By Michael Workman
While bloodless supply-and-demand cultures color both Los Angeles’ Hollywood mindset and New York’s Wall Street greed machine, in Chicago we champion process over product. It’s indisputable that there are a number of things for which Chicago is just simply best, dating back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and its oft-cited example of our historical love of invention in fields as disparate as architecture and social services, education, gay rights and economics. Today, Chicago continues as a think-tank culture of iconoclasms, innovations and an unwillingness to simply fit in on the world stage.
First Architecture Biennial
Chicago has long been recognized as a global leader in architecture, whether it’s Major William Le Baron Jenney designing the Home Insurance Building, the world’s first skyscraper, or Mies ushering in the Modern era by shedding ornate concrete and sculptural facades off their glass and steel surfaces. Last year’s introduction of the nation’s first architecture biennial builds on that tradition. The biennial drew a reported half million attendees from around the globe, and laid the foundation for future thinking as it relates to the environment and social interaction. On the South Side, artist Theaster Gates works to define redevelopment using the arts as an ethical, an approach that garnered support from foundations including JPB, John S. and James L. Knight, Kresge and Rockefeller. And though Santiago Calatrava’s fabled spiral may not have come to fruition, architectural developments continue to place the city at the pinnacle of innovation.
First in social service practices
Whether you’re discussing suffragist and activist Jane Addams, who co-founded the ACLU and invented the profession of social worker, or Saul Alinsky, who originated present-day notions of community organizing that were instrumental to the political methodologies of Barack Obama, Chicago’s history of social service is unprecedented in the world. Today, that tradition continues not only to transform our socio-political culture, but has also risen to the level of art form with the art-activism of our city’s newest cultural superstars. Chicago has a long history of firsts in social service practices, and there’s no end in sight. For example, BYP100 started here and brought the fight against police brutality to the national stage from its headquarters on the South Side.
First in gay rights groups
While many recognize Chicago for the size and popularity of its Pride marches and for having the third-largest LGBTQ-identified population in the country, it’s also true that the city led the world as the location of the first gay rights group. Inspired by the comparatively open culture he experienced while on military deployment in Weimar, Germany, in 1924 Henry Gerber and six others incorporated the Society for Human Rights, the first such group in the U.S. Though it was brought to an abrupt end a few short years later by police oppression, the society managed to publish two issues of a newsletter, to advocate socially and to set the precedent for all such organizations that followed, laying the groundwork for the organizing bodies that would one day help legalize gay marriage.
First in Nobel-Prize winning universities
In addition to the distinction of having the first American to win the Nobel prize (Albert A. Michelson, 1907), the University of Chicago retains its claim to the largest number of affiliated Nobel winners. The prize was given to Saul Bellow “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.” Most prizes have been awarded in the fields of science and economics, including for such mind-blowing discoveries as that of “the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material,” aka the discovery of DNA, awarded to James D. Watson, alongside Francis Crick in 1962. In 1998, Daniel C. Tsui won for “a new form of quantum fluid with fractionally charged excitations,” making the first real connection between the theory of special relativity and quantum mechanics. The university has eighty-nine laureates connected to it in all.
First in economics
The University of Chicago has produced many Nobel laureates for one rather influential subject: economics. Whether you’re looking to the derivatives trades that made the “big short” possible or the neoliberal ideas that were the growth engine of globalism, Chicago has played a part. And while its legacy is tarnished for many who connect its free-market underpinnings with the conservative movement as well as discredited implementations in places like the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the seventies, it continues to innovate in intellectual rigors that reach beyond—and often define the terms—of simple supply and demand.
First in Catholic saints
Founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Frances Xavier Cabrini was a naturalized Italian immigrant who became the first canonized to sainthood in U.S. history. Her canonization day in 1946 by Pope Pius XII drew more than 120,000 faithful to an assembly at Soldier Field. In fact, Saint Cabrini’s legacy was so influential in Chicago that her name was taken for what eventually became one of the city’s ill-fated public housing projects. Her arm is still held on display in a national shrine at the former site of Lincoln Park’s Columbus Hospital, where she died in 1917. Her head is in Rome. As the patron saint of immigrants, she suits a city with a population of people who have relocated here from across the planet.
First in inventions that define modern life
While Detroit may have the automobile and San Francisco may claim the TV, a vast majority of the innovations that arguably define life in the Information Age originated in Chicago. John F. Mitchell and Martin Cooper invented the first mobile phone here, the DynaTAC 8000x, while working for Motorola. Local company G.D. Searle was the first to mass produce birth-control pills, a term coined by Margaret Sanger, a nurse working with Hull House at the time. Don’t forget that the first nuclear chain reaction took place in 1942 at Stagg Field under the supervision of scientist Enrico Fermi. Each invention thoroughly altered the course of world events and have helped define our lives as we live them today.
First in surgery
It’s impossible to overstate the achievement of the first African-American cardiologist, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who is also one of the first surgeons to perform open heart surgery. In 1893, Hale performed surgery to repair the tissue of a stabbing victim. His derring-do helped open up the entire field of surgery, and it made Chicago a destination for physicians studying in the field. Surgery remained scarce until Bernard Fantus, the inventor of the blood bank, opened a local facility in 1937, the first of its kind in the country. Taken together, their respective achievements made modern surgery possible.
First in freshwater living
Before separation by the polar ice caps, what is now known as the Great Lakes once was known as Lake Chicago, the evidence of which can be found in the coral still discoverable near the city’s South Side. Forming part of the waterways of the Mississippi and St. Lawrence Rivers that are the historical basis for the city’s identity as a transit hub, Lake Michigan is also the source of Chicago’s nickname as the “Third Coast.” Together with the other waters of the Great Lakes, these lakes are the greatest single source of freshwater on earth, containing twenty-one percent of its total volume and eighty-four percent of it in North America. Through a handful of pumping stations visible on the horizon, they provide drinking water to millions. We also swim, sail, fish and conduct live-fire exercises on it; it’s even responsible for our weather. Consistently warmer at its center, it combines with colder air to create heavy, “lake effect” winter snowfalls. Almost every aspect of life in the city is defined by our relationship to this freshwater body, and almost every aspect of life on earth is defined by the human body’s daily need for access to freshwater to survive. If there’s ever a global conflict over water, Chicago will be at its center.
First film school dedicated to comedy
Chicago was the central hub for the film industry before Hollywood took over at the start of the last century. The city’s early history as the nation’s leading studio center is marked by old movie palaces and its remnants, such as the Music Box and Davis theaters, with their preserved pipe-organ marvels and cove-lit skies with clouds that actually move. The city continues today as an essential ecosystem within the industry, with stalwarts ranging from the venerable Kartemquin to Joe Swanberg’s industrious new Forager Film Company. This year, the Second City officially joins that history with the opening of the Harold Ramis Film School. Named after the legendary comedy director and Second City alum, the world’s first film school devoted exclusively to comedy rightfully calls Chicago home.