It is nearly impossible to attribute the American City Beautiful movement to any one person or event; it was fueled by many factors. But it is quite likely that its fuel was ignited by a single poem. Can that be right?
City Beautiful was birthed from a recognition that cities ought to foster human flourishing; that architecture and the design of place might have the capacity to reshape populations by restoring dignity to their environments. As with most architectural enterprises, it tended to be a bit overweening. Then again, we may under-appreciate many of its enduring urban aftereffects: think Central Park, the National Mall, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, or the Chicago lakefront. This is especially so when taking into account the plight of American urban immigrant communities at the turn of the previous century.
The Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham was undoubtedly one of City Beautiful’s luminaries. He moved to Chicago in 1870, one year before an actual fire remade the history of that city. Incidentally, the Chicago fire of 1871 feasted on the miserable urban conditions of those days. The rumor was the Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was responsible—the blame fell naturally to an Irish immigrant. It may be true. What is certainly true was that the decrepit, wooden tenement housing behaved like a tinderbox. The city was reduced to rubble. Nearly 300 died and over 100,000 were left homeless. What ensued was an unprecedented architectural renaissance. New building technologies made the modern urban canyonscape a near overnight reality, using Chicago as its newly and nearly cleared slate. Burnham and his partner John Root, the former being the visionary and the latter being the miracle-worker, paced the movement during the latter 19th century.
A Burnham-led contingent succeeded in landing the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago—The Columbian Exposition. In what is now the Hyde Park neighborhood, a frenetic effort (joined by Fredrick Law Olmstead Sr., designer of Central Park) succeeded in realizing what would come to be known as “The White City”; a neo-classical metropolis meant to evoke powerful yearnings for a utopian urban future—which it did!
One such attendee was the pioneering investigative journalist and humanitarian, William Stead. Erik Larson wrote of Stead’s impressions in his book Devil in the White City:
William Stead recognized the power of the fair immediately. The vision of the White City and its profound contrast to the Black City drove him to write If Christ Came to Chicago, a book often credited with launching the City Beautiful movement. . .
Larson’s characterization is, however, quite off mark. It was Stead’s dismay led him to write his book, and his book sprung from a deeply Christian fountainhead. (You might want to read the preface.) If Christ Came to Chicago was released in 1894 and is an intimate accounting of urban poverty. It has for an epigraph: A Plea for the Union of All Who Love in the Service of All Who Suffer. Stead constructed it primarily around a simple question: “What do you think Christ would say if He came to Chicago?” This he asked of those scraping by on Chicago’s inhumane margins and also of the city’s ministers and power-brokers:
Throughout all my work of interrogation and condensation I have clung to the hypothesis which forms the keynote and the starting-point of the whole: ‘If Christ Came to Chicago!’
What was revealed was prophetic and grief-striking, galvanizing many to movement. (“‘Oh Christ is all right!’ said one poor girl on Fourth Avenue; ‘it is the other ones that are the devil.’ And she spoke a bitter truth.”)
Stead never saw the maturation of the movement his work helped energize. He perished in 1912 aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic.
Stead began his book with the aforementioned poem, and he offers it this credit,
As this poem suggested the title, so it has inspired every page in this book. The dominant idea which Lowell insisted upon is the truth which, more than any other, is needed to inspire and vivify our impotent limp and ineffective conception of Christianity. How we believe in Christ is shown not by what we say about Him, nor by the temples which we build in His honor, nor by the hymns which we sing in His praise, but by the extent to which we succeed in restoring in man the lost image of God.
“How we believe in Christ is shown. . . by the extent to which we succeed in restoring in man the lost image of God.” What a staggering pronouncement! The poem was called simply, “A Parable”. It was written by the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell, who, though intriguingly doesn’t seem to have been a Christian, was, nevertheless, influenced significantly by Christian themes; everlasting truths:
The proof of poetry is, in my mind, that it reduces to the essence of a single line the vague philosophy which is floating in all men’s minds, and so renders it portable and useful, and ready to the hand. At least, no poem ever makes me respect its author which does not in some way convey a truth.
For Lowell, poetry was the telling of portable truths; truths that might incite without warning! And so his Christ-infused poetry did incite a sustained reaction. Poetry is one of the great vehicles of truth-telling; often subversively so. We forget that the biblical prophets communicated almost exclusively through poetry! Poetry ushers us along by verse or structure—lulls us, really—into a type of ambush. In Lowell’s “Parable” it takes the form of narrative.
And so I leave you with. . .
by James Russell Lowell
Said Christ our Lord, “I will go and see
How the men, my brethren, believe in me.”
He passed not again through the gate of birth,
But made himself known to the children of earth.
Then said the chief priests, and rulers, and kings,
“Behold, now, the Giver of all good things;
Go to, let us welcome with pomp and state
Him who alone is mighty and great.”
With carpets of gold the ground they spread
Wherever the Son of Man should tread,
And in palace chambers lofty and rare
They lodged him, and served him with kingly fare.
Great organs surged through arches dim
Their jubilant floods in praise of him;
And in church, and palace, and judgment-hall,
He saw his image high over all.
But still, wherever his steps they led,
The Lord in sorrow bent down his head,
And from under the heavy foundation-stones
The son of Mary heard bitter groans.
And in church, and palace, and judgment-hall,
He marked great fissures that rent the wall,
And opened wider and yet more wide
As the living foundation heaved and sighed.
“Have ye founded your thrones and altars, then,
On the bodies and souls of living men?
And think ye that building shall endure,
Which shelters the noble and crushes the poor?
“With gates of silver and bars of gold
Ye have fenced my sheep from their Father’s fold;
I have heard the dropping of their tears
In heaven these eighteen hundred years.”
“O Lord and Master, not ours the guilt,
We build but as our fathers built;
Behold thine images, how they stand,
Sovereign and sole, through all our land.
“Our task is hard,—with sword and flame
To hold thine earth forever the same,
And with sharp crooks of steel to keep
Still, as thou leftest them, thy sheep.”
Then Christ sought out an artisan,
A low-browed, stunted, haggard man,
And a motherless girl, whose fingers thin
Pushed from her faintly want and sin.
These set he in the midst of them,
And as they drew back their garment-hem,
For fear of defilement, “Lo, here,” said he,
“The images ye have made of me!”