27: William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis

In Nature’s Metropolis, Bill Cronon shows that the rapid growth of Chicago in the 19th century – from a few thousand residents in 1837 to some 300,000 in 1871 – was directly connected to the massive environmental restructuring of the western half of the United States at that time.  Chicago grew so quickly because it was surrounded by the magical combination of ridiculously abundant natural resources (forests in the north, rich soil in the plains, fish in the rivers, and so on), a growing transportation network, a series of technological developments (railroads, refrigerated cars, grain elevators, mechanization of grain and meat processing, etc) that reduced both travel times and spoilage of goods, and a relatively unregulated capitalist economy.  Thus, businesspeople razed entire forests in the upper midwest for housing timber, then cleared the land and used it for farming and husbandry; shot all the bison on the great plains, quarantined the Native Americans on reservations, and fenced in the land to create an elaborate system of factory farming; and turned much of the midwest into corn and wheat farms.  Railroads carried animals and produce from the hinterlands to the centralized stockyards and grain elevators in Chicago, where it was processed and shipped east (or back west) as needed.  And Chicago, which had become the center of a vast agricultural production and distribution network, boomed overnight.  The city and the country had become inextricably linked.

This is truly a fascinating book, and so well-written that even the technological and economic processes by which massive wheat production eventually led to the creation of the stock exchange are interesting.  The only criticisms I’ve seen are that Cronon doesn’t spend enough time looking at the cultural productions in 19th century Chicago – and yes, that’s true, he spends much more time in the stockyards, the railyards, and the stock exchange than at the theatre.  But really, at over 600 pages already, I think the book is lovely the way it is.

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