“Marseille of our Mediterranean”
The Chicago ethnic, considered
See Illinois (unpublished)
Chicago has long been described—and decried—as the least Illinoisan of cities by citizens of every other Illinois cities. That is accurate enough, but for much of its life Chicago was one of the least American of cities too. As the Italian sociologist Marco D’Eramo has pointed out, Chicago in the half-century after the Civil War was the “Marseille of our Mediterranean, a chaotic land- and seaport . . . [a] Babel of languages, customs, tastes, smells and dirt.” By 1920 only Boston and New York were more foreign than Chicago as measured by the birthplace of its citizens. Seven in ten Chicagoans of that year had been born abroad or had parents who were.
The ethnic as a big-city type figures too prominently in the story of Chicago to ignore it, so when I wrote the Chicago chapters of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture, I examined the critter at length—20,000 words on this topic alone, one of the reasons the book was commercially unpublishable.
One hundred years ago, visitors to Chicago felt as if they were walking through not an American city but a European one—indeed, all European cities at once. Chicago contained more Scandinavians, Poles, Czechs, Serbo-Croatians, and Lithuanians than any other city in the nation, and in some cases more of each than the biggest cities in their respective home countries. At the population peak of each ethnic group, Chicago was the largest Polish city outside Warsaw, the largest Swedish city outside Stockholm, and the largest Lithuanian city anywhere. Chicago also had the second-largest German, Greek, Slovak, and Jewish populations and the third largest Italian population in the country.
Part of the charm for white tourists of the Midway at the World Columbian Exposition was that it offered entertainingly sanitized versions of the world’s cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity that visitors might have sampled—and rarely dared to do—in more pungent form in the ethnic neighborhoods of the city itself.
Things haven’t changed much. The variety of cultures and races in today’s Chicago dizzies the many Downstaters and suburbanites who grew up in the sort of places where a Roman Catholic or a Jew was considered exotic. In his memoir, Lake Effect, Rich Cohen recalled how Greek Town in the 1980s was “a tumble-down strip of seedy immigrant dives.” But for North Shore kids like himself, “Greek Town was Shanghai before the Revolution, or Hot Springs, Arkansas, before Repeal, or Paris between the Wars. It was the port dreamed of by long-haul sailors, a haven of vice.”
Western Avenue, which runs north-south for more than 20 miles through the working class neighborhoods of the Near West Side, seems to such visitors to circle the globe, as it takes drivers through neighborhoods with Russians, Indians, Pakistanis, Poles, Germans, Arabs, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Croats, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Vietnamese; Irish, African Americans, and Jews. The biggest parades and the wildest parties in Chicago, such as St. Patrick’s Day or Three Kings Day or Cinco de Mayo, do not celebrate American national holidays but those of other countries. If it was hard for visitors of a century ago to imagine an American city like Chicago that was filled with non-Americans, it is hard today to imagine it without them.
We will make no attempt to even summarize the many peoples of Chicagoland. Richard Lindberg’s Ethnic Chicago, one of the better popular guides on the subject, offers chapters on 18 ethnic groups, many of which are defined to include several distinct, if related, cultural groups. Lindberg’s publisher must have gotten complaints that many that were left out; the Encyclopedia of Chicago counted more than 140. Each ethnic group has its own culture, made up of their experience of the old country, which they came to see in new lights as a result of their experience of the new country, which was in turn colored by their lives in the old one; each group offers its own saga of rise and fall, of political and religious betrayals that are as rich as they are impenetrable to the outsider.
The story of no one ethnic group is exactly like that of the others, but we offer a few as interesting enough in their own right, beginning with the tale that reminds us that Chicago was an ethnic town before it was Chicago.
The French of Old Chekagou
If Chicagoland was a Native American place before it became a Euro-American one, it also was a French place before it became an Anglo-American one. The earliest white men in the region were missionaries and fur traders from that nation or its North American outposts in Canada who were seeking goods and souls from the nation that controlled this part of the Midwest until it was driven out by the British in the French and Indian War.
From the time French opened the region to the fur trade in the late 1600s, Euro-Americans and Native Americans dwelt (mostly) in amity. In language, dress, habits, and ambition, the French (apart from the missionaries) were scarcely distinguishable from their hosts. Concentrated in a few trading posts, this early white population used the larger landscape as the Indians did but did not seek to possess much of it.
It is unknowable whether this early oroto-Chicago proved fertile ground for soul-saving but it was well-placed for trade, and French traders established commercial outposts across the region. Typical of these traders (most of whom were from Francophone Canada) were Vetel Vermette and George Fouquier, who had a hand in founding Plainfield in the 1820s. Native Americans provided these French access to the beaver lands to west and north, the French provided the Native Americans access to the markets of Europe and to that continent's goods. (The same sort of synergy fired the economy of the region a century later, when Midwestern grain farmers were linked with Chicago grain shippers, or when Wisconsin timber merchants were linked to home builders in the Plains.) The 80-acre island in the Des Plaines River at Romeoville known as the Isle de la Cache is a museum to this commercial relationship.
Chicago’s first permanent non-Indian occupants were the trader from French Canada named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and his Potowatomi wife Kittihawa. The town of Wilmette was named for its first Euro-American settler, a Montrealer named Antoine Ouilmette; he traded at Chicago beginning in 1790, but eventually resettled on the North Shore, in a cabin near today’s Lake Avenue in today’s Wilmette. Ouilmette helped negotiate the Treaty of Prairie du Chein in 1829 under whose terms area Native Americans ceded land all the way west to the Rock River. The government made a gift of nearly two square miles of land between the lake and Wilmette’s 15th Street and Elmwood Avenue in Wilmette and Evanston’s Central Street to the Potowatomi woman who was Oilmette’s wife, Archange Ouilmette, for her aid to whites during the Fort Dearborn Massacre.
The Ouilmettes farmed this reservation until 1838, when whites—emboldened to move into the region because of the expulsion of the Native Americans that the Ouilmettes helped engineer—began poaching on the reservation. Antoine Ouilmette was forced to abandon it in the 1840s; it reverted to the feds, which sold it. The foundation of the considerable wealth in real estate in that posh North Shore suburb thus is based on land many consider to have been stolen.
As the above examples make clear, the French interregnum in the history of northeast Illinois is perhaps more accurately called the French-Indian interregnum. Old Chicago was a multicultural metropolis before political correctness gave the term standing. The village of Chicago that sprouted on the site of the old fort in the 20 years after 1812 was, as William Cronon notes in Nature’s Metropolis, “a polyglot world of Indian, French, British, and American cultures tied to a vast trading network that was no less Indian than European.” Cultural influence moved both ways. White traders learned Ojibway, the lingua franca of the trade, and the Indians who inhabited the trading posts learned a French patois; their religion was a peculiar blend of Potawatomi spiritualism and French Catholicism.
The French presence had a devastating effect on the region’s Native American society, through their introduction of commerce and brandy. They were to have less impact on the Euro-American society that replaced theirs. True, French Catholics were central to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in the region, indeed in Illinois. When Chicago was incorporated in 1833 nine of ten of its people may have been Catholic–mostly French, or people of mixed French and Indian blood. But that was the last institution that bore French fingerprints. and while new generations of French were among the immigrants to the later city, they never composed a significant part of modern Chicagoland. The French styles in architecture and urban planning that had such an impact on Chicago, for example, were much later imports, carried back here in the buzzing imaginations of Chicagoans schooled in Paris.
As the first arrivers, these whites enjoyed the privilege of naming things, with the result that the first territory that the French conquered (and which they still retain) is the atlas. The county and river known as Du Page were named for a French fur trapper and trader named DuPahze, whose ran a trading post where the East and West Du Page rivers meet four miles south of Naperville. (The site of DuPahze’s trading post is actually in Will County.) The Des Plaines (town and river), Joliet (nee Jolliet), and Cache Creek are further examples of linguistic pottery shards. However, as usual in Illinois, place names are untrustworthy clues to origins; the town of LaGrange was named not for any French connection but a town of that name in Tennessee that had been named for the Marquis de Lafayette's ancestral home.
Northern Illinois in general was the place in which migrants from the Northeast spilled onto the prairie after migrating by boat from the east. Among the first important Euro-American ethnics to settle Chicagoland in numbers was the Yankees, industrious farmers and sharp businessmen who tended to be against slavery and booze. Old Chicago was essentially a pre-modern society, and the arrival in numbers of progress-minded Yankees upset the economic and social status quo that had evolved in the first generation of statehood as violently as the later Catholic Europeans and Southern African Americans would upset that of Chicago. And this clash of values that had much the same effect; the old Chicagoans were routed, and moved west, or disappeared into the new Chicago. The French and Indian influences might not have ever lived here, so scant is their influence on the modern city.
While ethnic peoples may have built the city in the most literal sense, they worked to a blueprint draw up for most part by its commercial elite, who in the early years were overwhelmingly Americans from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, with most of them being of ultimately British heritage. (The names of the founders of the modern city—Hubbard, Wentworth, Palmer, Field, et al—make the point.)
Such people certainly did not see themselves as “ethnics” in sense that their Irish or German neighbors were ethnics, but they shared a common culture whose signal traits were thrift, hard work, piety, community obligation, and virtue as keys to heaven in this world and the next. Such people were generically labeled “Yankees” by many of their neighbors (sometimes with a sneer). The Chicagoland "Yankee" was never a pure strain, having been thoroughly leavened by immigrants from New York and other mid-Atlantic states. Nonetheless, within broad parameters—Protestant, white, British or German—they more alike each other than either was like the motley society of French and half-breeds and Americans (many of the latter Southerners) that the Yankees encountered when they began arriving in the 1830s.
The early Yankees, like ethnic immigrants before and since, tended to settle among their own kind. When Margaret Fuller was touring the area in 1843 her party stayed in Geneva with a local Unitarian minister whose preaching, she was to note, “binds them to their home, and the people of this place are New Englanders in tastes, feelings, & objects; of course, to be preached and lectured to is their music.”
For generations, recalling the contributions of the whites who built Chicago would have been redundant—these most windy of Windy Citians were happy to tell it themselves through booster tracts and newspaper editorials and memoirs that outdid even the usual standard for self-congratulation. The WASPs also left their mark, in hundreds of churches and other improving institutions and, decisively, on business, which for decades they dominated.
Today, however, that story today risks being forgotten. Du Sable looms larger as a figure of public history in Chicago than do dozens of men—Long John Wentworth comes to mind, or Gurdon Hubbard to name just two—who built the modern city. Their history is assumed to be that of the larger city, and thus seldom is treated separately. In a city that has ethnic museums the way other cities have supermarkets, there is no museum to Chicago’s WASPs.
From 1850 to 1900 or so, people of German descent constituted the largest ethnic group in the city; in 1900, nearly half a million Chicagoans, or one of every four, was either a native of Germany or the child of one. But it was more than mere numbers that explained the success of Chicagoland’s Germans. Few of Chicago’s immigrant subcultures were as vital. Germans supported an active German-language press—more than thirty newspapers during the 1800s. Germans were leaders of the local labor movement which, because Chicago became a national center of manufacturing, made them leaders of the national labor movement as well. Germans were conspicuous among prominent intellectuals, and essentially owned the local music scene. Germans tended to be more skilled craftsmen, more able farmers, more alert as businessmen than the Irish, or for that matter many native Americans, a superiority that many of the latter took as effrontery/rendered the Germans dangerous. And while it is true that Chicago never had a German American mayor, that owes as much to the fractious nature of that community’s politics as to any lack of ambition or skill in such projects.
In terms of ethnic derivation, Chicago remains solidly German. The German American National Congress (Deutsch Amerikanischer National Kongress, or D.A.N.K.), the largest organization in the U.S. of Americans of German descent, is headquartered in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. But otherwise, Chicago’s Germanness seldom shows up. When Italian sociologist Marco D’Eramo lived here in the 1990s he was struck by fact that Germanness was so absent in the modern city. You can participate in Tet (the Vietnamese New Year) or in the big St. Patrick’s Day parade, but the German element appears only in the persistent Germanic surnames or in the odd street named after Goethe or Schiller.
Naming a street for a German is one thing, pronouncing that name another. Most guide books alert visitors to the fact that if they ask the way to Goethe Street in the posh Gold Coast by saying GUR-tuh most locals will be mystified; it is known locally as Go-EE-thee Street.
D’Eramo noted too that while the visitor can dawdle at Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Swedish, and Mexican museums, there is no such site consecrated to the history of Chicago’s German community. Of course, there is no museum of the British American experience in Chicago either, and for the same reason. The ethnic museum is opened in large part to argue the case for a group’s place in the city, and the Germans long since won theirs. The German culture didn’t disappear so much as it was adopted as the mainstream Chicago culture, at least in the high arts and intellectual life, business, and popular culture.
If Chicago once was known as a great German city, it still is known as a great Polish one. By 1930 the U.S. Census counted more than 400,000 Poles of foreign parentage, and by 1950 there were more Poles in Chicago than in any city in Poland outside of Warsaw, making them more numerous than the German or Irish. Certainly, they were the largest ethnic Catholic unit in the country's largest Catholic archdiocese; histoprian James W. Sanders notes that by 1920 Polish schools enrolled 17,000 children, which was 75 percent of the Catholic school enrollment in the area . . . . There were enough left in the 1970s and ‘80s that the Poland-born Pope John Paul visited in 1979 and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa in 1989.
As has been true of most ethnics, the early Polish settlements took root wherever first arrivers landed. In the case of most Poles, that was the factories and slaughterhouses in the industrial basin along the North Branch of the Chicago River (including Goose Island), on the Lower West Side near the Burlington Railroad, the Bridgeport and Back-of-the-Yards neighborhoods on the South Side near the old stock yards, and in South Chicago near the U.S. Steel South Works plant and 88th and Commercial.
The biggest of these polish neighborhoods by far was on the Near Northwest Side, “Polonia,” the "American Warsaw," whose downtown was the intersection of Milwaukee, Ashland, and Division streets. In nearby St. Stanislaus Kostka parish, for example, seven of every eight inhabitants were of Polish origin. There, Polish Americans undertook to build a nation within a nation, complete with its own churches, economy, theaters, Polish-speaking parochial schools, and their fraternal associations such as the Polish National Alliance and the Polish Roman Catholic Union, lively daily and weekly newspapers.
Many Chicago ethnics had such groups—nearly all formed their own churches, and most, through the medium of the catholic parish, their owns schools too—but the Poles were unusual in the intensity with which they sought alternatives to “American” institutions. The Poles eschewed the banks, trusting instead to own savings and loans when it was time to buy a house. They set up their own libraries, hospitals social welfare organizations that administered orphanages, homes for the aged, and immigrant aid societies.
The larger aim of all these organizations was to preserve Polish ethnicity against the corrupting influence of the foreigners they now lived among. Neighborhood libraries. Such as the Julius Slowacki Library in Back of the Yards carried books in the Polish language, as did parish libraries. The result by the 1920s, writes Domimic Pacyrga, was “a stable community with a network of interlacing institutions and a high degree of self-awareness.”
Preserving Polishness came at a cost of acquiring American-ness. Polish demand for separate treatment within the Catholic Church (their insistence on Polish priests and parishes, for example) meant they did not much influence the larger Chicago church. In much the same way, its politicians jealously protected the interests of their own community at expense of other ethnics, which ruled them out of the necessary coalition-making that running a city-wide party required. Thus, while Polonia produced its share of well-known politicians—Roman Pucinski and Daniel Rostenkowski, to name only two—Polish pols never had the influence at City Hall of, say, the Irish.
In recent years there has been a new influx of Poles to Chicago, but not enough to replace the many grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the city’s original immigrants who have drifted away from their Polishness, if not from the city. As of mid-2003 what had been more than a million residents of Polish heritage has shriveled to 735,000, and Chicago now ranked behind not only Warsaw but Krakow and Lodz as a Polish city. Nonetheless, Chicago still has the largest Polish population of any city outside Poland.
The African Americans
Another of Chicagoland’s important ethnic groups is perfectly visible and invisible at the same time. Chicago’s African Americans seem doomed to always be identified by their color, but the salient fact about them as a group, at least in terms of their influence on the city, owes to their ethnic identity as Southerners. Chicago has long been known as a black city, but it could be just as accurately described as the biggest Southern City in the North.
Black Chicago was populated by immigrants from the states along Highway 51 and the Illinois Central tracks between Chicago and the Mississippi River delta in Arkansas, Louisiana, and, most importantly, Mississippi. In the late forties and early fifties, explained Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land. “blacks still sometimes call the South Side "North Mississippi." Old-timers used to joke that if you stood at 35th and State Street long enough, you'll meet all the people that you've known in Alabama.
As their European predecessors had done, Southern blacks sought comfort of the familiar in strange new place. They recreated Mississippi in the asphalt and smoke of Chicago as the Poles recreated Polonia or the Italians recreated their mountain villages. George Ade, in one of his dispatches from Chicago’s back alleys, described the gourmandizing during “A Plantation Dinner at Aunt Mary’s” as the African American cook of that name offered compatriots “chidlins” and cornbread and rabbit and sweet potato pie; a Tennesseean present and partaking ventured the opinion that Aunt Mary “could give the Union League chef cards and spades and then beat him out.”
Many of the great literary works today classed as African American are in fact about Southerners, even when the works are not set there. Among them are Richard Wright’s Native Son, a story set in Chicago, but whose subject was a Mississippi youth, and Gwendolyn Brooks’s De Witt Williams (“He was born in Alabama./He was bred in Illinois./He was nothing but a/Plain black boy.”
The number of Southern businesspeople and ministers in black Chicago is beyond counting. (James Grossman reports that by 1919, approximately two-thirds of all black-owned businesses in Chicago were operated by recent migrants from the South.) The musicians who migrated to Chicago from the South (mostly New Orleans) are well known—Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong, to count only early jazz players. Critic Arnold Sundgaard in the 1950s noted that Chicago’s South Side during the 1920s was Storyville on a much larger scale, “and because of this the New Orleans music continued an unbroken development there.”
The Chicago blues was the Delta blues, gussied up. Among the great blues men who settled here—Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf—all hailed from Mississippi. Gospel greats Thomas A. Dorsey was born in Georgia; Louisianan Mahalia Jackson, who performed in the dance-like Southern sanctified style; Sun Ra, one of Jazz’s more eccentric innovators was born Herman Sonny Blount in Birmingham, Alabama. The list could go on and on. In an interview, poet Sterling Plumpp, a Chicagoan since 1962, explained that he never forgot his share-cropping roots on a Mississippi cotton plantation because of the blues singers who recalled that world. “The longer I stayed in Chicago,” he told Holton, “the more Mississippi in me grew.”
Music is hardly the only sphere in which the sun in Chicago, as it were, rose in the South. Virtually all the Chicago African Americans who enjoyed renown in the wider world were southern-born. Jesse Jackson is a South Carolinan, Chicago’s first black alderman and later the first black congressman elected from a northern district, Oscar DePriest, immigrated from Alabama. From Virginia came Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the sociologist who coauthored The Negro in Chicago (1922) and later was named president of Fisk University. Arkansas was the birthplace of the late John H. Johnson, the millionaire publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. John Jones, little remembered today but the first African American to hold elective office in Illinois, came here from North Carolina. Among the many Mississippians who found fame in Chicago are Oprah Winfrey, Richard Wright, Ida B. Wells, and Walter Payton. George gave the city William Dawson, for many years the only black Congressman, Olympic gold-medalist and politician Ralph Metcalfe, Defender publisher Robert S. Abbott, and black separatist and Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed.
Like most migrants, Southerners in they could did not start a new life but sought to make their old life in a new place. Among them were the Southern Home Cooking and Southern Lunch Room restaurants; another popular eating spot was the Plantation Café; the popular dish at the Palm Tavern on 47th Street was red beans and rice. (That remains true today; of the restaurants that offer American-style cooking in the black-oriented travel Web site, virtually all specialize in Southern dishes; Pearl's Place (in the Amber Inn, 3901 S. Michigan) offers fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and other Southern specialties.
Chicago is widely known as an Irish city, thanks in no small part to the fact that the best-known Chicagoan of the recent decades—Richard J. Daley—was Irish, and to the telegenic stunt of dying the Chicago River green on St. Patrick’s Day. Like most things having to do with the ethnic history of Chicagoland, Chicago’s Irishness is mostly true but not quite. Certainly, the Irish attained prominence here; they were the first and in some ways the most influential of the city’s foreign immigrant groups. But Chicago has never been an Irish city the way it was to become a German or a Polish or an African American city, and its foreign-born Irish population peaked in 1900.
Chicago is no longer a particularly Irish city in terms of blood—less than ten percent of its people in 1990 identify themselves as Irish. The post-Depression “Irish” Democratic machine was in fact built by a Bohemian. Other groups have done more to shape the city, even if they did so less conspicuously.
That’s not all. Chicago Irish never forgot the insults their people endured at the hands of the mostly Anglo establishment decades after the Irish had themselves come to be the establishment. Tales of these ancient slights were nurtured as lovingly as tales of the saints, for the inspiration they offered the lowly, and none more lovingly than the signs supposedly posted by businesses that announced, “No Irish Need Apply.” It was probably no accident that poor Mrs. O’Leary, the person scapegoated as the cause of the Great Fire of 1871, was an Irish immigrant. (In 1997 the Chicago City Council adopted a resolution exonerating her as the culprit.)
That the Irish in Chicago encountered prejudice is beyond argument. That they—mostly unattached young men, fond of booze and brawling—rendered themselves unwelcome is also beyond dispute. But historian Richard J. Jensen, in a fascinating bit of historical debunking, concludes that the “NINA” signs are an urban legend. No evidence exists of such signs in the U.S. much less in Chicago (although “no Irish” was very occasionally specified in other media).
Jensen’s research traced the seed of the myth to a song in London popular among Irish émigrés, a seed that took root in the new country because the soil was especially hospitable to its growth. “The Irish worked in gangs in job sites they could control by force,” explained Jensen in a 2004 article. “The NINA slogan told them they had to stick together against the Protestant Enemy, in terms of jobs and politics. The NINA myth justified physical assaults, and persisted because it aided ethnic solidarity.” Ethnic solidarity indeed; discrimination didn’t have to happen to anyone a Chicago Irishman knew; if it happened to any Irishman anywhere, it happened to him.
The rare ethnic neighborhood
If an “ethnic neighborhood” is a neighborhood with lots of ethnics in it, Chicago has many ethnic neighborhoods. But if by the phrase one means a neighborhood in which one ethnic group dominates, ethnic neighborhoods are surprisingly rare in Chicago. No self-respecting history of ethnic Chicago fails to cite Jane Addams’s finding that twenty-three different languages could be heard within a few blocks of Hull House. Greektown was never all Greek, Swede town ditto. Poles made up but three of five of residents of their Northwest Side Polonia, which is often offered as a Polish city within the city.
While populations of today’s ethnic enclaves like Little Village are almost entirely Hispanic, they are Hispanics who hail from many nations. This has often been the case among new ethnics. By 1930, nearly half of Albany Park’s population consisted of Jews, but they comprised Russian Jews and Polish Jews and Lithuanian Jews and Romanian Jews who supported Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues. Interestingly, Jews are usually treated in both popular and scholarly accounts of Chicago as an ethnic rather than a religious group, in spite of the fact that religion is all that binds peoples from several nations; meanwhile, the Irish—whose religion was as defining as that of the Jews—are defined by their nationality.
Indeed, it is its Albany Parks that are the typical Chicago neighborhood, not the mythically monolithic Irish Bridgeport. Settled mainly by Jewish moving up from Lawndale after World War II, Albany Park has in the past mere 50 years become home to Hispanics (Mexicans Guatemalans, Colombians, Ecuadoreans, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, and Peruvians), Asians of some 20 nations (Koreans, Filipinos, Indians, Laotians, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodians, among others), and Middle-Easterners. A visitor in 1999 found the Holy Land Grocery and La Baguette Bakery; Thai Little Home Cafe and Martinez Jewelry; Kem Oriental Food, Jerusalem Liquors, Buraketrachakul Video, Lindo Michoacan Taqueria, Al-Khyam Bakery and Jaafer Sweets.
Another myth is the up-and-out process of ethnic rise, promulgated by “Chicago School” sociologists of the 1920s and 1930s. The Chicago sages perceived a relationship between the degree to which minority ethnic populations were segregated residentially and the degree to which they had assimilated into the wider society. Residence in the ‘burbs for example was itself proof that an ethnic Chicagoan had risen above or at least beyond the language and customs of the ghetto to become “American.”
The reality of a city like Chicago is not that simple. Strong ethnic groups often segregate themselves while weaker ones get segregated by others. Strong and weak each live in segregated communities, but the former has chosen not to integrate with the wider society (usually out of concern for their own religious or cultural survival, or out of contempt for American ways) while the other is prevented from integrating even if its members wish it. The Poles on the Northwest Side are an example of the former kind of group; African Americans nearly everywhere an example of the latter.
Chicago’s urban diagnosticians understood segregation as merely a phase in the process that took the immigrant community from ghetto to the suburb. So certain was the relationship between assimilation and dispersal assumed to be, these researchers believed, that one could tell where in process a people were by where they lived. Critics complain that these Chicago school sociologists failed to distinguish between the enclave and the ghetto.
Consider the post-immigration experience of the city’s African Americans. At first they were seen an just another immigrant group. Fresh from the Delta, they huddled in their particular ethnic ghetto on the South Side, partly at the rather urgent insistence of whites, to whom the newcomers were still strange and threatening, partly out of their own desire for the company, food, music, and churches familiar from home. As they worked their way up the economic ladder and as they and their children learned city ways (it was assumed) African Americans would move up and out and leave the ghetto to a new generation of immigrant as it had been left to them by the Irish and Germans and Jews.
True, the experts conceded, there were differences to be expected, but they owed to the different pre-immigration experience of the city’s African Americans. Just as the European or Asian immigrant underwent a process of ‘Americanization’ the new-to-the-North Negro—rural in experience and values—would undergo “urbanization.” But the result would be much the same, so much the same that many historians and social scientists did conclude that (broadly speaking) what was true of one ethnic group was true of all.
So believed Richard J. Daley. Daley repeatedly said he thought that blacks were like Bridgeporters, they had just begun the process of Chicagoization later than the Irish did. He might have been wiser to consider how much Bridgeporters were like Southern African Americans. The Irish knew something about sharecropping too, having also arrived in Chicago as a dispossessed peasantry. The systems in both Ireland and the U.S. South institutionalized oppression, and living under it was not exactly an ideal preparation for life in a post-industrial urban economy. Like all immigrants from a background of rural peonage or peasantry, the Irish, like blacks, were slower to make it than migrants from urban backgrounds such as the first wave of mainly German Jews in the mid-19th century. The Irish had been in Chicago since the 1830s, but a century later a ward boss’s offer of a job as a night watchman was still considered a step up. And the black civil rights movement had much in common with the working class’s fight to establish unions in the packinghouse districts in Daley’s own youth.
Once in Chicago, the Irish, as Daley never failed to remind people, faced discrimination—as well they might. The early Irish were the original underclass, careless breeders, layabouts, and indifferent fathers, who introduced to America’s big cities a culture of drunkenness, illegitimacy, and hustling. The Irish in the previous century did not move into slums; they were widely assumed to create slums by moving in. Many among them disdained schooling; only about 2.3 percent of Bridgeport’s citizens had gone to college in the late 1970s—proportionately about as few as in the city’s worst slums. And certainly Daley’s neighbors showed signs of social pathology from arson and street violence to public hysteria.
By insisting that blacks were his generation’s Irish, Daley misread his own people’s history, and underestimated that African Americans were one immigrant group that, because it faced unique opposition, were to have a unique experience in Chicago. The biggest cause was racism by whites, but it was not the only one. The Irish moved into the middle class thanks in large part to unions from which black workers were excluded. (That the two groups never joined in solidarity may be explained by the fact Irish had keen memories of blacks being used against them as strikebreakers in the packing houses in 1918–21, but then most immigrants were used thus against earlier arrivers. The Southern plantation culture left black people uniquely ill-suited to urban life, for example, and (probably a bigger factor) the market for unskilled labor on which black people relied collapsed not long after they began to arrive in Chicago in numbers.
The Chicago sociologists also erred in assuming that moving away from the heart of the city necessarily would mean moving into ethnically mixed neighborhoods, in other words that moving out was also blending in. More than one group replicated the inner-city working class ghetto in more affluent versions farther out. Jews, for example, took their “ghetto” with them, lock, stock, and schools. (Lawndale synagogues were rebuilt in such North Side neighborhoods as West Rogers Park; the Hebrew Theological College moved from Douglas Boulevard in Lawndale to Skokie. As sociologist Ceri Peach explained in a 2001 paper, “There was movement from the inner city to the suburbs, but it was a movement en masse: a relocation rather than a diffusion” into the larger society.
Middle-class African Americans in the post-civil rights era have done much the same. In several of the city’s southern suburbs, populations are as thoroughly black today as they used to be historically white. In the case of risen black people, socio-economic improvement changed the location of their neighborhoods but not its isolating nature; rich African Americans are as segregated from rich whites, at least at home, as poor blacks are from poor whites.
Becoming Chicagoan: The shared ethnic experience
For all their apparent diversity, the stories of Chicago’s ethnic groups are remarkably alike—alike in the experience of poverty, of the dislocations of relocation, and of political or religious repression. These similarities are not often remarked, but often were remarkable.
Visit an ethnic neighborhood—and thousands are doing that these days—and you will see that the ethnic food, the signs, the churches, the parades, celebrations of national holidays, the small newspapers in their native tongue, often burning with outrage over events in the homeland—each different from others to the point of incomprehensibility, yet in their essentials exactly the same.
All new ethnics were subject to the disdain of the WASPs. Ethnics were variously tolerated or exploited, and all condemned to live in that eternal ghetto known as “their place” in a social order they did not create. Many also endured the hardly more benign form of bias known as stereotyping. Most black Chicagoans were placed in service positions as janitors and cooks, waiters, and maids (reflecting the opinion of man whites that serving came naturally to former slaves). Nimble-fingered Jews were sought for work in the needle trades and in cigar-making factories, Poles and Slavs did the heavy lifting. Germans dominated many crafts, from furniture-making to shoemaking brewing and baking. By some estimates as many as three in five of the cab drivers in today’s are Muslims, most of them Pakistani.
Chicago ethnics sometimes were clumped in an occupation not because of perceived aptitude but clout. The Irish dominated police force and schoolteachers for reasons that had a lot less to do with perceived aptitude than their very real clout at City Hall, which dispensed those kinds of jobs. Clumping also happens because of the beachhead phenomenon, where an early arrival who makes it in a trade uses connections and expertise to set up later followers in the same trade, with the eventual result that one people will occupy a disproportionate part of an occupation’s workforce. In other cases it was because occupations for which people were trained in the old country were closed to them because of lacked capital or language skills; thus did so many Chinese open laundries and Greeks restaurants.
Some aspects of the ethnic group experience—the sense of ethnic solidarity, close kinship ties, a shared suspicion of if not hostility to the laws and ways of the Anglo mainstream—uniquely qualified a particular people for certain trades. Bootlegging is one famous example. That industry was divided among rival gangs based on Chicago’s ethnic natural divisions. As David Lowe notes, within months after Prohibition went into effect, Chicago became a dozen states, each with its own military force, each waving the flag of a different ethnic group as they took the field against the feds, and each other.
The immigrants who stayed became Chicagoans, whether they wanted to or not, but they did not become just any kind of Chicagoan. They became the ethnic Chicagoan, a stock Illinois character that is the big-city equivalent of the Downstate farmer. Both stereotypes are useful in their ways in understanding these very different parts of Illinois, but both are vulnerable to caricature that ultimately confuses understanding.
Assimilation—the process of becoming a hyphenated American—could be described as becoming a little less of what you were but a bit more than just an American. This transformation was the ambition of some ethnic peoples, was dreaded by others, and insisted upon in some eras by some whites of longer residence who demanded it as a condition of immigrants' full participation in the region’s life.
Very few of Chicago’s ethnics (save for the Protestant elites, who never quite thought of themselves as ethnic anyway) completely abandoned their old identities. Rather than trade in their old world identity for a new one, they adapted the old one to their new circumstance. They became American in some ways, hardly American at all in others.
The process by which Americanization happened and the pace varied according to historical circumstances. Many is the case in which recent ethnics were Americanized while still in the ghetto, thanks to the penetration of mainstream culture into the ghetto via radio, magazines, and movies. Historian Irving Cutler recalls that in the mid-century Jewish neighborhoods of the West Side, “younger Jews often preferred baseball to Hebrew school, basement social and athletic club “hangouts” to synagogue, and careers in the professions to careers in merchandising.”
In the case of ethnic groups whose members had arrived at different times, or who emigrated for different reasons, attitudes toward the new country and old, and what one owed to each, could get very complex. Christiane Harzig in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, sketched in broad strokes the very complicated story of the German Chicago as the 20th century dawned. The community was made up of four distinct generations. The elders were the children of the pioneering mid-19th century immigrants; they inhabited a functioning German American community built by their parents. (The group included young adults who had accompanied their parents to Chicago in the 1880s, who were only technically “first generation” immigrants since they too had grown up in Chicago.) Those who emigrated as young adults in the 1880s however, remained German “through and through,” and lived very German lives in Chicago, and raised their children, the fourth generation, to be intensely patriotic—sentiments that were to be held against them in the anti-German war hysteria that gripped Chicago during World War I.
After World War I, Germanness largely disappeared in Chicago. The denouement to the German drama of assimilation was the announcement in 1986 that members of the venerable Germania Club had voted the club out of existence and authorized the sale of its 97-year-old building. "The Germans have become too well assimilated," the club president told a Tribune reporter. “They've all moved to the suburbs and married Irish girls."
By 1918, national parishes with mostly replaced by territorial parishes in which neighborhood boundaries, not nationality or race, were the criteria for membership. Since the residents of no Chicago Catholic neighborhood were wholly of one ethnic group, mixing was unavoidable. Indeed that was the point; in the territorial parish, the hierarchy hoped to accelerate the "Americanization" of the immigrant church.
Assimilation by then was an old story in Chicagoland. The Americanization of (most of) the immigrants happened less by the inculcation of a new identity than the gradual erosion of the old one. Charles Simic, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990, was born in Yugoslavia and came to the U.S. in 1954, when he was sixteen. Of the working people he met, he noticed that they spoke their native tongue of course, but also some English, some Hungarian, and maybe a little bit of Italian, and Polish too, having picked them while working for years with people from those places. But, he said, “these were the kind of people who were not at home in any culture anymore. They had forgotten their own culture, and they were not participating in American culture. Actually, they didn’t speak any languages.”
For African Americans, unlike most European-born ethnics, “Americanization” was not just a matter of learning a new language and new ways; one can’t “learn” a different skin. No wonder Chicago’s black community, or rather communities, have especially vigorous disputes about assimilation. What Richard Jensen called modernizers among blacks exploited the opportunities opened up by new civil rights laws by opting for college, moving to the suburbs, and flirting with a resurgent Republicanism. What Jensen dubbed traditionalists stayed in the ghetto, agitated for better welfare—what some saw as the plantation system in which the white overseers were played by bureaucrats—and resisted pleas to “act white.”
The argument is summarized in the ongoing debate between separatists or black nationalists and integrationists. The former has taken several forms, from the back-to-Africa movement of the 1920s tod the Black Power movements of the 1960s. Nationalism today is articulated more forcefully (or at least most noisily) by black Muslim Louis Farrakhan, whose movement is based in Chicago; integrationists, who retain a battered faith in the century-long quest to enter into the American social mainstream, are led by the heirs of the Southern civil rights movement such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has likewise made Chicago the base for his Operation Push.
The immigrant and ethnic experience is not quite the same, because the immigrant, once landed, was changed by the experience of life in Chicagoland. Even immigrants not especially tied to homeland and who happily anticipated their conversion into Americans, often were forced into a new social identity based on ethnicity. At home, Germanness could be assumed; it was the family, the village, the church that meaningfully demarked individuals in a wider world. Ditto in Italy; much is made in the literature concerning Italian Americans of the concept of campanilismo, the parochialism or sense of place that made an Italian’s town or region of birth the most important factor in the relationship among immigrants in this country. Before they were relabeled by their new neighbors in this country, many immigrant peoples defined themselves by their villages, not by their nation or ethnic group; the people who looked to outsiders to be “Italians” saw themselves as Calabrians or Tuscans (and much of whose history in Chicago has been about trying to preserve their Calabrian- and Tuscan-ness). These attachments were meaningless to their new Chicago neighbors, however. it was the race, their accents, their nationality that made them distinct, if only as targets.
Thus, whatever their origins, the newcomers had the common experience of being redefined as “German” or “Italian.” Sometimes that identity was only tangentially linked to the real one; immigrants to Chicago from the Arab nation of Syria are not “Arabs” in the popular sense, for instance, being mostly Lebanese Christians, but are usually lumped with—and dumped on—as Arabs.
How intensely the newcomers came to feel their ethnicity often varied according to how threatened was their national identity in a foreign land. Christiane Harzig writes about Chicago's Germans, “They not only varied by religion and origin but also by generation, class, gender, and political leanings. Sometimes they were able to unite across class, religious, and political lines to defend “Germanism”—the concept that they considered to be at the core of their ethnic identity.” The WASPs never failed to give them reasons to unite; whatever their other differences, for example, working-class German Americans stood as Germans against temperance and English-only laws.
This kind of re-labeling happened to Americans too. New Yorkers or Pennsylvanians were usually lumped together by Southerners as “Yankees” by the locals when they moved to the Midwest. In the 20th century, immigrant Sioux or Chippewa began to think of themselves as "Indians" after being treated that way, and ethnic politics became pan-Indian in personality.
Re-labeling was done on the basis of skin color too. On arrival, most of Chicago’s ethnic citizens were and are considered people of color by light-skinned members of the Northern European peoples, who contrived derogatory stereotypes based on darker skin color that were used both to describe and justify the discrimination with which people of color were treated. On that basis many a newcomer to Chicago found herself redefined in racial terms.
Before World War II, Chicago counted only some 400 Japanese American residents. That people’s presence had been largely symbolic. The government of Japan had paid to build a replica of one of their famous temples for the World Columbia Exposition in 1893; the Pavilion was augmented in 1935 by a ceremonial gate and tea house built for the 1933 version of the fair.
The attack on Pearl harbor excited some of the same kind of hysteria that had made targets of German businesses and newspapers during World War I. There being no Japanese American neighborhood in Chicago and precious few businesses, vandals were reduced to attacking the Japanese structures in Jackson Park, which they succeeded, after several attempts, in destroying by 1944.
All the more remarkable then that by the end of that war, Chicago had replaced the West Coast as the center of Japanese American life in the United States. Of the 60,000 internees who left the odious internment camps in the western states camps by war's end, some twenty to thirty thousand of them settled in Chicago. The resettlement of a people so recently reviled, and so markedly different in appearance and culture from the city’s white peoples, was remarkably free of animus. However, it would be an error, in the judgment of historian Charlotte Brooks, to infer from that a tolerance on part of non-Jap Chicagoans. She has argued that most Chicagoans had never even heard that Japanese Americans had been detained on the West Coast; thus the new arrivers in Chicago bore no taint of the spy and subversive. Nor did the locals seem to bear much anti-Japanese (as distinct from anti-Anti-American) prejudice. Most whites in the Midwest did not recognize their new neighbors as Japanese, seeing them only as “Oriental.” Where the resettlers faced discrimination in hiring and renting, it was not because they were Japanese but because they were not white.
This category of derogation was only tangentially related to actual color. Hispanics come in all colors, making “Hispanic” or “Latino” more useful as an ethnic rather than a racial category. That has not stopped many whites from treating Puerto Ricans as if they were African Americans. In short, “white” is a club to which membership is not determined by genes but by behavior. By adopting or at least mimicking the values of the Yankee—British and Protestant—people of all colors could become white. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass alluded to that past, tongue not entirely in cheek, when he wrote, “Just for the record, completely unreliable legend suggests that Americans of Greek descent didn't become white in Chicago until Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis in 1968, and then the first Mayor Daley had to make us white.”
Whites, in short, are whoever other whites say they are. As the term was used in the 19th century, Mediterranean and East European peoples were “races” distinct from British, Scandinavians or Germans. (In 1929, sociologist Harvey Warren Zorbaugh wrote that “while the Irish and Swedish had gotten on well as neighbors, neither . . . would live peaceably with the Sicilian. There was considerable friction, especially among the children of the two races.”) Chicago School sociologists defined African Americans, Mexicans, Italians, Slavs, and others as distinct races. The popular sociologists who held tenure in the city’s posher neighborhoods in the 19th century even included Chicago’s Irish as not “white.” (The Irish themselves had their own rather stricter criteria. James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan would observe, “The Polacks and Dagoes, and niggers are the same, only the niggers are the lowest.”) That would change. In a city that barred nonwhites from so much, of course, ethnics had good reasons to identify themselves as “white.” Poles and Irish for example not only became white but were the staunchest defenders of whiteness as a social category during the civil rights era.
Whatever their background, many Chicago ethnics were alike too in being either uninterested in or unable to read the mainstream newspapers and magazines. Instead, they turned to newspapers written in their own tongues. Every ethnic community had at least one. If the meat and drink of the mainstream popular press in Chicago was sensation, that of the ethnic press was disputation. African American readers of the Broadax for example were warned against the example of Booker T. Washington by publisher Julius F. Taylor, while the Chicago Defender of Robert Abbott was just as ardently pro-Washington.
Sociologist Marco D’Eramo’s summary of the process is worth quoting at length.
It was obvious that the first immigrants to arrive of a particular group should immediately start up a newspaper in their own language. That newspaper would then become two papers when the ethnic group split into opposing factions. The Germans had four newspapers, whereas both the Swedes and the Czechs had three, and so on. In an uninterrupted outpouring of fiery editorials, in a dozen or more languages, a babel of angry, indignant voices patriotically cursed the chauvinism of others, intolerant themselves yet demanding tolerance from others. It was a case of who could shout loudest to spread their own message, and also an attempt to remember and keep alive the mother tongue, a form of self-defense against the surrounding contempt, a chain of spite from one ethnic group to another, more or less reflecting their order of arrival on the American continent, with the first to land feeling themselves superior to the second, who in turn felt themselves above the third, and so on.
Nor will it do to exempt the mainstream press as not being ethnic. The Chicago Tribune was a strident voice for the city’s establishment WASPs. Under Joseph Medill in the Civil War era waged editorial war against the Irish—more properly the Catholics. (The distinguished journalism school that bears his name has redeemed the Medill name in the minds of newer generations who do not remember the man’s vile social views.) His successor and kin Robert McCormick railed against foreigners in print, but in private insisted on taking tea each afternoon and affected the accent of a British clubman.
According to the conventional wisdom, the Chicago version of the immigrant’s story consists of the trauma of arrival, the settlement in a neighborhood of like, crushing work for the parents, dislocation and alienation for their American-raised kids, a gradual climb up the economic ladder and successive moves to nicer, larger dwellings in nicer neighborhoods. Nothing better illustrates the dynamic of ethnic rise than the fact that Richard M. Daley, born and raised in Bridgeport, moved out to Central Station, to a townhouse in a redeveloped rail yard of upscale ”townhomes” invariably described in the old neighborhood (often with a sneer) as “fancy.”
Of course, moving up often means moving out in many senses, including marriage outside the tribe and the abandonment of the city for the suburbs. The result for many a de-racinated American is ambivalence toward both her past and her present identity. The crisis of identity is a staple of Chicago’s literature and lore; if the first generation faced a struggle again poverty or prejudice, the second faced a struggle against themselves. They replayed the experience of their own parents and grandparents who struggled to keep alive in strange world of America, just as their struggle to keep alive their cultural identity in strange world of suburbia. The ethnic vestiges that once embarrassed them become precious in retrospect, as all rare things become precious simply by being rare. Thus the ethnic festival, organized by second- or third-generation immigrants in which they celebrate the food, the dress, the habits that they used to sneer at in their grandparents.
The lore of such journeys burdens the history of every ethnic group in Chicagoland. The waystations on their hegiras varied by zip code but were otherwise much alike. Generally, West Siders kept moving west, North Siders north, and so on. Germans went from between Chicago and North avenues, Old Town, then Lake View, then Lincoln Square—last stop on the way out of town to the 'burbs. The Bridgeport Irish moved to Washington Park, then Hyde Park and South Shore, Mount Green, or Beverly. Swedes congregated at first near Wells and LaSalle, resettled around Division and Chicago, and sojourned for a time in Andersonville on their way north of town. The Norse from May and Erie migrated to Logan Square, then Wicker Park, and on to the northwest suburbs. From the Near South Side, Croats ended up in Hegewisch on the Far Far South Side.
Czechs first settled along De Koven Street in an area that came to be known, inevitably, as “Little Prague.” As so many have, they then moved out—first to the neighborhood around Eighteenth Street and Racine Avenue named after a local restaurant and saloon owned by a nostalgic native of Plzen who named his joint the Pilsen Café). Beginning in the 1880s, the destination was “Ceska California,” the second most influential Czech neighborhood in Chicago, on the west edge of the city between 14th and 33rd streets. The Czech residents abandoned these West Side neighborhoods by the 1950s, leaving the city altogether, many moving to the near suburbs like Berwyn and Cicero; 22d Street (later Cermak Road) between Cicero and Harlem was long known as the Bohemian Wall Street.
In 1867, St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish was formed by Poles who had settled near the Rolling Mill district along the North Branch of the Chicago River. This mother of all Polish parishes in Chicago built its church in 1876. At the turn of the 20th century, St. Stanislaus Kostka boasted 40,000 members—most counties in Illinois have no city that large—which is thought to have made it the largest parish in the nation; services conducted in Polish filled it a dozen times every Sunday. The neighborhood around St. Stanislaus Kostka is still an immigrant haven, but these days immigrants are Hispanic, not Polish. The church building still stands, but the institution it once housed is crumbling as its members who moved to the suburbs worship in towns such as Wheeling and Mount Prospect.
Jews were especially itinerant. The Roman Catholics may have been bound to the old neighborhood by the sanctity of the physical parish, African Americans by the hostility of their white neighbors, but Jews simply left. The German Jews who made up the congregation of K.A.M. Isaiah Israel—the Midwest’s oldest Jewish congregation—moved no fewer than seven times before ending up (for the moment) at their present home at 1100 East Hyde Park Boulevard. However, the virtues of the old neighborhood—mainly social comfort and reinforcement—were deemed too valuable to surrender, so they simply rebuilt the old neighborhoods wherever they went. Jewish Lawndale was recreated in West Rogers Park, which was served by synagogues first founded around on the near West Side of downtown near Maxwell Street; Irving Cutler has observed that California Avenue, between Peterson and Touhy avenues, with its rows of mostly Orthodox synagogues, is reminiscent of Douglas Boulevard in Lawndale. (In the North Shore suburbs, where the “old country” is Garfield Park, Reform temples are the norm.) Shoppers on Devon Avenue, the Main Street of West Rogers Park, were served by merchants who relocated from Roosevelt Road or Lawrence Avenue.
By some calculations, four of five Chicagoland Jews now live north of Lawrence Avenue. In his memoir, author Rich Cohen wrote this about growing up in the 1970s:
[The South Side] had once been the home of our grandfathers, a haven for immigrants from Poland, Russia, and Greece. On weekend nights, the air had filled with fumes from their grills— souvlaki, bratwurst, sausage—and the streets had soaked up the warm midwestern rain. But drib by drab the sons of those immigrants had moved to the manicured pastures of Rogers Park or Bucktown, or even farther north to Winnetka, Evanston, Glencoe.
For families like the Cohens, the city has become the Old Country.
Self-help was a tradition and not just a slogan among many of Chicagoland’s ethnic groups. Every one had its fraternal societies and benevolent associations that together composed a parallel social system for the millions who were barred from or did not trust Chicago’s mainstream versions.
Sicilian immigrants around Taylor Street and their North Side compatriots around Sedgwick Street obtained life insurance (and not a little help with extortionists in both City Hall and the Black Hand) from the benevolent association Unione Siciliana, which was founded in 1895. Other such organizations provided banking services, funerals. Within a few years of their arrival in numbers during the World War I era, local Mexicans had founded chapters of mutual benefit societies known as mutualistas, which dispensed aid from a dues-supported fund to members who were hurt or out of work or needed to bury a loved one. The German version were the landsmanshaften or vereins; in the German Jewish community they functioned as social clubs, loan associations, sick-benefit and cemetery agencies all in one, according to Irving Cutler.
As ethnic groups became established economically, many were able to provide themselves full-fledged community institutions. Jewish Lawndale in the 1920s was served by a rehabilitation hospital, a convalescent home, a day-and-night nursery, a large orphanage, a home for the Orthodox Jewish aged, and Mount Sinai Hospital, which served kosher meals. On the Polish Northwest Side one found a hospital too, plus and old folks homes and the Polish Welfare Association to help Polish communities deal with juvenile delinquency and other social problems.
As for business capital, that too was largely community-generated for decades. Building and loan associations ranks not far behind the local church as a crucial neighborhood organization; such organizations offered not only helped build loans but ethnic solidarity.
Where their numbers made such things commercially viable, ethnics frequented their own taverns, shops, private schools, and social clubs. Where their numbers made such things desirable, ethnics attended their own churches; by 1915 there were at least 202 well-defined national parishes for 16 different groups in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Many also had their own politicians; most of the great latter chiefs of the Democratic machine owed their start to their fellow ethnics; Anton Cermak was the boss of his Czech community in Lawndale.
The tendency to ethnics of like origins to congregate in the same parts of the city is well known. To a Pole on Milwaukee Avenue in some eras, the Northwest Side was a Polish neighborhood no matter how many people of other backgrounds shared it, because the only people she interacted with, worshipped with, shopped with, and gossiped with were Poles. The Poles were not the only group that (melting pot clichés to the contrary) did not want to be American, at least during the years soon after arrival. They only wanted to be in America, and the ethnic enclave made it possible.
Unease in sharing public spaces with the dominant “whites”—mainly Protestant, mainly middle class, mainly assimilated if not native born—was general. White ethnics seldom ventured downtown, for example, a habit that presented opportunities, and not only for the pushcart and corner grocery- scale businessman. The German American W. A. Wieboldt built a storefront shop on North Avenue into a chain of department stores beginning in 1884; one of the secrets of his success was putting his stores in the neighborhoods rather than downtown, and staffing them with multilingual clerks who made ethnic shoppers feel comfortable.
Writer Lee Sandlin, in a family memoir, recalled the days his grandfather Clarence spent as a cab driver in the 1920s in the then-German Lincoln Square area. Clarence had been raised among the Germans of Downstate Edwardsville.
He quickly felt at home among the countless coffee shops and meat markets and corner bakeries, the pharmacies with their herbal remedies and the newsstands with their arrays of Teutonic eccentricity (magazines devoted to naturism, and magnetic healing, and National Socialism), the endless elm-pillared streets, the receding rows of brownstones, the turrets and spiky church steeples and water towers; it was like a dream of the old Germany he'd sometimes heard described in his childhood.
There is a major difference between the ghetto and the ethnic enclave. The former is imposed on a weaker group by a stronger one. None of the ethnic ghettos of Chicago was a true ghetto. The Jews of Maxwell Street were not confined there by law, for example, as their kin had been in Europe. The exception was the African American neighborhoods whose purity was enforced by whites as a kind of apartheid.
In contrast, the segregation that results in the voluntary enclave was self-protective, its purpose to preserve and, in some cases perpetuate traditions that under assault in the new land. The enclave was adopted by Chicago’s Poles, for example, as a strategy for cultural survival. the boundaries of these enclaves were always precisely, if seldom officially observed, usually because patrolled by young toughs or by insurance red-liners and realtors.
It must be owed that enclaves are not in every way bad things. The presence of people of shared tastes gives ethnic merchants a market, ethnic professionals clients, and ethnic politicians a constituency. In Chinatown, in Little Village, and the other lesser ethnic enclaves, segregation allowed flourishing businesses owned by and catering to the locals and to tourists eager for a taste of the exotic in food and entertainment.
The concentration of ethnic-minded voters also secured majorities in at least aldermanic and some state legislative races. Indeed, a succession of black pols connived in maintaining the black ghettos in spite of the social cost to their own constituents because they gave the aldermen a ready-made power base. Recent court decisions sanctioning same-race majority districts in the name of voting rights have confirmed these pols’ opinion that, when comes to politics, a ghetto is a good thing.
Bronzeville is a good example. There seems to be an almost palpable longing among some middle class African Americans for the Bronzeville of old. The area offered displaced Southern blacks social comfort, a fount of identity. That Bronzeville is mostly vanished, but the trend among African Americans who can afford to live the old neighborhoods is to gather in new same-race communities in Chicago’s southern suburbs. While racial steering and other kinds of discrimination still exist in the suburbs, segregation in the region's new Bronzevilles is mainly voluntary, driven by a desire for social comfort and cultural solidarity—less aggravated versions of the impulse to social self-sufficiency and economic nationalism that Chicago’s earlier ethnics would have sympathized with.
Few of the mythic Chicago ethnic neighborhoods retained a specific ethnic character for much longer than a generation or two. Maxwell Street is a good example. On Sunday morning, Graham Hutton wrote in the 1940s, Maxwell street market was “London’s Caledonian market, Berwick Street, and Petticoat Lane fused into one, with the color and noise and bargaining of all the world’s peoples.” Phil Holdman recalls growing up there in those days—the “nickel show” known as the Irving Theater “Kingfish” Levinsky’s fish store, Shloimes Clothing Store, a live chicken store and the shochet next door that slaughtered your fowl for a dime and an old man who “robbed your chrane” (pulverized your horseradish) for your Friday night gefilite fish. “I don’t think that English was spoken on this block,” Holdman told an interviewer, “only Yiddish.” Holdman’s mother was “a live chicken maven” who always picked out the one with the most schmaltz; she shopped on Maxwell because she “didn’t trust those fancy new stores on Roosevelt Road, with their cash registers.” By 1910 the Jews started moving out; by the l930s only a small remnant of Jewish businessmen and older Jews remained in the Maxwell Street area.
Most ethnic enclaves survive only as local lore.A very few enclaves were the subjects of formal academic studies of the sort that fixed the life of Depression-era Bronzeville as prehistoric pollen is fixed upon a microscope slide. Many more enclaves were the subjects of memoirs, or novels. Painter Anthony Angarola, a first-generation Italian immigrant, made the local immigrant experience a theme of his work in the early 1920s through a series of canvases with titles such as Swede Hollow, Little Italy St. Paul, Bohemian Flats, and German Picnic.
There are exceptions. Like so many big city ethnic hoods, Ukrainian Village was more Ukrainian than Ukraine, in the sense that in the old country many of the old ways that were abandoned undere Soviet domination ended are here nostalgically preserved. St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, which was modeled after the Basilica of St. Sophia in Kiev. the Ukrainian National Museum Features trademark crafts—intricately painted easter eggs, wood carvings and colorful embroidery. Each March, readings, art exhibitions and other events honor Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's greatest poet and a champion of national indepoendence.
Ukrainian Village has seen its share of gentrification, but in this case many of the affluent young buyers are Ukrainians who had left for the ‘burbs and who opted to return to the old neighborhood to raise their kids. That Ukrainian Village kept its character for nearly a century in a city in which neighborhoods change ethnic composition every generation or two confirms the Ukrainians’ fierce conservatism. Richard Lindberg, in his useful 1997 book, Passport's Guide to Ethnic Chicago, reports that as late as 1969 a decision by the local Catholic parishes to switch from the traditional Julian calendar to the Gregorian—adopted by the rest of the world in 1582—so upset some parishioners that they started their own church a few blocks away that marks time the old way.
The Ukrainian National Museum in Ukrainian Village museum is surprisingly modest, given the size of the Ukrainian community. In any event the real history of these people in Chicago is better gleaned from the neighborhood itself; next door to the museum is Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church, whose Ukrainianness attests to the church’s role in cultural anchor to immigrants adrift in the wild seas of America; also nearby are Ukrainian restaurants and bakeries, where Ukrainian life in Chicago can be digested literally.
According to the Chinese American Service League, 70 percent of the Chinatown residents of today’s Chinatown are new immigrants. Long fixed in area at eight square blocks, road projects in the 1930s, ‘50s, and ‘60s pared away at Chinatown’s edges. The most recent surge in immigration forced the long-delayed cause expansion of the district, into Bridgeport and Brighton Park just south and south west of Chinatown. (Many Americanized Chinese are going farther, to western suburbs as Westmont and Naperville.) Local businesspeople also realized the need to upgrade housing and commercial infrastructure to hold on to their established residents. Need met opportunity when the Santa Fe Railroad abandoned its yards north of Archer Avenue that had long been a barrier to expansion. The 1990s saw the construction of retail strips, town houses, condos and apartments, and subsidized senior housing, and a new park.
New buildings in Chinatown have been built in the Chinese style, with wide eaves and elaborate painted roof brackets, and many of the old 19th century buildings have been remodeled to look more Chinese. The On Leong Merchants Association Building at 2216 S. Wentworth Avenue, built in the mid-1920s in a style reminiscent of the architecture of the Kwangtung district of China, whence many of Chinatown's early residents came. It was the headquarters of the founders of today’s Chinatown. It was the local version of the familiar community center, housing at various times a meeting hall, a school, a shrine, and the association's offices. It is now an official City of Chicago landmark.
The accents and the menus change, but the social dynamic that produces ethnic enclaves hasn’t changed much. Chicago still has many such refuges from American-ness in the city. Settled from about 1870 to the early 1950s by immigrant Czechs (the city of Plzen, or Pilsen, is the capital of west Bohemia, from which many Chicago came). it evolved into a Mexican neighborhood, and its main drag, Eighteenth Street, is lined with Mexican tacquerias, family-owned grocery stores, and bakeries. The music on the street, the fare on the food carts, the outdoor murals give the district an unmistakably Mexican feel, a match for Maxwell street in its heyday as a simulacrum of the old country.
Today’s Pilsen does not merely resemble a Mexican barrio, it is one, one that is, as Marco D’Eramo points out, closer to any other Mexican town than it is to an Evanston or a Park Forest, both towns that are, in cultural terms, a thousand miles away from Pilsen. Resident have lived here for 20 years never having to learn English. Those that move up do not necessarily move out; many Mexicans are investing and making homes in the area rather than in the city’s outlying neighborhoods or the suburbs. Those that do leave have been replaced by the heavy influx of newcomers who maintain the Spanish accent.
A bit to the west of Pilsen is la Villita or Little Village, a little bit—actually, a pretty large bit—of Mexico transplanted to South Lawndale. A major port of entry for immigrants, the area bounded by Western, Ogden, and Kostner avenues and I-55, was largely middle European until 1970 or so. Today it is home to well over 100,000 people, most of whom are Latinos and most of the Latinos are Mexican. The dozens of shops crammed with goods from Mexico reminders that cowboy is not solely a creature of the U.S. West. Pushcarts that sell popsicles in the suburbs in the summer here sell mango and papaya. Sales volume in the businesses along the two and a half-mile stretch of 26th Street between California and Cicero Avenue are thought to be second only to Michigan Avenue among the city’s most prosperous retail centers. Chicago ethnic communities tend to measure the vibrancy of their communities in terms of parades; the big one in Little Village each September is thought to be the largest annual Hispanic parade in Chicago.
As in Pilsen, residents here are spared the awkwardness over language that makes social exchanges with non-Spanish speakers anxious. There is little that is American, much less specifically Illinoisan or Chicagoan about the place—except perhaps that it has its own Chamber of Commerce—but it is nonetheless closer to the “real” Chicago than the usual tourist haunts because it is here that one can witness anew the old dramas of arrival, struggle, and assimilation that make up the stories of uncounted thousands of Chicagoans for more than 150 years.
Sag paneer on white bread
“Ethnic” means “the city” to a lot of Chicagoland residents. The suburbs are widely assumed to be the very symbol of white-bread America—the place to which the WASPish whites fled to escape the dark-skinned newcomers of each new generation of immigrants. Enough Chicago suburbs confirm that stereotype that it persists in the face of demographic evidence to the contrary.
However, Chicagoland’s hinterland population always had a substantial (and in some places, an overwhelmingly) ethnic flavor. The farms around South Holland were first worked by Netherlanders, as the name suggests; in 1900 Hollanders were growing "Glencoe horse-radish" in the valley of the Skokie River in far north Cook County. Joliet was the center of the Austrian population in the U.S. in the 19th century and had a significant population of Catholic Slovenes. There are at least a half dozen Hindu temples in the suburbs. Mitsuwa Marketplace, the giant Japanese supermarket in Arlington Heights, is a far cry from the ethnic grocery of legend. Cosmetic dentists in places like Buffalo Grove have names like Patel these days, and you can get sag paneer for lunch in Schaumburg. In the southwest suburbs, lunchers bored with hamburgers can dine on hummus on pita bread or lamb kabobs.
Things are different for the suburban ethnic in the ways that life for all is different in the suburbs. The familiar social dynamic from the city enclave is altered by that environment. In the former, enough families of like background lived within a streetcar ride to sustain the ethnic church, the store, the social club. Suburban ethnics, with rare exceptions, adopted the dispersed living patterns typical of all but inner-ring suburbs. A church or a shop must draw from much larger area to sustain itself. Many of the suburbs temples and mosques have not been built in Hindu or Muslim neighborhoods—they aren’t any—but stand at easy-to-reach spots along the expressways, in response to the same logic that sites shopping malls in such spots.
For years, immigrant Poles of the Divine Mercy Polish Mission had to drive to the cafeteria of Montini Catholic High School in Lombard to celebrate Catholic mass in Polish, and be able to observe the rituals peculiar to their national church, such as bringing baskets of sausages, eggs and other items to church on Holy Saturday to be blessed as part of the Easter traditions. Re-enacting the ancient tradition to the immigrant, they plan to build a church of their own; the difference is, this new church going up on Swift Road near North Avenue in unincorporated Du Page County on the edge of Lombard and Glen Ellyn.
Nonetheless, the experience of suburban ethnics is remarkably similar to their counterparts in the city. For one thing, the tendency to settle in enclaves was nearly as marked as in the city. These settlements accreted around factories at first; this was the case with the Mexican settlements in Aurora, Joliet, and Blue Island; Waukegan is some four percent Mexican and Mexican American. These days the factories are in towns such Arlington Heights and Bensenville, and they too have attracted Mexican workers and their families.
At the same time, their story is alike that of their un-hyphenated neighbors as well. As ethnic families acquired means, they moved to the suburbs in search of better homes and schools, more greenery and space, less crime. The settlement along the North Shore around World War I of German Jews for example was a phenomenon of the affluent, but after World War II a mass migration from Rogers Parks and other city neighborhoods began, until today probably three-fourths of the region’s Jewish residents are suburbanites, most of them in the more affluent northern suburbs.
If the leitmotif of Chicago suburbs in the first three quarters of the 20th century was growth, for example, the significant demographic story of the last quarter of the 20th century has been change. One can note a hundred examples. As early as the 1840s, the French Canadians who settled the future Wilmette had left, and that old trading settlement was transformed into a German farming center, thanks to the arrival of immigrants from the latter nation’s Trier region. (The area was known as New Trier, a name that survives in New Trier Township and the high school and the school district that supports it.) The south suburb of Posen was named Bremen when it was founded by Germans, but was re-named by Polish immigrants who moved to the area to work in the steel mills in adjacent Harvey. Even in Skokie, the quintessentially Jewish suburb, public schools by the 1990s ended their long-standing policy of declaring a school holiday on major Jewish holidays, because there were too few Jewish students any more to justify it.
Chicagoland’s ethnic citizens are among those who have joined in the post-war suburban exodus. As a result, probably not one Chicago suburb is not more ethnically diverse than it was 20 years ago, and in many cases the difference is dramatic. To cite just two examples of dozens: Country Club Hills, once heavily German, is today a mostly black suburb. South Holland long resisted the influx of Poles and Italians who populated the later industrial towns that adjoin it; of late the population has shifted a third time, so that a town that was 0.2 percent black in 1990 was by 2000 51 percent African American. Waukegan is today some 45 percent Hispanic; three west suburban towns (Cicero, Hodgkins, and Stone Park) were majority Hispanic by 2002.
Joliet Slovenians had a falling-out with the Germans of St. John the Baptist at 404 N. Hickory Street, where the Slovenians worshiped for a time. The Slovenians thus determined to build a new church and built it with limestone and two steeples. The church still draws now-aging Slovenians, whose masses are accompanied by polka music, but its school is filled with children of Hispanic immigrants.
Such demographic shifts eventually are expressed politically. (The city of Chicago is not the only place where the phrase, “It’s our turn” has meaning.) In Chicago Heights, the Scots-Irish business establishment that dominated the community a century ago has long since surrendered power to descendants of the ethnic migrants whom they so bitterly opposed; as early as 1970, Italian Americans dominated the city council, the school board, and the park board. In the west suburbs, voters elected the first Latino to the Aurora City Council in 2001. Waukegan, a town that heretofore had tended to prefer mayors with Irish and Swedish surnames, in 1957 elected Robert Sabonjian, the son of local Armenian immigrants as mayor and kept electing him; Sabonjian served 24 years, during which time he helped friends with names such as Manion, Hoogasian, and Paravonian into politics. The social changes that have come at Cicero over that same span of years can be read in the surnames of its top elected officials; in a 2003 special election, the old town president Betty Loren-Maltese was replaced by one Ramiro Gonzalez.
These transitions seldom lead to violence, as happened so often in the city, but social relations were no less fractious along Chicago’s suburban frontier than they were in the city’s parishes; Chicagoland citizens were a long way from welcoming difference, as so many pretend to do today. These days, discrimination on grounds of faith or color may be proscribed, at least officially. Within the peaceable kingdom of the middle class, people are quite tolerant all manner of ethnic and religious differences. There has been a Japanese community in Chicago as far back as the 1890s. (Before she left for Japan in 1940, World II traitor, Tokyo Rose lived in Chicago with her father, who owned a restaurant on N. Clark Street.) The first sizable contingent of Japanese began arriving after World War II, between 1950 and 1960 and landlords shunned them; their descendants, and countrymen in the form of expatriate business executives have created a Japanese American community in the northwest suburbs without problem. The discrimination faced by Jews in some North Shore towns has been largely dissipated. Segregation however remains real; the difference is that people realized that skin color and religious preference are meaningless in terms of what really makes them uneasy about neighbors. The same-race suburb thus is as rare as the same-sex school, but the same-class suburb remains the standard.
Up onto the pedestal
Each ethnic group underwent its own passage from outcast immigrant to honored citizen. For years, the proof that an ethnic group had achieved status in the larger community was the erection in public space of a statue of their national hero or the naming of a street or park streets after them. One would be hard put to count them all, much less to describe them.
Two examples of many: Auburn Avenue is now Lituanica Avenue in memory of the first Lithuanian Roman Catholic church in Chicago which was built there, at 33rd Street, in 1892, and Crawford Avenue became Pulaski Avenue in 1952, after nearly 20 years of political and legal wrangles. The statue of the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, who gave us our classifications of plants and animals, stands on the Midway between Ellis and Woodlawn avenues; at the eastern end of the Midway stands a large equestrian statue of a Bohemian knight, to honor Thomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia.
As new groups arrive, Chicago’s bronze citizens become as varied as living ones. Mahatma Gandhi has a statue, in Skokie's Heritage Park at the intersection of Dempster Street and McCormick Boulevard, commissioned by a trust formed by Skokie’s Indian American community; the park is designed to showcase a total of 13 sculptures celebrating Skokie’s cultural diversity and village unity.
The many log houses that have been preserved across the region—one finds them in Highland Park, Skokie, Deerfield, Naperville, and many more towns—are themselves ethnic artifacts, that form of shelter having been adapted by the region’s Brits from Scandinavian models.
Statues cost money. Many groups are finding it cheaper to persuade the city council to get a street made an honorary way. There are many of these signs appended to regulation street signs in Chicago; one such is the one at Clark and Montrose cryptically announcing the presence of “100th/442nd/MIS Way”—it honors the 100th Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service, which were three of the segregated Japanese American military units that served during World War II.
Multiculturalists of our day, frustrated in their attempts to create a diverse society here, sometimes create one in an imagined past by offering old Chicago as a model multi-ethnic community. Consider the career, living and dead, of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable. Most accounts describe du Sable as a fur trader from Haiti of mixed blood, the son of French man (possibly a sailor) and a African-born slave woman. But the evidence about this, as about so many things about his life, is scant, and some scholars believe it more likely that du Sable was born in Canada of two free black parents.
Du Sable appears to have been the first permanent resident of what was then known as “Eschikagou.” (First permanent resident; in 1674 Father Jacques Marquette, on his way to set up a mission in downstate Illinois, was forced to winter on the site of Chicago.) Du Sable ran a trading post in 1779, possibly earlier. His commercial success demonstrated the importance of the site as a locus of travel, which in turn may have been important in convincing federal authorities to establish Fort Dearborn here. In his 20 years he built an impressive establishment on the north bank of the Chicago River. When he sold out in 1800, the property included a house, a horse mill, bakehouse, barn, dairy, a poultry house, workshop, and stable. The house measured 40 by 22 feet—quite commodious for the time—and was furnished with a glass-doored French cabinet, a large feather bed, a couch, mirrors, and paintings.
It is plausible, if generous, to examine the inventory of his belongings in 1800 and praise him (as does the Chicago Public Library Web site devoted to him) as “a man of good taste and refinement” but it is surely a stretch to argue from the same evidence, as one African American organization does, that “he collected fine art and owned several European rare art pieces.“
Doubts can be raised even about the near-universal description of du Sable as African American, at least in that term’s narrower sense. His language and education was that of a French New World colonial; it is perhaps significant that when he retired, he sought out for his last home not a black enclave but a French one, in St. Charles, Missouri, where Frenchness was still a part of the present and not the past, as it already was in Chicago by 1800.
For decades, credit for the founding of the city for decades was given to Brits John Kinzie and his clan. They were crucial players in the early history of the town, but they were not the first Euro-Americans on the scene. It is now accepted that du Sable had appeared in the region as many as fourteen years before the Kinzie family arrived from Detroit, and that the Kinzies based their prosperity on the trading establishment built up by du Sable.
Du Sable not only recognized the potential of Chicago as a trading center but was the first man to act on it, and for that alone deserves mention among the city’s notables. But du Sable partisans tend to exaggerate his role in the city’s development. He is today widely credited as “the founder of Chicago,” but there is a difference between a resident and a founder. Du Sable built a trading post, not a town. (The French-Canadian/Indian community of which du Sable was a member was indifferent to formal town-building.) Ralph Pugh, a historian with the Chicago Historical Society specializing in the life of du Sable, has offered what may be the most sensible judgment, although surely not the final one. "Because he has become politically important, facts are often said about him without challenge,” Pugh told the Chicago Tribune in 2003, “which actually does a disservice to a great man who is quite historically important."
As long ago as 1912 the city of Chicago placed a marker in his memory at the corner of Kinzie and Pine (now Michigan Avenue), near the former site of his trading post; a marker that recalls du Sable's home at 411 N. Michigan Plaza was installed near that spot in 1977. Du Sable was officially recognized in 1968 by the State of Illinois for having been the “Founder of Chicago,” and in 1987 the U.S. Postal Service issued a du Sable stamp as part of its Black Heritage series. In 1999 city officials formally recognized du Sable as Chicago's founder.
The du Sable Museum of African American History in Washington Park was founded in 1961; a sculpture gardens on the grounds features five pieces installed in 1977 to represent “The Spirit of du Sable.” the lower lobby of the Harold Washington Library Center in the Loop is Du Sable's Journey, a “cosmogram” created by artist Houston Conwill, architect Joseph DePace, and poet Estella Conwill Majoza, which traces the water routes traveled by DuSable from Haiti to the Great Lakes.
There has been grumbling since the 1920s that du Sable has had only got a high school (in a black part of town) named after him. The lower lobby of the Harold Washington Library Center is adorned by an artwork titled DuSable's Journey, which traces the routes by which presumably got from Haiti to Illinois. But no major street bears his name, which led to proposals to rename Lake Shore Drive (in 1993) and even City Hall (in 2001) in du Sable's honor. His partisans have lobbied of late for a du Sable day, to be officially observed each June.
He at least has a park. In the 1980s Loop developers donated to the city a 3.5-acre plot of land at the present mouth of the river across from Navy Pier, which then-Mayor Harold Washington in 1987 proposed as a park to be named after du Sable. The steering committee has proposed creation of a DuSable Founders Trail along the river's north bank to link DuSable Park to the site of his trading post, south of Tribune Tower.
Progress in turning the vacant lot into a park over the following 20 years was slow—environmental problems and bureaucratic inefficiency, says the city; indifference due to race, say backers of the park. The real delays owe to political disputes between partisans, who are content to “celebrate” the mythic du Sable, and historians, who urge that the du Sable commemorated by the park be the real one, not the rather inflated hero of legend.
Another sore point is the statue that has long been planned for the site. The AIC, which has pledged several hundred thousand dollars to the project, picked Martin Puryear, the noted African American artist for the job; his proposed abstract work pleased not the local du Sable lobby. It was faceless, for one thing. This was historically appropriate—no one knows what du Sable looked like—but politically insufficient. One of the founding members of the du Sable League told the press she wanted du Sable depicted as “a huge statesman looking like Abraham Lincoln.'' Her colleagues stated their willingness to accept a ”realistic” du Sable statue that depicts him with a recognizable face—even if that face must necessarily an imagined one.
Ethnicity—and more recently race and sex—have always played a part in the selection of public art in Chicago. The ability to pay for a statue that trumpeted the achievements of one’s own was a mark of having arrived, and winning permission to do so was endorsement by the officials of worth. Thus, a review of the catalog of such pieces, with their dates, constitutes a quick study of the city’s ethnic history.
The subjects are almost without exception to be national heroes—soldiers, politicians, thinkers, artists. The Nicholas Copernicus was erected in part by the Polish American Congress, the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Lincoln Park sponsored by "The Germans of Chicago." The erection in 1891 of a statue of Carl Linnaeus in Lincoln Park commemorates the Scandinavian population of the North Side as much as it does the great 18th-century Swedish botanist. (Another statue of Linnaeus, by Robert Berk is in the form of an out-sized garden gnome at the Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe.)
In more recent years new class of outsider has been sanctioned to tell their stories, which has resulted, among other effects, in the many murals of civil rights heroes in public libraries in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and many more works in many situations by women.
Having a statue or a mural is no longer enough. The count varies by the strictness of one’s definition, but a conservative tally puts the number of ethnic museums and cultural centers in Chicagoland at more than three dozen. (Many newer museums exist only on the Web.) Whatever their form, the “heritage museum” soothes the longings of a people for home, but its larger purpose is educational (or, often, polemic). They aim to persuade ethnic snobs that the organizers have a history worth noting. They also seek to teach their Americanized children and grandchildren of what was lost by immigration—although the effect as often as not, is just the opposite. Almost any custom, wrenched from context, seems absurd, especially when the customs highlighted because they are the most “colorful”—meaning the most distinct from American ways. Offering the children of Ukrainian immigrants the opportunity to learn egg painting, for example, risks making ancestors seem not just quaint but weird.
What such museums usually do not do is instruct the visitor about the specifically Chicagoland experience of an ethnic group. The result is that one usually learns (to pick a typical example) a lot of Poles at the Polish Museum of America near St. Stanislaus Kostka on the Northwest Side—you can see a chair Paderewski sat on at the piano or early 20th-century Expressionist Polish paintings—but little about Chicagoland’s Poles. A rare exception is the virtual tour of German American historical sites in Chicago posted on the web site of the local chapter of the Goethe Institute.
A museum must have a coherent record to display. Donations are the usual means of building a collection of interest to future historians, but of late ethnic groups have sought out the group’s history, not merely stored it. The Chicago Japanese American Historical Society is a grassroots organization founded in the early 1990s whose self-described mission is to preserve, promote, and present the history of Japanese Americans in Chicagoland. A similar mission animates the History Makers, a nonprofit based in the old Bronzeville neighborhood that is modeled on and seeks to expand the African American oral history work undertaken by the WPA in the 1930s.
We’re all Indians now
The career of the Chicago Ethnic of the post-settlement eras has undergone an apotheosis akin to that of the Native American. At first they were excoriated, exploited, sneered at as backward, barely civilized if they were fully human at all. Yugoslav-born poet Charles Simic—named in 2007 the new Poet Laureate of the U.S.—moved to Chicago from his native Belgrade as a youth. His new home town, he decided, reminded him of Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of the slums of St. Petersburg:
A Ukrainian, let’s say, would come to Chicago when he was a boy, get on a shift in some factory and then, because overtime was so well paid, stay for the next forty years . . . .
They became slaves. They liked the idea! They worked four extra hours every day, and they worked weekends. They just worked—all their lives. When you met them, you couldn’t tell what age they were. They were forty, fifty, sixty; they had a gray look.”
That characterization is general. Sinclair wrote about it admiringly in The Jungle, others less so. In Chatfleld-Taylor’s 1895 novel, Two Women and A Fool, the main character reflects on the city’s newest residents:
Those people who passed me, how brutal were their faces; how beast-like their little eyes. But they were the repulsive life of this great city The character of the people one meets here has changed since I was a boy There is less vigor and Yankee pluck in their faces, more of the degradation of the European serf.
The ethnic did not enhance his reputation in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. These new “white ethnics” by then were considered were hard-working, devout—not likable people perhaps but admirable. They could also be xenophobic and deeply racist. Their ethnic strongholds were redoubts of racism in the city, and what was seen as Richard J. Daley’s catering to that constituency was a blot on his reputation too.
That was 30 years ago. The same white ethnic that was damned as a racist boob in the 1970s is today romanticized as the salt of the earth. Writer Stuart Dybek has made a career out of recording their antics, as did Mike Royko with his comic Everyman from the Polish Northwest Side, Slats Grobnik. This view just as misleadingly narrow, if more flattering, than the old one. The shift probably owes much to the process by which the city’s baby boomers have come to terms with their own parents. Whatever the social dynamic at work, it threatens to transform the white ethnic Chicagoan into a “character” of the sort that used to populate the burlesque stages and the columns of George Ade.
If the ethnic Chicagoan has become a cartoon type, a caricature, so her old neighborhoods have become Disney’s Main Street with an accent. Many of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods offer an experience almost as ersatz as did the Midway during the 1894 world’s fair. Greek Town, on Halsted between Adams and Monroe streets, is little more than a marketing rubric for restaurant advertising. (A “new” Greektown has sprouted along Lawrence Avenue on the North Side.) What is left of Little Italy along Taylor Street (around 1500 west) serves mainly to provide decent eats—Mario's Lemonade and sandwiches from Conte DiSavoia—to the hungry yups who work and study at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago. The ironies are rich; Little Italy, much of which was torn down in part because it was too European, is these days being gussied up because it isn’t quite European enough.
The redevelopment of “Bronzeville,” as the African American ghetto south of downtown is sometimes known, is welcome from an economic point of view, but it poses the same kind of threat to the historic remnants of Bronzeville that gentrification poses to all of Chicago’s newly trendy ethnic neighborhoods. Interests marshaled by a longtime alderman hope to turn the area around 47th into a “modern African Village” to which conventioneers would repair via the Red Line to sample authentic "blues" culture in new clubs and dine in African/Caribbean restaurants.
That part of east 47th Street has been redubbed Tobacco Road, the title of a minor 1964 hit song by local boy made good Lou Rawls, whose name graces the theater being/is built on the former site of the old Regal Theatre. This part of the black South Side in its heyday was hardly a place of tarpaper shacks. It was ineluctably urban and cosmopolitan. Residents and some preservationists have complained publicly about making a blues-oriented Tobacco Road the main street of a new African village in a place that was never a Tobacco Road, never an African Village, and where the music played was jazz rather than blues.
If residents of the ethnic neighborhood are sometimes nostalgic for a old country that they never experienced, so many of the visitors to those neighborhoods from the suburbs are nostalgic for a Chicago neighborhood that no longer exists—if it ever did. Indeed so rapid is the social change in Chicago that often by the time public institutions get around to paying their respects, the people have moved on. In the 1980s the architects of the new branch library for the once-German Lincoln Square neighborhood included custom-made furniture whose design was based on German mythology, but not many of the rear ends that will sit on it are German.
One of the legacies national church-building was a surplus of churches, as the original Catholic settlers of founders of working-class parishes died or fled to the suburbs. Since 1975 about 80 parishes have been shut in the archdiocese. In some parts of the city the process by which the parish was replenished by new residents from different nations but the same faith still goes on; Hispanics are keeping alive many a parish on the West Side. In neighborhoods in which working class Catholics were not replaced by coreligionists—which was the case in great swaths of the west and south sides now occupied by mainly Protestant African Americans—the old parishes have been starved of support. While black converts to Catholicism were not rare in Chicago, there were seldom enough members of the church to sustain the substantial infrastructure of church, school, rectory, and convent.
Some white ethnic parishes had been able to count on 60 percent of the residents to carry the weight of all that brick; when the parish neighborhood went all black the parish might be able to draw upon contribution from only five percent or less, and many of them were poor. The now-mostly black West Side can support perhaps three of the ten parishes that line the Eisenhower Expressway between Damen Avenue and the suburbs. (And one of those ten was itself forged from three parishes in the late 1980s.) On the South Side, ten Englewood parishes were reorganized in 1989 to sustain one church. Typical is what happened to St. Michael Catholic Church on 24th Place, a modest building in a modest neighborhood in the Lower West Side. The parish opened in 1903 and served mainly Italian immigrants; the parish's heyday was in the late 1940s. The local ethnic population was at its peak, the baby boom was underway, and new affluence made possible the construction of an elementary school next to the church that in short order enrolled 233 children. Fifty years later, the church was ordered closed, there not being enough families to support it.
Meanwhile, each new Chicago ethnic continues to become ethnics of Americanized sort, in their way an inauthentic—indeed unrecognizable as such in the old country—as the caricatures. This kind of cultural emigration—a social and psychological abandonment of old country—was as wrenching in way as the not much less total that the physical abandonment that their grandparents and great-grandparents had experienced. There is also the painful irony that people who came to the U.S. to better themselves economically find, after they’ve achieved it, that their heritage is diluted, thanks to the effects of materialism, that universal solvent of values. Nothing is more poignant than the new schools that have been set up at which grandchildren of recent Greek, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian immigrants, among others, are taught the language, history, and customs of countries that most have never seen. ●