How Did Chicago Become A Big City?

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how did chicago become a big city

Sometime in the 1780s, Jean-Baptise DuSable, a Santo Dominican of mixed African and European ancestry, established the very first non-indigenous settlement in Chicago near the south bank of the Chicago River.

Chicago’s location, between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, has always made it an ideal city to work and live.

The French Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet and a Jesuit priest by the name of Father Marquette recognized this fact while canoeing through the area on their way to Wisconsin.

The city of Chicago went on to evolve from a little settlement on the banks of the Chicago River to a big city.  The makeup or characteristics of the people of Chicago are culturally diverse.  Chicago is a melting pot grounded in traditional, hard-working Midwestern values.

How did Chicago become a big city?

Chicago 1800s – City of Immigrants

In 1803, the US Army built Fort Dearborn on the south bank of the Chicago River (near present-day Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive).  It was destroyed by Native Americans, rebuilt then, later on, de-commissioned in 1837.

1837 was a big year for Chicago – it is the year Chicago incorporated into a city. Chicago’s first theater company was established this year.  And it is the year CD Peacock Jeweler, Chicago’s first registered business, opened its doors on Lake Street. CD Peacock is still in business to this very day.

In 1836, Chicago began construction on the Illinois and Michigan Canal.  Immigrants, mostly from Ireland, poured into the city to work on this large project.

By the time Chicago was incorporated in 1837, it was already a bustling city – full of immigrants.

The Fire, the rebuilding of Chicago and the rise of captains of industry

Most of the city (downtown) burned to the ground during the Chicago Fire of 1871.  Luckily, the railroads and factories were spared, enabling Chicago to rebuild quickly.

The city had already established itself as a significant commercial hub (the world’s largest grain port), so it was just a matter of rebuilding it from the ashes.

Several captains of industries established themselves and their fortunes during the late 1800s.

Men such as Marshall Fields, Potter Palmer, George Pullman, Phillip Armour made Chicago famous as a national retail center, meat-packing and railroad hub.

In 1885, Chicago built its first skyscraper…and so began the city’s love affair and fascination with architecture. Architects such as Mies Van de Rohe, Louis Sullivan, and Walter Gropius all contributed to Chicago’s famous skyline.

Chicago’s population – One million and counting

By the 1890s, Chicago’s population had grown to one million. In 1893, the elevated train was built to transport workers from Chicago’s neighborhoods to the downtown area.  This elevated train (we call it the L) made a “loop” around downtown, dropping off folks to different stops so they could get to work.  And that’s how the Loop neighborhood got its name.

Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.  Buildings that were built to hold exhibits for the Fair are still standing to this day in Jackson Park on the southside of Chicago.

Chicago 1900s – Racial and ethnic tensions along with labor issues

Immigrants escaping economic and political troubles from their home countries poured into Chicago.  They came from all over – Latin America, Mexico, Europe, Ireland, and Asia.

African Americans migrated from the South to Chicago in search of better opportunities and greater social freedom.  Chicago had a reputation for treating African Americans fairly and without segregation.

Soon, resentment built up from having to compete for jobs and housing.  The city’s increasing population due to the Great Migration and immigrants from other countries was busting at the seams.

European immigrant that had settled in Chicago in the 19th century wasn’t too pleased with the newly emerging community on the south side of African Americans.

The economy was in a slump, and times were hard.  These conditions led to race riots that rocked the southside neighborhoods of Chicago.  Racial tension has been an issue for Chicago every since.

By the close of the 19th century, Chicago was grappling with significant labor issues.  Workers were overworked (in unsafe conditions) and underpaid.  Unions organized and protesting workers (Haymarket Affair, Pullman Strike, etc.) eventually gave way to substantial labor reforms in the 20th century.  Chicago was on the cutting age of the labor movement.  Because of the city’s diversity, minorities (ethnic and racially) played a significant role in the sweeping changes.

Prohibition and the Depression

Prohibition-era (1918-1930) ushered in crime syndicates and mobsters in Chicago.  Well, known gangsters such as Al Capone and John Dillinger became famous for their illegal activities.

Meanwhile, Chicago was becoming known for its political “machine” system of running the city government.  Mayors and other politicians rewarding friends, donors, and relatives with city government jobs – still goes on to this very day.

The Depression brought high unemployment in Chicago when industries were devastated economically. The massive job loss ends up being blamed on the Republican Party.  Since 1931 every Mayor of Chicago has been a Democrat.

World War II economic boom and the rise of Mayor Daley

World War II brought an economic boom to the city of Chicago due to its massive production of steel and other war goods.  The city saw another wave of migration of African Americans from the south looking for work.

1955 began the Mayor Richard J Daley era for Chicago.  His years in office were, at times, controversial. Who can forget his bad handling of the protests following Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination and the demonstrations during the Democratic Convention in 1968?  But he is also remembered as a Mayor that got a lot of great things accomplished for Chicago.

Mayor Richard J Daley died while in office in 1976.  His son, Richard M Daley, who took office in 1989, would beat his record for the longest-serving Mayor of Chicago.

The 1960s saw the nationwide decline of the inner city.  However, as with most major cities in the United States in the age of automobiles, the downtown area faded a bit once people left the city for the suburbs.

Factories jobs, especially, steel left the city of Chicago, and people began moving to the suburbs.

Gentrification, Chicago’s first Black Mayor and the second Mayor Daley

The 1980s brought urban renewal and gentrification to the city of Chicago.  Neighborhoods of Chicago that had been altered by the 1950s and 60s mass movement of people to the suburbs began redevelopment to attract folks back to the city.

In 1983, Chicago elected its first African American Mayor, Harold Washington.  Times were changing.

Mayor Washington was a progressive who ended patronage hiring for city jobs (during the time he was mayor), pushed for community involvement in school budget decisions, and focused on the economic development of poor neighborhoods.

After the death of Mayor Washington, Richard M Daley (son of former Mayor Richard J Daley) was elected in 1989.  Mayor Daley was instrumental in making Chicago, and it’s neighborhoods attractive again to residents and visitors alike.  One of his significant accomplishments was the building of Millennium Park, for which he convinced major corporations to pay for much of it.

Chicago in the 2000s – the “back to the city” phenomenon and President Obama

By the 2000s, Chicago’s neighborhood redevelopment began to attract more and more residents back to the city. As commute times increased, year-to-year,  on the area’s expressways, people began to see the benefit of living in the city.   Neighborhoods such as Bronzeville, Humboldt Park, and Pilsen saw a rise in new home constructions and new commercial opportunities.

Always on the cutting edge of politics and social change, Chicago produced the United States’ first African-American President in 2008 – Barack Obama.

Big changes continued in Chicago.  Rahm Emmanuel became mayor and successfully turned Chicago into the “6th most walkable city”.   He also was instrumental in making Chicago safer for bike riders.

In 2019, Chicago elected it’s first openly gay African American woman as mayor.

Conclusion – How did Chicago become a big city?

The city of Chicago has evolved from a little settlement on the banks of the Chicago River to the biggest (and most popular) city in the Midwest.  Chicago has a complex history, but it has always been proud of its immigrant roots.

Diversity is what makes Chicago uniquely special.  It is a melting pot grounded in traditional, hard-working Midwestern values.


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