Chicago, the #7 global city today, looked quite different in the 1940s in long-lost promotional footage:
In contrast to typical city promotional films, this video offers glimpses of downtown spots like Buckingham Fountain along with the city’s manufacturing plants and meat-packing facilities. The footage also comes with all sorts of statistics and facts. For example, Michigan Boulevard (now Michigan Avenue) carried more than 55,000 automobiles on an average day.
Based on the credits, it appears the video was produced by the Chicago Board of Education, with an assist from United Airlines (for the aerial shots). The release date of the film has also been pinned to between 1945 and 1946. John Howatt, credited as the Business Manager of the Board in the video, was elected on January 8, 1945, and Johnnie Neblett, the narrator, died on September 15, 1946.
Altman writes that he thinks the video was meant to attract people or companies to Chicago, or perhaps as a resource in the classroom. But according to DNAInfo, a spokesman from the Chicago Board of Education said that staff haven’t been able to find any reference to the film in its archives.
A few quick thoughts on seeing this film:
1. The tall buildings are quite different. One, there aren’t as many. Yes, Chicago was dense but it was more due to low-rises. Two, they don’t have the shine that we have come to associate with skyscrapers and instead tend to be covered in stone or masonry and are marked by pollution. (Blame the International Style, which bloomed in Chicago.)
2. The focus on industry is interesting. Manufacturing would have made up more of the economy at the time (Chicago, like many Rust Belt cities, lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the late 20th century) while the emphasis today is more on finance and services.
3. Some of the footage of Lake Shore Drive seems quaint as it appears to sometimes have two lanes each direction without many barriers between each side or the paths and sidewalks nearby. This was the era before major highways as we know them which were not completed in the Chicago region until the mid 1950s.
4. What is missing and can be found in pretty much any major city? Like any growth machine which wants to promote high-quality growth, this film omits the lower-class areas of the city. Chicago at the time had numerous poor neighborhoods including the Black Belt on the South Side which was the only place where blacks could live. These areas somehow didn’t make it in…
5. I wonder at times how much the less-than-high-def footage influences our interpretations of the past. Chicago looks fairly inviting in this film – bustling, beautiful lakefront, lots of nice buildings – yet it all looks so grainy. We’ve reduced this look to a filter on our Instagram accounts but it is hard to find the HD images that might help us make an apples-to-apples comparison of scenes.