Where Fun Came to Have Fun, and then Tragically Died

Last night, I finished reading Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that introduced the ferris wheel, alternating electrical current, Shredded Wheat, and Juicy Fruit, and gave Pabst Beer that blue ribbon they’re still so proud of. Also, it’s about a serial killer.

I am about eight years late in reading the book. I feel like I’m one of the last people to have picked it up, which is strange since it’s set largely in parks and neighborhoods with which I am quite familiar. I have my dumb reasons. When I first moved back to Chicago in 2006 and was engaged in a bout of e-dating, everyone’s profile listed their most recently read book as The Devil in the White City. Everyone on the L was reading it on the way to work. And I am enough of a stubborn, myopic literary contrarian that I refused to read it on principle (this may partially explain why none of my online dating attempts ever went past the third date). It’s the same reason that I won’t be reading The Hunger Games until roughly 2034.

But then my parents and sister came up to Chicago a few weeks back and, having all read the book, wanted to see the sites mentioned therein. Fortunately for them, I used to live mere blocks from the site of the World’s Fair, so we trekked down to Jackson Park and walked the same grounds where, 119 years ago, the Fair’s famed and fabled White City stood gleaming by the lake.

Next to the White City ran the Midway Plaisance, which is where the more carnival-esque attractions were located (and which is why, to this day, the main thoroughfare of any carnival or state fair is called “the midway”). Anchoring the Midway was George Ferris’s Wheel, an almost 300 ft. tall revolving wonder that could take over 2,000 people into the sky at a time (the London Eye is only slightly larger than the original Ferris Wheel). It was to the 1893 World’s Fair what the Eiffel Tower was to the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris – the central engineering marvel. Both achieved immortality: Eiffel’s tower by remaining right where it is and becoming the preeminent symbol of Paris; Ferris’s wheel by spawning millions of imitators across the globe.

I was curious what the first Ferris Wheel looked like, so I went Google Imaging and found the photo at the top of this post. What surprised me most about the photo wasn’t so much the size of the wheel, as the gray gothic building in the foreground on the right side. It’s Foster Hall at the University of Chicago. It surprised me because I once had a class in that building, in the very tower whose witch-hatted spire stabs toward the Wheel.

The photo presents a weird juxtaposition to me. The founding Ferris Wheel and fair Midway in all their gaudy glory right next to an institution (but three years old at that point) widely known as the place “Where Fun Comes to Die,” a school whose name and image conjure in its students and alumni not “fun!” but “suffering” (followed by “good friends,” and then “further suffering” [incidentally, while “Where Fun Comes to Die” is the University’s unofficial nickname, its official nickname is “The Gray City,” a moniker that both attempts to claim the legacy of the White City and also manages to somehow sound even more depressing than “Where Fun Comes to Die”]).

The White City and the first Ferris Wheel are over a century gone. The Midway Plaisance is now just a long, infinitely quiet expanse of grass running beside the University. This is a view of that building and the Midway as they are now:

These days the common complaint among Hyde Park’s denizens is the lack of anything fun to do in the neighborhood. It’s strange to imagine what it must have been like as a U of C student in those days, at a school so new it must have smelled it, trying to study with the greatest and gaudiest collection of entertainment in human history right out your window.

It’s a wonder anyone got anything done at all.

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