In 1893, Chicago set itself before the world as the city of the future. The World’s Columbian Exposition, as it opened in the summer of that year in Jackson Park, offered a boldly ambitious vision of the urban past and of its future; as historian James Gilbert writes in his new Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893, “the builders immodestly proposed to sum up all of human progress in their monuments and displays and their ecumenical conferences on the state of human knowledge.” But it was not merely the “White City”–that is, the vast conglomeration of monumental (if temporary) architecture dropped down in Jackson Park–that was on display. In the best American tradition, Chicago presented itself as utopian, a “city on a hill.” Faintly overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all, writer William Dean Howells declared that the sight of the fair had left him “in rapture and despair! Nothing like it was ever dreamed of.”

A century later, it’s hard to imagine a similar event. No city, much less Chicago, is likely to offer itself as the city of the future; indeed, it’s not altogether clear if cities as we know them do have much of a future. As urban infrastructures continue to crumble, the wealthy flee to the suburbs or entrench themselves in increasingly guarded enclaves within the city itself. Police Superintendent LeRoy Martin last year suggested exiling certain sections of the city from civilization altogether, in effect suspending the Constitution in areas overrun with poverty and crime. On a more mundane level, the continued destruction (and self-destruction) of the CTA represents a broader degeneration of a public vision for the city. Taste of Chicago is about as close to grandeur as we come these days.

Gilbert’s book, an insightful study of the utopian moment in Chicago’s history that produced the fair, does not encourage nostalgia–it’s not a lament for the good old days when fairs were fairs and urban planners strutted. The Columbian Exposition arose at a particular moment in American history for a particular reason, and despite its extraordinary success as a tourist attraction and cultural icon, its utopian vision faded quickly. At its root the fair was an attempt by white Protestant cultural elites and by the emerging professional middle class to define and control the culture of the city, which meant coming to terms with the burgeoning popular culture of the largely immigrant working class, either by co-opting it or banishing it altogether.

Ultimately this attempt was a failure, torn apart by the contradictions between the elitist assumptions of the builders and the class divisions in society itself. The image of Chicago as utopian White City gave way to a bleaker vision: the city as “jungle,” riven by the poverty and exploitation depicted with such brutal candor in Upton Sinclair’s novel of the same name. Gilbert, professor of history at the University of Maryland, attempts to understand and explain the collapse of Chicago’s utopian vision, which was part of a key transitional period in American culture.

When the fair’s White City–what one might call a life-size model of the utopian city–sprang up nearly overnight, in some ways it recapitulated Chicago’s rebirth after the Great Fire 22 years earlier. In the popular imagination, at least among the city’s boosters, this rebuilding took on an almost mythic cast. In this vision of Chicago, Gilbert notes, it was the “Phoenix City, brushing off the ashes of the Great Fire.” In the words of one city guidebook, “Here was a city which had no traditions but was making them. . . . Chicago was like no other city in the world [and] would outstrip [them all].”

So Chicago set itself forward confidently as a model for the world. And the world took notice. Some 27 million visits to the fair were recorded–perhaps a tenth of the American population made their way to Chicago that summer. The poet James Wright Dickinson, one of the more enthusiastic tourists, was driven to rhapsodic heights by his experiences at the fair and in the city. “O mighty city!” he trumpeted, “Earth’s historic page / Knows naught like thee.” Not all visitors were quite this favorably impressed. One befuddled Wisconsinite moaned, “I hardly know what to say of the city. It was worse than the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel. Humdrum noises and confusion existed all day and all night long.”

The monumental architecture of White City, designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham in a style Gilbert calls “civic colossal,” was intended to produce a sense of grandeur and awe. The focal point of the fair was its Court of Honor, a 2,500-foot-long artificial lagoon flanked on all sides by exhibition halls whose facades, as Gilbert notes, were a “pastiche of quotations from European monuments . . . churches, and public buildings.” The fair tried to capture the glory of the architecture it borrowed from–and then some. Historian John Kasson sums up the intended effect in Amusing the Million: “Here was an overpowering scene of classical grandeur, unity, symmetry, and vista, all presented on a monumental scale. Here was the embodiment of the genteel ideal of culture: ‘correct’ and cosmopolitan, tasteful and urban, dignified and didactic.” As Kasson goes on to note, “At night the splendor of the scene was further enhanced by an unprecedented battery of floodlights, using three times as much electricity as the rest of Chicago.” Certainly ancient Rome was never so well lit.

The cultural ambitions of the fair organizers were as grandiose as their architecture. As Gilbert argues, “White City was intended to impress Americans with the possibility of completely redefining American urbanism. . . . It was intended to be accessible and to convey a simple message: it was possible through the exercise of control and taste to recreate the American city. . . . The White City proposed itself as a kind of universal culture for all classes . . . it was a reproducible dream, a portable vision for urban America. In this heady moment, culture, it seemed, could be detached from its national and temporal meanings and placed at the service of dreamers of a universal, middle-class culture.” But this was a “universal culture” of a very limited kind: White City represented a utopia that was ultimately based on hierarchy, control, and exclusion: the term “White City” reflected the planners’ racial bigotry as much as their vision of classical grandeur.

As it turned out, visitors to this part of the fair were put off by its stiff formality; one observer reported that the crowds seemed to wear a “melancholy air,” that the relentlessly uplifting intentions left spectators feeling “business-like, common, dull, anxious, and care-worn.” They must have chafed at the attempts to impose a culture that was supposed to be good for them, and resisted other, similar efforts at cultural control, staying away from the fair’s classical-music concerts in droves.

But White City was only one part of the fair. On a stretch of land just south of the University of Chicago the fair designers deigned to include an openly commercial recreational fairground, a kind of concession to public bad taste. The Midway quickly grew beyond the organizers’ intentions and became by far the fair’s most popular attraction. Ironically, as Gilbert notes, though the planners hoped that the Midway would serve “as an ethnological exhibition, [it] evolved rapidly until commercialism came to control and shape even its anthropological displays.” The Midway–featuring hootchy-kootchy dancers and a “World Congress of Beauty”–offered an eclectic exoticism not always faithful–to say the least–to the fair’s overall uplifting mission. As John Kasson has noted, “the Midway . . . offered a far different conception of cultural cosmopolitanism than the Court of Honor, one oriented not to the ordered and refined past but to the heterogeneous and boisterous present.”

Like other historians, Gilbert regards the unequal competition between the controlled White City and the seemingly anarchic, more popular Midway as evidence that elite attempts at cultural control were bound to give way to the forces of commercialized culture. He sees the fair both as a failure on its own terms and a harbinger of the future. “Initially,” he writes, “there was an attempt to create a universal culture, a unified merger of disparate elements, a cosmopolitanism based upon the predominance of the White City, with popular culture from the rest of Chicago admitted as a ‘concession.'” This gave way to a more generalized acceptance of commercialism, and of the Midway in particular.

Of course, the failure of the fair’s utopian vision did not represent a real challenge to the economic power of the city’s elite. But it showed that no amount of civic uplift could overcome real social divisions, and that popular culture had slipped forever beyond easy control by the city’s “best people.”

Gilbert attempts to understand not only the fair but three other vaguely utopian “urban environments” that fair visitors were drawn to that summer: the “imagined city” that lived only in printed tourist guides, the urban evangelism represented by the sermons and actions of Dwight Moody, and the paternalistic company town of Pullman.

Of the three, the story of Pullman is perhaps the most instructive. While the White City coexisted uneasily with the forces of popular culture, in Pullman business magnate George Pullman tried to banish popular culture altogether. Founded in 1883, the town turned out to be a major tourist attraction during the summer of 1893–to Pullman’s great delight. “On the surface,” Gilbert writes, “it seemed that Pullman had resolved the two greatest problems striking every major metropolitan area in America: the formation of permanent social classes and the terrible confusions in manners, taste, amusement, and public behavior that resulted from sharing city space.”

Pullman hoped that the town’s orderly environment would bring a docile respectability to even the most disorderly workmen. Saloons were banned from the town–not only to keep the employees sober but to keep them away from union organizers, who tended to recruit in bars. Workers paid for their “cultural uplift” with more than restrictions on their social life: rents in Pullman were considerably higher than in similar areas.

If Pullman’s “utopia” was much more tightly controlled than the fair’s, its failure too was much more dramatic. In late 1893, as the country dropped into a depression, the company decided to cut wages drastically. The workers, who turned out to be less easily controlled than Pullman thought, launched a bitter strike. Though the company nominally won the strike –with the help of the National Guard–any ideas of utopia were destroyed. Pullman died a few years later, so despised by so many that his family encased the coffin in concrete and steel to avoid desecration.

After Chicago’s “utopias of 1893” collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions, Chicago never again recaptured its grandiose sense that utopia was within reach. Daniel Burnham’s visionary city plan of 1909 never got off the ground, and utopian efforts since then have been scarce. Chicago was no longer the “Phoenix City,” a city of the possible, but something much more bleak and disorderly. H.G. Wells, writing in 1906, described Chicago as “a dark smear under the sky,” a symptom of the “large emptiness of America.” University of Chicago sociologists in the early years of this century began to describe White City as “Grey City”–a “specimen of urban pathology” to study. Carl Sandburg (as Gilbert notes, “probably making the best of it”) described Chicago as the “city of the big shoulders,” “the hog butcher for the world.” Chicago’s identity as a rough-and-tumble working-class city persists today: note the campaigns for “da Bulls” and “da Bears,” though this image represents the patronizing attitudes of ad executives toward the working class as much as it does self-identification.

The American notion of utopia has not vanished altogether. But, as Frances Fitzgerald has shown in her Cities on a Hill, an account of more recent “visionary communities” in America, contemporary utopians have more modest goals. The communities Fitzgerald studied–including the gay Castro district in San Francisco and Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg–were quite explicitly what she calls “cultural enclaves” for cultural minorities, not grandiose attempts by cultural elites to remake the world in an instant. Those who entered them thought that they would be able to “reinvent themselves” in communities separated from the rest of the world. The organizers may have had broader visions than this–certainly Falwell wanted to remake the world–but no one today has the kind of faith in large-scale cultural regeneration that characterized Chicago’s elite utopians in 1893.

Those who have advanced visions more encompassing than Chicago’s in 1893 have failed even more spectacularly. Perhaps the most poignant example is Brasilia, a capital city created out of thin air by Brazil’s rulers in the 1950s and ’60s: it represents a modernist utopianism in many ways analogous to Chicago’s utopianism of 1893, though tinged in this case with the politics of the left. “From the air, Brasilia look[s] dynamic and exciting,” cultural critic Marshall Berman observed in 1982. “From the ground level, however, where people actually live and work, it is one of the most dismal places in the world, [filled with] immense empty spaces in which the individual feels lost. . . . There is a deliberate absence of public space in which people can meet and talk.” Unlike Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, which conveniently burned down in 1894, Brasilia still stands, sad testament to the fact that plans that don’t incorporate the heterogeneity of popular culture will never succeed.

Unfortunately, the problem goes far beyond the hubris of urban planners and cultural elites: contemporary cities are in fact the site of a protracted and vicious, though often well-disguised, cultural war. Postwar suburbanization, by removing the tax base for the nation’s metropolitan areas, helped to destroy the urban infrastructure and its social services, contributing to the virtual destruction of large sectors of the inner cities. But the widespread urban gentrification of the last decade or so, drawing a great number of professionals to the city rather than the suburbs, has not led to a genuine renewal. The “urban renaissance” has been a renaissance for the few, carving out sections of the city for the privileged and displacing working-class and poor residents who have been there longer; the higher rents have driven many to the streets. Gentrification, as homeless activists and urban critics have long insisted, is a form of class war.

Artist and urban critic Martha Rosler has recently argued that the architecture of many of the newer developments, designed to segregate the affluent from the surrounding urban decay, simply mirrors a growing class polarization. For the affluent, protected in their urban outposts, the city is newly vital and exciting and surprisingly safe; for the poor, the crisis deepens. Postmodern urbanism, Rosler argues, “is characterized by the development of fortresses, generally high-rise ones. Those fortresses are the hotels, offices, residences, and . . . museums built to contain and amuse the professional managerial sector plunked down in the midst of moldering inner-city decay.” (Many of these new fortresses were financed by the speculative real-estate boom of the 1980s, which led to the S & L collapse and to increased calls for fiscal austerity, which will lead to cuts in social services, which will further impoverish the poor. And so it goes.)

Outside the city, the new segregation is if anything even more evident. Joel Garreau’s recent Edge City predicts a society gathered around industrial parks and giant malls, in which all public space is controlled by huge corporations and from which the poor are excluded. Garreau, incidentally, likes the Edge Cities–they’re safe and clean, at least, and the poor can live elsewhere. I find them horrifying.

All these developments–suburbanization, gentrification, and the “malling” of America–reflect the evisceration of the city as a public place to be shared by all. They reflect a notion of the city as a privatized playground for the rich, who carefully and deliberately isolate themselves from the decay this very privatization has produced or exacerbated.

Gilbert’s account of the failed utopian experiments of a century ago can help us make sense of the current crisis. In 1893 the cultural elites of Chicago attempted to paper over society’s divisions, tried to use “respectable” culture to symbolically bridge the cultural gaps between individual citizens. It didn’t work; Perfect Cities suggests that such cultural solutions cannot possibly work. Civic boosterism may bring a certain satisfaction to a few, eager to associate themselves with the prestige of high culture, to identify themselves in the society pages as the benevolent guardians of Chicago’s civic virtue. But celebrations of Chicago’s culture–from the grandiose Columbian Exposition to the less grandiose but still prestigious Chicago Symphony Orchestra today–are a mixed blessing at best, an uneasy mixture of “populist” cultural evangelism with a fundamentally elitist view of society. They are not by any means a solution to the real problems of the city–which are social, not cultural. Democratic culture cannot grow in a divided society. We need something far more radical than a cultural quick fix. Only within a truly egalitarian, truly democratic society can the urban future be anything but dystopian.

Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893 by James Gilbert, University of Chicago Press, $27.50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andrew Epstein.