The Windy City

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The Windy City

One of Chicago's most enduring nicknames, "The Windy City" originally had nothing to do with the Illinois city's sometimes formidable atmospheric conditions, but was coined by a nineteenth-century New Yorker to describe the city's loud, "windy" boosterism. For chilled Chicago Bears football fans at lakefront Soldier Field, or holiday shoppers on Michigan Avenue's famed Magnificent Mile, however, the nickname has had little to do with political opportunism.

Also know as the "Second City" because of its historical status as America's second largest city behind New York, throughout much of the nineteenth century Chicago business promoters roamed up and down the East Coast loudly praising the city's cosmopolitan character and excellent investment opportunities in an effort to lure capital needed for growth and expansion. Trying to debunk the popular image of their city as a cultural backwater and a "cow-town," the boosters painted a picture of a Midwestern mecca where there was boundless money to be made. Detractors claimed that these boosters were full of hot air, and tension between backers of various cities came to its zenith in the race to obtain the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's landing (one year late). Having arisen from a swamp in just more than 60 years, reversed the flow of the Chicago River, and made a stunning rebound from the Great Fire of 1871, city leaders in the early 1890s felt Chicago to be an obvious choice to demonstrate American enterprise and ingenuity to the rest of the world, not to mention establishing Chicago's status as a world-class city. They therefore organized a company to generate the necessary funds to underwrite the exposition. However, when Illinois Senator Shelby M. Cullom introduced a bill into the United States Congress in favor of federal support for the exposition, he neglected to specify that Chicago would play host. Immediately, a vicious contest arose to obtain the event, with Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis (which would host a similar affair only 10 years later) emerging as the major players. Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, wrote an editorial in his paper snobbishly discounting the "nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not build a world's fair even if they won it." According to most accounts, it is this editorial that popularized the "Windy City" nickname on a national basis.

After New York was able to match Chicago's original five-million-dollar bid, Chicago doubled it, and in April of 1890, President Benjamin Harrison announced that the blustering and confident Midwestern city had won the exposition lottery. Three years later, the famous "white city" opened its gates, and, according to a contemporary city booster, "The Columbian Exposition was the most stupendous, interesting and significant show ever spread out for the public." With its imperial architecture, famous "midway," giant Ferris wheel, and exhibits of technology and science, the exposition continues to be remembered as one of the great defining moments in Chicago's history.

Though the Dana quotation was soon forgotten, the nickname stuck, having struck a nerve deeper than the rhetoric of boosterism. Over the course of the early twentieth century, the "windy city" appellation came more and more to refer to Chicago's often severe weather. Chicago ranks fourteenth for wind velocity among United States cities, and breezes coming off the lake can sometimes make it feel a lot cooler than the reported temperature. This is especially the case in late autumn and winter. Local weather reporters often talk of the "lake effect" in regard to conditions near Lake Michigan, where the water temperature and wind tone down summer's extremes and intensify winter chills. With 29 miles of shoreline, and with many of the city's business, cultural, and residential centers located along the coast, the lake effect truly can influence the city as a whole. Moreover, Chicago's downtown "Loop" streets long have been known as wind-swept corridors nestled among some of the world's oldest and tallest skyscrapers. It is this wind "having no regard for living things," not the blustering political rhetoric of nineteenth-century boosters, which Edgar Lee Masters credited in 1933 with giving the name of the Windy City to Chicago in the first pages of his city portrait. Technically, consensus opinion holds Masters to be incorrect, but his error does demonstrate that by the third decade of the twentieth century at least, the original and the contemporary meaning of the nickname had diverged. As originally noted by Masters, winter winds coming off of Lake Michigan are blocked by Michigan Avenue's wall of buildings, "swirl down from the towers of the great city," and are diverted down the Loop's long, straight thoroughfares, making the second city a very windy city indeed.

—Steve Burnett

Further Reading:

Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York, W. W. Norton, 1991.

Dedmon, Emmett. Fabulous Chicago. New York, Random House, 1953.

Hayes, Dorsha B. Chicago: Crossroads of American Enterprise. New York, Julian Messner, 1944.

Heise, Kenan, and Mark Frazel. Hands on Chicago: Getting Hold of the City. Chicago, Bonus, 1987.

Masters, Edgar Lee. The Tale of Chicago. New York, Putnam's, 1933.

Miller, Donald, L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996.