LIFE in a Great City: Chicago

The El Capitan stopping in Chicago, 1939.
Peter Stackpole—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
The El Capitan stopping in Chicago, 1939.
Architecture & Design
1939
1970

For the inaugural gallery in our “Great Cities” series, LIFE.com chose to focus on a place that, in so many ways — from the triumphant to the deeply troubling — remains an emblematic American metropolis. Inspired by these extraordinary pictures, made by LIFE photographers from the 1930s to the 1970s, Chicagoist editor-in-chief Chuck Sudo pays tribute to the town he loves: the Windy City, that toddling town, sweet home Chicago.
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Architect Daniel Burnham, whose fingerprints are all over so much of modern Chicago, famously advised, “make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.”

That, in a proverbial nutshell, is Chicago at its finest: daring to dream and willing to put in the effort to make those dreams reality — whether that means establishing a trading post atop a marsh, rebuilding after a legendary, catastrophic fire or fashioning an iconic skyline that stretches halfway to the heavens. The photos LIFE.com selected to kick off its “Great Cities” series perfectly capture the fully realized dreams of the men and women of Chicago, and epitomize why the 20th century was, so emphatically, “The American Century.”

Passion — daring to dream — permeates the town and, in large part, defines Chicagoans, both native-born and adopted. This is the city that gave us Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Roger Ebert, Mike Royko. Chicago is where Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan became global superstars. It is the birthplace of the Temperance movement — and it’s where booze flowed like water during Prohibition. Over the decades, its politicians and mobsters have often been indistinguishable from one another, while Chicago’s struggles with poverty, violence and political corruption — like those of any other great, international metropolis — are as old as the city itself.

In the end, though, Chicago’s well-documented woes are as much a part of the city’s fabric as its glories, its triumphs, its world-class cultural achievements.

Daniel Burnham also wrote, “aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence.” Those of us who call ourselves Chicagoans continue to dream big, to reach higher, hoping to add our names to the city’s bold, forever unfolding narrative — and inspire the dreams of future generations in the city we love.

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Chuck Sudo is editor-in-chief of Chicagoist. Part of the Gothamist network of local-centric sites, Chicagoist is dedicated to reporting on life in the Windy City in all its facets and in 2012 was named one of Chicago’s top online news sites by the Community Media Workshop. Chuck was born and raised on Chicago’s Northwest side and has called the Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side home for 15 years. Follow Chuck @bportseasoning.
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