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.

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.

03/23/13

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