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
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.
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.
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.
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: