06/9/13

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.

05/2/13

Niagara Falls Jumps In

Niagara Falls boosters envisioned a "capital" for the world as a stylized adaptation of Washington, D.C., placed on nearby Navy Island. The plan anticipated that visitors would arrive from both the United States and Canada, merging symbolically into one united traffic circle. (Library of Congress)

Niagara Falls boosters envisioned a “capital” for the world as a stylized adaptation of Washington, D.C., placed on nearby Navy Island. The plan anticipated that visitors would arrive from both the United States and Canada, merging symbolically into one united traffic circle. (Library of Congress)

On May 2, 1945, the Niagara Falls Gazette published an editorial that gave new life to an old idea.

During the First World War, Congressman Robert H. Gittins had proposed an international conference at Niagara Falls to form a league of nations. Thirty years later, as a private citizen, Gittins proposed the location once again for the UN and the Gazette’s editorial launched a civic campaign to create a world capital on an island between the United States and Canada. Business leaders and public officials from Niagara Falls, Ontario, joined their counterparts in New York in an extensive campaign that included traveling to London to appeal directly to the UN. Originally aiming to place the UN on Canada-owned Navy Island, they quickly changed their proposal to nearby Grand Island, in U.S. territory, after the UN’s decision to place its headquarters in the United States.

Ultimately, Niagara Falls lost its bid to the UN’s desire to be close to a major city, particularly Boston or New York.  To find out more about campaigns by New York cities and towns, check out the List of Contenders and the complete story in the pages of Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations.

Related:

“Niagara area offered site for UN headquarters,” column by Don Glynn, Niagara Gazette, July 4, 2013.

04/4/13

Detroit’s Quixotic Bid

In the twentieth century, Detroit earned a reputation as the automotive capital of the world — a declaration of pride in its manufacturing achievements. In the twenty-first century, the struggling city has cropped up in the news as the murder or arson capital of the world. Based on its massive consumption of salty snacks, some even regard it as the potato chip capital of the world.

But suppose Detroit were the capital of the world, known around the globe not only for its industrial past or post-industrial present, but also as the focal point of international diplomacy. Suppose that the United Nations had its headquarters there, and that the last six decades in Detroit’s history were framed not only by the decline of the auto industry, the racial tensions, and the plummeting population, but also the work of securing world peace. What then would we think of Detroit? And what might we think of the United Nations?

Detroit boosters proposed Belle Isle, an island park shown here in 1909, as a potential home for the United Nations. Small irony: in 1943, the island park proposed for the work of peace was a flashpoint for a devastating race riot that resulted in 34 deaths and $2 million in property damage. (Library of Congress)

In 1945 Detroit boosters proposed Belle Isle, an island park shown here in 1909, as a potential home for the United Nations. Small, unacknowledged irony: in 1943, the island park proposed for the work of peace was a flashpoint for a devastating race riot that resulted in 34 deaths and $2 million in property damage. (Library of Congress)

Continue reading on the web site of Foreign Policy magazine (requires free account registration). Featured in The Atlantic Cities Best #CityReads of the Week, April 6, 2013.