Chicago is in many ways the nation's last great city. Sarah Bernhardt called it "the pulse of America" and, though long eclipsed by Los Angeles as the nation's second most populous city after New York, Chicago really does have it all, with less of the hassle and infrastructural problems of its coastal rivals.
Founded in the early 1800s, Chicago grew up with the country, serving as the main connection between the established east coast cities and the wide open Wild West frontier. This position on the sharp edge between civilization and wilderness made the city into a crucible of innovation. Many aspects of modern life, from skyscrapers to suburbia, had their start, and perhaps their finest expression, here on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Despite burning to the ground in the legendary fire of 1871, Chicago boomed thereafter, doubling in population every decade and reaching two million around 1900, swollen by Irish and eastern European immigrants (Chicago still has the largest Polish population in the world outside Warsaw). In the early years of the twentieth century, it cemented a reputation as a place of apparently limitless opportunity, with jobs aplenty for those willing to work. The attraction was strongest among Deep South blacks: from 1900 to 1920 African Americans poured in, with more than 75,000 arriving during the war years of 1916–18 alone. Long hours, poor pay and squalid working conditions were the catalysts that made Chicago the cradle of American trade unions. By around 1900 most workers were organized under the American Federation of Labor, and the 1894 Pullman strike saw black and white workers unite for almost the first time in the US. As hostilities intensified, the city's workers became the driving force behind the left-wing "Wobblies." Chicago has also long been an important center for black organization – both the Reverend Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) and the more militant Nation of Islam, founded by Elijah Mohammed in the 1940s, have their national headquarters on the city's South Side.
During the Roaring Twenties, Chicago's self-image as a no-holds-barred free market was pushed to the limit by a new breed of entrepreneur. Criminal syndicates, ruthlessly and brazenly run by the likes of gangsters like Al Capone and Bugsy Moran, took advantage of Prohibition to sell bootleg alcohol. Shootouts in the street between sharp-suited, Tommy-gun-wielding mobsters were not as common as legend would have it, but the backroom dealing and iron-handed control they pioneered was later perfected by politicians such as former mayor Richard Daley – father of the present mayor – who ran Chicago single-handedly from the 1950s until his death in 1976. His brutal handling of antiwar demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic convention remains notorious. These days, the tourist authorities play down the mobster era; few traces of the hoodlum years exist, and those that do owe more to Hollywood than contemporary Chicago.
Today, Chicago's towering skyline – the city has one of the world's best collections of modern architecture, from Frank Lloyd Wright houses to the 110-story Sears Tower – dominates the pancake-flat prairies for hundreds of miles around. Chicago's status as the cultural and financial heart of middle America is beyond question. The Loop downtown holds the head offices of many major US companies and some of the nation's most important commodity markets, which together handle the buying and selling of one-third of the world's agricultural and industrial products.
For visitors, Chicago offers the Art Institute of Chicago and a wide range of excellent museums (many of which have one day of free admission per week), restaurants, sports and highbrow cultural activities. However, its strongest suit is live music, with a phenomenal array of jazz and blues clubs packed into the back rooms of its amiable bars and cafés. The rock scene is also one of the healthiest in the country with a prolific number of bands having come out of the city in the 1990s, including Smashing Pumpkins, Material Issue, Veruca Salt and Wilco. And almost everything is noticeably less expensive than in other US cities – eating out, for example, costs much less than in New York or LA, but is every bit as good. Though locals might deny it, the city has a surprisingly low-key and generally welcoming population – Chicagoans on the whole are proud of their city and usually keen to point out its best features. Two great ways to get a real feel for the city are to head out to ivy-covered Wrigley Field on a sunny summer afternoon to catch baseball's Cubs in action, or take a cruise boat under the bridges of the Chicago River at sunset.