Chicago’s labor reform movements
See Illinois (unpublished)
Unrestrained industrial capitalism wrought the wonder that was Chicago in its heyday, but profit-making took a fearful toll of its people. New ways of organizing work reduced even skilled workers to machines, or rather parts of machines. In times of chronic labor surplus, “the market” failed to provide decent housing, adequate wages, or humane working conditions.
The results were labor unrest, poverty, filth, and crime. All owed both to the industrialization of both the city and the economy, and of a political system that in every way adapted to rural realities and thus unable to adapt to the new conditions. The need for wholesale changes in Chicago’s political, economic, and social systems made Chicago—the part of Illinois where immigration and industrialization was most intense, and where their effects were most keenly felt—a center of movements meant to alter the rules by which society governed itself.
This brief history was compiled for my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. Much has happened since this summary was written, including the suburbanization of the poor and the return to the city center of the well-off, and the disparities of wealth and opportunity that dogged the city in the latter 1800s remain. The piece lacks a what-it-all-means ending, but I no longer am as eager to pretend I know what it all means as I was then, so I did not write one.
Chicago was the first modern industrial city in the U.S. In 1939, the Federal Writers Project’s guide to Illinois talked of how the factory system “invaded” Illinois in the 1870’s. Industrialization as experienced in Illinois was violent if only because of its speed; by 1890, astonishingly, the farm state of Illinois was third among the states in manufacturing.
The class conflict that emerged in the latter 1800s was not a Chicago phenomenon, but a universal phenomenon that happened first and most dramatically in the U.S. in Chicago—the time when, as James Gilbert phrased it in Perfect Cities, “the Victorian moral economy and polity gave way to the brusque assault of the modern world.” From roughly the Civil War until the Great Depression, the city’s politics and social life would be shaped by the attempt of the working class to get more of what they thought they had earned, and by the affluent to hold on to what they thought they were owed.
The nation and the world watched Chicago in those days as one might watch an erupting volcano, as the city underwent a wrenching realignment of the city economic, social, and political order. Economic depression, immigration, and industrial consolidation and the reactions of working people to them spawned leftist politics and unionism on one side and government repression on the other. If there was not quite anarchy, there was gross injustice (repeatedly) and eruptions of communal and official violence.
The struggle to better their situation put workers and their families and their champions against the capitalists in the courts, in the streets, in the factories, and in the polling places. all agreed on what the problems were—unbridled greed by the ownership class, coupled with callousness, even cruelty—but as no one quite agreed whether the best alternative was socialism, trade unionism, or progressive-style regulation of capitalism. Because of that, workers fought each other and the middle class nearly as much as they fought the owners.
Extreme conditions excited talk of extreme remedies. The depth of suffering—and suffering not too big a word for the near-starvation in the working hoods in the latter years of the 1800s. Depression laid off thousands from 1873 to 1878, from 1882 to 1886, and again from 1892 to 1896.Unemployment can only be guessed at, but inferences from various data suggest that at worst third to half of even skilled workers out, while the unskilled barely worked at all—this in a world without unemployment compensation, welfare, or food stamps.
In the mid-1800s, capitalists stumbled upon new ways to organize labor: making the workers part of an assembly line that required treating him like a machine. The shift of production from the artisan in shop to the worker in the factory was not merely a new economic order but a new social order. As veteran writer on labor Dave Moberg summarized it in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the revolution in work “provoked battles over the character and control of work that spilled over into broader political fights over democracy, citizenship, and the rights of workers.” The old arrangements—of labor to capital, of governed to governors—were strained, if not wholly undone. All Illinois cities were affected by the process, but none more so than Chicago—the “funnel” through which corn, wheat, and pork poured out to the rest of the nation and the world, and spit back farm machines, packed meat and a thousand other products. Chicago was not ready for what hit it, but no city could have been.
Industrialism’s rewards to the bosses were mind-boggling riches; the workers got degradation, danger, boredom, and economic vulnerability. They were left exploited and abused—and angry. In the 1880s and ‘90s, local labor unions fought to change contracts, socialists sought to change society, and anarchists sought to change (rather, to abolish) the economic system. Many landmark events in the history of labor in the industrial era occurred in Chicago—the railway strikes of 1877, the eight-hour-day movement of 1886 and the Pullman boycott of 1894, the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World, the massive strike by workers in the needle trades that led to the powerful Amalgamated Clothing Workers of Chicago. The list might also include too the painful protracted collapse of the industrial Chicago, with the loss of the tens of thousands of jobs and the concomitant erosion of the unions as a social and political force in both city and state.
These contest were epic and ugly. It was not the very poor, or the transient and socially marginalized bum that frightened Chicago, it was the working Chicagoan with ideas above his or her station. In the opinion of the owners, they were not fighting workers, they were fighting terrorists; at stake was not the wealth of the few but the safety of the majority. And like more recent wars of terrorism, used every means at disposal—used convicts to compete with free artisans at lower wages, recruited strikebreakers from outside the city, encouraged child labor and immigration to create wage-dampening surpluses of labor, hired goons to intimidate workers, blacklisted union sympathizers off the job and harassed them on it. this nearly century-long combat for once deserves the word that is usually applied to it by admirers—struggle.
Taking it to the streets: Labor and capital
The rise of industry in Chicago had been swift and brutal. “The Chicago system created almost every imaginable kind of goods,” notes Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic in 2002. “But the main thing it consumed was people.”
The standard work week in most industries in the early decades of the 20th century was 60 hours, but even after such Herculean labors many workers could afford to live only in housing that Illinoisans today would not house a pet in. “Wooden kennels, “sneered Lloyd Lewis, “a plague of wooden huts.” Houses crowded onto lots, rooms crowded into houses, tenants crowded into rooms. Some families kept guns by their beds—not against burglars but against rats. Tenants were cheated on coal, on rent, on food, on wages—thus was their tuition in capitalism.
Outside, conditions were not much better. Horse manure, privies under stairs in backyards, garbage left to rot in streets, offal dumped in turgid rivers—Bubbly Creek, a branch of the Chicago River that “ran” through stockyards district, earned its name because festering wastes generated gases that bubbled to the surface. The stench was terrific. The air was nearly as bad; coal smoke trains heated houses ran factory boilers, and greasy smoke that rain could not wash away; in the 1980s, visitors to the Loop were startled when cleaning revealed familiar landmark buildings they had always known as brown to be made of bright white limestone.
Observers agreed that a single woman could live in a city on no less than eight dollars per week, yet even the retailers who employed them conceded that tens of thousands of single women earned less than five dollars at a time when owners were taking home millions. Julius Rosenwald, a saint among philanthropists, sweated them as hard as anyone; he paid girls as young as fourteen wages that led to penury and malnutrition, if they didn’t drive some of them into part-time prostitution. Owners alleged that competition for jobs more or less obliged them to keep wages for shop girls low, lest their competitors take advantage, but at the turn of the century, real costs of living rose faster than wages in all but union jobs.
When work could only be done by hard-to-replace skilled craftsmen, such workers had clout with the owners. When work came to be done by interchangeable machines run by interchangeable workers, workers lost that clout. Only collectively could they compel the owners to provide better wages and work conditions. Employers on the other hand believed—and the courts usually agreed with them—that they had an absolute right to hire and fire at will and pay workers as little as the workers would tolerate and work them as long as they could stand. Competition was the only brake on exploitation; human labor was merely a raw ingredient in the industrial process, and that workers’ welfare was of no consequence to employer save to extent that it reduced efficiency.
Things were as they were because that was the ways things were. The owners justified their attitude variously by reference to God or Darwin or Adam Smith, but in any event saw their suzerainty as the inevitable outcome of a larger and inevitable forces order of which they were proprietors in every sense. Liberal Lake Forestans—the kind of people whose idea of reform is to oust the president of the garden club—resolved to treat workers well, but never for a moment considered that the question of how to treat their workers would not be theirs to answer. They gave handsomely to charitable institutions devoted (for example) to the victims of tuberculosis; what they would not consider was making substantive improvements in the city’s sanitation, housing, or working conditions, much of which its industrialists in particular either caused or had the power to cure.
Workers of Chicago, unite
Many workers accepted their fate under the factory system at first. Many members of Chicago's working class lived life as peasants in Europe and the American South; having just arrived from places where they had been accustomed to being treated like animals, they found that being treated like machine was not much worse. In time, however, many immigrants saw the factory bosses as corrupt kings of a sort familiar to them from their homelands in another guise.
Early unions often took the form of workers associations. They were organized along lines of skill; the roster of local unions in the 1870s included the wonderfully named Sons of Vulcan (iron-puddlers) and the shoemakers who banded together as the Knights of St. Crispin, after the third century saint who preached in the streets and made shoes by night.
Skilled workers still had some bargaining power in certain industries, were able to organize, and sustain strikes, the more as canny pols like Carter Harrison, who relied on labor votes, orders cops to keep hands off. Skilled workers were vain about their abilities and jealous of the prerogatives they enjoyed. Skilled workers in later decades also showed a preference for their own unions along the lines of the craft unions that made up the Chicago Trade and Labor Assembly (forerunner of the Chicago Federation of Labor). As the 20th century neared, craft unions came to dominate the building trades, janitors and maintenance men, and shipping.
Attempts to organize whole industries failed because class and ethnic divisions among the various workers than made up workforce were too hard to overcome, or rather too easy to exploit by bosses. A single factory, much less a single industry, might include workmen of a dozen trades or more, and getting them all to agree on united course of action against the owners was difficult. The railway “brotherhoods” — mutual benefit societies that morphed into unions—also refused to unite with other unions in cross-industry federations. Such parochialism helped killed the old Knights of Labors’ dream of a single workers union, and hampered unionization for decades.
The final hurrah of 19th century industrial unionism was Eugene V. Debs’ American Railway Union. The ARU in 1894 targeted George Pullman’s firm. When George Pullman slashed wages at his namesake railroad car plant during the production slowdown caused by the depression of 1893, he declined to reduce his workers' rents. After several members of a grievance committee were fired, their fellow workers walked out; Debs’ men refused to handle trains hauling Pullman-made cars, and the railroads owners backed Pullman by firing any employee who did so.
Carl Smith, a prominent historian of the event, has called the Pullman strike of 1894 “the most famous and far-reaching labor conflict in a period of severe economic depression and social unrest.” The nation’s rail system was practically shut down—this in an era when rail was the only way to move anything anywhere. Debs counseled peace; Pullman and the railroads hired thousands of strikebreakers, incited public opinion by sabotaging their own equipment and blaming strikers, and hired what Debs would later describe as “an army of detectives, thugs, and murderers . . . equipped with badge and bludgeon.”
The railroad companies compelled the intervention of the federal government by attaching mail cars to trains pulling Pullmans, which stopped the movement of mails. Washington intervened, action taking the form of court injunctions and four companies of infantry dispatched to Chicago by President Cleveland over the objections of Illinois’s governor, John Peter Altgeld. When troops began moving the trains, workers retaliated by destroying rails and rolling stock. Fights between strikers and troops and militia led to deaths and the effective end of the stoppage. So bitter was the feeling thus aroused that when George Pullman George Pullman died, three years after the strike, his remains were entombed in concrete and steel in Graceland Cemetery.
In the short run, the defeat was a blow to unionism, and no union would win a major victory in Chicago for another sixteen years. However, the Pullman strike laid the ground for future progress. As Smith notes, Pullman was chided by federal investigators for his refusal to arbitrate—heretofore it had always the workers who tended to be denounced as intransigent and unreasonable—and his high-handedness spurred the trend toward a stronger government regulatory hand in constraining the power of industry.
The workers had each other. The companies had the courts, the press, governors, and (most) mayors until the end of the 1800s. A few “progressive” or “enlightened” businessmen—such terms were not the ones used by their workers—opted to defuse the uprisings by giving the workers less reason to revolt. Many capitalists saw workers as unruly children, and it was perhaps inevitable that a few would discard their guide of disciplinarian for the role of wise and generous father. Such paternalism is sometimes misunderstood as humanitarian. In fact, it is the application of more sophisticated management notions, since the costs of better wages and working conditions are more than repaid to a company by lower turnover and higher output by workers.
Charity in the case of some industrialists began at the factory. “Welfare capitalism,” an early trial run of the welfare state in which companies volunteered such services as medical aid. The Pullman Co, for example, backed charities on the South Side near the plant such as Provident Hospital, the country’s first interracial hospital, which admitted black citizens (including Pullman’s porters and maids) on an equal basis with whites and cared for them with a staff that included black and white Chicagoans. Pullman Company executives also backed uplift organizations such as the Wabash Avenue Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Chicago Urban League, but only because both were dedicated to inculcating habits in their charges that made them more desirable employees.
Interestingly, the most extravagant experiment in this kind of enlightened business thinking was George Pullman’s model factory town. The town of Pullman was the railroad car maker’s remedy to the upsets of 1877. There workers would enjoy everything they might want—save, perhaps, freedom—although it was to be enjoyed of course on the boss’s terms.
Welfare capitalism in short aimed to improve capitalism, not enhance workers’ welfare. This was done for business reasons, to forestall workers uniting into unions to provide such essential services themselves. Such company aid came with conditions, and in any event was as unpredictable as each year’s profits.
Divide and conquer
Occupational snobbery was a minor obstacle to unionization compared to ethnic and racial antagonisms. Owners knew of and exploited workers’ race and ethnic antagonisms. Occupations tended to be staffed by race or ethnic group—partly because it made cooperation among workers of diverse backgrounds problematic, partly because of the owners' crude Darwinism. In any event the owners' exploited these antagonisms in every way possible. Solidarity—as union members, and later as Democrats—was possible in the 1930s only because so many workers were by then second-generation Americans on whom the ancient ethnic loyalties had a weaker grip.
One tried and true weapon against unions was the importation of workers from outside the city. Company agents harvested strikebreakers in the American South, for example, as if they were harvesting cotton. African Americans’ race left them at odds, of course, with the mostly European workers in the city (most unions excluded them) nor had they the long tutelage in unionism that workers received in Chicago. African American strikebreakers were used against white unions seven times between 1894 and 1921, in the packing houses and stockyards, the steel mills, and the rail yards. The tensions that fueled the open war against black Chicagoans in 1919 owed much to the collective ire that had smoldered in working class white districts because of this history of complicity in union-busting.
In the end it was not strikebreakers but industrialization that killed the craft unions. When factories were organized like artisans’ shops, workers’ skill was as crucial to enterprise as the bosses capital and management. The breaking down of manufacturing into simple steps that could be endlessly repeated by machines—the dumbing down of work—changed that. Over the next many years, the larger strategy of owners against the workers was to render the latter unnecessary—first by eliminating the need for skilled workers, later by eliminating the need for workers at all.
Companies organized against their common foe too, that being the workers and the politicians who sympathized with them. Their "unions" were the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, the Chicago Employers’ Association, the Newspaper Publishers’ Association, the Illinois Coal Operators, among many others. These associations provided aid to boycotted firms, blacklisted union organizers, and lobbied the General Assembly for new laws against unions. (More unions were broken on the floors on the legislature than in the streets.) The owners, acting collectively, also backed candidates running against labor sympathizers, set up rival company unions, hired “sluggers”—goons dignified as private security forces—to intimidate strikers and strikebreakers to take the strikers’ jobs.
Some firms tried to fight the unions by showing them an open hand rather than a fist. The United States Steel Corporation in 1902 initiated a profit-sharing plan whereby an employee could buy preferred company stock for a little less than market value. That was followed in the next few years by an innovative worker safety program, pensions, company-paid help with home-building and vocational training, and in-plant medical facilities. By preempting the benefits programs of the unions, U.S. Steel neatly undercut the appeal of union membership, with the result that the steelworkers stayed unorganized until the 1930s.
The struggle of the workers to get and the propertied to keep was long, bloody—and numbingly complicated. Unions were founded, died, renamed, entered into federation with others, then split up. We will here look only at one of the more significant of these stories, one that was unusual in that it resulted in victory of a fledgling union, but otherwise typical.
Workers in the men’s clothing industry in Chicago walked off their jobs in 1910 to begin what turned out to be an important strike. Workers in the needle trades were plagued by the evils of the sweatshop system. There had been a major strike in 1905 for example, against Montgomery Ward. A reduction in the piece rate in 1910 spurred a seamstress—Bessie Abramowitz—to lead sixteen of her coworkers out of the Hart, Schaffner & Marx Shop #5 on South Halsted Street in protest. (It might be noted that many of the key figures in Chicago labor history were women including Lucy Parsons, Bessie Abramowitz, and high school teacher and union activist Mary Herrick who was important in the organization during the Depression of the Chicago Teachers Union.)
Eventually some 45,000 workers joined them. In December, police killed a picketer; eventually seven persons died and 874 were arrested. It took another four years, but the strike resulted in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America under Abramovitz and Sidney Hillman, who were husband and wife. The union negotiated a contract whose provisions for 40-hour work week, and unemployment insurance were to become standard in labor-management relations; indeed, the union became a model for such organizations. The union opened a bank in Chicago in 1922; a related agency, invested in worker housing.
In one of those ironies that proves that time heals all wounds, or, alternatively, that History is nuts, the Chicago Tribune, for so long the strident voice of unbridled capitalism, honored Bessie Abramowitz and Sidney Hillman with a marker at 1922 S. Halsted Street commemorating their careers as labor activists.
Economics explained most of the union victories in the half-century or after the Civil War. However, workers’ political or economic gains usually lasted only until the next depression or the arrival of the next wave of immigrants eager to take their places on the line, after which the owners clawed back wages and benefits. Unions were indulged to an extent during the Civil War, when owners could afford it, but wages slid in real terms with slump in demand caused by the end of the civil war; unions entered a 40-year vale of tears until another war—World War I—caused the sun to shine on them again for a while. During World War I, factories ran at full capacity and their products sold at top prices. Stoppages really cost, and owners, feeling flush, could afford to (in effect) buy off workers to keep money flowing. examples. but as soon as normal resumed, workers lost that lever on owners. Writes Lizabeth Cohen in her 1990 book, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, “World War I, and then what workers managed to win during the war and its aftermath was mostly dissipated in the defeats of 1919–22.”
The Republic goes to war
Unionism regularized, indeed ritualized worker-owner relations, but did little to ease underlying antagonisms between capital and labor. Sixty years after the great upheaval of the Pullman strike in 1877, Chicago workers were again shot down by company-paid thugs and cops.
Iron- and steelworkers in the Chicago area had been organizing for mutual benefit since the 1870s. They were up against some of the most obdurate owners of any industry. Union workers had little leverage against the owners, partly because the latter could always draw upon a steady supply of immigrant labor. (The substantial Mexican community in Hegewich, for instance, descended from families imported in 1919 to break a strike.)
A revivified union movement made a massive attempt to organize the steel industry in 1919. A walkout of some 90,000 workers closed down the Chicago area mills, and state and federal troops were sent it to force workers back to the jobs. It was not until 1937 that local unions were finally recognized by the biggest area steel maker, U.S. Steel. However, "Little Steel"—the industry’s smaller, independent companies—refused to sign the contract, so a strike was called by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
As a show of support, hundreds of SWOC sympathizers from all around Chicago gathered on Memorial Day at Sam's Place, a tavern the SWOC used as its strike headquarters. A march staged two days before had seen 18 injured. After a round of speeches, the crowd began a march toward the Republic Steel mill. They were stopped midway by approximately 150 Chicago cops wielding clubs, tear gas, and guns. While demonstrators were arguing their right to proceed, police fired into the crowd and pursued the those fleeing. Ten demonstrators were killed and at least sixty marchers were hurt or wounded, some of them shot from behind, making of the Republic Steel Memorial Day massacre one of the most violent such incidents in U.S. labor history.
In an echo of 1886, police said that strikers had opened fire first, but the police present suffered not one bullet wound. (A congressional investigation later condemned the police for using excessive force.) In a foreshadowing of 1968, city and police officials denied charges of police brutality and blamed Communists and radicals for the violence.
The day became part of local lore. When journalist James fallows visited the South Side site nearly half a century later, steelworkers only in their 30s “made sure I saw the exact points where the shots were fired and the Republic Steel martyrs fell.”
In the 1930s, a national government put its power behind demands for union representation in the interests of recovery and of stifling social unrest. Only then did workers in basic industries win union recognition under the Congress of Industrial Organizations. By 1940, one in three workers in Chicago manufacturing would be a union member where ten years earlier hardly any had been.
Things changed in the 1950s. The Democratic Party came out of the war committed to using the powers of government to ensure economic growth. During the war years, wages had been regulated, and when workers across the nation struck to make up lost ground lost in the biggest strike wave ever, the Truman administration intervened on the side of employers. In 1947. congressional Democrats cooperated in the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which deprived workers of many of the benefits they had gained under the New Deal. These and kindred measures made harder for workers and their unions to strike, to set up closed shops, to influence employers’ hiring and firing, and to use their weight in federal elections on behalf of pro-labor candidates.
Chicago and nearby parts of Indiana in early 1970s remained home to the densest concentration of steel mills in the world. The United Steelworkers counted some 130,000 members in Chicagoland and northwest Indiana; in the far South Side, the biggest buildings were the local Catholic church and the United Steelworkers union hall. But in 1979 there began a dispiriting round of plant closings and production cutbacks. This was no cyclical downturn, no chill caught by an otherwise healthy industry; Big Steel was in its death throes. By then, many of the Calumet’s region's once-state of the art factories were outmoded, its labor costs crippling, its markets no longer growing.
In the 1970s, labor again became a buyer’s market, and as happened so often in past, companies took opportunity of a labor surplus to undo many gains. Union contracts provisions traded away in negotiations with companies that threatened to close factories if labor costs not reduced; result has been a ebb of union influence. But as happened before too, it was basic shifts in ways work was done that really doomed the unions—mainly, in this generation, the shift from factory to nonunion service jobs. Even at the peak of union membership, only about one in three Chicago workers were union members and today union membership is only a fraction even of that. The only good news was that strikes ended with lawyers rather than guns, but the workers lost just the same.
Occasionally a mayor would admit union men to City Hall in return for political support—Carter Harrison is a good example of a mayor who made workers part of government coalition—but they were exceptions. Most government officials at all levels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were more likely to intervene in strikes through courts and cops and troops, on side of owners, citing variously threats to public safety to orderly movement of the mails, but in fact protecting the sanctity of private property.
The way to keep government from controlling the worker, obviously, was to control the government. The rise of specifically class politics began in Chicago in the 1850s, when German workers began to arrive who were fleeing the consequences of a failed revolution of 1848 in their home country. Unionization was hard going over the next half century. Worker agitation followed economic depressions as predictably as floods after a rainstorm, but every subsequent economic recovery stilled agitation for change to the system.
The only social force capable of compelling mammoth corporations to tend to worker safety and fair wages was government. Socialism, for example, whould place the means of production into the hands of, or at least under the control of, the people's government.
One way to bring about this worker's paradise was to vote it into being. In the mid-1870s, a group of new and mostly German craft unionists formed the Workingmen's Party of Illinois. They organized street demonstrations for relief and jobs, and later turned their attention from pressuring government leaders to joining them. The Workingmen's Party became the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), a renaming that frankly announced its intentions but perhaps was not politic; socialism still bore the taint of the foreign and the dangerous, and the SLP was as terrifying to the middle and upper classes as it was inspiring to workers. In the city's working class wards it enjoyed a reputation as a protector of worker interests, and it drew enough support that it was sending representative to City Hall and Springfield by decade’s end.
The apogee of workers’ influence at the polls was the 1880s until the 1920s, when various workers or socialist parties fielded slates in city elections. According to Richard Schneirov, a historian of the period, the United Labor Party, the electoral arm of the Knights of Labor, won 31 percent of Chicago's mayoral vote in 1887, the highest percentage achieved by any labor party in the city's history. Indeed, in the 1880s it appeared as if socialist parties might become to the city’s emerging working class culture what the Republicans have long been to business.
It never happened. Socialists inside and outside the SLP were active and articulate participants in public discussions of the days in Chicago, being specially prominent in labor union and progressive causes, but they never became an electoral force outside a few working-class wards.
The workers parties were outvoted and eventually outmaneuvered by the mainstream Democrats. A job today was worth more to a man with kids to feed than a future Utopia, and the Democrats were able to offer workers patronage instead of promises.
The man who stole the working class for the Democrats was Carter Harrison I. Mayors heretofore had been lackeys of the owners but not Harrison. Schneirov notes that Harrison defended the working man’s saloon against the Prohibitionists and he not only named socialist and trade unionists as health inspectors but got passed ordinances authorizing factory and tenement inspection by the city. He appointed pro-labor police whose hands-off policies allowed workers, briefly, to prevail against some bosses (Schneirov notes that frustrated employers increasingly turned to private Pinkerton guards in place of the police.) “In sum," writes Schneirov, "Carter Harrison had temporarily reversed the class polarization of the 1870s by engineering a social compact between workingmen and the local political order at the expense of industrial employers.”
Not usually credited with being a social thinker, real estate developer Samuel Gross had his own program. Giving workers a stake in the government would not be half as effective in quelling worker unrest, he decided, than giving them a stake in the economy and in the city by making them members of the propertied class via mortgages they could can afford No one will burn down a town that has his own house in it.
Socialism enjoyed a brief resurgence in the polls in the years before World War I. A national Socialist Party of the United States was organized in 1901 in Chicago by Eugene Debs among others, cobbled together a party from the wreckage of the American Railway Union broken by the Pullman boycott and other organizations. Its program was to not only remake capitalism but, in the process, to ease the many social inequalities that it fostered.
By 1915, 44 Socialists held political offices in Illinois. (Chicago was not the only hotbed of leftist agitation in Illinois. Rockford was target of the Palmer raids, and the coal fields of central Illinois you couldn’t spit in any direction without hitting a socialist.) Most of them were in Chicago, predictably. In 1916 the Socialist candidate for state’s attorney was almost elected, losing only after a recount; in 1917, the Socialists drew nearly 40 percent of vote in that year’s municipal elections.
Socialism was a literary phenomenon as well as a political one in Chicago. Many a writer associated with the Chicago Renaissance, such as Sherwood Anderson and Margaret Anderson, professed themselves sympathetic with the workers’ movement. Carl Sandburg for a time was a paid worker for Eugene Debs’ and Victor Berger’s Social Democratic party.
Most of these writers sensibly kept their socialism out of their books. The late 1800s and early 1900s spawned innumerable socialist tracts by lesser writers, many of which took the form of novels. Chicago was a natural setting for suck works, it being the scene of the most protracted if not most bitter industrial disputes, where the exploitation by grasping capitalists was clear enough for even the left to see. Their titles—A Tramp in Society, The Other Side, The Iron Heel, By Bread Alone—suggest their themes. Their quality is suggested by the plot of the novel in which the hero is miraculously transported from 1892 to the Chicago of 1949, a utopian state in which poverty is non-existent and jails are unnecessary—less a work of imagination than of delirium.
An exception was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). The novel chronicles the story of the stolid Lithuanian Jurgis Rudkis and his family, who live and work and die in Packingtown. The book has been widely compared to those of Dickens and Zola as an example of social realism in the novel, indeed as that sort of politically intended novel known as socialist realism. Sinclair's book was originally commissioned as a serial by a popular socialist paper, which got its money’s worth; as Christopher Hitchens has put it, his novel is the most successful attempt ever made to fictionalize the central passages of Marx's Das Kapital. But while Sinclair intended for The Jungle to horrify people about working conditions, it was his depiction of the meat packing process that shocked the middle class. As the author famously remarked, he "aimed for the public's heart but by accident hit it in the stomach."
The turn of the twentieth century was the apogee of Socialist power. Attempts to build a national party for farmers and urban workers foundered because economic interests of farmers and urban workers often were at odds. Worse, socialism’s association with communist Russia and its own German roots proved damning to patriotic, indeed paranoid Americans during World War I. A government crackdown on dissidents labeled as subversives killed both the party and the socialist ideal as political forces in Chicago and Illinois.
That did not mean that workers ceased to be political force. In recent years, unions and the ethnic working class formed the backbone of the coalition that Anton Cermak turned into a Machine in 1931. It was the working class that was the core of the support of Cermaks eventual successor, Dick Daley. By then, much of the white working class saw their enemy not as the bosses but as African American, and Daley’s policies of tolerating de facto segregation in housing, schools and hiring catered to them. (The poor of all colors, then and before and since, had no champion.)
In recent decades, the Democratic machine might be said to have been a workers’ party. But catering to the unions—one of the machine’s crucial constituencies—and catering to workers is not quite the same thing. In 2007 the unions—long stalwarts in the successful electoral coalition assembled by Richard M. Daley—rebelled against their long-time ally after Daley refused to support a union-backed ordinance that would have mandated that big-box retailers doing business in the city pay a “living wage.” The unions picked a slate of aldermanic candidates to run against the mayor’s allies in the city council and backed them with a substantial campaign war chest.
Panic among the elites
The mainstream political parties were as adept at breaking workers’ political parties as the companies were at breaking unions. (Among other expedients, aldermen rigged elections in workers wards.) The failure of avowedly socialist parties to win more than token political power for workers had the predictable effect of discouraging those who were marginally committed to the cause and driving the real believers into more extreme measures. Many ordinary unionists became socialists, socialists became communists, communists became anarchists—the last two only by generous definition political movements.
Many of these converts to extreme opinion concluded that if the system couldn’t be reformed, then the option was to undo it. For instance, disenchanted members of the Socialist Labor Party in 1881 organized themselves as the International Working People's Association (IWPA), which was committed to direction action rather than electoral politics as the means to achieve their socialist revolution on behalf of the workers. Some of the more radical laborites disdained even this more energetic version of socialism. The new Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905 in Chicago, sneered at socialists as fuddy-duddies. The “wobblies” were avowedly revolutionary, and committed after 1908 to syndicalism, under which associations of workers (evolved from existing unions) owned and operated all means of production and controlled the government.
The rhetoric that inspired followers of such groups alarmed everyone else. The elites after mid-1800s had lost control of the city’s politics, contenting themselves to running its economy and its cultural life; now, under pressure from the rising worker revolt, it risked losing control of the economy as well. The fear among the propertied class of revolution—a real revolution, not a metaphorical one—was real, if exaggerated, the threat, while distant, being, briefly, real.
Ordinary street violence was enough to alarm ordinary Chicagoans. The city was paralyzed by a citywide general strike in 1877 called in sympathy for the nationwide railroad strike then underway. “Strikes” by unskilled laborers like the lumbershovers—ill-educated men and women, often drunk—were more like street fights than formal protests. The wider public drew little distinction between the factions of the movements, seeing in all of them as dangerous ruffians who shared the same broad ends.
The popular newspapers reported that mobs of thieves and cut-throats were abroad—as indeed they had been for years. Some roamed the city’s board rooms and banks. Others, armed thugs who harassed citizens attempting to gather peaceably, wore the uniforms of the Chicago police. The 1877 "Turner Hall Raid" in which cops raided a meeting of the German Furniture Workers, killing one and wounding others, was unusual only in that a judge later found the police guilty of preventing the workers from exercising their right to freedom of speech and assembly.
There were sporadic outbreaks of street fighting. Thirty workers were left dead and 200 wounded in clashes with police that summer. The events gave polite society a foretaste of the future they had long feared—open class warfare, with bands played the “Marseillaise” in the streets while roving bands of armed men (and women) shut down businesses and took over shop floors and river docks.
Police (including vigilantes deputized by City Hall) and eventually the state militia were called out to quell all-out fighting on the factory districts. Among the encounters during the “Great Upheaval” was the "Battle of the Viaduct" on July 26 when U.S. troops and police attacked about 5,000 workers at Halsted and 16th Street. Over the course of three days, thirty were killed and 200 wounded. It was nothing like a fair fight; not one Chicago policeman was so much as seriously wounded.
As so often happened, official overreaction to worker unrest helped create the very problem the ruling elites sought to quell. To protect themselves from the cops, working men formed military societies such as the Labor Guards, the Jaeger Verein, and the Bohemian Sharpshooters. Collectively, this ragtag workers’ army presented an unacceptable threat to public complacency, if not to public safety. In 1879 the Illinois General Assembly passed an Armed Workmen Law, requiring all military organizations other than the state militia to be licensed by the governor.
Mass arrests of protesters and their socialist leaders were authorized, and private militias were revived. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz caught the mood. “The nation within living memory had had one civil war, and the rich feared the outbreak of another,” she wrote in 1976. “The cause would again be against slavery, the slavery in which wage-earners were kept by the bosses. The rhetoric used to justify slavery and the wage system was remarkably similar to that used by the plantation owners to justify bondage of black Africans.“ The workers had noticed that too. Eugene Debs hoped to become, in his words, "the John Brown of the wage slaves."
The radicals’ expectations that they could pull down capitalism were ludicrous, in fact they managed only to pull down labor unionism and socialism as a mainstream political movement. Consider that most important single event in Chicago labor history—Haymarket. What began as a demonstration for more humane rules in the workplace ended up in public alarm over anarchy in the streets.
In 1886 it seemed for a while as if that uprising was underway. The agitation for an 8-hour day had been going on for years. In 1886 the Knights of Labor, then the most potent labor organization, had brought skilled and unskilled workers together in support of the eight-hour day in a strike that had lasted several months. Some 40,000 local workers had been attacked by police at McCormick Reaper Works, whose workers had been locked out and replaced by scabs. Two had died, and a rally to protest the killings was set for May 4 at the Haymarket Square in the heart of the working-class West Side.
Trouble was expected, but the crowd turned out to be small and the speeches temperate. The crowd drifting away when 178 cops showed up. Someone—it is not known whom to this day—threw a bomb. A melee followed in which from twelve to eighteen people were killed and dozens wounded, including fifty-nine police, although police conceded later that most had been hit by wild shots fired by brother officers. A conspiracy to throw the bomb was deduced, since the anarchists who were active in the strike had long used violent rhetoric.
The Haymarket incident excited an anxious Chicago to something like a panic. Rumors of revolution bounced around the dinner tables of the rich—here was a servant problem indeed! George Pullman and Marshall Field were among those who pressed Washington to establish a permanent military presence in Chicago. During the winter of 1873–74, fear of immigrant mobs led Chicago’s wealthy businessmen to establish and equip the First Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, which by 1890 would be housed in a new armory at 16th and South Michigan—comfortingly close to the Prairie Avenue mansion district. (It was not the first time that federal troops had been used to protect local property owners from dark-skinned rebels. Federal troops were first quartered around Chicago to protect settlers from the Native Americans on whose land the Euro-Americans were (until 1833) squatting.)
At the suggestion of Marshall Field, the Chamber of Commerce and the Union League bought a 800-acre plot of land in Highwood, some thirty miles north of Chicago, which they offered to the U.S. government in 1887 as a site for the army base eventually known as Fort Sheridan. The fort was linked to the city via a military road, Sheridan Avenue, which would allow troops to intervene swiftly if riots or demonstrations or, worse, insurrections broke out in the city. Fort Sheridan was never needed for its original purpose, of course, the mansions of the North Shore proving to be more in danger from the bad habits of their heirs than from anarchists. The facility was formally decommissioned in 1993. Much of the base land was sold to the adjacent towns of Highwood and Highland Park for redevelopment with new housing and public play spaces.
The elites also moved to put themselves out of harm’s way. The Near West Side was one of the city’s early posh districts, forerunner of the Gold Coast. Among the families that lived there were the John Glessners. Like many of their neighbors, the Glessners left the West Side after the Haymarket Riot of 1886 and headed for the newly fashionable Prairie Avenue along the south lakefront. There they built a house (still standing) whose resemblance to a fortress could not be more marked.
Indeed, many of the houses of the day resembled the fortified castles of yore. Edna Ferber, puts a common complaint about the houses of the day of her artistic circle improbably, in the mouth of a south suburban farm wife in her novel So Big: “We don’t need turrets and towers [in Chicago] any more than we need drawbridges and moats.” In fact, the elites must have found the resemblance comforting.
The anarchists induced the kind of panicky loathing stirred by Islamist terrorists since 9-11. Carl Sandburg, hardly a reactionary, grew up hearing stories about them that left him thinking of them as “slimy animals who prowl, sneak and kill in the dark." The press began Red-baiting, the government suspended civil liberties, the police hauled in for questioning anyone suspicious—trade union organizers, foreigners, those with inconvenient opinions. The Chicago Historical Society offers this balanced account:
Anyone with unpopular political ideas would be branded an anarchist, which was taken to mean a dangerously disaffected person who would seek to remedy his own baseless discontent by doing violence to public order and "American" values.
In a 2003 interview, Donald Miller, the noted historian of Chicago, said, “After Haymarket the city went crazy. This is a real red hunt, and it's the first American red hunt.” He added that the real aim of the crackdown was not the suppression of anarchists—the police had plenty of tools to do that—but to crush the labor movement by branding organizers as would-be terrorists. (Readers may draw parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement of the early 2020s as they wish.)
Haymarket had profound consequences for Chicago and the country. The event “unleashed an enormous wave of employer repression and employee fear,” writes Lizabeth Cohen. As for labor itself, economist and historian Ernest L. Bogard noted that some persevered in their hopes to push the nation to the left, but many unions were “eager to prove their own skirts free from the contaminating touch of anarchism.” The split meant that unions, as a movement, never quite united. Labor on the whole turned away from improving the country toward improving their contracts, focusing on bread-and-butter issues such as wages, hours, and working conditions. Unionism survived, in other words, but arguably at the cost of a needed debate about the social premises of capitalism.
More specifically, the IWPA was destroyed and the Knights of Labor neutered as a national force. The national campaign for the eight-hour day was set back years, and unionization was stalled. And the free-floating xenophobia unleashed by the bombing, notes the Chicago Historical Society, was a major force behind restrictions on immigration from the foreign lands from which such deviltry had been spawned. That decision would in time remake Chicago’s population, as factories cut off from supplies of European workers began recruiting them from Mexico and the American South.
The final, fatal blow to the radical left, like the Socialists—many of whom were German-born— was their opposition to U.S. entry to World War I. They opposed the war because they were pacifist, having become convinced that wars were made by industrialists and paid for by the blood of the poor and working class. The national emergency allowed the government to brand such people as traitors, and to justify as a matter of national security a clampdown on agitation for change to the nation’s economic system.
A. Mitchell Palmer was Woodrow Wilson’s wartime attorney general. Palmer was convinced that a Communist conspiracy threatened the nation. Pleading that the national security was at stake, Palmer aimed at anyone argued for change. Disloyalty was the smear, and the brush was legislation aimed at spies—the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918)—to suppress radicals and left-wing organizations of all causes. Speaking or writing against Wilson policy was construed as attempts to obstruct the war, and those who agreed with such criticism were branded as conspirators.
In 1919 and 1920 more than 16,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested in what became known as the Palmer Raids. In Chicago, a headline-hungry Cook County state’s attorney tried to out-Palmer Palmer. His agents raided the Communist party headquarters, the Communist Labor Hall, the IWW Hall, the German IWW, the North Side Syndicalist Club, the headquarters of the Russian Anarchists, and as many as 300 other meeting places, radical bookstores, and homes.
Chicago was a special target. For one thing, it was home to some 500,000 people of German descent—in the fevered imaginations of Washington a nest of real or at least potential traitors. The city also was a longtime center of what to the benighted Palmer looked like seditious thought (Chicago was the national headquarters of the U.S. Communist Party until 1927). In fact, many of the targets of the raids were perfectly patriotic if inconvenient immigrants, pacifists, and trade union militants, including members of the IWW. Hull House was investigated. Eugene Debs made a speech condemning the war and was sentenced to ten years in jail. Big Bill Haywood and one hundred members of the IWW were indicted. The headquarters of the Socialist Party was raided, too, its files ransacked and mailing privileges revoked.
In the opinion of the Chicago Federation of Labor’s newspaper, patriotism may have been Palmer’s official motivation, but his raids were in fact an employer-inspired retribution for the massive strikes that had paralyzed industry during 1919. Others saw the raids as politically inspired. One of the first victims was Chicago leaders of the Non-Partisan League, formed by agrarian socialists and which had backed one of Woodrow Wilson’s bitterest foes, U.S. Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin.
"Chicago will be ours!"
In a famous moment in The Jungle, Jurgis, the downtrodden working man/hero, is in a union hall listening to a workers’ party official announce returns in that day’s municipal elections. A speaker who seems to Jurgis "the very spirit of the revolution" exhorts the crowd to organize and build on the party's gains. With "outraged workingmen" on their side, says the orator, "Chicago will be ours!"
In the end however, Chicago never was theirs in the way it was, briefly, in places like Milwaukee and Rockford. The workers never got their Abraham Lincoln for their war against wage slavery. (Closest to him was Eugene Debs.) There was never to be a durable workers party of consequence in Chicago, and class struggle never found permanent political expression.
The city remained a hotbed of socialism yearning for a while. In only one neighborhood, Hyde Park, did leftist parties such as the Socialists and Communists from the 30s into the 40s show promise of becoming mainstream politic force, at least at the ward level. However, the disease of economic exploitation spawned antibodies in form of Progressivism, which is most ways reached its apogee in the 1930s in the guise of modern social liberalism. Good for Americas, but bad for the workers movement.
Perversely, many would-be revolutionaries who wanted to change America ended up being changed by America. Jones & holli argue that Jewish socialism, “once a heady and feisty idea in the ghetto,” was rendered unnecessary by Jews’ worldly success. “Jews created their own worldly utopias,” they wrote in their introduction to Ethnic Chicago, “not through Karl Marx, but through education, occupation, and high income.”
It would not be until the 1960s that Chicago thrilled again to the sight of anarchists at large in its streets. The spiritual descendants of the anarchists were the Weathermen. Bill Ayers, son of former Commonwealth Edison Chairman and Bernadine Dohrn were founding members of the Weathermen in 1969. That fall, they were among the leaders of the Days of Rage rampage through Chicago's Loop. Dohrn and Ayers went underground for more than ten years, during which they planned or carried out bombings at locations that included the U.S. Capitol, New York police headquarters and the Pentagon. No one was killed. The revolution that the Weathermen hoped to excite was no more likely in 1969 that it had been in 1889. The working class is less concerned with creating a new world than holding on to their old jobs.
Indignation, alarm, indifference, ignorance
The great industries are mostly gone, and the working man—and now the working woman—toil not in factories but in kitchens and stockrooms, in effect a new servant class. Leftist politics is an artifact of university campuses, where it survives as a subject and as an affectation. Unions thrive mainly in the congenial environment of the public sector. The old blue-collar worker is today a conservative member of the petit bourgeoisie. Chicago, once so terrified of its restless laborers, now regards them nostalgically as it does all else about its Golden Age between the 1860s and the 1960s.
The public’s attitude toward radical worker movements has followed the same—indignation, alarm, indifference, finally ignorance—that describes the evolution of public attitudes about most controversial historical events. It is a measure of the labor history that hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans—including many a descendant of working people—can tell you the year when the Cubs were last in a World Series but do not recall, if they have even heard of, the dates of some of the seminal events in the rather more significant contests for control between labor and capital.
In a way that is because labor ultimately won. Once-radical ideas such as the 8-hour day came to seem as normal as sweat in August. Labor unions, in general, not only creased to be perceived as a threat to public order but have become among the staunchest backers of law and order, their members having risen to the status of middle class. No politician shrinks from honoring them these days; when the City of Chicago noted the centennial of Haymarket in 1986, the ceremonies were billed as a "celebration of the history and culture of working people" as if the issues of the 1870s were no longer relevant in the post-industrial economy.
The progressive response
There was a strong disposition in the progressive era to use government power to correct capitalism’s mistakes, to constrain if not correct the market's impact on families and workers. Mainstream politicians were less keen to intervene, but even those unconvinced by the justice of workers’ demands were impressed by the sheer size of workers’ vote, which made their demands unignorable. Lawmakers reconciled policy to political necessity in typical fashion, placating workers and their allies by passing friendly new laws that their opponents made certain were underfunded or ill-enforced.
Typical was the law passed by the Illinois General Assembly making eight hours a legal day's work. The statute took effect in 1867, but it was at best a symbolic victory for labor. The new law allowed employers so many exemptions and exceptions so that hardly anyone worked only an eight-hour day. Having agitated successfully to get such a law passed, workers in Chicago later that year agitated unsuccessfully to get employers to honor it.
Legislators were swayable by votes. Illinois judges proved more obdurate. Nearly a century of legal precedent had enshrined property and laissez-faire as the law of the land. A series of anti-labor state laws—banning boycotts, for example, and declaring union-organizing a conspiracy—were upheld by state courts. Laws that were friendly to labor, such as those barring employers from barring union organizing, exempting unions from the state anti-trust law, making picketing legal, were thrown out. An act that limited sweatshop regulations, passed in 1893, was repeatedly challenged by the forerunners of today’s Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, and eventually the Illinois Supreme Court found it unconstitutional. In 1895 the state high court also voided the eight-hour-day provisions of an 1893 law protecting women because it constrained the terms on which a woman might sell her labor; the fact that such terms were always set by employers, and always to the employers’ advantage, carried no weight with the justices.
For a time, progressivism flowered even in the thin soil of the Illinois executive mansion. Gov. Richard Yates was no progressive, but he went along with a legislature that was, and signed in 1903 new laws that restricted child labor (to a mere 48 hours a week) and allowed municipalities to own and run street railways. Governors Deneen, Dunne, and Lowden—all Chicago men, who governed the state from 1904 until 1920—were progressive true-believers. In 1908, for instance, the Illinois Federation of Labor—hardly a bedrock of the state GOP—endorsed Republican Deneen, thanks to the impressive labor legislation he helped pass on the subjects of convict labor, mine safety, and protection of workers. A Workmen’s Compensation Act was passed in 1913, and workers issues were elevated to the cabinet level with the establishment in 1917 of the Illinois Department of Labor.
Putting the public into public transit
The more radical thinkers among progressives sought not to regulate capitalism but to replace it with a sort of Socialism Lite. The provision of utilities such as drinking water, electricity, sewage disposal, and public transport which had been the province of private business were to be recast as public businesses, to be run by and for the people via municipal socialism.
Through the 19th century and well into the 20th, the City of Chicago regulated its transit companies the way a fire department may be said to regulate a five-alarm fire. Transit companies had to pay to maintain the streets as conditions of franchises and pay taxes (in the form of usurious tax on profits) and the costs of bribes (in the form either of cash for aldermen or patronage jobs for their supporters) needed to obtain those franchises.
In addition to these added costs, the so-called traction companies had to fend off competition from phony traction companies with franchises granted to politically connected operators. These were in effect shakedown schemes, as most of these paper companies were never intended to carry passengers, only to force the companies that did carry them to buy out the pretenders; one historian found that 126 street-railway companies had been incorporated in Chicago between 1860 and 1895.
If there were too many phony streetcar companies, there were too many real ones too. At one time the city counted sixteen traction companies with rights to its streets. They cannibalized each other’s markets in parts of town where they competed, and the smaller ones were so small that operating efficiencies were impossible.
Competition between two streetcar firms with tracks running down the same streets was beneficial to riders, at least for a time, as competitors kept fares low to gain market share. But to make ends meet, traction companies ignored maintenance and put off investing in up-to-date equipment. Poor service—dirty unheated cars, unmet schedules— was a chronic complaint. And for fear of losing fares paid by riders who had to transfer from one line to another on crosstown strips, the companies refused to link their systemsr. Pressure built for the city to enlarge its traditional regulatory brief beyond granting franchises and setting uneconomical (if popular) ceilings on fares.
What the market made difficult, politics made nearly impossible. Bribes necessary to secure franchises added to the cost of doing business. The State of Illinois also shared the blame. The General Assembly made several grave errors in drawing up the rules by which transit companies could operate in Chicago—for instance, by dividing the city in two parts for franchise-awarding purposes, which made traveling across town on one line impossible.
The Simon Legree of Chicago’s public transit of that day was Charles Yerkes, who then owned the streetcar companies that served the North and West sides. Yerkes was not just greedy, he was brazenly, arrogantly, avowedly greedy. Yerkes made even the aldermen of the day look like a bunch of Baptists on retreat. He had a taste for monopoly and he resorted not only to bribery but blackmail to win votes on bills favorable to his interests (and usually against those of the riding public). His financial tricks left the sharpest CPA cross-eyed. Yerkes’ financial games meant that in 1899, the streetcar system owed some $40 million more than it worth—its debts being sufficient to build the whole system from scratch. (Chicago Union Traction, the former Yerkes system, would go bankrupt into in 1903.)
Yerkes was defeated in his attempt to bully the legislature into permitting existing franchises to be extended to 50 years. In the hope that aldermen might prove more pliable, he pushed for and got a bill that gave the city a choice of 20- or 50-year franchises. Neither was a bargain to the city. Since the threat of franchise cancellation was the only real weapon that the city had against owners, even a 20-year franchise in effect would leave Yerkes unrestrained to raise fares or cut service.
In 1897, Yerkes supposedly handed out more than a million dollars in bribes—a tenth of that would have been enough—to win from City Hall the more lucrative 50-year franchises for his streetcar lines. Public outrage followed, and Mayor Carter H. Harrison II vetoed the measure. The threat of an override bought by Yerkes loomed. A mob formed outside City Hall to make their views known to the aldermen. As Harold Ickes would recall it, “a group of citizens from the then 33d Ward, one of whose aldermen was wobbly, occupied conspicuous seats in the front row of the gallery from which they dangled a rope that ended in a significant slip noose.”
His attempt to win fifty-year franchises proved to be the Pearl Harbor of traction reform in the city, in that it mobilized public opinion across the spectrum against Yerkes. Yerkes could no longer do business in Chicago on terms he regarded as favorable, so he sold out and moved back to England, and when the old man ran off to London he took a lot of energy out of the reformers’ cause.
Private enterprise having failed to get Chicagoans where they needed to go quickly and affordably, the solution seemed clear enough: cities had to get into utility business to provide the public what had so quickly become an essential public service. A transit system run for the people and not for the boodlers and bribers seemed the answer to reformers like Mayor William Emmett Dever, who insisted that "public property [the streets] should be utilized and operated by the public" without "special privileges" to any "private person." The system was would be run for the benefit of the rider, who would be the owners as well. Money that be spent on dividends payments to shareholders would be passed on to citizen-owners in the form of lower rates.
Municipal ownership dominated local politics for years in the 1900s. It was “the defining issue of its time and place,” in the words of Richard Allen Morton. Making the dream of municipal ownership real inspired people to get into politics or, in the case of former governor John Altgeld, to get back into politics; he made an independent (and unsuccessful) bid for the mayor's office in 1900 on a pro-public ownership platform. Chicago even had a short-lived public ownership party. “Traction reform” was to be the issue that elected Edward Dunne mayor, in 1904. Dunne was all for municipal ownership of the streetcar systems; his failure to deliver such a system was a factor in his defeat four years later.
The city was split. Predictably, the prospect of a city-owned-and-run transit system enraged conservatives; how could people trust City Hall to run a system that it had failed to even regulate? More damaging to the prospects for reform was the fact that traction reform also polarized the city's and state's developing progressive movement. Opposition was often principled, and responsible people found it easy to disagree about where the best interests of the city and public lie, and how to achieve them.
The issue occasioned a rare, real debate among Chicagoans about what was the city’s duty to citizens regarding the provision of transit services, and what was the extent of their powers under successive state constitutions. After all, the provision of clean water and sewage disposal—regarded as the most essential municipal services today, along with police and fire protection—were not accepted as public responsibilities until the mid-1800s.
In both 1902 and 1904, the voters in advisory referenda overwhelmingly voted their endorsement of a takeover plan. The public might have liked it but courts didn’t. A franchise of Chicago City Railway, the city's sole non-Yerkes system, was thought to have expired but was ruled valid by a federal court, which promised to make any public takeover vexingly complicated and effectively stymied it.
Untying the legal knots of franchises was one problem. Financing was another. Paying for streetcars out of taxes politically impossible; money to build and improve system was to be obtained by issuing bonds against future fare revenues. The voters as usual were eager for improved service but not quite eager enough to agree to finance it. State law required a two-thirds majority to approve such bonds, which referenda on the issues failed to win when they were put before voters in 1906.
Reformers tried again in 1907 with a plan to give the city a street transit system that was privately owned and operated, partly financed by the public, and that offered provisions for improved public oversight to ensure service improvements. The necessary ordinances—known variously as the “traction ordinances” and the Settlement Ordinances—was approved by the City Council. Under the plan, the Chicago City Railway Company and Chicago Railways would be merged in 1913, and under that arrangement Chicago had the next few decades what many regarded as the finest streetcar system in the country.
However, the continuing growth of the city put the system under constant strain. A sensible improvement was proposed in 1918 that would have put the streetcars off the impossibly crowded streets and into tunnels and consolidated all the companies—streetcar and elevated railway firms both—into one system. The public thumped it at the polls, either out of miserliness or conviction that their money would end up in somebody’s pockets—a suspicion never wholly without cause in Chicago.
A final push for outright public ownership came up again in 1924 when Dunne's old council floor leader, William Dever, became mayor and submitted his own plan for a takeover of the private traction companies; that too was rejected by voters.
The system of public oversight had contained a fatal flaw: what the public demanded by ways of fares and routes proved unsustainable financially. Lack of money for new equipment and route expansion left Chicago’s streetcars unable to compete with the private automobile, which was replacing them as the kings of the streets. By the end of the Great Depression, the streetcar lines were bankrupt, and sorting out who got what from what was left of the aging system took years, during which the crucial decisions about the future of public transit in Chicago were being made by judges rather than engineers.
In 1945 a settlement was finally reached that all parties agreed to in the form of the Metropolitan Transit Authority Act. The deal stiffed the stockholders of the companies, gave the newly formed CTA badly need new equipment (3,560 streetcars and 1623 el cars alone), and ultimately the power to take on more than $100 million in bonded indebtedness. “In the end,” wrote David Young in his book, Chicago Transit, “the cash cow the city had bought for a bargain price turned out to be a sick horse.”
Helping the poor
Through most of the 19th century, poverty was regarded as a private calamity that required private solutions. The terrors of old age, joblessness, disability, desertion, or death of the family were faced alone or with family—either one’s blood family or the extended family of the parish or the ethnic group. Those private charities that did intervene in such cases—the St. Vincent de Paul Society and United Hebrew Charities are two of many—served only a specific religious group. Ethnic groups helped their own through mutual benefit societies that provided what amounted to insurance for burial.
Public provision for the needy and dependent of all sorts not covered by such institutions was scant, and took the form of state government-built asylums for the disabled and the mentally ill and orphanages for dependent and delinquent children, and the dreaded county poorhouses for the old, the ill, and the hopelessly poor.
Business downturns touched off epidemics of poverty that swept like typhoid through the poor districts. Families that lived on the financial edge even when work was plentiful were pushed over it. The paltry public institutions were overwhelmed in such times. So numerous (and dangerous) were the throngs of idled men that the City of Chicago stored them, in effect, in temporary boardinghouses. The men were allowed to work off what they were given; the women had to rely on gifts of coal and food to keep going. Malnutrition and episodic under-nourishment were as well-known as one’s neighbors in many parts of the city.
The free-market certainties of their day—Darwin by way of Adam Smith—inoculated the members of the ownership class against their role in creating such a large dependent population. Without qualm they turned paid thugs on strikers, or threw men out of work when that meant hungry children would not get enough to eat or subverted the democratic political process in order to deny workers a say in public matters. However, many of the same men were generous givers to private charities that sought to ease the burdens of Chicago’s poor by gifts of food or coal.
In our cynical age, many define “philanthropist” as a rich man with a guilty conscience. This mistakes the men, and the age. Their benevolence was unthreatened by hypocrisy. Charity for them owed much to religious ideas about being responsible for one’s unfortunate neighbors—even if they had been most unfortunate in their choice of employer. The poor were poor because they were prey to sloth and vice or because (in the many cases of the unwed mothers, orphans and abandoned children or the aged) because they were dependent on men who were prey to sloth and vice.
The rich were convinced that the remedies for such ills were some blend of hard work, fresh air, and religion. Exposure to hard work, fresh air, and religion had not conspicuously civilized Illinois’s farm districts, of course, where life offered. if anything, a little too much of each, but farm life had figured in the youths of most of the elites. They were thus convinced of the efficacy—even if most of them had also fled the city to escape such lives.
Among more than a few of Chicagoland’s well-to-do, poverty was seen as resulting from a failure of character rather than mere misfortune. Charity carried the risk of perpetuating poverty rather than relieving it. Aid that once might have been offered to relieve the suffering of the poor began to be offered to improve their prospects. Assistance to the “worthy poor” was the aim, with those who did the giving deciding who was worthy. (The test of worthiness usually was no booze and no inconvenient political opinions.)
The Great Fire of 1871 bright the issue of poor relief into sharp focus. The city’s then-mayor was a former manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, and like so many of his social class the prospect of putting relief resources into the hands of aldermen who were beholden to the city’s unruly immigrants was abhorrent. He therefore turned over almost the entire relief effort to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, the city’s largest charity, founded in 1857 by the city’s Protestant commercial elite to insure that their money, which kept their wives in idleness, did not do similar harm to the poor.
A generation later, those attitudes had begun to look not only cruel but—a graver sin in the eyes of the many businessmen whose money funded many charities—ineffectual. An improved version of the old relief society, the Bureau of Charities, was set up in 1894, during a depression that would have tested any city’s ability to provide for its social victims. The Bureau was better administered, more humane, more scientific in the assessment of need—meaning that their inquiries focused less on the character of the needy and more on their circumstances. Case workers offered a wider array of services that met the needs of the working poor in particular, from day nurseries and kindergartens to an emergency loan fund.
More enlightened businesspeople by then had come understand poverty as lack of opportunity rather than lack of character or ambition. A more useful cure for poverty therefore was to teach the poor useful skills—skills, that is, useful to the upper classes who would employ them. (A latter-day version of the approach is economic development programs targeting the poor by turning poor people into entrepreneurs, so they might fend for themselves.) Julius Rosenwald, a mammoth giver, was a staunch Republican and an equally staunch adherent of the laissez-faire business philosophy for which the party stood.
Thus the recurrent depressions that ravaged the working class districts brought not wage reform but endowments of new industrial schools. Thus too the philanthropic backing—generous, sincere, and almost wholly irrelevant to the real needs of the poor—for reforms lite such as YMCAs or settlement houses that taught uplift.
As the 1800s wore on, the new urban peasant class created by industrialization grew menacing both in its size and its social effects, from disease to crime. As the 20th century neared, private charity began to be overwhelmed. The poor had ceased be a prod to individual conscience and became a social problem. Progressive social thinkers had come to see that poverty in the new systems of work organization pioneered in industrial Chicago was endemic, less a personal character failure of the poor or evidence of inadequate charitable aid than an inevitable byproduct of low-wage industrialism. The socialists had hoped to eliminate the problem of the poor by eliminating poverty. The progressives aimed for something scarcely less ambitious, which was to invent a new system of relief that was adequate to the needs of a new kind of industrial city.
Mothers know best
Especially difficult was the problem of how to ease poverty’s ill effects among those populations who were unable to help themselves—children, dependent women, the very old, or the disabled. No part of Illinois was more rapidly or more thoroughly industrialized than Chicagoland in this era, and in no city were the effects of industrialization in women and children more dire. All men had the vote and a few of them had unions to look out for them; women and children had neither truly defenseless against the new industrial city.
Much of the progressive women’s agenda from the 1880s through 1900s focused not only on children of the poor but the single women who worked in –and were exploited by—factories, department stores, or sweatshops, and abandoned wives. As for children, their playgrounds were the streets, which they roamed largely unsupervised by parents who were working or exhausted or too drunk to look after them. In simpler days, the latter were or at least were seen to have been the victims of unfortunate choice of parents, now they were seen to be victims of larger social forces that condemned them to crowded and unhealthy tenements.
Child welfare of necessity included much attention to mothers too. Their needs formed the basis of a new “maternalist” politics. Its broad aim was to make it possible for mothers to raise safe and healthy children even if a city that was unwelcoming to them. The means to this end included mothers’ pensions, which paid mothers to stay at home to nurture children (a precursor to modern aid to dependent children), juvenile courts, safer milk, restrictions on child labor, new and better parks and playgrounds, the establishment of industrial schools for dependent boys, and compulsory education. One reform led to others. To remove children from the workplace, Chicago had to build new schools they could go to instead, and to keep them there required compulsory education laws and bans on child labor.
What was sometimes called, without much exaggeration, the "child-saving" movement required a new relationship between family and the state. This new relation was as radical as the new relations between workers and capital being demanded by left-wing activists. Compulsory education, for example, posited that the state had a right to intervene in the lives of families in furtherance of society's collective interest in an educated populace, a right that was paramount over the common law right of the father to control the education of his children.
The state was urged to act as mother as well as father, most notably by a generation of mostly female activists who figured so prominently in Chicago social reform from roughly the 1880s until World War I. As innovators or advocates, these women drew the plans for an enlarged public role in public health, from innovating in health care from well-baby clinics to tuberculosis sanitariums to formal physical education in schools, from building playgrounds and recreation centers in the parks to summer sojourns in the fresh air of the countryside.
Also, mothers always been responsible for the education of the young. (Illinois’s male legislators dared risk granting women the right to vote in school board elections, because education was assumed to be the one realm of civic life that they knew something about.) It was not much of a jump therefore for women to involve themselves in all phases of education at the civic level. Many of the programs now deemed essential in the schools were either invented by or adopted at the insistence of female reformers. Kindergartens, home economics classes, school lunch programs, special education for handicapped children, and school physicians and counselors are a few of many innovations in the field.
Historian Joan Gittens notes that Illinois has not only supplied some of the most vigilant crusaders for children's issues in the U.S. but has itself been responsible for important innovations in child welfare. The reason may be that Illinois has needed both crusaders and innovations so badly. When the State of Illinois adopted its landmark Juvenile Court legislation in 1899, for example, it was because Illinois then had no other agencies adequate to the growing problem of delinquency. Its backwardness obliged it to be innovative by providing alternatives to incarceration in adult jails for minors who commit crimes. The court's founders designed a hybrid institution that was part law court and part welfare agency, an enlightened alternative to the jails, poorhouses, and asylums in which troubled kids usually ended up. The court was the first of its kind on the planet, and was widely imitated.
The Cook County Juvenile Court opened in 1899. Appropriately enough, the new court was located across the street from Hull House, since Hull House activists such as Julia Lathrop had been instrumental in its founding, along with Lucy Flower of the Chicago Woman's Club and Timothy D. Hurley of the Catholic Visitation and Aid Society, and members of the Chicago Bar Association.
The Juvenile Court was not an extension of the criminal court but the antithesis of it; it was, as cofounder Lucy Flowers used to call it, a “parental court”. Under the principle of parens patriae, the state as the judge acted as wise father in determining what every child needed. The new court functioned as what is now known as an uptake center, and determined the appropriate treatment for dependent, neglected, and delinquent children younger than sixteen. That treatment might include probation at home or in a foster home or placement in a training school or reformatory. The end sought by such means was the rehabilitation of the child, both for her own sake and for the protection of the society of which she was, imperfectly, a part. (The court of that era also opened a new Court of Domestic Relations to hear cases involving abandonment and nonsupport of children.)
The juvenile court was hamstrung from contention and controversy from the start. It was accused to breaking up families—as indeed it often had to do, when those families posed threats to the children who lived in them, and it endured court challenges on constitutional grounds. Many of the private institutions that cared for dependent and neglected children and organizations had strong religious or ethnic biases—indeed, they were founded as agents of religious or ethnic separation—and they limited the choices available to the court. For example, only five white institutions would accept African American children, writes Gittens, and then generally only if they were segregated on some level from the white children.
As a public body, the juvenile court displayed the whole smorgasbord of ills that affected government institutions in Illinois in the first half of the 20th century. Staff quality was diluted by patronage hires. It was never properly funded; it was starved for clerical support staff its overworked probation officers needed, and the county never provided the orphanages, and other institutions needed to care for the unfortunate children who trudged through its system. At the start of the 20th century, the treatment of neglected and dependent children promised much; by its end, juveniles in Illinois, especially young offenders, were increasingly treated like, and with, adults.
Nor were the founding reformers without fault. They made many of the errors common to well-meaning people. They expected ordinary civil servants to be as dedicated and hard-working as they were. (Few were.) The sheer numbers of cases virtually ensured that the court, which was designed to be flexible in the faces of children’s varied needs, gradually became an unresponsive bureaucracy. A noble idea thus was gradually rendered ineffective, even obnoxious in practice. Gradually it was accepted that a new State of Illinois agency was needed to deal with dependent and neglected children; after the usual delays and missteps, a new state Department of Public Welfare was set up in 1917.
An old revolution realized
Chicago's Loop for decades was ringed by the kinds of neighborhoods in which nice Chicagoans dreaded finding themselves late at night. Here poverty became a place. In the 1880s and 1890s, transients, mostly single males, lived in cheap rooms above the tawdry amusement places and eateries in the South Loop from Van Buren to 12th Street. Over in the West Loop, such men gathered around Canal and West Madison Street. By some reckoning, that part of Chicago had the country’s greatest concentration of bums and down-and-outers, men who were marginal in every way. Its inhabitants were a market for bad booze, cheap women, and the seamier sorts of entertainments, and the neighborhood catered to them all. This rich vein of humanity was mined by tenement landlords, loan sharks, fleabag hotels operators, pawn shops operators, and, in time, novelists.
Such men also were a rich source of essential day labor, and thus were tolerated for the same reasons that smelly rivers and dirty air was tolerated, as an unavoidable aspect of a thriving industrial economy. Skid Row had its own complex sociology, its own status hierarchy—hobos, tramps, bums, beggars, scavenger in more or less descending order of respectability—and thus its own snobs. But changes in the ways that work was done doomed that culture. Factories were gradually moved away from the congested downtown and everywhere moving things and digging things came to be done by machines run by skilled operators rather than grunt labor. Such changes rendered the downtown day laborer, and ultimately all day laborers, redundant. They survived for a while on relief and disability checks from the government and from petty crime, but eventually the city urban-renewal-ed Skid Row out of existence.
The lower classes of all types were never invisible in Chicago, they were merely ignored. “During Lyric performances I have sometimes thought of the desolation of the West Side, just beyond the river,” wrote Saul Bellow in 1979. “If the walls of the Opera House were suddenly to become transparent, the audience might be able to make out West Madison Street and the County Hospital just behind Tosca or Figaro. As your car turns off the Expressway eastwards towards the Loop you may occasionally see one of the derelicts who take shelter under the highway structure. A moment-later you pass the arcades of the Lyric.”
The threat that poverty posed to the social order in Chicago was magnified by the poor’s growing sense of social grievance. The elites had accustomed themselves to the notion that the poor would always with us; the new reality, in which the poor seemed always against them, was harder to accept. Easing the weight of poverty became for the haves less a matter of saving the poor as of saving themselves.
The social failure that attended the success of Chicago’s industrial economy spurred the first wave of progressive social reforms at the turn of the 20th century. The impending failure of that economy during the Great Depression a generation later spurred a second. when the whole nation found itself facing the conditions once faced by Chicago’s working poor. (During the winter of 1932–33, it was thought as many as two of every five adults in the city was without work.) The state and federal governments proved the only entities who could command the means to cope with needs of such scope.
The Depression did not spark a new revolution in social services. Rather, the old one was finally realized. At the federal level, FDR’s New Deal was in many ways merely the completion of the progressive social agenda (as LBJ’s Great Society would be the culmination, 30 years later, of the New Deal). The old mother’s pensions became the Social Security system, for example, and factory inspection and safety laws were enshrined in federal law. In Springfield, the legislature under the Henry Horner administration responded to the crisis by enacting meaningful versions of progressive-era laws that had been first proposed 20 years earlier and not passed, or had been passed and subsequently ignored or administered only fitfully; among them were old age pensions, wage-and-hours laws, workers compensation, and regulation of public utilities.
Indeed, the rest of the 20th century saw Illinois fight old fights over and over as it tried to cope with its neediest populations. the original Progressive-era child welfare programs did not fail to work but never got a chance to work. (Or perhaps it would be more accurate to state that child welfare failed in Illinois, meaning the solution Chicago area reformers had proposed were appropriate to many a state but not to this one.) In any event, not only the institutions that progressive reformers set up, but their underlying ideas have become discredited. A new generation of historians and anthropologists and social workers have separately taken issue with the premises, not just the performance of the progressive child welfare movement in Chicagoland. “In the reforming 1960s and 1970s, a new breed of Illinois reformers, in concert with like-thinking comrades across the nation, challenged the institutions and assumptions of the progressive Era, charging that they were interventionist at the expense of basic justice and civil liberties,” explains Joan Gittens. “By the second half of the twentieth century, reformers had lost faith in the Progressive commitment to intervention and had come to see the state not as a benevolent parent but as a juggernaut, as likely to destroy as to help children in need.”
As with children, so too with dependent adults. The post-1980 dismantling of the Roosevelt welfare state saw a return in some ways to the pre-Depression days when aid was left to private charity and church and ethnic organizations—now known inelegantly as the nonprofit sector—to which state and local government increasingly turned to administer publicly funded social services.
Poverty in the progressive era was seen, somewhat fuzzily, as an immigrant problem. For decades it was assumed that the African American would follow their European neighbors up and out of, if not the ghetto, at least out of poverty. Unhappily for all, the arrival of the African American in the Great Migration coincided with the beginning of the collapse of the industrial economy of Chicagoland. Jobs for the untrained disappeared with the stockyards and the steel mills; black workers, long the last hired and first hired, ceased to be hired at all.
The result was that poverty in Chicago, long a working-class phenomenon, became increasingly an African American problem. Thirty years ago the average black Chicagoan earned two-thirds of what his white counterpart earned; in recent years he earned only half. Nine of the ten poorest community areas identified by the 2000 census were more than 94 percent African American.
Any number of causes have been advanced to explain the persistence of poverty among a black underclass. A cultural indisposition to schooling no doubt plays a part, but so does the disappearance of jobs that don’t require schooling, and the lousy quality of the schools that are available to those who do want to learn, The list goes on—initiative-sapping welfare state, no strong entrepreneurial tradition, fragmented families unable to supply capital and labor to new enterprises that, say, Mexicans and Koreans so often draw upon, To these one must add others. The concentration of the African American very poor serves several nefarious agendas—that of the black politician who wishes to keep his constituents intact, the suburbanite who wishes to keep them out of his hometown, the professional poverty mandarins, who wish to keep social problem visible enough to excite steady funding.
The population of the dysfunctional poor was always smaller than their prominence in hand-wringing editorials suggested, but it was large enough that in reshaped the city in the 1980s and ‘90s. Their near presence caused many whites to flee, but the black middle class fled too, leaving the poor socially isolated, with no experience of work or much hope of getting it, no role models, no contacts, no hope.
Sociologists sought to explain why, around 1970, the African American ghettos in Chicago went from being exclusively black to being exclusively black lower-class, and many concluded that the main cause was this exodus of middle- and working-class families of color from many ghetto neighborhoods. Any community’s basic socializing institutions rely on its more economically stable and secure families, providing as they do what William Julius Wilson called “mainstream role models that help keep alive the perception that education is meaningful, that steady employment is a viable alternative to welfare, and that family stability is the norm, not the exception.”
When such families leave, the community collapses, as long-time resident Timuel Black has described. After the Civil rights revolution made it possible, he recalled, “the older, socially stable people began to move because they could, taking their habits and customs with them and the knowledge about how you function in the urban community.”
This was a new kind of poverty, a poverty not only a means but of ambition and social connections. For a time in the 1970s, indeed, Chicago threatened to become not merely a city with many poor people—it had been that since the latter 1800s—but a city made up mostly of very poor people. The concentration of large populations in same-class ghettoes also concentrated the social problems—crime drugs gangs ill health—that always plagued the poor. Thus was the “underclass” born.
There had always been problem poor in Chicago—the undeserving poor in the phrase of the Victorians. Immigrants from Ireland who arrived in the 1840s and ‘50s worked as low-paid day laborers or (in the case of the women) servants or laundresses. All the social pathologies associated with the black underclass in the mid-20th century—crime, fighting, drunkenness, broken homes, and chronic poverty—were common in the shanty towns. The Irish were over-represented among the city’s paupers, its criminals, its wife-beaters. The characteristic—perhaps determining—trait of the black underclass—social isolation—was typical of the Irish too. They secreted themselves by attitude and address from the improving influence of people who insisted on calling themselves their betters. The result, notes historian Richard Jensen, was that the Irish for decades “slowed their rate of upward occupational mobility to a crawl.”
But in recent decades it is recently rural African Americans that constitute the bulk of the urban underclass. In the Bronzeville of old, for example, segment of the local African American population that was labeled lower-class as well as lower income, whose lives were marked by (in Peter Hall’s summary) “desertion and illegitimacy, juvenile delinquency, and fighting and roistering” set them apart not only from middle-class black people but law-abiding, striving poor.
What was worrisome in the 1980s was that the underclass has become larger and more virulent in its social pathologies. Where Bronzeville was a mixed-class community, the underclass tended to live mainly with each other. (The concentration of such types is part of the common definition of “underclass.”) This extreme social isolation, sayeth the sociologists, means that bad behavior spreads once it becomes the local norm.
The causes have varied over time. For a long time—indeed today—there are those who attribute chronic poverty to ethnicity. Recalling the Chicago of 1890s, Lloyd Lewis wrote, “there was no abnormal amount of sheer poverty in Chicago. The thriftier races—Germans, Scandinavians, and the British nationals—were dominant. Only in certain areas of the city, whither had floated the less capable, less reliable, sometimes even subnormal and criminal sort of poor devils, were there ‘slums.’”
A more sophisticated—if still widely derided—assertion of culture as a cause of enduring poverty was advanced by Nicolas Lemann in his 1991 history, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. In an analysis not much admired but never decisively refuted, Lemann—himself a Southerner— states, “Every aspect of the underclass culture in the ghettos is directly traceable to roots in the South.” He further asserts that deeply ingrained habits of mind about work, education, and social advancement handicapped the former field hands and doomed them to lives of permanent poverty.
Lemann's thesis was considered old-fashioned even when it was published. By the time William Julius Wilson published The Truly Disadvantaged in 1987, culture had long been refuted, at least among the educated, as the cause of extreme social breakdown. Wilson joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1972 and taught there until he left for Harvard in 1996. Wilson is a leader of the field—past president of the American Sociological Association, holder of 38 honorary degrees, a MacArthur Prize fellow, recipient of the 1998 National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States. He is also remembered for his 1978 book, The Declining Significance of Race, which argued that economics rather than racism, culture, or government policy are behind the social isolation, male joblessness, and single mother headed families explain the durability of the black underclass.
The mass migration of blacks to American cities between the two world wars was seen as move from south to north, from rural to urban, but also—and some scholars suggest—decisively, from the peasantry into the proletariat. Alas, this move was made at about the time that the proletariat—meaning those dependent on low-skilled jobs in manufacturing—was beginning to disappear. Deindustrialization crippled Chicago’s ability to absorb the more recent of its immigrant hordes. The last influx of the Great Migration happened in the 1940s and ‘50s when Chicagoland, first temporarily flush with war production and later busy for 20 years filling pent-up demand for consumer goods. The boom, and the firms, began to fade soon after that, leaving that generation of African American worker stranded in a new Chicago, in the wrong place and with the wrong skills, unable to work their way up the class ladder because the ladder had been taken away.
In recent years, the underclass has appeared to shrink, although whether that is a permanent trend, or even a real one, is debatable. Certainly, the underclass no longer is the urgent issue that it was for a while in the 1980s, when a paper like the Chicago Tribune published long series it titled, The American Millstone: An Examination of the Nation's Permanent Underclass.
The problem persists, even if the term has fallen out of general use. Of late, poverty in Chicago, like so much else, is being suburbanized. Each of the six counties that comprise the Chicago region had higher poverty rates in 2005 than it did in 1999, and, more significant, higher rates of growth in their poor populations than was seen in Chicago or Cook County. The chronically poor and disaffected thus remain a problem, as they have been since the 1850s. However, for the moment their numbers (fewer than a half-million Chicagoland residents live in “extreme poverty” (meaning their annual income is less than half that officially deemed poor) do not constitute a crisis—unless you are one of them.
From its beginnings, Chicago has struggled to decently house its people. In the industrial cities of the world workers built their own housing in the form of shantytowns. In Chicago they lived in hand-me-down housing, places abandoned by their social betters when they found their houses too old and their neighborhood too nasty. Because even the meanest housing cost more than most workers could pay, they made do by crowding more people into these houses than they were ever intended to hold. As a result, every kind of house in Chicago from former workers cottages to mansions eventually ends up as slums.
Historians of the Great Fire that raced across much of Chicago in 1871 make a useful point: The fire did what a conscientious sanitation public health department should have done years earlier, by burning thousands of bad houses to the ground. Chicago’s poorest citizens took shelter as poor have done in every city in every era, in the meanest houses that no one with a choice would live in. That such hovels were not worse, and occasionally better, than the turf huts of the Irish peasant or the delta shacks of the African American explains why they accepted it. But the new houses in the new post-fire neighborhoods quickly deteriorated too. (Conditions were worse for African Americans, whose access to even rundown housing was limited by racial barriers in renting and owning outside already black neighborhoods.)
The overcrowding, and poor condition were, literally, criminal. Housing was a scandal among the progressive-era reformers, whose described dwellings as “the curse of the Chicago workingman." Small, low, one- or two-story "pioneer" wooden shanties, three- or four-story brick tenements, and “rear” tenements squeezed into the back parts of lots next to the alley were alike in not having decent light or ventilation, in lacking no bath facilities, and being overcrowded.
The slums were a scandal, everyone agreed, but for decades they were considered as an inevitable outcome of the free market—and (insisted the landlords) the unavoidable expression of the backward cultures of the residents. The city government devoted itself to coping with the conditions that overcrowding caused, such as garbage in the streets and crime, but not the underlying problem, which was that decent private housing cost more than poor people, including working people, could afford to pay.
Until well into the New Deal, what is now known as “public” housing—purpose-built low-cost housing for the poor—was the province of private philanthropy. Well-intended, public-minded men thus asked the question: Might decent housing be both affordable to tenants with scant means and profitable for the landlord? Chicago philanthropists tested the idea in the years just after World War I.
Among the first large-scale endeavors in affordable housing was the Garden Homes, constructed in 1919 six blocks of land at Wabash Avenue and 87th Street by civic-minded businessman and real-estate developer Benjamin J. Rosenthal. The project, which was modeled on the English “garden city,” included 133 detached houses and 21 duplexes aimed at the modest wage-earner, who could get one new for as little as $5,700. It certainly was the first large-scale, subsidized housing project in Chicago.
The huge Town & Garden Apartments bordered by Sedgwick Street, Evergreen Avenue, Hudson Avenue, and Blackhawk Street in Old Town, was built in 1929 by the Marshall Field Estate. Its 628 units made it the largest project of its kind in the country at the time. It had been built to test whether decent housing for moderate-income families could make money. It didn’t, although it worked socially, at least at first. Alas, the Depression gutted it financially, and its example was not repeated.
On the other end of town, Sears Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald bankrolled the 421-unit Michigan Avenue Garden Apartments, which opened In 1929 on a square block on 47th Street between Michigan and Wabash. The clientele was African Americans, who not only disproportionately poor and thus faced the same problems finding decent lodging that all poor people faced but were consigned by apartheid to the least and the worst housing in the city. Meant for the poor, the buildings were of such quality that they became the address of choice of Bronzeville’s middle class, including celebrities such as the heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis and the Olympic medalist (and later Congressman) Ralph Metcalfe. But as the neighborhood declined so did the Rosenwald, which became just another bad building in a part of town full of them and it was abandoned in 2000.
None of these projects was both affordable to the tenants and profitable for the landlords. All made three percent profit or less, and after the Depression forced down rents, often they earned not even that. By the 1930s it was plain that if the poor were to have decent housing, the government would have to pay for it.
City Hall was not eager to get into the housing business, having learned very early how not to do public housing for the poor. Perry Duis notes that the city in 1871 covered the area bounded by Division and Chicago avenues, LaSalle Street, and the Chicago River’s North Branch with barracks-like housing for those left homeless by the Great Fire. As was true of later public housing, the project was intended to provide temporary shelter until the victims got back on their feet. Many did, and moved out. The less socially adept stayed and turned the area into a slum. The centerpiece of "Little Hell," a poor Italian section of the area, was Oak Street and Cleveland, an intersection known as "Deadman's Corner" around the turn of the century because of the number of murders committed there.
The Roosevelt administration made the improvement of housing for the poor a priority as part of its economic recovery efforts. Between 1933 and 1939, the feds financed and built fifty-two demonstration projects around the country, including four in Chicago—Jane Addams Houses on the Near West Side; Julia C. Lathrop Homes on the North Side; and Trumbull Park Homes on the far South Side; and the Ida B. Wells Homes in the 2000 block of South State in the Black Belt, (The site was later expanded by ten seven-story buildings nearby.) The first three were occupied by (if not always built for) whites, while all the residents of the Wells Homes—named after the Mississippi-born anti-lynching crusader—were African American.
The reforming Chicago Housing Administration
For a decade or so after its founding in 1937, the Chicago Housing Authority was reformist and integrationist. Mayor Ed Kelly for both principled and crass political reasons was committed to mixed-race public housing, and he named social reformer Elizabeth Wood as CHA's first executive secretary.
Under Wood (who had grown up in Bloomington), the Chicago Housing Authority in the 1940s bloomed as a model of enlightened public housing policy. Typical of the CHA projects of the era was the William Green Homes. Opened in 1942 on the cleared site of Little Hell, the nearly 600 low-rise apartments contained one black tenant for every three white ones. It remained racially diverse through the late 1950s. During World War II, CHA built hundreds of units of public housing for war workers; these too were mostly or completely desegregated by race.
Among the other innovations that the CHA pioneered under Wood were low-rise buildings, tenants mixed by income, and scattered sites. Others of her policies—careful tenant selection, strict enforcement of rules, swift eviction of problem tenants and the promotion of community-building activities—were discarded at grave costs to both the agency and the tenants in the 1960s and beyond; their wisdom has only lately been rediscovered by the CHA and other big-city public housing agencies across the country.
After World War II the winds shifted. A proposal by the CHA in 1949 to build public housing in scattered sites using new federal money was opposed by aldermen who didn’t want public housing in their wards if that public included African Americans. At the federal level, regulators bowed to the anxieties of whites in Chicago and similar cities and required that tenants in such projects be of the same race as those of the neighborhood in which it was built.
By this time Wood had acquired more than a few enemies at City Hall because of her refusal to compromise on issues of patronage. She couldn’t be fired for that, but when she attempted to 1953 to integrate the Trumbull Park Homes, a decision that set whites against blacks on the far south side, she gave her enemies a very sizable club to beat her with. She was fired, in effect, for opposing separate but equal public housing—a wonderful irony, coming as it did soon after the Brown decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court voided separate but equal as a doctrine in the allocation of public services.
The resistance to public housing in the post-Wood era led to the perpetuation, indeed the perfection of Chicago’s de facto residential apartheid. This time the instrument was not covenants but federal money. More than 98 per cent of the apartments built in thirty-three CHA projects approved between 1950 and the mid-1960s were located in all-black neighborhoods, and in time virtually every person living in those apartments was black too.
In 1959, fifteen high-rise apartment buildings were added along West Division Street to the William Green Homes, the fairly successful rowhouse project housing that had gone up 17 years earlier on the cleared site of Little Hell. A few years later the CHA crammed another eight 15- and 16-story buildings on the site named, with unintended irony, after Chicago’s Frances Cabrini, an Italian American nun who had devoted herself to the poor of that neighborhood. The result was Cabrini-Green. The once-integrated area swung nearly all black and poor, and became a symbol around the country for gang-activity, violence, and drug-use.
In 1963 the CHA opened what many experts regard as the worst example of low-income housing ever in the form of the Robert Taylor Homes along State Street from Pershing Road south to 54th Street. Carl Condit described the results:
Housing 28,000 residents in its brick and concrete warrens, it represents a full complement of all the ghetto ills: poverty, economic and social discrimination of the most blatant variety, the shabbiest forms of victimization underlying the other marks of urban pathology, broken families, hopelessness and apathy, endemic and daily crime, drug addiction, random violence, delinquency, dirt, and anarchy.
The fact that all its residents were African Americans was less important than the fact that they were all poor, and many of them criminals. The U.S. Postal Service for a time in 1998 refused to deliver mail there out of concern for the safety of its carriers. (A post office official explained to the press that their motto obliges them to deliver mail in rain, sleet, and snow, but it doesn't say anything about dodging bullets.) The CHA added insult to injury—and a bit of irony too—when it named the most segregated project in America after Robert R. Taylor, the commissioner of the CHA from 1938–1950 who had resigned out of frustration with City Hall’s sabotage of his efforts to build integrated public housing.
By 1969, CHA family units were 99 percent African American and 99.5 percent of them were located in parts of town that were all black or becoming all black. When a federal judge that year found the CHA guilty of discrimination and ordered that any new public housing to be built in white areas, the Richard J. Daley administration simply stopped building public housing anywhere in the city.
Much of the thinking and lobbying for housing projects had been done by respectable propertied interests, many of them with impeccable credentials as reformers. Liberals liked slum clearance because it rid the city of housing so wretched that no Downstate farmer would keep his cattle in it. Mayors and property investors liked it too; it offered the hope that by containing and sprucing up the ghetto what historian Arnold Hirsch delicately calls a “solvent population” of all colors would be re-attracted to the central city, thus strengthening the tax base.
Politicians liked it because by keeping black voters concentrated, big public housing projects made it easy to organize Democratic voters. Keeping poor black people out of white neighborhoods appeased Daley's white ethnic power base, but it was supported by his black party allies too. “No one already in the system was left out,” wrote an admiring Ross Miller in Here’s the Deal. “In return for African Americans getting this instantly dilapidated housing right in their old neighborhoods, black politicians, loyal to the organization, had a concentrated voting bloc [where] a precinct worker could canvass thousands of voters in one place.”
Whatever its appeal as an idea, public housing as housing quickly turned into a disaster. It was too often badly designed, badly run, and built in the wrong places. Worse, it was used for every purpose save its intended one, plainly serving the interests of avowed white segregationists. Many an historian points to public housing as the one incontestable failure of the administration of the first Mayor Daley. He didn’t fight federal public housing policies, he simply appropriated them for his own ends. The process of removing and rehousing tens of thousands of Chicago’s very poor citizens in instant ghettos was one of the few new industries to settle inside the city in the 1950 and ‘60s. Millions of federal dollars provided good jobs to union workers beholden to Daley’s organization and kept friendly plumbing, heating, and painting contractors busy.
The Hyde Park neighborhood by the 1950s had been surrounded by the southward swelling of the city's black population. The University of Chicago as an institution wanted barriers erected against open housing; its fear was less that the once-comfortably middle-class districts around its campus would turn black than that it might—as it did—turn poor. Hyde Park being Hyde Park, there was no resort to anything quite so crude as putting poor people in brick boxes went on in Hyde Park.
Instead, a pioneering attempt by the University of Chicago at urban renewal in the 1950s aimed to stabilize neighborhoods not yet “tipped” in terms of racial balance. The landmark Illinois Redevelopment Act of 1941, which was lobbied for, indeed largely drafted by Hyde Parkers, called for public acquisition of derelict black-occupied properties and their replacement by new housing. Community leaders in nearby Oakland-Kenwood sought “conservation agreements” with owners to improve maintenance—often by “deconverting” buildings that had been newly occupied by black tenants.
Thus was Chicago, as Hirsch put it, “a persistent pioneer” in developing concepts that were later incorporated into landmark federal laws in 1949 and 1954 meant to “control and mitigate the consequences of racial succession.” Advocates called it urban renewal; those displaced by it called it Negro removal. Hyde Park remains a mixed-race island in a black sea, where high real estate costs do what covenants used to do in keeping poor people at bay.
In 1995, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development declared the CHA to be so mismanaged that HUD itself took over its operation. Since that chastening takeover, a revived CHA has tried to do what is rare among public agencies—learn from its own history. The high-rises have been mostly torn down, replaced by smaller buildings housing a mix of tenants of various incomes—precisely the formula that the feds used in their pioneering projects of the late 1930s. Projects are smaller, so as not to concentrate troubled populations in ways that magnifies their influence on the surrounding neighborhoods, tenants are screened more rigorously, and the projects have more connections to the larger city. Such innovations are intended to ease the social isolation of the very poor that was (with poor architecture) the abiding failing of the projects.
The scale of this reinvention of public housing in Chicago is impressive. Replacing the Robert Taylor Homes with more than 2,300 low-rise homes and apartments is expected to cost more than a half-billion dollars; similar raze-and-replace projects are underway in all the most troubled projects. Since there can never be enough public housing for the need, the CHA also is moving thousands of residents into decent private housing. This has been underway for years; the settlement of a discrimination lawsuit filed in 1966 by a CHA resident obliged the CHA From 1976 to 1998, to relocate roughly 30,000 CHA residents to desegregated neighborhoods either in the city or the surrounding suburbs in what is usually described as the largest and longest-running residential, racial, and economic integration effort in American history. Hopeful advocates praise the project as an effort to integrate pubic housing by class at least. Critics complain that if the policy in the old days was to isolate the city’s poor in projects, it now aims to drive them into exile, but the success of many tenants at re-integrating themselves socially must be added to the balance. ●