Chicago: Biography of a City


Join Active Minds for the story of the Windy City. We will begin with the French explorers, missionaries, fur traders and Native Americans that inhabited the region in the early 1800s. We will cover the Great Chicago Fire and how it impacted the development of the city. And as we bring things all the way up to the present, we’ll cover the politics, crime, food, culture, and architecture of the “City of Broad Shoulders.” It’s the next best thing to being there!

Key Lecture Points

  • Metropolitan Chicago is roughly the size of the State of New Jersey. It has a population of about 2.7 million people, making it the third largest state in the US.
  • The name “Chicago” comes from “shikaakwa,” the name for a kind of onion in the Miami-Illinois family of Native American languages. The site was originally a Native American canoe portage.
  • The first-known non-indigenous settler in the Chicago area was a black man named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable.
  • Chicago quickly became a hub for water and rail transit. It was also a center for processing lumber, wheat, hogs and cattle.
  • A fire in October 1871 destroyed more than three square miles of the city, including 73 miles of road and almost 18,000 buildings. Rebuilding from the fire set the stage for Chicago’s rise as an architectural hotspot.
  • Chicago has always been a destination for immigrants and migrants. In the 1840s, Irish, German, Swedes, Norwegians and Dutch moved into the city. Beginning in the 1890s, large groups of Eastern and Southern Europeans came to the city.
  • During the Great Migration, almost 500,000 Southern blacks moved to Chicago. The city has a long history of racial discrimination in its housing sector.
  • Chicago was a center of the early 1900s Progressive Era.
  • After the passage of prohibition, Chicago became an epicenter for organized crime, especially the Chicago Outfit of the American Mafia under the leadership of notorious gangster Al “Scarface” Capone.
  • Beginning in the 1930s, machine politics of the Cook County Democratic Party dominated political life in the city. Richard J. Daley served as mayor for 22 years.
  • Almost a million fewer people live in Chicago today than at the city’s 1950 peak.
  • Violent crime continues to be a major issue in the city. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Chicago isn’t the murder capital of the US and has only the 25th-highest murder or non-negligent homicide rate in the US.
  • A 2018 report ranks Chicago as the most corrupt city in the country. Analysts suggest that more reforms are needed for meaningful change.
  • Two-term Mayor Rahm Emanuel has dropped out of the February 2019 mayoral race. The crowded field leaves many questions about the political future of the city.

Exploration Questions

  • How has Chicago’s industrial background shaped the city? What about its history as a destination for immigrants and migrants?
  • How do corruption and crime continue to challenge city residents and leaders?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you ever been to Chicago? What aspects of Chicago’s reputation did you think we deserved? Unfair?
  • Do you have a favorite building in Chicago? Describe it. What about it appeals to you?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Bair, Deirdre. Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend. Anchor, 2017. 416 pages. A definitive account of the life of the most notorious crime boss Chicago history.
    Click here to order
  • Bizzari, Amy. 111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss. Emonds, 2018. 240 pages. An insider’s guide to Chicago illustrated with 111 full-color photographs.
    Click here to order