Sunday Science Poem: Chicago and the tensions of technological progress

I just got back from a weekend in Chicago, where, among other things, I stood on a three-inch thick glass ledge, suspended a quarter of a mile above Chicago’s streets. The Sears Tower* is a symbol of the optimistic view of technological progress that was still common in the mid-20th century – an era of outsized, iconic engineering projects. Chicago’s history reflects both this optimistic view, and more ambivalent attitudes towards technology and cities, captured in today’s Sunday Poem, Carl Sandburg’s 1904 “Chicago”.

To introduce this poem, I’ll pass the mic to William Cronon, who writes of what Chicago meant to the development of the American West:

“My contention is that no city played a more important role in shaping the landscape and economy of the midcontinent during the second half of the nineteenth century than Chicago… During the second half of the nineteenth century, the American landscape was transformed in ways that anticipated many of the environmental problems we face today: large-scale deforestation, threats of species extinction, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, widespread destruction of habitat. It was during this period as well that much of the world we Americans now inhabit was created: the great cities that house so many of us, the remarkably fertile farmlands that feed us, the transportation linkages that tie our nation together, the market institutions that help define our relationships to each other, and the natural world that is our larger home.”1

Chicago

     Hog Butcher for the World,
     Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
     Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
     Stormy, husky, brawling,
     City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
     have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
     is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
     faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
     sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
     so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
     job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
     as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
          Bareheaded,
          Shoveling,
          Wrecking,
          Planning,
          Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his 
      ribs the heart of the people, Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
     Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
     Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
     Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

* In an act that demonstrates the cluelessness and inflated sense of self-importance that seems to be common among the financial mega-elite, the long-time name of one of the world’s major, modern architectural icons was changed recently, but we’ll pretend that didn’t happen.

1. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, (1991), p. xv-xvi

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