Author: Chengxi (Ace) Yang

Program of Study: Chemistry PhD in the Physical Sciences Division

image source: Hull House, Chicago. Postcard by V. O. Hammon Pub. Co. #1877 (c. 1910)

The podcast provides a brief review of how infrastructure in Chicago developed throughout history. It also discusses how the construction of public utility shapes people’s awareness and activities.

(transcript was provided by the student and is unedited)
Welcome to ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2022. I’m your host, Ace Yang, and I’m currently enrolled in the Department of Chemistry in the University of Chicago. Today we will be exploring the topic of public infrastructure in Chicago.

Chicago has aroused my interest since my childhood. In the movie Batman Begins, Chicago, the basic of Gotham, is depicted as a city of poverty and despair. Years later when I can step onto the LaSalle street, take the Chicago L, and get to know its history, I am amazed by its vitality and the efforts it has made to improve people’s life. This encourages me to probe how the city’s infrastructure evolved over time.

Due to its ideal geographic location, Chicago became an important transportation hub bridging the eastern and western United States. Its flourishing economy attracted residents and immigrants from rural areas and even abroad. According to the archive of the University of Illinois, 40 years have witnessed the rapid growth of Chicago from a small trade pose to a metropolitan of 300,000 citizens. However, social problems often emerged as side-products of hasty development, when infrastructures did not go hand in hand with economic growth. According to Chicago Daily Tribune, in 1850s, a large amount of sewerage, generated from houses or factories, became a serious issue in Chicago, posing threats on public sanitation. In February 1856, Chicago’s Common Council approved Chesbrough’s plan to construct the comprehensive sewerage system, which was the very first in the United States. This project raised many buildings in central Chicago to a new grade using jackscrews, providing spaces for the sewerage system, which in fact allowed the untreated polluted water to flow into Michigan Lake. According to the study by Condit, such an approach was not designed to last, and it finally polluted the lake, the most important source of freshwater of the city. Years later, Chicago began to build tunnels to reverse the flow of the Chicago River so that the polluted water no longer flowed into Michigan Lake but Illinois River. Stupid as it might seem, it did solve the sewerage problem at that time.

Another example of the imbalance between public utilities and economic development is the great fire hazards in the city. Chicago’s prosperity made it a paradise for making quick bucks, and infrastructure improvement gave way to factories, trades, and transportation. William Bross, the 16th lieutenant governor of Illinois, described Chicago as a slab city, with garbage-strewn streets and a grease-slicken river. For the sake of efficiency, many buildings were made of wood instead of rocks, increasing the potential for fire. Besides, the fire department in Chicago was incapable of taking good care of the city. According to the encyclopedia of Chicago, there were only 185 firemen for a city with a population of 300,000, and its old fire trucks were often unable to respond to the fire promptly. All these factors contributed to the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, which destroyed 3.3 square miles of the city and made one-third of the citizens homeless, as is recorded in the encyclopedia of Chicago. Such a disaster raised people’s awareness of improving public utilities. According to the study by Allen, Chicagoans replaced wooden structure with iron frames and constructed fire-proof buildings. Streets were cleaned and repaved. More funds were made to the fire department. It turns out that the fire burned the bad stuff off and brought vitality to the city.

The subsequent industrial boom and expansion of the labor pool inevitably brought labor conflicts to Chicago. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, in 1880s, Chicago was one of the largest industrial cities in the United States. Millions of poor immigrants worked more than 60 hours a week with very low wages. This catalyzed the famous Haymarket affair and Pullman strike, which urged the society to pay more attention to the working class. To solve this problem, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr established Hull House, and it became the most influential settlement house in the nation. Located on the west side of the city, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Hull House served European immigrants by providing accommodations, innovative, social, artistic, and educational programs. It in fact helped those immigrants to integrate into the local American society. In 1893, it also established Chicago’s first public playground, gymnasium, and bathhouse. Unfortunately, due to the modernization progress of Chicago, the University of Illinois bought the land of Hull House and demolished many buildings. However, this could not stop Chicagoans from pursuing immigrant integration, and the spirit of Hull House kept inspiring people to move forward. Many other neighborhoods also established their own houses, like the Christopher House in Roger Park. The Heartland Alliance, which was founded by Hull House, expanded its service throughout Chicago and has been providing housing and medical support for immigrants. The immigrants that the Hull House had educated keep playing important roles in business and politics. They become truly Chicagoans and help build the city together. The close of Hull House might not be a great pity. Probably in the future, immigrants can well integrate into Chicago and we no longer need special agents for them.

In all, Chicago does share some commons with Gotham, both confronted with many social problems: pollutions, disasters, and strikes. But Chicago is also lucky enough to have many citizens, civilians or officials, to solve the problems, and construct the city. We do not have a Batman in Chicago, but every one of us, could be a Batman, making the city better in the future.


“Chicago Growth 1850–1990: Maps by Dennis McClendon”. University Illinois Chicago. Archived from the original on December 11, 2012. Retrieved August 19, 2007.
“Chicago Daily Tribune, Thursday Morning, February 14”. Archived from the original on March 25, 2014. Retrieved May 4, 2009.
Condit, Carl W. (1973), Chicago 1910–29: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-11456-2, LCCN 72094791
Bruegmann, Robert (2005). “Built Environment of the Chicago Region”. Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society and The Newberry Library. 2005.
Allen, Frederick E. (February 2003). “Where They Went to See the Future”. American Heritage. 54 (1). Archived from the original on February 20, 2007. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Chicago”. Encyclopeadia Britannica. Vol. 6 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Johnson, Mary Ann (2004). “Hull House”. In Grossman, James R.; Keating, Ann Durkin; Reiff, Janice L. (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society.
Music from Eri Kitamura, Ai Nonaka. “and I’m home”