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Chicago History

Most accounts of Chicago history begin in the 1770s, when Haitian settler Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable (who’s remembered today at the city’s DuSable Museum of African American History) established a humble trading post on the banks of the Chicago River. Within four decades of its incorporation in 1833, Chicago became one of the nation’s largest cities, as well as a major transportation and retail hub. With the arrival of Irish, Swedish, Polish, Italian, Chinese, and other immigrants—who tended to settle in ethnic enclaves within the city—Chicago also became a “city of neighborhoods,” a reputation it maintains to this day.

 Much of the city burned to the ground in 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire destroyed some 17,000 buildings and left one-third of the city’s residents homeless. Just 22 years later, however, the city staged a major comeback with the opening of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The legacy of the World’s Fair, as it’s often called, survives in the form of the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry, both of which occupy buildings originally constructed for the fair. In the same era, Chicago picked up its nickname of the “Windy City”—possibly because of the gusts off the lake, possibly because of the braggadocio of its politicians.

 With the 20th century came many developments that would shape the city’s character: the Great Migration, which brought 500,000 African Americans from the South to Chicago in search of jobs; the 1920s gangster era, when Al Capone and other Mafioso gave the city a temporary reputation as a hotbed of mobster crime; and the construction of the Sears Tower (now known as the Willis Tower), the tallest building in the world at the time of its completion in 1974. More recently, the dawn of the new millennium was commemorated, albeit a bit late, with the 2004 opening of Millennium Park, a popular 24.5-acre park on the lakefront that features free concerts, public art and the Anish Kapoor sculpture Cloud Gate. Immediately (and affectionately) nicknamed “the Bean,” it’s the newest symbol of the well-loved Windy City.

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