters. One is that the group in power insists it has it under control and this is a reason to support it all the more. “Trust us, we’ll fix it. It’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the system as is.” And the people who are outside of power say, “This reveals both flaws within the system and the shortcomings of those in power. It means we need a change of some kind.”

The complicating thing of then and now is that Chicago was built because it reflected a certain moment in a developing national and international economy. Its situation at the western edge of the Great Lakes at the time of national expansion was its most important quality, and there were then people, entrepreneurs, who were able to take advantage of that and investors from the outside who were willing to invest in it. So, they made it this mercantile center, this communications center, this transportation center, this manufacturing center, this inland metropolis between the more heavily settled manufacturing East and the great resources of the Upper Middle West and beyond. And all kinds of people in an age of expansion and movement and open immigration were coming through.

And Chicago was rebuilt as quickly as it was, partly because a lot of the things were not destroyed—the railroads, the communications, most of the factories, a lot of the grain silos were fine afterwards. But. most of all, its location was still just as critical. So, the same things that built it in the first place rebuilt it right away. The international economy needed this place.

Now, Chicago is in this much more complicated international global world, and it is no longer a manufacturing colossus. It is not as much a transportation center, as busy as it is, as it was then. The question is whether it can reassert its dynamism when there’s been all this pressure for small businesses to shut, people to move out, and offices to empty.

It think it’s likely that it can. It will be by reasserting the things it already has, particularly its value as this financial nexus, and adapting to whatever other changes technology and other developments bring down the pike. And whether it continues to be a place where want to you put your money, and just as important, if you’re a person of ambition, a place where you put your life. It’s no accident that Marshall Field and George Pullman came from [the East] to Chicago because that was where opportunity was. And it’s also no accident that that’s where Catherine and Patrick O’Leary came.

The fire and its aftermath revealed inequalities. Is that going to happen now?

It has happened! We talk about people of color and service workers taking the brunt of this, and wealthier people having the resources to work at home or get farther away and have reserves of money and insurance.

Since these inequalities have been revealed—once we’re vaccinated—do we forget that it’s been people of color who have died? Do we forget that it’s been poor people who have died?

Now you’re talking to me as a citizen and not as a historian. I study the past. I don’t predict the future.

I certainly hope we remember. I certainly hope that we do things to make a more equitable society. There’s also this whole thing that immigrants or workers or unions are somehow this burden.

It is very hard to overstate the amount of anti-Irish prejudice there was in Chicago in 1871. There was no such thing as political correctness. It was a perfectly respectable thing to do to make nasty fun of people like the O’Learys and talk about them as dirty and ignorant. But the people who invested their money and their energy in Chicago needed these people. That’s why these people came, and that’s why they wanted these people to come to work. You can’t build a city without these people. And you can’t run it without these people. It’s very important to acknowledge that and to realize that they are part of it.

Then there are these resentments when these people are here, “Oh, my gosh! They vote their own interests rather than what we think what’s best for the city: keep wages low, no unions, and let the free market take care of everything.

There was all this talk about crooked politicians, and there were crooked politicians. But, a lot of times, the politicians were smeared because they didn’t vote the way Marshall Field wanted them to vote. Like anyone else, they use what power they have.

There was this friction of the people on the outs, saying, “If you build with wood, the workers could afford to have a home.”  There was a lot of friction that resulted in Chicago after that. 

There are always these kinds of things. Chicago’s population consisted of a significant number of what were called 48ers. People who fled after the failure of democratic revolutions in 1848 in Europe.

We have this idea, and to a remarkable extent it’s true, that this is a country of opportunity and of openness. That you work hard and do your best and you’ll do fine. Chicago’s full of all kinds of these stories.

Increasingly, as this country gets bigger, as industries get bigger, as government changes in various ways, you find that, as immigrants come, there are disjunctions of different kinds particularly relating to industrialization and economic change. It’s the changing nature of labor in this country as much as anything else. Whether you have control over your life or somebody else does.

The fire and the recovery became an essential element of Chicago’s mythology going forward.

Yes, the fire was appalling, but much of what made the city was still there. And, yes, the recovery was amazing, but it was not entirely fair, and it created tensions that would not go away.

Meanwhile, the city integrates the fire into its mythology, of the “I Will” city, the city that works, and says, “If we’re going to have a fire, damn it, we had the biggest fire of any place! And we had the biggest recovery of any place. And what this story is, is not one of destruction but of triumph. It proves that nothing can stop Chicago. It is a force that is stronger than the primordial force of fire itself.”

And to a certain extent, it’s justified. Chicago, within 20 years, was three times as big as it was at the fire. It wasn’t Pompeii, or New Orleans after Katrina. It’s important to acknowledge the vivacity and resilience of the city. But, if it was going to happen, it could not have happened at a better time—a time when Chicago was most capable to endure it and recover.

This is largely because [of] not only…the resilience and the wonderful spirit of [the] people in the city but also because of the same developing international economy that built Chicago in the first place.

 

This transcript has been edited for space and clarity. 

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