In The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, what is the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the World's Fair and the poverty and degradation that surrounded it? After the Fair ended, Ray Stannard Baker noted, "What a human downfall after the magnificence and prodigality of the World's Fair which has so recently closed its doors! Heights of splendor, pride, exaltation in one month; depths of wretchedness, suffering, hunger, and cold in the next" (pg 334). 

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In The Devil in the White Cityby Erik Larson , the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the World Fair and the poverty and degradation that surrounded it is that they are located in close proximity, yet they could not be more different from one another. In a...

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In The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the World Fair and the poverty and degradation that surrounded it is that they are located in close proximity, yet they could not be more different from one another. In a sense, this is an allegory for life itself, where sometimes wonderful things coexist in time and place with horrible things.

In a sense, the book itself is a parable of this very concept of the ironic contrasts between things—or people—that often exist close to one another. This is illustrated in the book's opening:

In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills. Each embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized the rush of America toward the twentieth century. One was an architect, the builder of many of America’s most important structures, among them the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C.; the other was a murderer, one of the most prolific in history and harbinger of an American archetype, the urban serial killer.

Moreover, the poverty of the area surrounding the World’s Fair had not been improved by the ongoing industrialization happening in most of the world around. The very idea of a World’s Fair is almost an antithesis of the poorer neighborhood, as it is a venue to showcase the most modern inventions and ideas of the time. For instance, George Ferris’ Ferris wheel was an invention that was introduced at the World's Fair and is discussed at length in the book.

The area of Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 became known as the White City. Just as the story of the murderer contrasts with the story of the architects of the World’s Fair, the White City contrasts with the dilapidation, bleakness, and poverty of the surrounding area. The author writes, “In poor neighborhoods garbage mounded in alleys and overflowed giant trash boxes that became banquet halls for rats and bluebottle flies. Billions of flies.” Then, after the World's Fair ended, Ray Stannard Baker noted, "What a human downfall after the magnificence and prodigality of the World's Fair which has so recently closed its doors! Heights of splendor, pride, exaltation in one month; depths of wretchedness, suffering, hunger, and cold in the next" (pg 334).

The irony of the World's Fair was that it attracted a myriad of workers who sought employment—if only temporarily—and then were left without jobs when the Fair closed. In the book, novelist Robert Herrick is quoted:

With its formal closure thousands more workers joined the swelling army of the unemployed, and homeless men took up residence among the great abandoned palaces of the fair....Tens of thousands of human beings, lured to the festive city by abnormal wages, had been left stranded, without food or a right to shelter in its tenant-less buildings.

The author concludes the above quotation by saying, "It was the contrast that was so wrenching.”

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Erik Larson's historical book The Devil in the White City recounts the events leading up to the Chicago World's Fair in the late 1800s. It is a story of contrasts, as evidenced first by the title. The Fair was known as the White City, as it was both literally white and a shining example of the best America and the world had to offer. In contrast is the devil in the person of Holmes, committing foul acts mere blocks from the monument to greatness.

Your question points out more contrasts. The quote you cite refers specifically to the "before" and "after" of the Fair, and it is true that once the Fair was over and the visitors all left, there was little of the grandeur remaining. In other words, the opulence of the Fair did not have an elevating or enduring effect on anything around it.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon. The only modern thing we have which might compare is the Olympics, and it is well documented that once the Olympics are over, there is nothing particularly positive left behind in the host city. The buildings and other facilities are not generally useful and fall into disrepair, and the areas near the sites are certainly in no better shape--and often worse for all the traffic and activity--than before. On a personal note, I was in Greece the summer after the Athens Olympics, and I heard many stories from shop owners as well as individuals that it was not worth it for them to have had the Olympics in their city. Too much money and energy spent on something which only benefited the visitors and left the Athenians in worse shape than before the Olympics. The event prospered, but the people around it and built it did not.

Chicago was not a rich city, and the harsh conditions of weather, crime, and just plain living took a serious toll on the people who lived there. It was a city on the verge of becoming what it is today, but at the time it was no place for the fainthearted to live. The World's Fair in Chicago was built primarily by people who needed work; however, once the Fair was built, the work was gone and the conditions of these laborers remained the same.

The contrast is between the extravagant and lavish White City which the world came to see and the place around it which was still relatively undeveloped: muddy and dirty and miserable. All the glorious innovations displayed at the Fair promised a bright future; in contrast was the squalor and deprivation of the present. In other words, America's image and standing in the world increased after the Chicago World's Fair, but the living conditions and quality of life for the residents of Chicago did not--at the time--improve. It's hard to say that things did not get better for Chicago in the long term, given the city's stature today; however, at the time it must have been disheartening for Chicagoans to walk through their muddy, smelly streets and see those gleaming towers of white mocking their squalor.

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