The Glass Coffin

Never let it be said that a man once unceremoniously barred from the Ivy League cannot travel far and rise to great heights.

Many years ago one such man—his pride still sore from the sting of rejection—set out to prove himself by building a new city to far surpass those he had known in both scale and splendor.  The City Beautiful.

The young man, though ambitious, lacked the means necessary to realize his vision. For weeks he roamed the streets, knocking on doors and pitching his plan to anyone who would listen. Most called him crazy and promptly dismissed him, but one experienced city planner begrudgingly gave the youth a moment of his time. In an effort to rush his inquiring visitor out the door the city planner declared, “Before you can arrange and organize a city you must experience the world. Extensive travel is your ticket to legitimacy and respect in this business.”

This line of reasoning sounded fair enough to the young man. “Once I have traveled and seen the world,” he asked of his new mentor (our protagonist is quick to make friends) “will you help me create my city?”

“Of course, of course,” the planner replied, “if you travel across the continent and see everything there is to see between this spot and the ocean, I’ll help you with your city.”

And with that (our protagonist is also a man of few words) the determined young man took off, freshly transformed into a world traveler. Starting from an easterly position, the traveler went west until he found the West and eventually the ocean.

Along the way he saw old handcart trails and trodden lines in the earth. “My city should have some paths for walking,” he thought.

He saw buildings coated in shimmering white stucco.

He saw cacti and cowboys.

He carefully placed all of these things and more into his prospective city.

Now, the traveler was youthful and strong, but the West was so hot and the terrain so rugged that eventually the young man faltered and fell to the ground.  As he looked up, a venue of vultures prepared to swoop in for the feed.

“Wait!” the young man screeched. “You four seem like sensible fellows, I have a proposition for you. One day in the not too very far off future I will build a beautiful city. You can work as my grounds crew; you’ll eat your fill of food every day for the rest of your lives if only you spare mine now.”

Luckily the vultures were sensible fellows, and after a brief committee meeting they agreed to help the young man. They promptly picked him up and plopped him down near a shady creek to recuperate. In time the traveler regained his strength and headed east with the vultures in his wake.

When the traveler returned to the East he found his mentor and explained his plans for City Beautiful.  The city planner listened impatiently before interrupting, “Before you can build a city you must build one building.  And not just any building, it must be the tallest building in the world. If you build the tallest building in the world then you can build your city.”

The young man found his mentor’s logic quite sound, so he set off to build the tallest building in the world.

The clever young man had never constructed a building, but he was industrious.  His travels had made him stalwart and strong, so he prepared marble, oak, and steel as he devised a plan. When the materials were ready he convened his committee for a conference.

“My good fellows, when City Beautiful is complete you’ll need a new home within the grounds from which to watch for prey. I have a proposition for you. If you help me build the tallest building in the world, I’ll allow you to sleep nestled safely in the spacious rafters of the grandest building I design.”

The savvy birds quickly agreed. They constructed the building, completing a story a day, until the tower soared at 21 stories high. It was the tallest building in the world. With this momentous (and highly-publicized) achievement the mentor had no choice but to grant the young man the finances and support necessary to complete his ideal city. A city so splendid was an expensive undertaking, and frankly the city planner didn’t have enough money. It was therefore decided that the young man’s project should be a model city, an edifying exposition of sorts, but most importantly, an opportunity to sell tickets to curious onlookers.

The young man erected 200 new structures on 600 acres of self-contained, fiercely guarded property—his city was truly a stunning achievement. There were walking paths, shady creeks, and exotic plants. Throughout the grounds seminars and demonstrations held large audiences in rapt attention. The cowboys threw lassos, the scientists illuminated and electrified. And the majestic buildings and lecture halls were topped with crystalline sheets of glass. Their external walls were coated in lustrous white stucco, which appeared illuminated in the sunlight. The White City.

Despite the fact that over 27 million visitors traveled through the model city, it was kept immaculate, just as the young man had intended. But one day a terrible fire destroyed The White City (as fires often did in those days). The young man was devastated, and in his grief he climbed to the top of the tallest building in the world to find his venture of vultures (who had relocated after the tragic fire) and to watch his grand experiment burn. As he stared pensively out of the window, the smoke began to clear and the man prepared himself for the scene of debris and wreckage that surely lurked below. However, much to his surprise, the ashen clouds revealed his model city was expanding, growing to occupy all of the land all around him. The young man enjoyed accolades and admiration for the rest of his days.

And that’s what I think about when I walk around Chicago.