During the winter of 1945, as American cities and towns accelerated their campaigns to become the Capital of the World, Irving Berlin composed a song that captured the spirit of boosterism:

Anything you can do, I can do better

I can do anything better than you …

In the same spirit, the most assertive of the American civic boosters seeking the attention of the United Nations set out for London — without invitation — to personally present their cases to the UN Preparatory Commission meeting there. On December 1, 1945, a subcommittee of diplomats began the first of three hearings to appease their eager suitors. Much to the entertainment of the press corps, each team of boosters seemed to determine to top the others.

  • Atlantic City – Boosters for the seaside resort argued that their community “presents an ideal location because of its beautiful Boardwalk, beach and ocean, temperate climate, superb hotel accommodations, mammoth Convention Hall, its proximity and accessibility to cosmopolitan centers, and its rail and airport travel facilities.” Two representatives  dispatched to London offered a headquarters site on Brigantine Island and warmed up the diplomats by passing out salt water taffy and Colgate soap products in delegation offices.
  • Black Hills Region – Paul E. Bellamy, a Rapid City businessman whose son had been killed in the war, led the campaign to place the UN in the Black Hills grew into a three-state effort by South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The Black Hills boosters promoted their region as central, accessible, spacious, and politically neutral. Bellamy added that hungry delegates would find no shortage of beef steak.
  • Boston — Led by Governor Maurice Tobin, a delegation for Boston stressed their unique qualification as the American city closest to Europe, the traditional center for diplomacy.  They unveiled an enticing offer of seventy-five scholarships to Boston-area colleges and universities.
  • Chicago — A team from Chicago promoted their city as centrally located and prominent to the war effort, but in boasting about the city’s newspapers they also displayed an unfortunate headline: “Gangland Murder on the North Side.”
  • Denver — University of Colorado President Robert L. Stearns carried the city’s case to London and stressed the facilities available in the “Second Capital of the United States,” which had become a center for federal agencies during the Roosevelt years.  In contrast to other competitors, Denver stressed its proximity to Latin America.
  • Newport, R.I. — A British cousin of one of Newport’s boosters presented the case for placing the UN in and among the aging mansions that survived from the Gilded Age.
  • Philadelphia –Among the earliest and most persistent campaigners for the UN’s attention, the Philadelphians stressed their ability to meet all of the UN’s needs for a temporary and permanent meeting place. A journal of the trip kept by one of the Philadelphia promoters derided other competitors for such commercial tactics as showing color films of scenic attractions.
  • San Francisco — Last in alphabetical order for the first day of hearings, Mayor Roger Lapham simply reminded the subcommittee of the war welcome they had received earlier in the year during the conference to draft the UN Charter.

The result of these proceedings? More headlines in American newspapers about the search for a UN home, more invitations from world capital hopefuls, and more booster delegations determined to make their way to London before it was too late.


A Man, a Monument, and a Cause

Photographed June 10, 2013, Chicago.

George Washington flanked by Robert Morris (left) and Haym Salomon (right). Photographed June 10, 2013, Chicago.

The Great Triumvarite monument at Wabash Avenue and Wacker Drive in Chicago stands prominently in the landscape, but at the same time it fades from public attention. Traffic whizzes by on Wacker. Passersby today are drawn more toward the nearby memorial to veterans of the Vietnam War, and the life-size sculpture of three Revolutionary-era figures is a bit lost as it overlooks above the hubbub. Still, I sought it out during my recent visit to Chicago because this monument represents some of the key motivations behind American enthusiasm in the competition to become host city for the United Nations at the end of World War II. Continue reading


Northerly Island: Echoes of 1945

At times, in some places, lost histories echo in surprising ways. This has been on my mind this week in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to visit the location that the Windy City proposed as Capital of the World: Northerly Island.

From Northerly Island, the view of the Chicago skyline.

From Northerly Island, the view of the Chicago skyline.

As Chicagoans know, Northerly Island today is not an island at all, but a man-made peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan near the Field Museum and then runs parallel to the shoreline. Created in the 1920s as part of Daniel Burnham’s vision for chain of lakefront islands, it connected to Chicago at first with a bridge and then with the causeway that remains. In 1933-34, Northerly Island was the site of the Century of Progress Exposition; beginning in the 1940s it served as an airport. Although managed by the Chicago Park District, a magazine writer noted in 1966, it “is not now and never has been beautiful.”

Largely deserted on the cool weekday of my walk, Northerly Island remains a work in progress, with a beach, a concert venue, a yacht club, and crews at work on the landscape. Among its great assets are the spectacular view of the skyline of the city, which seems a place apart despite being within walking distance. On the island, there is no explicit evidence of the world’s fair, and no sign that Chicago once offered Northerly Island to the United Nations as a site for its permanent headquarters.

The Meigs Field terminal building, now a visitor center. In the foreground, "Action is the Answer," by Carla Winterbottom.

The Meigs Field terminal building, now a visitor center. In the foreground, “Action is the Answer,” by Carla Winterbottom.

And yet …

At the farthest accessible point of my walk stands the 1961 terminal building for the former Meigs Field, reminding me of the visions for commercial aviation that helped Chicago and other world capital hopefuls argue that they could become the central gathering place for the world. More startling are the two artworks in front of the terminal building.  Recent installations, both are renditions of planet earth. One is a colorful display promoting environmental activism.  The other is a dark earth in chains, imploring the viewer to “unlock creative energy” to combat climate change.

In these ways, the global aspirations of Chicago in 1945-46 echo on Northerly Island still.


Road Trip: Chicago

One of the great pleasures of publishing a new book is the opportunity to revisit places that became my temporary home while I was doing the research. I’m especially excited to return to one of my favorite cities, Chicago, this week. Please join me at the fantastic Printers Row Lit Fest on Sunday, June 9, and at the amazing Newberry Library on Thursday, June 13. We will relive the adventure of Chicago’s race to become the Capital of the World at the end of World War II, and I am sure I will learn a lot from you about the city’s more recent endeavors to take the world stage. Click for details:


Michigan City Dreams Big

When the diplomats of 1946 confronted suburban governments, they didn’t have a chance.  Kim Ukura, who has first-hand experience in community journalism, pointed this out in her review of Capital of the World.  This passage made her laugh:

Time and time again during the summer of 1946, negotiators for the United Nations motored from New York City to Westchester County, New York, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, the two suburban counties where they hoped to find a site for a headquarters. But in the meeting rooms of county and municipal authorities, it became clear that even diplomats who had served kings and presidents, who had kept governments afloat in exile during the war, and whose nations had subjected entire populations to colonial rule, were no match for local governments and suburban property owners.

The potential world capital site outside Michigan City, photographed June 17, 2013.

The potential world capital site outside Michigan City, photographed June 17, 2013.

I began my career as a local government news reporter in Michigan City, Indiana – and so it came as quite a surprise when I discovered that this town at the tip of Lake Michigan was one of the many self-anointed world capital contenders.  In contrast to the suburban homeowners near New York, the people of Michigan City pursued the dream. The plan was to put the United Nations at the International Friendship Gardens, which had been transplanted from the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago to a site just east of Michigan City.

For about a month in 1945, the Michigan City News-Dispatch promoted this bold aspiration with gusto. Continue reading


Rome, the Capital of the World

This week, the conclave to elect a new pope convenes in Rome – fittingly, the original Capital of the World.  In 27 B.C.E., the historian Titus Livy reported an oral tradition that the city founder Romulus had descended from heaven nearly seven centuries before to direct the Romans to transform their city into caput orbis terrarum – the Capital of the World. “Tell the Romans that by heaven’s will my Rome shall be the capital of the world,” Romulus instructed. “Let them learn to be soldiers.  Let them know, and teach their children, that no power on earth can stand against Roman arms.”

1641 bird's eye view and map of Rome by Matthus Merian.By http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/merian.txt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1641 bird’s eye view and map of Rome by Matthus Merian.
http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/merian.txt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The phrase “capital of the world” remained attached to Rome into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sustained by classical educations and appearing frequently in histories, periodicals, and travel guides. The idea of Rome as a world capital had its origins in warfare and empire, but it came to represent a more general appreciation of Rome as a center of culture, civilization, and significance for Christianity.

Since Livy’s times, the idea of a Capital of the World has evolved in ways both trivial and grand.  European imperialism during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spawned new claims of world dominance for seats of empire. “The great object of every British patriot should be, to place his country at the head of the nations, and to make it the capital of the world,” advised The Prospects of Britain, a volume published in London and Edinburgh in 1831. London’s reputation as world capital grew during preparations for the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, the first world’s fair, which called attention to the vast holdings of the British empire.  Paris, too, earned a reputation as the Capital of the World based on its standing as a center of ideas, revolution, culture, and high fashion. Continue reading