Finally, a book about urban planning and serial killing

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

The Devil in the White City; Erik Larson, 2003

Erik Larson tells the parallel true stories of the making of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the machinations of a psychopathic serial killer just a few blocks away in what may be my favorite non-planning planning book. Chapters alternate between light and dark, as they narrate Daniel Burnham’s crafting of the event to rival the French Exposition Universelle of 1889 with its show-offy Eiffel Tower, and Henry H. Holmes’ construction of his demonic World’s Fair Hotel with its underground gas chamber.

Both men were handsome, skilled, and obsessed. This book illustrates the ways in which they both embodied the uniquely American dynamic of the time. It is part Chicago history, part Burnham biography, part tutorial on the engineering of tall buildings on gumbo soils, and part grisly murder.

The Chicago Fair, otherwise known as The World’s Columbian Exposition, made a big impression that has lasted to this day. The world’s first zipper was unveiled there, along with beef bouillon, Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon, pay toilets, the electric chair.

The City of Chicago needed that fair. At the time, Chicago was thought of as a brawny stockyard town, good at manufacturing and commerce, but lacking in culture and social skills. In the day, Jacob Riis declared Chicago to be filthier than New York City in even its worst seasons. And he would know.

Frederick Law Olmsted played a staring role in the fair’s creation. He was at initially reluctant to join the team as a landscape architect, but chose to participate after considering how it could bring credibility to his profession-credibility that was badly needed. At the time, he was designing the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and fending off threats to his original vision of New York’s Central Park:

“Suppose,” he wrote to architect Henry Van Brunt, “that you had been commissioned to build a really grand opera house; that after the construction work had been nearly completed and your scheme of decoration fully designed, you should be instructed that the building was to be used on Sundays as a Baptist tabernacle, and that suitable place must be made for a huge organ, a pulpit and a dipping pool. Then at intervals afterwards, you should be advised that it must be so refitted and furnished that parts of it could be used for a court room, a jail, a concert hall, hotel, skating rink, for surgical cliniques, for a circus, dog show, drill room, ball room, railway station and shot tower. That is what is nearly always going on with public parks.”

While Burnham was driven to create an attraction that would “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” Olmsted was aiming for “a mysterious poetic effect” through landscape architecture. He insisted that, in Chicago, “simplicity and reserve will be practiced and petty effects and frippery avoided.”

George Washington Gale Ferris, a Pittsburgh engineer, contributed his famous wheel: “What I’ve done is taken the Eiffel Tower, put it on a pivot, and made it move.”

Elias Disney helped to build the White City. It is widely thought that his son, Walt, was inspired by its grand aesthetic. The fair wielded a lasting influence in other unexpected ways. L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow drew inspiration from it in the creation of their city of Oz. Frank Lloyd Wright was taken by the Japanese temple on the Wooded Island and it shows in the evolution of his Prairie residential designs.

Many thought the Court of Honore the most impressive aspect of the White City. Some fair goers were so moved, they wept upon entering it. Burnham, who some referred to as an “aesthetic despot,” arranged the large buildings, neoclassical in design, around a central court with all the cornices set at the same height and all painted in soft white.

Over all, the fair had a profound effect on how Americans perceived their cities and their architects. Architectural greatness was made accessible to everyone, not just the rich architectural patrons. According to statesman, Elihu Root: “The fair led our people out of the wilderness of the commonplace to new ideas of architectural beauty and nobility.”

Larson articulates the same conclusion, “The fair taught men and women steeped only in the necessary to see that cities did not have to be dark, soiled and unsafe bastions of the strictly pragmatic. They could also be beautiful.”

William Stead recognized the power of the fair to inspire the elevation of American cities. As a result, he wrote If Christ Came to Chicago, a book often credited with launching the City Beautiful movement.

As his work on the fair concluded, Daniel Burnham found himself in demand as civic leaders across the globe wanted the same for their cities. He created plans for Cleveland, San Francisco, and Manila, and he worked to resuscitate and expand L’Enfant’s vision of Washington D.C. It was Daniel Burnham who is responsible for the removal of the freight tracks and depot from the center of the Washington Mall.

I must admit that I am a little spoiled, having grown up in Chicago, with its ribbon of lakefront parks, Michigan Avenue’s Miracle Mile, Soldier Field and the Field Museum, all designed by Burnham. When I moved away, I was surprised to learn that not all cities have these grand attributes.

But the fair had its critics. Louis Sullivan condemned its influence on architecture. He felt it doomed America to another half-century of imitation. He called the fair and its neoclassical architecture a “contagion,” a “virus,” a form of “progressive cerebral meningitis.”

Frank Lloyd Wright joined Sullivan in his harsh criticism of the fair, and as Wright and Sullivan grew in esteem, Burnham’s influence faded.

More recently, architecture historians have come to see the opposing sides as both right: “The fair awakened America to beauty and as such was a necessary passage that laid the foundation for men like Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.”

It may seem strange that Larson would choose to expound on the Chicago World’s Fair and the gruesome story of one of America’s most prolific serial killers in the same book. At least it seemed strange to me. He does have a point, though, that they are both different sides of the same coin. Not everything was grand.



The Tyranny of Dead Ideas; Matt Miller, 2009

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

This book is a challenge to our ways of thinking about public policy. Dead ideas are the no longer appropriate beliefs that have calcified in our brains over the years, blocking the free flow of new and, perhaps, better ideas. Dead ideas have been with us so long, we don’t consciously acknowledge them. They’re just the way things have always been. They’re pervasive, oppressive, and not all that helpful anymore. It may be human nature to stick with what’s comfortable and known, but that’s not a very good reason to continue along a dead path.

At their origin, there may have been a dozen good reasons for every dead idea, but times change, people change, and so does context. Miller explains the reasons for these dead ideas and then provides another way. The dead ideas discussed here include:

  • Your kids will earn more than you do
  • Free trade is always good
  • Your company should take care of you
  • Taxes hurt the economy, and they’re always too high
  • Schools are a local matter
  • Money follows merit

This book got me to thinking about urban planning’s dead ideas: alleviate traffic congestion by building more lanes, provide housing for the poor in Corbusian towers, Euclidean zoning.

Hopefully, as planners, we’re smart enough to learn from them.

What dead ideas would you like to see buried in the backyard?

Also by Matt Miller:

The 2% Solution

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Charlie LeDuff, 2013

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Detroit: An American Autopsy

We all know what happened to Detroit. We know it was once the richest city in America and now is the poorest. But how? As planners and urbanists, we should know how this happens.

LeDuff provides some explanation, casting a steely eye on Detroit’s forty-year free fall in this series of sketches, melding his gonzo style with the unique insights of a native son. His is a sinewy and surprisingly humorous style of reporting that he’s developed as a staff writer at The New York Times and as a reporter for the Detroit News.

LeDuff takes Detroit personally. The crime, racism, crooked politicians, police brutality, incompetent auto executives—they’ve all hammered a nail into the coffin of this once great city and its people. LeDuff mines the trials of his own family’s attempts to adjust to the new reality of a Detroit now without a middle class and without much hope of one to come.

Detroit used to be a bellwether of American industry and the American middle class. Its death has been a long time coming. It started with the Japanese making better cars, the 1970s culture of drugs and divorce, and the end of the 6 o’clock family dinner. It continued with the “blue-collar suicide” of the Reagan Democrats, one-way suburban white flight, the crimes of former Mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick and former Councilperson, Monica Conyers, municipal bankruptcy, and the burning of vacant houses as a cheap source of entertainment. Hard to say where it will bottom out, because like an addiction, there is no bottom. LeDuff’s accounting of a neglected dead man frozen in a pool of water at the bottom of an elevator shaft can be seen as a microcosm of the state of Detroit today.

Many of the stories in this collection previously appeared in the Detroit News and Mother Jones. They are reminiscent of the columns of my childhood newspaper hero,  Mike Royko.  I still miss Royko. It surprised me, when I left Chicago in my early twenties, when I discovered that other cities didn’t have a Mike Royko. I guess I assumed all big cities had one, just like I assumed all cities had an Art Institute. But sadly, they do not. It encourages me now to know that Charlie LeDuff is out there and that he’s looking out for Detroit.

This book will break your heart. But you should read it anyway. It’s a seriously good read.


Jacket Copy:

“A little gonzo, a little gumshoe, some gawker, some good-Samaritan-it is hard to ignore reporting like Mr. LeDuff’s.” –The Wall Street Journal

 An explosive exposé of America’s lost prosperity—from Pulitzer Prize­–winning journalist Charlie LeDuff

Once the richest city in America, Detroit is now the nation’s poorest. Once the vanguard of America’s machine age—mass-production, blue-collar jobs, and automobiles—Detroit is now America’s capital for unemployment, illiteracy, dropouts, and foreclosures.

Back in his broken hometown, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff searches the ruins of Detroit for clues to his family’s troubled past. Having led us on the way up, Detroit now seems to be leading us on the way down. Once the richest city in America, Detroit is now the nation’s poorest. Once the vanguard of America’s machine age—mass-production, blue-collar jobs, and automobiles—Detroit is now America’s capital for unemployment, illiteracy, dropouts, and foreclosures. With the steel-eyed reportage that has become his trademark, and the righteous indignation only a native son possesses, LeDuff sets out to uncover what destroyed his city. He beats on the doors of union bosses and homeless squatters, powerful businessmen and struggling homeowners and the ordinary people holding the city together by sheer determination. Detroit: An American Autopsy is an unbelievable story of a hard town in a rough time filled with some of the strangest and strongest people our country has to offer.

The Geography of Bliss; Eric Weiner, 2008

Geography of Bliss




The Geography of Bliss

Eric Weiner is a self-described mope and longtime foreign correspondent for National Public Radio. Since the time he ran away from home at the age of five, he believed that happiness is just around the corner.

The Geography of Bliss considers the influence of geography on personal happiness. You could call this approach: “Better living through geography.” In this book, Weiner recounts his worldwide search for happiness. These are some of the things he discovered:

  • There is such a thing as the World Database of Happiness, and it’s directed by Ruut Veenhoven, Robin Williams lookalike and Emeritus Professor of Happiness Studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
  • While smoking hash (for research purposes) in Rotterdam, he found that hedonism and tolerance, although correlated with happiness, didn’t equate to happiness.
  • You can find contentment in Switzerland, and also boredom.
  • Bhutan has a government policy of GNH—Gross National Happiness.
  • Our GDP includes things that make us unhappy—like assault rifles.
  • It’s not all about money. Qatar has plenty of money, but—like all nouveau rich—Qataris possess a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity. Because Qatar is growing so fast, it has to import its culture.
  • Temples in Japan are routinely destroyed and rebuilt; yet people still consider them as old as the day they were first built. The essence of the original structure remains. (Planners—try this at your next neighborhood meeting.)
  • “We are shaped not only by our current geography but by our ancestral one as well. Americans, for instance, retain a frontier spirit even though the only frontier that remains is that vast open space between SUV and strip mall.”
  • Iceland has a large and proliferate arts community because of its social safety net. People are allowed to fail. When we let go of our fear of failure, we take more risks. Icelandic people are able to reinvent themselves many times over without worrying about the things Americans worry about, like stability or healthcare.
  • In developing countries, people who move from the village to the city are happiest.
  • Moldova is one of the unhappiest places in the world, not because it’s poor, but because it has no national identity.
  • Traffic has never been associated with happiness.
  • “It’s never a good sign when the best thing to recommend a place is that it’s near other places. Just ask the residents of New Jersey.”

Weiner ends his odyssey in Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is one of my favorite places of all time. It may be one of the happiest places in the United States. But there is tension in Asheville: “Tension among the old-timers who don’t want anything to change and the newcomers who want everything to change and the people who have been here for ten years and want to lock the door behind them.” Weiner should have been a city planner; this pretty much sums up every neighborhood meeting I’ve ever been to.

Weiner argues the point that happiness is not deep inside you, as the self help industrial complex would have us believe, but out there—somewhere. “Where we are is vital to who we are.”

Maybe, someday, we’ll be adding happiness elements to our comprehensive plans along with land use, housing, and transportation.

From Amazon:

Part foreign affairs discourse, part humor, and part twisted self-help guide, The Geography of Bliss takes the reader from America to Iceland to India in search of happiness, or, in the crabby author’s case, moments of “un-unhappiness.” The book uses a beguiling mixture of travel, psychology, science and humor to investigate not what happiness is, but where it is. Are people in Switzerland happier because it is the most democratic country in the world? Do citizens of Qatar, awash in petrodollars, find joy in all that cash? Is the King of Bhutan a visionary for his initiative to calculate Gross National Happiness? Why is Asheville, North Carolina so damn happy? With engaging wit and surprising insights, Eric Weiner answers those questions and many others, offering travelers of all moods some interesting new ideas for sunnier destinations and dispositions.