The phrase “Form Follows Function” was coined in reference to Chicago’s amazingly beautiful, yet surprisingly functional architecture by American architect Louis Sullivan. That phrase holds a particular significance to Chicago. The town itself is a testament to it. Its beauty is outmatched only by its eagerness to triumph and willingness to work for it.
In true Chicago fashion, the chosen flag to represent all that the city entails is worthy of that phrase. Its colors are bold and its design simple. Yet it encompasses all that Chicago was, is and is determined to be. There is no better symbol or representation of Chicago and its history than the Chicago Flag. It comes as a surprise to most that each particular element of the flag, down to the points of each star, represents a specific time, place or event in Chicago’s long history. So what better way to explore that rich and grizzly history than through the flag chosen to represent it.
The White Stripes
Chicago is a town of neighborhoods. Each one a unique microcosm of the immigrant nations that built them up from the literal muck. Three white stripes, representative of the three sides of town, adorn the Chicago Flag.
The North side is the oldest section of town. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Haitian immigrant, built the first permanent settlement on the North Side in the 1780’s. Since then the North Side has carved itself quite the reputation. There aren't a lot of cities in the world where you can step out of a Chanel store and walk down the street to one of the most infamous neighborhoods in the world; but that is exactly what you can do leaving the Gold Coast neighborhood and strolling just a few short blocks to Cabrini Green.
The West side of Chicago was acquired in the same way most of this country was acquired. It was stolen from the Native Americans. The Treaty of Chicago cheated the Cahokian, Potawatomi, Sauk, and Miami tribes that inhabited the area out of their claim to the land. After the Chicago Fire left over 300,000 residents homeless many Chicagoans moved to the western reaches of the city pressing the boundaries of Chicago further and further from the Lake.
The South side rose to prominence after the Civil War and the Great Migration from the agrarian South to the Industrialized North. Newly freed slaves and literal boatloads of immigrants flooded Chicago's South side, where all the meat packing was done. Stories such as the now infamous Jungle were inspired by South side neighborhoods like the Back of the Yards.
The Blue Stripes
Chicago can not be separated from its waterways. They are intrinsically linked together. History makes the claim that Chicago would not exist without Lake Michigan, the Chicago River and the Great Canal, and that claim is 100% true. Which is why the blue stripes on the Chicago flag represent the waterways that are responsible for the Chicago we know today
Lake Michigan, or simply, The Lake, is often misunderstood and underappreciated by non-Chicagoans. The Lake behaves like an ocean and puts Chicago in the unique position of being a midwest city and a port town with miles of coastline. Connected to the Atlantic Ocean by the Great Lakes Waterway and the St Lawrence Seaway Lake Michigan has been this cities lifeline since its founding. Even if it's too cold to swim in for 90% of the year.
The Chicago River is as unique as the city whose name it shares because we made it flow backward, and we even did it on purpose.
Early in Chicago’s history, the Chicago River flowed forward very slowly into Lake Michigan. Chicago’s rapid and unstoppable growth allowed sewage and pollution into the once pristine water source. This contributed to several public health epidemics in the city, such as typhoid fever. In 1848, City officials diverted the flow of the Chicago River to across the Chicago Portage into the Illinois and Michigan Canal.
The Great Canal, also represented by the blue stripes in the Chicago flag, was made deeper in 1871 in an attempt to completely reverse the river's flow. Mother nature wasn't having it though and the reversal of the river didn't last. In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago finally reversed the flow of the mainstem and South Branch. At last the Chicago River was free of its local moniker “the Stinking River” and mother nature would just have to get over it.
The Four Red Stars
There are four, six-pointed red stars in the center of Chicago’s flag. Besides inspiring scores of hipster tattoos they represent four important milestones and events in Chicago's history.
Fort Dearborn was built in 1803 and named for then Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn. Though time, expansion, a battle and multiple fires saw to the forts total destruction, it played a vital part in the history of Chicago and American westward expansion. The boundaries of the fort can still be seen today in the Michigan-Wacker historic district of downtown which has been declared a national historic monument.
The Chicago Fire. Everyone has heard about the immense and devastating fire that burned most of Chicago to the ground in 1871. Legend has it that the fire began when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over a gas lantern, burning down her barn and sparking the fire. By the time the fire had been quenched and the smoldering ruins surveyed, more than 300,000 Chicagoans were left homeless and more than 4 square miles of the city had been destroyed.
World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, besides being the playground of one of the most infamous serial killers in history, HH Holmes, was the shining event in Chicago’s history that proved to the world that Chicago was a city on par with the oldest and grandest cities of Europe. The entire town was covered in a facade of white plaster earning the title of the “White City.” The faces of the existing buildings were stuccoed and plastered into gorgeous classic architecture reminiscent of the renaissance and ancient Greece. In true Chicago fashion, however, The fair ended with the assassination of the popular mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. by Patrick Eugene Prendergast just two days prior to the fair's closing ceremony.
The Century of Progress Exposition of 1933 was held in Chicago in commemoration of the Cities centennial. The fair showcased technological innovation and turned Chicago into a theme park of new technology and cultural exposition. A sky tram was even built to carry fair goers across the fairgrounds, high above the lake's shore.
The Chicago flag, like the city it represents, is bold, defiantly simple and unassuming, yet it encompasses a history of struggle, determination, innovation, and triumph over the odds. It is the chosen symbol of a town that dares to be different and refuses to stay the same. Maybe Mark Twain captured it best when he said, “She is always a novelty: for she is never the same Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.