Jun 14, 2016 04:35 pm | email@example.com (Michelle Miller)
The Many Faces of Chicago The Chicago I grew up in was a big sprawling metropolitan complex. I was always proud to live in the second largest city in the country. You could still have dinner at the Stock Yards, where they'd brand your steak, and we teenagers could still wander out to the Point at 55th Street to sunbathe on a pleasant weekend. The Prudential Tower, with its escalator at the top and cocktail lounge, was the talk of the town. But I lived in a relatively small area—Hyde Park and Kenwood—and it was like living in a small town. Gracious old homes, often side by side with apartment buildings. We had our favorite spots from Cunag's ice cream to Thomas' drugstore, a local theatre that showed art films, and a small restaurant whose name I can't remember. We rarely ventured out of our neighborhood. We didn't have to—life was complete. I did take the Illinois Central downtown sometimes when I grew older—even for Sunday night hymn sings.
The Chicago that greeted Potter Palmer when he stepped off the train from the East in the 1840s was very different—a muddy, barren flat area with a few ramshackle building. It smelled bad, partly from the wild onion that grew everywhere and gave the city its Indian name and partly from the livestock in the streets. Palmer was not discouraged though he might well have been when a passing horseman splashed mud all over his suit. He continued on the rickety, uneven walk of boards until he reached the Tremont House, where he found luxury that suited him. Within years he would make that luxury much more widespread in Chicago.
Over the next years, the physical appearance of Chicago didn't change much. A large area of shacks and shanties ringed the downtown. Workers and their families lived in primitive conditions, often without a stove or refrigeration and hauling their own water. Meanwhile, the other part of Chicago's population—the "swells," if you will—built luxurious homes on what was then the far south side—26th Avenue and thereabouts.
The Great Fire of 1871 brought great changes to Chicago, changes which might never have occurred so rapidly without the fire. Devastated, with countless major buildings gone, the city rebuilt a mores solid infrastructure—using brick in place of the dried-out wood of the past. The shacks and shanties, however, were replaced with similar buildings.
Potter Palmer opened a dry goods store on his arrival and, after the Civil War, built the Palmer House, an extravagant hotel for the wealthy. He and his wife, Cissy, lived on the top floor of the hotel and raised two young sons there. To Cissy, the greatest part about the hotel was the view of Lake Michigan, and, indeed, Lake Michigan has been a constant in the lives of many Chicagoans.
Cissy Palmer, as the wife of one of her city's most prominent businessmen, devoted her life to her family—and philanthropic causes. She worked with Jane Addams at Hull House, invited factory girls into her home, joined various progressive women's groups and presented papers on the feminist program—without calling it that to her husband. She assured him she would never bob her hair.
The two faced together and disagreed over social issues—the treatment of southern prisoners during the Civil War, the labor struggles of the late 1880s, including the infamous Haymarket Riot. Cissy was always the humanitarian; Carter the businessman, clutching a Horatio-Alger standard of America that perhaps no longer applied and lacking sympathy for those less fortunate than he.
Potter Palmer and Chicago grew together from frontier village to sophisticated modern city. When he decided to build a home for his family, Palmer chose Chicago's North Shore and thereby signaled a massive move on the part of Chicagoans from south side to the North Shore. Some wealthy Chicagoans already had moved north of the river, but they did not live on the lake shore. Palmer chose the shore which was then a sandy, barren wasteland. He had sand dredged out of the lake to provide a foundation for his home—an architectural surprise that many in Chicago called Palmer's Castle in asides. Even Cissy was unsure about the design of the structure. But Palmer began selling lots adjacent to his property, and soon Chicago's North Side was the fashionable place to live.
The Columbian Exposition, for all its overwhelming architectural accomplishments, proved to be a temporary draw to the South Side. A year after the exposition closed, the buildings were falling apart, helped by vandals and the homeless who built fires in them. The exposition added greenbelts and one permanent building—the Museum of Science and Industry. Cissy Palmer served as president of the Board of Lady Managers at the exposition, a position that was the culmination of her life of public service. Potter Palmer served in various official capacities.
Today, Chicago, the city of broad shoulders, is one of the most sophisticated in the country, with museums, dining, theater, shopping on the Magnificent Mile, funky places and sophisticated to explore on the near North Side. Perhaps it still has the community-close neighborhoods. And always, the lake. Potter and Cissy Palmer would be proud of the city they helped to build.
But at the same time, the city has a reputation for violence and gun deaths. I'm not sure I would wander out to the Point these days or ride the IC downtown alone at night. Sad to think about. Chicago is a mixed bag of good and bad—but I guess, with the labor struggles of its history, it always was.
About the book
The Gilded Cage: A Novel of Chicago by Judy Alter
Publication Date: April 18, 2016 Alter Ego Publishing eBook & Paperback; 318 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Born to a society and a life of privilege, Bertha Honoré married Potter Palmer, a wealthy entrepreneur who called her Cissy. Neither dreamed the direction the other's life would take. He built the Palmer House Hotel, still famed today, and become one of the major robber barons of the city, giving generously to causes of which he approved. She put philanthropy into deeds, going into shanty neighborhoods, inviting factory girls to her home, working at Jane Addams' settlement Hull House, supporting women's causes.
It was a time of tremendous change and conflict in Chicago as the city struggled to put its swamp-water beginnings behind it and become a leading urban center. A time of the Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Riots, and the triumph of the Columbian Exposition. Potter and Cissy handled these events in diverse ways. Fascinating characters people these pages along with Potter and Cissy—Carter Harrison, frequent mayor of the city; Harry Collins, determined to be a loser; Henry Honoré, torn between loyalties to the South and North; Daniel Burnham, architect of the new Chicago—and many others.
The Gilded Cage is a fictional exploration of the lives of these people and of the Gilded Age in Chicago history.
"The Gilded Cage is a wonderful recreation of early Chicago and the people who made it what it is. Central character Cissy Palmer is a three-dimensional, real, vibrant person. The Gilded Cage is fiction, but firmly based on fact—the Chicago Fire, the prisoners from the War Between the States interred in Chicago, the newcomer Potter Palmer, the explosive growth of wealth in a prairie town, deep poverty adjacent to great riches—the American experience laid bare. You don't have to be a Chicagoan to love this book." -Barbara D'Amato, author of Other Eyes
Judy Alter is the award winning author of fiction for adults and young adults. Other historical fiction includes Libbie, the story of Elizabeth Bacon (Mrs. George Armstrong) Custer; Jessie, the story of Jessie Benton Frémont and her explorer / miner / entrepreneur / soldier / politician husband; Cherokee Rose, a novel loosely based on the life of the first cowgirl roper to ride in Wild West shows; and Sundance, Butch and Me, the adventures of Etta Place and the Hole in the Wall Gang.