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.

05/4/13

Gardner, Mass.: A Logical Site

When the United Nations began its search for a world capital site in the northeastern United States in 1946, Boston became a focus of attention. With diplomats on the way to inspect possible sites, cities and towns in Massachusetts clamored to be noticed. Their letters, telegrams, and promotional brochures came so quickly, and in such volume, that news reporters could only speculate about the extent of the competition. Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations documents more than forty communities in Massachusetts that vied for the UN’s attention — along with several that energetically resisted.

A discovery from the archives: Promotional booklet for Gardner, Massachusetts (Courtesy of Sean M. Fisher)

A discovery from the archives: Promotional booklet for Gardner, Massachusetts (Courtesy of Sean M. Fisher)

Now, we have a new contender. Sean M. Fisher, an archivist with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, writes that evidence of a world capital campaign by Gardner, Massachusetts, turned up during a recent survey of local history records at Gardner Heritage State Park. The Gardner boosters, led by William A. McMahon (1910-98), presented their town as the “logical site for the permanent home of the United Nations Organization” in a promotional booklet dated January 5, 1946.

Thanks to Sean for adding to our understanding of the scope of American interest in creating a Capital of the World at the end of World War II.  I am sure there are more world capital hopefuls waiting to be found, especially in the northeastern United States. Let me know, and if there is documentation we will add them to the list!

04/16/13

Comedy and Tragedy

Lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (see Chapter 2 of Capital of the World)

Lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (see Chapter 2 of Capital of the World)

In the theater of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, where diplomats convened in April 1945 to draft a Charter for the United Nations, the masks of Comedy and Tragedy flank the stage. As I was reminded during a visit this week, the Opera House was a suitably impressive venue for the enormous and somber task of creating a new world organization to secure a peaceful future. But those masks also seem symbolic of the difficulties the UN encountered with such a mundane task as selecting a place for its permanent home. With the tragedy of war still unfolding in 1945, civic boosters from Philadelphia and the Black Hills of South Dakota showed up in San Francisco to push their interests in becoming the Capital of the World even before the United Nations officially existed. And San Francisco’s boosters aimed to show how suitable their city could be.

United Nations Plaza, San Francisco

United Nations Plaza, San Francisco

I thought of the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, too, as I walked through United Nations Plaza, the commemorative space near the San Francisco Public Library. The flag of the United Nations flag flies there, and pillars topped by symbolic globes bear the names of all of the member nations. Amid inscriptions of human rights and dignity, the plaza on this day was populated by apparently homeless people, bundled against the cold whipping wind, sleeping, and safeguarding shopping carts of belonging.  One had a boom box tuned to a radio station blaring a commercial for easy credit. At one end of the plaza, vendors offered a miscellany of goods for sale: sunglasses, jewelry, colorful scarves.  As offices began to empty in the late afternoon, commuters dashed through all of this for the Civic Center transit station and seemed unaware–or numbed–to it all. For those who notice, United Nations Plaza is far from the hopes and dreams of the boosters of 1945 who sought to make San Francisco the Capital of the World.

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.

03/30/13

Field of Dreams

In Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, one of the sites offered to the United Nations.

In Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, one of the sites offered to the United Nations.

On this beautiful spring day in Philadelphia, I took a drive out to one of the potential sites for a Capital of the World — Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park. It’s easy to see why Philadelphians offered this location to the United Nations. Notice the skyline of the city visible beyond the tree line. In 1945-46, the skyline would have been only as high as Philadelphia’s City Hall, but the trees would have been lower, too.  The location also is within view of Memorial Hall, one of the few remaining structures from the Centennial Exhibition world’s fair in 1876. It was a spectacular offer, and it nearly lured the United Nations out of New York.