Vintage Chicago Street Scenes: Celebrating a City in Motion


“Where anything might happen – and usually does,” the narrator of this 1930’s newsreel describes Chicago, “a city of superlatives.” The forces of energy and movement, this sense of anticipation are what attracts so many people to city living. Whether or not you’re a nerd for history, any viewer enjoys seeing their city on the screen. It’s fascinating to compare the world you know to a past, fictionalized, or futuristic version.

 This clip allows us to tour places we now take for granted through the lens of the extraordinary superlatives they were at the time. The skyline seems strangely stark behind the Wrigley Building and Water Tower. Rail yards line Michigan Avenue in what has only recently become Millennium Park. The Haymarket Police Statue is on public display in a park sometime between attempted bombing attacks. We dash from the Union Stockyards to the buildings of the 1893 and 1933 World’s Fairs, admire gypsy women at a market on Maxwell Street, and then bask in the State Street’s bright lights.

[via Lee Bey]

Thomas Edison shot Chicago’s second movie ever in 1897 at the corner of State and Madison (a police parade film preceded it by a year). Yet on a corner that is still one of Chicago’s busiest, we see no stolid sepia-faced citizens posing stiffly. Streetcars and horses pass through a sea of bowler and boater-capped heads, while picketers brandish indistinguishable signs in the thirty-second clip. The city is a measure in motion.

With shape-shifting neighborhoods and movements that come and go, our contemporary street corner will morph someday as well, sooner than we know. Compare Edison’s intersection with the State and Madison intersection of 2009.

Cities changes every day, it’s why we’re drawn to them. Step out on the
sidewalk, inhale the energy, and examine what’s in motion around you. After
all, anything can happen.

For Further Exploration
Street Scene: Vintage Outdoor Ads in Chicago

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