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Chicago has been called by many names. Nelson Algren declared it a “City on the Make.” Carl Sandburg dubbed it the “City of Big Shoulders.” Upton Sinclair christened it “The Jungle,” while New Yorkers, naturally, pronounced it “the Second City.” At last there is a book for all of us, whatever we choose to call Chicago. In this magisterial biography, historian Dominic Pacyg Chicago has been called by many names. Nelson Algren declared it a “City on the Make.” Carl Sandburg dubbed it the “City of Big Shoulders.” Upton Sinclair christened it “The Jungle,” while New Yorkers, naturally, pronounced it “the Second City.” At last there is a book for all of us, whatever we choose to call Chicago. In this magisterial biography, historian Dominic Pacyga traces the storied past of his hometown, from the explorations of Joliet and Marquette in 1673 to the new wave of urban pioneers today. The city’s great industrialists, reformers, and politicians—and, indeed, the many not-so-great and downright notorious—animate this book, from Al Capone and Jane Addams to Mayor Richard J. Daley and President Barack Obama. But what distinguishes this book from the many others on the subject is its author’s uncommon ability to illuminate the lives of Chicago’s ordinary people. Raised on the city’s South Side and employed for a time in the stockyards, Pacyga gives voice to the city’s steelyard workers and kill floor operators, and maps the neighborhoods distinguished not by Louis Sullivan masterworks, but by bungalows and corner taverns.  Filled with the city’s one-of-a-kind characters and all of its defining moments, Chicago: A Biography is as big and boisterous as its namesake—and as ambitious as the men and women who built it.


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Chicago has been called by many names. Nelson Algren declared it a “City on the Make.” Carl Sandburg dubbed it the “City of Big Shoulders.” Upton Sinclair christened it “The Jungle,” while New Yorkers, naturally, pronounced it “the Second City.” At last there is a book for all of us, whatever we choose to call Chicago. In this magisterial biography, historian Dominic Pacyg Chicago has been called by many names. Nelson Algren declared it a “City on the Make.” Carl Sandburg dubbed it the “City of Big Shoulders.” Upton Sinclair christened it “The Jungle,” while New Yorkers, naturally, pronounced it “the Second City.” At last there is a book for all of us, whatever we choose to call Chicago. In this magisterial biography, historian Dominic Pacyga traces the storied past of his hometown, from the explorations of Joliet and Marquette in 1673 to the new wave of urban pioneers today. The city’s great industrialists, reformers, and politicians—and, indeed, the many not-so-great and downright notorious—animate this book, from Al Capone and Jane Addams to Mayor Richard J. Daley and President Barack Obama. But what distinguishes this book from the many others on the subject is its author’s uncommon ability to illuminate the lives of Chicago’s ordinary people. Raised on the city’s South Side and employed for a time in the stockyards, Pacyga gives voice to the city’s steelyard workers and kill floor operators, and maps the neighborhoods distinguished not by Louis Sullivan masterworks, but by bungalows and corner taverns.  Filled with the city’s one-of-a-kind characters and all of its defining moments, Chicago: A Biography is as big and boisterous as its namesake—and as ambitious as the men and women who built it.

30 review for Chicago: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Connie

    This was a required read for a college course I took years ago; I wanted to re-read most of it so I could enjoy it this time (especially from the perspective of now living in Chicago for over 20 years) now that I've grown to appreciate the change, rich culture, architecture, and character it has to offer.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sam Reaves

    This is the best one-volume history of Chicago I'm aware of. Pacyga is a professional historian but he is writing for the layman here; he admits in his preface that this is not a complete history but rather an attempt "[to highlight] those people, places, events and relationships that capture the essence of the individual." That's why he called it a biography. Whatever it is, it's consistently readable and absorbing. The story of Chicago is in some respects astounding, as it grew in thirty years This is the best one-volume history of Chicago I'm aware of. Pacyga is a professional historian but he is writing for the layman here; he admits in his preface that this is not a complete history but rather an attempt "[to highlight] those people, places, events and relationships that capture the essence of the individual." That's why he called it a biography. Whatever it is, it's consistently readable and absorbing. The story of Chicago is in some respects astounding, as it grew in thirty years from a muddy village in a swamp to a city of a hundred thousand that hosted the Republican convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln. Pacyga recounts how the railroads and the Illinois and Michigan Canal made Chicago the transportation hub of the rapidly expanding country, assuring its importance. The fire in 1871 cleared the slate for a makeover that produced the outlines of the modern city, and by the end of the 19th century Chicago was immense: chaotic and corrupt, but also the industrial and financial capital of the American heartland. Pacyga devotes a great deal of attention to the ferocious labor struggles that resulted, from the Haymarket riot to the Pullman strike. Chicago was for a time the epicenter of America's class struggle. With the Great Migration came racial strife as well, with consequences enduring up to the present day. The Prohibition gangster wars get their due, as do the Depression, the Second World War, industrial decline, suburbanization and the changes overseen (or resisted) by the two Daleys. Pacyga covers it all, with a historian's insight and a native son's affection. This is an excellent comprehensive look at the city's history for the general reader.

  3. 4 out of 5

    David Eppenstein

    Definitely a thoughtful and informative scholarly work worth reading. While it may not appeal to the casual reader hoping for something that takes full advantage of Chicago's more than colorful history it is a resource that anybody needing to understand this city should employ. The book thoroughly traces the various forces that shaped the growth and evolution of Chicago. While the book is not quite as readable as Donald Miller's "City of the Century" or as entertaining as Emmett Dedmond's "Fabul Definitely a thoughtful and informative scholarly work worth reading. While it may not appeal to the casual reader hoping for something that takes full advantage of Chicago's more than colorful history it is a resource that anybody needing to understand this city should employ. The book thoroughly traces the various forces that shaped the growth and evolution of Chicago. While the book is not quite as readable as Donald Miller's "City of the Century" or as entertaining as Emmett Dedmond's "Fabulous Chicago" it does a very good job of dissecting the city and explaining its components and how they came into being and why and how they work. Anybody looking to do business in this city, understand its politics, or wishing to settle here would profit from reading this book. The only criticism I have is technical in that I found numerous typographical errors so the editing was rather sloppy.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

    I thought it was a great Biography of the best city in America!

  5. 5 out of 5

    TMcB

    I've read what I think are better Chicago histories, Cronon's "Nature's Metropolis," Miller's "City of the Century," and even the older "Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis" by Mayer & Wade, but it's a fine addition to my Chicago bookshelf. The author's focus on history through people and ethnic groups gives it a fresh spin that lends the book its title. He admits to a Southside bias in the Introduction so their is precious little that focuses on the Northside (where I reside) which I think is a wea I've read what I think are better Chicago histories, Cronon's "Nature's Metropolis," Miller's "City of the Century," and even the older "Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis" by Mayer & Wade, but it's a fine addition to my Chicago bookshelf. The author's focus on history through people and ethnic groups gives it a fresh spin that lends the book its title. He admits to a Southside bias in the Introduction so their is precious little that focuses on the Northside (where I reside) which I think is a weakness. Ran across some awkwardly written passages that caused me to have to reread sections, so the editing could have been better. I read the hardcover edition despite the description above. Couldn't find a hardcover entry here on Goodreads.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Belinda

    I suspect this is interesting, but the typos and grammatical errors are too distracting for me. I finished the first chapter, but I'll find a different book for Chicago history.

  7. 5 out of 5

    David

    A good addition to my short shelf of books on Chicago history and architecture. Pacyga maintains a chronological structure to his book, but highlights certain themes within each chapter. Consistent with his subtitle, he tells Chicago's story through the lives of its people, from bit players like Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer to die in the Civil War (pp. 51-52), to leading men like Richard J. Daley, who receives a very sympathetic portrayal from Pacyga. Where else but in Chicago could t A good addition to my short shelf of books on Chicago history and architecture. Pacyga maintains a chronological structure to his book, but highlights certain themes within each chapter. Consistent with his subtitle, he tells Chicago's story through the lives of its people, from bit players like Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer to die in the Civil War (pp. 51-52), to leading men like Richard J. Daley, who receives a very sympathetic portrayal from Pacyga. Where else but in Chicago could the futile manhunt for Jean Crones (pp. 195-196), suspected of the 1916 poisoning of a group of civic leaders with arsenic-laced soup, play out? Or the random violence that took the life of Alvin Palmer on a Back of the Yards street corner in 1957 (pp. 305-308)? Pacyga is a South Sider, and he acknowledges that his account is skewed in that direction, a bit too much for my taste (my three years in the metro were in a North Side suburb). No index to his maps, but I like the generous selection of photographs integrated into the text and generally playing to each chapter's theme. Where did the Cubs play before they opened Wrigley Field (p. 114)? Where did Brach's candy get its start (p. 153)? It's in the book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tim Lapetino

    This is a deep, wide and phenomenal history of the city of Chicago. From the first trading posts and settlers moving up the Mighty Mississippi to the lakefront lands that would become a city, to the politics and racial issues that make up a world-class city, Pacyga does a great job in covering a lot of ground. I've lived a large chunk of my life in this city, but it was great to read about the foundations, personalities and stories behind many of the events that shaped our Second City. Never pan This is a deep, wide and phenomenal history of the city of Chicago. From the first trading posts and settlers moving up the Mighty Mississippi to the lakefront lands that would become a city, to the politics and racial issues that make up a world-class city, Pacyga does a great job in covering a lot of ground. I've lived a large chunk of my life in this city, but it was great to read about the foundations, personalities and stories behind many of the events that shaped our Second City. Never pandering or talking down to the readers, the author also puts the growth and changes of the city (he calls it "Chicago shedding its skin like a snake") in their cultural contexts. It's a beefy book, but well worth the read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lexy

    Mr. Pacyga is a gem. If you ever have the opportunity to take his History of Chicago class at Columbia College, please do. He is amazingly well informed and incredibly knowledgeable about anything and everything Chicago. Even though Pacgya and I dont see eye to eye on the Cubs vs Sox issue (though we both reside on the South Side and had this discussion a myriad of times) he is the most outstanding professor I have ever had in my life and wish he taught more subjects at Columbia. His book covers Mr. Pacyga is a gem. If you ever have the opportunity to take his History of Chicago class at Columbia College, please do. He is amazingly well informed and incredibly knowledgeable about anything and everything Chicago. Even though Pacgya and I dont see eye to eye on the Cubs vs Sox issue (though we both reside on the South Side and had this discussion a myriad of times) he is the most outstanding professor I have ever had in my life and wish he taught more subjects at Columbia. His book covers every Chicago topic you could possibly dream up and is explained in basic terms for comprehension. Do yourself and favor and read this book. It may have taken me nine months but it's worth it in every way. #pacgyafilmfest

  10. 4 out of 5

    Emilie

    going from the great cover art and the recommendation of a friend, i thought this would be a good read. i was wrong. there was nothing wrong with the facts of the book. nothing idiotic was going on, except for a real lack of proofreading (sooo many errors, maybe just bc i was reading the ebook edition). the author’s style of writing was just so much more stiff than what i like to read and to take two things i love (history and chicago) and make them boring for me made me not want to go on readin going from the great cover art and the recommendation of a friend, i thought this would be a good read. i was wrong. there was nothing wrong with the facts of the book. nothing idiotic was going on, except for a real lack of proofreading (sooo many errors, maybe just bc i was reading the ebook edition). the author’s style of writing was just so much more stiff than what i like to read and to take two things i love (history and chicago) and make them boring for me made me not want to go on reading. so i only read about a quarter of the book. so maybe i can’t tell you all the best parts of it since i only got up to about the haymarket riots but personally, this was just not a compelling book. sorryyyy.

  11. 5 out of 5

    catechism

    Pausing, though I'll probably come back to this. My problem is that I want a fairly broad history of Chicago from (roughly) 1900-1930. Not a history of what Al Capone was doing, or a list of who was throwing baseball games, or a biography of famous brothel owners, or a book about that time a blimp blew up over a bank, or whatever else was going on. I mean, I want those things, but -- there was a lot of stuff! I would like someone else to connect the dots for me. This book is like... the layer be Pausing, though I'll probably come back to this. My problem is that I want a fairly broad history of Chicago from (roughly) 1900-1930. Not a history of what Al Capone was doing, or a list of who was throwing baseball games, or a biography of famous brothel owners, or a book about that time a blimp blew up over a bank, or whatever else was going on. I mean, I want those things, but -- there was a lot of stuff! I would like someone else to connect the dots for me. This book is like... the layer below: immigration patterns, politics, etc. Necessary context but (a) not really what I'm looking for right now and (b) I think I've mostly got this stuff already. Maybe I'll just read the Trib archives.

  12. 5 out of 5

    John Harder

    Chicago, A Biography meets my criterion for both history books and books about Jayne Mansfield – if you are going to bring up interesting points I want to see pictures of them. So rest assured that Mr. Paeyga had dug through the archives and finely illustrates the volume from when the Indians first paddled up the Chicago River and began taking Polaroids well into the recent era. Paeyga stresses that Chicago is not so much a city, but a polyglot of ethnic enclaves, that somehow works. It is a dir Chicago, A Biography meets my criterion for both history books and books about Jayne Mansfield – if you are going to bring up interesting points I want to see pictures of them. So rest assured that Mr. Paeyga had dug through the archives and finely illustrates the volume from when the Indians first paddled up the Chicago River and began taking Polaroids well into the recent era. Paeyga stresses that Chicago is not so much a city, but a polyglot of ethnic enclaves, that somehow works. It is a dirty, grubbing, avaricious city that still finds it way to be a shining light of culture and down-home sophistication. Well done Mr. Paeyga.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Rob

    This book had a lot of great info and is definitely worth reading, but after reading "Family Properties" I was disappointed that Dominic wrote such lousy footnotes - barely worth looking at, instead of adding insight to what he was discussing. This book gave me the impression it was a teaser for his history students at Columbia College so they would go out and explore the many interesting topics he brings up, on their own - perhaps for assignments in his class. I wanted way more than I got here! This book had a lot of great info and is definitely worth reading, but after reading "Family Properties" I was disappointed that Dominic wrote such lousy footnotes - barely worth looking at, instead of adding insight to what he was discussing. This book gave me the impression it was a teaser for his history students at Columbia College so they would go out and explore the many interesting topics he brings up, on their own - perhaps for assignments in his class. I wanted way more than I got here! Mr. Pacyga was interviewed on "Chicago Tonight" soon after this came out, and I know he knows his subject inside & out. He just seems to skim over it here IMO.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    Although I didn't grow up in Chicago, I'm very fond of the city, having visited it many times throughout the years (in fact, I'm going back this August). I'll readily admit I was woefully ignorant of much of the city's basic history before, but no longer! The author is clearly quite passionate about his subject; the writing itself is clear and engaging, and although many pages were devoted to the activities of this or that manufacturer, I never found myself bored. A very informative read, throug Although I didn't grow up in Chicago, I'm very fond of the city, having visited it many times throughout the years (in fact, I'm going back this August). I'll readily admit I was woefully ignorant of much of the city's basic history before, but no longer! The author is clearly quite passionate about his subject; the writing itself is clear and engaging, and although many pages were devoted to the activities of this or that manufacturer, I never found myself bored. A very informative read, through and through.

  15. 5 out of 5

    John

    Most histories that have to cover a lot of ground have trouble giving sufficient detail to make events clear and meaningful without losing the forest for the trees. There are a few points at which this one misses in striking that balance, and at those points it can be a bit of a slog. Outside of that, though, a clear and (usually) succinct account of the city, with a good mix of economic and political developments that also does a good job of keeping the individual neighborhoods of Chicago in vi Most histories that have to cover a lot of ground have trouble giving sufficient detail to make events clear and meaningful without losing the forest for the trees. There are a few points at which this one misses in striking that balance, and at those points it can be a bit of a slog. Outside of that, though, a clear and (usually) succinct account of the city, with a good mix of economic and political developments that also does a good job of keeping the individual neighborhoods of Chicago in view.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Keith Jamieson

    Poorly written and organized, and excessively slow (only the last two or three chapters focus on contemporary-ish Chicago: the majority of the book fixates on the nineteenth century). Redeemed somewhat by an abundance of interesting tidbits about the city, and some nice photographs. Generally, I think that this is a fairly poor treatment of an incredibly interesting city, with average results.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Cherie

    More like a 2.5 star review. It is an interesting read, but not as focused on the history of Chicago's people. It's more focused on the politics and industry that created Chicago, which is an interesting perspective.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kristan

    Parts of this book were way more interesting than others, but I loved it overall. I feel like I know so much more about my city now, and it pointed me in the direction of things I want more information about. Chicago is a really amazing place.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Gwen

    Very good! A great 1 volume introduction, hits most of the high points. Must read if you are new to Chicago.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    eh

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Plucked from the Newberry Library's Best of 2010 list: http://www.newberry.org/media/bestboo... Plucked from the Newberry Library's Best of 2010 list: http://www.newberry.org/media/bestboo...

  22. 4 out of 5

    Erinp

    Readable and informative, kind of wish there was more about wrigley and the sears tower, but I know a lot about chicago now.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Green

    This is a good, readable history of Chicago. I thought I knew a fair amount of the city's history beforehand, but I learned quite a bit from reading this book.

  24. 4 out of 5

    George

    Solid account.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Tobias

    A bit boring in places, but quite good on Chicago's history as center ring for America's industrial conflict in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Pollom

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    It was interesting to have read this shortly after reading Third Coast. Both trace similar histories of Chicago (Third Coast is focused more around characters). This really lost steam as we drudged through the 20th century.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kermit

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jon Davis

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