#732: Putney’s Prophecies – Did 1899 Come True?

December 30th, 2016

Fifteen minutes to midnight on the last day of the 19th century, a real estate historian named Mark Putney climbed to the roof of a downtown Chicago skyscraper and dreamed about the future.

The next day, Jan. 1, 1900, he would publish an incredibly strange book, ostensibly a book of historical real estate values that also delved into a history of the city in flowery writing, overblown and bizarre in a way only Victorian white men could muster.

For example, Putney’s description of the Great Chicago Fire:

“… a reeking, festering, sickening, boiling mass of smoke and fire. A hydra with many heads—a dragon with many mouths—a monster with many eyes. In appearance, a terrible combination of monstrosities—repulsive, yet fascinating; awful, yet grand. No tongue can tell the story; no brush can paint the picture. This was nature’s panorama; this hurricane of fire; this demon of the night.”

Or his section on 1600s French explorer Fr. Jacques Marquette:

“… this great, this good, this almost perfect man, has gone to receive his great reward in heaven; to live that brighter life for which his labors here were but the preparation.”

The book — again, this was a book listing historical housing prices — ends with Putney climbing to the roof of an unnamed office building the night before publication to watch fireworks and write a minute-by-minute account of his fantasies about Chicago in 1999.

I’m 17 years late, but here’s a look at the strange prophecies of a strange writer/real estate price analyst, followed by a bit of fact-checking to see which, if any, of Putney’s dreams came true.

Man, I sort of love this guy. And now for his predictions:

The population was about 2.9 million in the year 1999. The closest we got to Putney’s guesstimate was 3.6 million in 1950.

We’re about 2.7 million today.

Verdict: No.

We haven’t even been the second largest in the nation since the 1990 census. Damn you, Los Angeles.

So what is the #2 city on the globe? Surprisingly difficult to answer, it turns out.

The United Nations uses three separate definitions of cities in its rankings. This was the simplest way to make apples-to-apples comparisons since every country has slightly different rules for what makes up a city. *

The second-largest city in 1999 was the Kinki M.M.A. in Japan, with 18.7 million people counted using the metropolitan area model. (As near as I can tell, “Kinki M.M.A.” is some nerdy administrative name for Osaka.) The second-largest city today is Dehli, India, with 26.4 million people counted using the urban aggregation model.

Using the metropolitan area model, Tokyo was the biggest in 1999 and today.

Verdict: No.

Yes? This is just a description of life. Unless he meant “lots” as in real estate lots, in which case I’ll get a book deal claiming Putney foresaw the real estate collapse by 108 years.

Verdict: Sure, why not?

Strangely, there are paper houses. Just not in Chicago and not in the far-flung 1990s.

Smoking is, unsurprisingly, forbidden.

Verdict: Yes.

As my utilities bills can testify, not so much.

Verdict: Hell no.

If Putney meant air cushion as in inflatable pillow that someone can land on after leaping 20 stories, those do exist today, but they’re brought out by rescue workers rather than installed in the building.

If he meant air cushion like the cushion of air that keeps a hovercraft afloat, meaning apartment dwellers and office workers would leap from a flaming 20-story building into a deep and endless void of swirling air to be borne to earth as if cradled by the god Zephyrus himself, we don’t have those. But that would be awesome.

Verdict: No, thank god. Why would the fire escape be in the center of the building? Wouldn’t you then have to run through the ground floor of a burning, possibly collapsing skyscraper to get outside? Bad call on this one, Putney.

The closest to this would probably be the Minneapolis Skyway System, except for the fact they’re nothing alike. Putney seems to be more into cool visuals than cogent urban planning.

Verdict: No, but now I sort of want this.

Although Chicago had nine miles of underground pneumatic tubes for mail open in 1904 and by 1908 saw its first small child launched through a tube, somehow the idea of getting shot through a tunnel like a check deposit at a bank drive up in the pre-ATM days never caught on. The old City News Bureau did apparently prank someone with a can of roach powder through its tube system, however.

Although it only went one city block and not all the way to Chicago, a pneumatic train did exist in New York decades before Putney dreamed it. It was called the Beach Pneumatic Transit and it only ran for three years because it was a terrible idea. It didn’t make it to Putney’s time, much less 1999.

Verdict: No.

Mark Putney: Futurist, land price historian, snowmobile prognosticator.

Also, please buy me this.

Verdict: Yes.

No. But you can take a cruise from Chicago to Warren, Rhode Island, and then swim across the Providence River to the town of Cranston, where they have a New London Avenue. If that’s what he meant, then yes.

Verdict: No. That’s not what he meant at all.

Technically, it’s zero because Earth is floating in space. There are several ways to calculate the mass of Earth, but my favorite is Scientific American’s method of flinging a bathroom scale out of the window.

It involves some simple physics, but it’s hard to say if Chicago schoolkids can do it since the state board of education’s new science standards aren’t included on the yearly district report cards that tally if kids are meeting standards.

Without busting into your local high school and digging out each kid’s grades, the best bet for saying for sure if they can do the required figuring is that the PARCC standardized test considers the math involved as either Algebra I or Integrated Math I (quantities) in the high school curriculum and 20.5 percent of Chicago high school students met or exceeded standards in PARCC math in the 2015-16 school year.

Compare that to a rich-ass district like Naperville where 65.6 percent of students met or exceeded those standards and, well… crap.

So the answer is yes, but not enough. Stop raiding the schools’ TIF money, Rahm, and then we’ll talk.

Verdict: Yes.

Yes, but we were the humans.

I would like to take this moment to talk about a man we were scared we would lose this year: astronaut Buzz Aldrin, one of the few men alive who walked on the moon and who was medically evacuated from Antarctica at age 86 earlier this month. None of us will ever have as cool a dependent clause describe us.

But I would like to celebrate Dr. Aldrin by recognizing his greatest moment: that time he punched a moon conspiracy nutjob in the face for calling him a coward.

Take a few minutes to watch that on repeat. Sheer poetry.

Verdict: Buzz Aldrin is awesome. Also, that Putney guy gets a yes on his prediction thing.

True, they will see a lot of people who think they have discovered perpetual motion, enough that Lock Haven University has an entire online museum dedicated to them.

The laws of the universe forbid one of those things actually working, but all Putney claimed as he sat on that roof near midnight was that someone would think he discovered it.

Verdict: Yep.

“And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah 2:3-4

So I get the reference and the concept, but in terms of this blog post, yes on the cannonballs but if anyone has actually melted a bayonet into farm equipment, I couldn’t find it on eBay or Etsy.

I’m going to go ahead and give this a yes because we have put aside our cannons and bayonets. Not because peace has overtaken the earth but because we of Putney’s future also saw  the RDS-220 “Tsar Bomba” hydrogen bomb with a destructive force of 50 megatons (the explosive force of 50,000,000 tons of TNT) as far back as the 1960s and, today, a grinning, gleaming-orange game show host president-elect howling “Let it be an arms race” and oh god this hollowed cantaloupe will kill us all.

But yeah. Paperweights.

Verdict: Yes. Also be sure to come to the Jan. 18 fundraiser I’m co-organizing to raise funds for local nonprofits working in areas the incoming administration has targeted. It’ll be rad, and help some great groups fight off the game show goblin’s advances.

Final tally:

Yes: 7

No: 7

So it appears Mark Putney sitting on top of an office block roof in 1899 had a 50-50 chance of getting it right on his New Years Eve.

Let’s hope our own guesses 117 year later will be correct where we want them to be and dead wrong where we need them to be.

Happy New Year, Chicago. Let’s make it a good one.

Read my New Year 2016 story

And New Year 2015 (this one’s my favorite)

New Year 2014

New Year 2013

* If Ireland’s sending some U.N. number cruncher the amount of people who live and work around Cork and Iraq is sending the number of people who live specifically within Basra’s municipal boundaries, how do you compare those numbers? What’s the point of counting Minneapolis and St. Paul as two separate cities just because some people fall on one side of some weird vestigial border left over from Minnesota property law in the 1800s? How do you compare Japanese prefectures to Canadian urban service areas to American unincorporated townships to French Polynesian communes associées? It gets complicated.

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