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.”