Thursday, November 1, 2007

A City Too Fast for Maps: Images of Chicago’s Past and Future

The exhibit, Mapping Chicago: The Past and the Possible, at the Chicago History Museum invites visitors of all ages “to consider the relationship between maps and imagination.” The exhibition is highly recommended for those who enjoy maps, less as an accurate reference to the present than as an image of a vanished past or imagined future. The curators of the show have brought together a highly diverse collection of maps and have arranged them so as to invite freer associations between them. In this way, it is indeed a show to tempt one’s imaginative faculties.

The exhibition reminds viewers that a map always represents an historical document, with its own historical origins. Moreover, in a city like Chicago, which has seen such phenomenal change in a relatively short time, the “aging” of a map can be a startling revelation for later viewers. For example, an 1834 Chicago land-holdings map is accompanied by a quote from one Joshua Hathaway, Jr., who, while marveling at the exploding real estate market, observed: “Indeed, in Chicago, every map is out of date before it leaves the press.” Clear evidence of this rapid change is offered by an 1892 map showing the complete network of coal-carrying freight trains. The Pacific, Michigan Southern, Chicago, and Rock Island railroad tracks merged then at the spot now occupied by Millennium Park. Considering the appearance of that area only 15 years ago, the “out-of-dateness” of these maps is quite apparent.

Another important section of the exhibit features the historical links between the mapping of the city and the mapping of its citizens. Chicago, of course, has a long and complicated history regarding the segregation of its African-American population. Many maps from past decades plot all too clearly a pattern of discrimination that situated this population to their “own place” on the map. Nevertheless, this important social critique is contrasted with maps that show Chicago as a place of extraordinary ethnic mingling and diversity. One finds crazily complicated maps that attempt to color code the arrival of immigrants from every imaginable origin onto the city grid. I was not surprised to see a large Polish contingent emerging on the West Side, north of Chicago Avenue, around the turn of the century. But I was indeed unaware of the large Swedish population that came to dwell just north of the river around the same time. On one of the maps commissioned in 1976 specifically to plot the ethic distributions as they appeared in 1900, the notes dryly state: “The locations of these groups is approximate…The neighborhoods were never totally homogenous.” And indeed they were not.

Especially inspiring to the imagination are maps that plot the future. Perhaps the most tantalizing items on display are satellite views of the city provided by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill with overlaid points indicating the sites that have been proposed for the 2016 Olympic Games in Chicago. A placard beneath summarizes—with somehow perfect Chicago inflections—comments that reveal the polarized debate between persons alternately thrilled or horrified by the idea of Chicago as an Olympic host.

The exhibition subtly addresses some of the other debates currently “on the map” in the city. One section juxtaposes some of Daniel Burnham’s beautiful 1908 renderings of his proposed lakefront with an 1836 Cook County Clerk’s office map depicting the stretch of land between Madison and (now) Harrison, and East of Michigan Avenue. Written on the 1836 map, in an elegant and clear script, one reads: “A Common to remain forever Open, Clear, and Free of any buildings or other obstacles whatever.” This is precisely the motto championed today by the many groups attempting to halt the building of the proposed Children’s Museum adjacent to Millennium Park. The debate remains open at present, and the historical precedent recorded here certainly resonates with modern sentiments regarding the preservation of Chicago’s lakefront.

Anyone who loves the way maps take the imagination across the dimensions of time and place should treat themselves to a trip to the Chicago History Museum.

Written by Nik Lund

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