Title: Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Author: William Cronon
Categories: Environmental History, Urban History, The American West, Economic History, The Market, Spatial History, Transportation, Railroads, Commodification
Time Period: 1840s-1890s
Cronon uses the rise of Chicago in the 19th century to explore the fundamental interconnectedness between city and country, particularly how Chicago developed as a gateway city linking the "Great West" and as a conduit for the flow of goods and people. Cronon argues that you cannot tease out the history of "first" (natural) nature and "second" (human-constructed) nature, and that the two were melded together largely via the connections of a capitalist market. The demands of the market necessitated a new order to be grafted onto "first" nature, one that established Chicago in a spatial web of connections between the city itself, its hinterland, and markets in the east. Crucially, this process depended on transforming natural material into tradable commodities, one of the many ways in which capital served to suppress and hide the reality of the very connections and processes on which it relied.
Central to Chicago's rise was the expansion of the railroads which routed themselves through Chicago. Railroads fundamentally altered people's relationship with space, as they dismantled the previous sense of seasonality and time that was necessary for river and road transportation (which was curtailed in winter months). Railroads also catapulted Chicago up the urban hierarchy by becoming the conduit between eastern and western railroads, a place through which western products flowed to eastern markets. He goes on to explore three industries (grain, lumber, and meat) as case studies for how Chicago interacted with the surrounding region. One central theme of this interaction was commodification, how natural products lost their ecological identities and were turned into capital. In the case of grain, a standardized grading system and the rise of the grain elevator meant farmer's grain could be mixed together in a standard, liquid way. In the case of meat, a vast meatpacking industry (enabled by the rise of refrigerated railroad cars that "annihilated" distance) took animals and disassembled them into discrete parts, utilizing more and more of the animal parts and further distancing consumers from the flesh-and-blood reality of the animal itself.
The final section of the book, titled "The Geography of Capital" examines the spatial dynamics of Chicago's place in a "second nature" of capital relationships. He uses debt patterns in the midwest (as the vast majority of bankruptcies after the 1873 Panic owed its money to Chicago creditors) to illustrate Chicago's place in an urban system of cities. In doing so he critiques the geographical idea of central place theory, arguing that while Chicago's relationship to its hinterland can be seen in some ways as mirroring concentric rings of economic activity, it also was not static. Chicago's rise to the top of a regional hierarchical city-system illustrates the a-historicity and vacuum-like nature of central place modeling. Finally, Cronon illustrates how Chicago became a conduit not just for commodities flowing from hinterland to eastern markets, but for manufactured goods to flow from the city out towards growing rural markets (through, for example, Sears-Roebuck mail-order catalogs). Facilitated by the railroad, this linked the hinterland culturally to the trappings of urban culture and to themes of modernity and progress.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Connection between city and country (and melding of the two) the CENTRAL theme
- Commodification of natural things into monetized products - ex. grain in grain silos and futures trading
- Role of capital in obscuring relationships and processes and distorting distances (ex. refrigerated rail cars)
- Role of capital in ordering the space (ex. debt patterns)
- Economic AND cultural colonization of the west by funneling commodities through Chicago - consumerism
- Railroads, railroads, railroads
- First (natural) nature and Second (constructed) Nature of capital
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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