Carl Sandburg dubbed Chicago the “City of the Big Shoulders” in his eponymous 1916 poem. Sandburg opens by addressing the city directly:
Hog Butcher for the World
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
In its industrial heyday, the “City of the Big Shoulders” symbolized the gritty determination required to build a metropolitan giant from what author Donald L. Miller described as a “pestilential swamp.” Chicago has always had a reputation for swagger and resilience, returning even better after the devastating 1871 fire and outpacing competitors to land the 1893 World’s Fair. Becoming a railroad hub and transfer point for people and goods moving from the west to the east further enhanced the city’s fortunes—and its reputation.
Yet Sandburg’s Chicago was marked by corruption, hunger, and murder rates that would shock most Chicagoans today. As Sandburg put it,
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders was not so much a city of virtue, but a city undisturbed by its vices. It was a resilient city undeterred by disaster, undaunted by rivalry, and too often unfazed by the social costs of achieving its increasing stature on the world stage. Sandburg captured Chicago’s confidence:
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Sandburg sees Chicago as an ignorant young fighter who hadn’t yet tasted defeat—not a city that knows it can do anything, but a city that doesn’t yet know what it can’t do. What he identifies in the poem is a kind of naïveté that can be inspiring for cities, but one that can also lead to over-confidence and a tendency to overlook urban problems and limitations. After all, for all its industrial success, the City of the Big Shoulders has always been plagued by many forms of social ills.
Likewise, the City of Big Data is experiencing this over-confidence as it discovers its strength, but not yet its limits, as it sits:
Measuring, computing, remeasuring
Before the screen, carpal-tunnel brace on his wrist, laughing with whitened teeth,
Under the terrible burden of the digital gaze laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant trader laughs who has never lost a dime,
Bragging and laughing that on his display is the pulse, and in his sensors the heart of the people,