The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

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How does The Devil in the White City illustrate the differences between rich and poor Chicagoans?

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The Devil in the White City illustrates the differences between rich and poor Chicagoans by showing the disparity in living conditions, the greater dangers poorer people faced, and how the excessive costs of the Fair made a difference. Poorer neighborhoods are characterized by “filth, starvation, and violence,” and people without money often had to find "rooms in private homes and boardinghouses." Police efforts were based on class, and the high cost of food was a meaningful difference.

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The Devil in the White City illustrates the differences between rich and poor Chicagoans by showing the great disparity in living conditions for people with money compared to those without it, the greater dangers poorer people faced and how the excessive costs of the Fair made it difficult for the...

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masses to enjoy all that it had to offer.

In terms of living conditions, "in poor neighborhoods garbage mounded in alleys and overflowed giant trash boxes that became banquet halls for rats and bluebottle flies." While the Black City "lay steeped in smoke and garbage," the White City had "clean public bathrooms, pure water, an ambulance service, electric streetlights, and a sewage-processing system" of its own. In the poorer Black City, which was not as electrified or illuminated as the White city, there were "bars, gambling houses, and bordellos. Vice thrived, with official indulgence." The Black City is characterized by “filth, starvation, and violence.”

Money impacted a visitor’s Fair experience because a person with money could afford all that the fair had to offer, including staying in comfortable accommodations. Conversely, a person without money had to be satisfied with boardinghouses and low-cost hotels.

When people could not find or afford apartments, they sought rooms in private homes and boardinghouses, where typically the rent included meals.

Moreover, the danger was greater for those people who came to Chicago without money. Larsen writes that "vanishment seemed a Chicago pastime." According to the book, hundreds of people went to Chicago to see the Fair and disappeared. Larsen notes that the police also distinguished their efforts to find people based on how much money the victims had. Specifically,

class obscured their vision. Ordinary vanishings—Polish girls, stockyard boys, Italian laborers, Negro women—merited little effort. Only the disappearance of moneyed souls drew a forceful response, and even then there was little that detectives could do other than send telegrams to other cities and periodically check the morgue for each day’s collection of unidentified men, women, and children.

The high cost of food at the attractions was another meaningful difference. Visitors would be “fleeced unmercifully,” especially in the restaurants at the Fair, which charged “extortionate” prices. While Frederick Law Olmsted is quoted as saying that this complaint about food prices "comes from rich and poor alike," it clearly had a bigger impact on the poor, who would be tempted to bring their food with them.

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