Mid-America’s Port of Entry
Chicago as immigrant haven
See Illinois (unpublished)
January 14, 2021: I see now that this extravagant excursion into this area leads readers down some twisty paths. Until I find the time to revise it, it should be regarded as of only first-draft quality.
Persons whom many a Downstater would call real Americans were as rare as butlers in many Chicago neighborhoods until well into the 20th century. G. W. Stevens, an Englishman who was not used to such places, called Chicago “the most American of American cities and yet the most mongrel.” He would have been more accurate to say that Chicago was the most American of cities because it was the most mongrel.
The fact that Chicago (and its suburbs) are home to people who are not like the Downstaters of a given historical moment has always roiled the city’s relationships, political and social, with the rest of the state. The prejudice against the new American overlooks the role that immigrants played in Downstate manufacturing cities and coal towns, indeed, overlooks the reality that the ancestors of every Illinoisan (including its modern Native American population) were immigrants to Illinois.
This is a chapter from my never-published section on Chicago from the draft of See Illinois, my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. See Publications for more about that project.
A city is the sum of its people, plainly, so as the people differ, so do cities, and the fact that Chicago is usually composed of people who are apprentice or partial or ambivalent Chicagoans has given the city much of its distinctive character. As Thomas Geoghegan wrote, “New York got the Jews, Italians and Irish, which made it brassy and operatic, while Chicago was built by Poles and Slovaks, stolid, steady peoples with all the pizzazz of a dumpling.”
Modern Chicago was peopled by four massive immigrations—two mainly from Europe, roughly 50 years apart, one from the American South, the fourth from Asia and the non-U.S. Western hemisphere—that had the same sort of effect on the social landscape that the great ice sheets had had on the physical landscape. The newcomers all but obliterated the social landscape that had been left behind by their predecessors; as each wave of people receded they left residues that shaped the subsequent evolution of the place. Each migration altered the city political and social and cultural balance, unsettling it for a while. Each time it took years to right itself, by which time, usually, a new wave from somewhere else came to unsettle the city again.
Along with industrialization and the coming of the railroads, immigration is one of the great sagas of Chicago history. Much of what is popularly assumed about immigration is not quite true, or at least not comprehensively true. (Immigration to Chicago was not an exclusively 19th century phenomenon, for example, nor an exclusively foreign one, nor an exclusively urban one.) That just makes the story interesting as well as important.
Metis to Mexicans
The European-born Chicago immigrant is usually understood to a creature of the late 19th century industrialization, but Chicago was a haven for immigrants long before then. Most of the first European residents were French Canadian metis, or half-breeds, who traded (and married) with the local Native Americans; they were augmented by tiny populations of explorers, clergy, and military men from France (or French Canada) whose attempts to instill discipline among the Indians, spiritual and otherwise, were doomed.
The French heard the same siren song, sung in many keys, and accents—the chance to acquire wealth, to be free—that would bring so many millions behind them. That what most French wanted to be free of was the entanglements of civilization is why the French left so little imprint on Chicago. They made homes but not towns; when Chicago and environs became too citified—which happened around 1830 or so—they moved on.
Chicago in the Euro-American era was a new city, so everyone was an immigrant in its early years, even its many American residents. But as early as 1860 Chicago’s population officially was 50 percent foreign-born. The Irish and Germans came first, pouring into the city from roughly 1830 through the 1850s. Differences between them and the settled mostly Protestant Americans in religion and social mores were intense enough to occasionally lead to street violence.
It was a generation later, around the turn of the 20th century, that an even larger influx of newcomers arrived from eastern and southern Europe. Chicago thus became home to Poles, Slavs, Italians, Greeks, Jews from Russia. To the old settlers, these people seemed (as had the Indians and metis) dark-skinned, they spoke little English, and had attitudes toward progress that were pre-modern, and thus posed the same kinds of issues to the class that by then had come to regard itself as the town’s founders. The clash of values this time was titanic, and dominated the city’s politics and social life for decades.
The near West Side of Chicago was Chicago’s main port of entry for European immigrants until around World War I. The area is dotted with immigrant-built churches, some of which are not only impressive churches but impressive buildings. For nearly 20 years after it opened in 1874, the 236-foot bell tower of the German Gothic Holy Family Catholic Church on the West Side was the tallest structure in Chicago, as befitted what was for a time the largest English-speaking parish in the United States. Opened in 1860, Holy Family is one of five public buildings to have survived the Chicago Fire of 1871. The parish has been called "the Ellis Island of the Midwest," which overstates its importance only slightly.
More restrictive immigration laws began to be passed by Congress in 1917, a process that culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924. Taking effect in 1929, the latter statute sharply limited the number of immigrants from outside the western hemisphere to the U.S. and thus to Chicago. The immigration limits were relaxed in 1965 and again in 1978 and 1990, the last significantly increasing the number of immigrants who might legally enter the U.S.
But while immigration policy has changed in the past century, the world has not. Much of it is still desperately poor or dangerous compared to the U.S., and whenever the doors open again, immigrants again push through them toward Chicago. Beginning in the 1980s, decades of population loss was reversed mainly by in-migration from other nations. The number of new legal immigrants in Chicago increased 61 percent between 1990 and 2000, and gave Chicago—rare among U.S. big cities—a net population increase for the decade.
Most of these people were Hispanic (most of them Mexican) or Indian from central America, but the newest influx has been even more varied, in terms of origins, than the old ones. It included some 15,000 Soviet Jews for example, and many thousands of Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians, Indians. The Polish emigration to Chicago, usually understood as a phenomenon of the 1800s, never stopped. In 1989, 150,000 Poles traveled to Chicago, where 25 U.S. dollars was the equivalent of two months’ pay in Warsaw; the social infrastructure set up to ease the adjustments of newcomers to the city in the 19th century, such as St. Hyacinth's Roman Catholic on the Northwest Side, the Polish Welfare Association, and the Polish Town and Village Association, is still well-used.
The stockyards and steel mills are gone, but its immigrants remain a defining trait of Chicago social life. As Notre Dame University historian Walter Nugent observes in the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
By 1920, a traveler going south on Halsted Street from its beginning on the North Side met, one after another, Swedes, Germans, Poles, Italians, Greeks, Russian And Polish Jews, Czechs, Lithuanians, and Irish— and very soon, blacks. And by the late 1990s, maintaining Chicago’s history of ethnic mixes, to travel west on a main North Side boulevard like Lawrence Avenue meant encountering yuppie Anglo-Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Koreans, Vietnamese, and others, before reaching largely Anglo-white suburbia.
Thus the history of the city is substantially about the ancient American drama of arrival, adaptation, and assimilation. It has been told countless times, in many different accents, and is being told again today.
Not exclusively foreign
Immigration is usually understood in terms of the foreign-born, but if one stretches “foreigner” to include peoples from within North America whose values and experience made them strangers in the brave new world of Chicago, we must count three other immigrant waves that bore new citizens to this part of Illinois.
Swelling the tide of ambitious merchants and craftspeople from the East after the Civil War was an exodus from farms and small towns of Illinois and the Midwest. Chicago was undergoing the initial phases of its industrialization, that reordering of the national economy that saw hand labor replaced by machines. Country boys who lost their livings to new-fangled farm machines found work as city boys making those machines.
That so many thousands of Midwesterners preferred to go to Chicago to make a harvester for old man McCormick than ride on one should not be surprising. Farm life may have looked appealing from the inside of a newspaper office but as lived on the farm such a life was dirty, wearing, stultifying, and boring. The city proved a magnet to so many farm youths that farm publications urged farm children to resist Chicago’s siren song. (“Just say no” was the thought if not the slogan.) One of the ambitions of the modern “scientific farming” movement was to make farming more respectable and less physically crushing and thus keep farmers on the farm.
Hometown Chicagoans were rare enough in its adolescence that their native birth was usually offered as the most distinctive thing about them. One of these native sons was novelist Henry Blake Fuller who, it is unfailingly pointed out, was a Chicago novelist in the fullest sense, being a third-generation Chicagoan. Had Fuller sported a full set of antlers he would have seemed scarcely stranger to his compatriots.
Thus it was not only Chicago’s factories and shops that were energized by the labors of the newcomers. Consider the “Chicago Renaissance” in the arts. Apart from Poetry magazine founder Harriet Monroe, hardly a native Chicagoan figured in the fun at all. Margaret Anderson was from Indianapolis, Floyd Dell and Carl Sandburg were from western Illinois, Ben Hecht was from Wisconsin, Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Lee Masters were from central Illinois, Sherwood Anderson was an Ohioan, Maxwell Bodenheim had come from the East.
Around World War I, yet another wave of Americans crashed on Chicago’s shore. The Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the Deep South to Chicago and introduced yet another peasant population to urban life along the shore of Lake Michigan. The Great Migration was part of a population shift from rural South to urban North that dwarfed even the European one in size and social impact.
African Americans first settled in Chicago before the Civil War; Chicago was then an abolitionist stronghold, and many black freemen (including escaped slaves) who had come north settled there. These pioneers were joined after the war by newly emancipated black slaves, who swelled the city's black population from fewer than a thousand in 1860 to 30,000 forty years later.
The quality of life available to African Americans in the South deteriorated in the two decades prior to World War I. Political disfranchisement and the daily humiliations of Jim Crow were underlined by the less frequent but more deadly violence of the lynch mob. Economics weighed in too in the form of floods and the boll weevil and the displacement of black farmers by reservoir building by the TVA; even when there was cotton to pick in the late 1940s, and especially in the 1950s, black hands weren’t asked to pick it, thanks to the adoption by farmers of the newly reliable mechanical cotton picker.
Plenty of “pull” factors drew black people north as well. Thousands of factory jobs opened when a partial ban on immigration from Europe was imposed during World War I left factories short-handed as they ramped up for war. Big Chicago employers like the packinghouses sent agents to the South to recruit black laborers to fill the gaps. Black workers were hired only for service or menial factory jobs and were paid less than whites, but even underpaid semiskilled and service jobs in Chicago offered a more lucrative future than anything in the South.
It suggests something of the life that poor black people faced in the South that Chicago—where black people were known to be beaten, cheated, and barred from the best housing and jobs—offered such a better life as to make emigration attractive. As Great Migration historian James Grossman notes, even the slum tenement in Chicago was more solid shelter than that offered by a tarpaper shack. School was available to children all year around, and if local life offered plenty of insults, life also was safer. African Americans enjoyed political representation, however corrupt, and within the teeming Black Belt there were economic and social opportunities undreamed-of in the delta. “If the prairies had been symbolic of freedom for pre-Civil War immigrants to Illinois, Chicago meant the same to . . . black Americans,” John Hallwas has observed. “It was an urban frontier, a West in concrete and steel, a place of endless new beginnings.”
The movement of black people into Chicago was part of a larger movement that began in the 1890s, as Southern black men and women left to settle in eastern coastal cities such as Philadelphia and New York. Between 1910 and 1970 some 6.5 million Southern black people moved to the Midwest, most of them settling in cities like Chicago and Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and they did so in numbers larger than the Italians or Irish or Jews or Poles who moved to this country during the peak of foreign immigration.
Most of these hopefuls were farmers, which explains why the largest archives of photos of black life in Chicago was made (in 1941) by the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA), an agency charged to record and publicize conditions in the nation’s rural areas and in the towns and cities to which its country people were migrating.
This massive relocation shifted the center of gravity for African American culture from the rural South to the urban North. Blues, for example, became something that came out of places such as Chicago, not the delta. The Great Migration also meant that black poverty, which heretofore had been a Southern problem, became a Northern crisis.
Leaving for the Promised Land
The metaphors used to describe Chicago as it was perceived from the South were appropriately Biblical. A New Eden, it was called, the Promised Land, and the movement north from such states as Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama was indeed an exodus—or rather exoduses. The great Southern migration was in fact two migrations, the first of which began around World War I. Chicago’s black population boomed, from 44,000 in 1910 to nearly a quarter-million by 1930.
During the Great Depression, black immigration slowed to a trickle as jobs dried up, but World War II touched off another jobs boom in the North. This excited a "Second Great Migration" that lasted until the 1960s. The black population of Chicago rose by a further 77 percent in the 1940s, by another 65 percent in the ‘50s, and by that much again in the 1960s. Black peoples made up 14 percent of Chicago’s population in 1950, nearly a quarter by 1960, and nearly 40 percent by 1975.
The way north was shown by assorted Pied Pipers. Job recruiters traveled the South, and from north came letters from earlier arrivers who encouraged neighbors and relatives to follow. To the Chicago Defender, emigration was what anti-communism was to the Chicago Tribune of the period—a cause as much as a policy. The Defender was widely circulated in the South (Pullman porters on the Illinois Central Railroad served as an informal distribution network). It offered more than editorials in encouragement to emigrants; the paper listed names of churches and other organizations to whom readers could write for help in getting settled in the new place.
A different turn
The migration was exciting—uncounted memoirs by black Chicagoans attest to it. Their European predecessors had seen New York or the great port cities of Europe by the time they debarked in Chicago; most of the African Americans coming up from the delta had seen nothing remotely like the sights that confronted them when they piled off the Illinois Central at the foot of Grant Park.
Chicago was not only a new place for most immigrants but a new kind of place. The social dislocation was scarcely less marked for these American sharecroppers than it had been for, say, the shetl Jew. Even common language proved no guarantee of communication; many Chicagoans professed not to be able to understand the newcomers’ English, a complaint still heard, privately, among whites today.
Earlier arrivals had made plain the difficulties that rural people often had in adapting to city. In fact, the problem was they adapted all too readily. The city held out glittering rewards to people left unfettered by old social constraints of family and church. These factors affected all ethnics to some degree—beginning with the Irish male, whose talent for antisocial behavior made him a 19th century poster boy for aberrance—and produced the same sorts of effects. The result was the full panoply of what used to be called deviant behavior and today is called social dysfunction—out-of-wedlock births, truancy, crime, drug use.
The Great Migration altered the city as profoundly as had the European immigrations fifty years previously. Indeed, it was the signal event of the latter 20th century in Chicago for people of all colors, a social earthquake, and aftershocks are still being felt. “Chicago was a very different city in the days of open immigration.,” wrote Saul Bellow in 1975. “The quota laws of 1924 changed the character of urban America decisively. It stopped the flow of artisans, of cabinetmakers, skilled iron workers, confectioners, bakers, cooks, instrument makers, and other craftsmen from Central Europe, Italy, and the Balkans. Internal population movements brought up unskilled workers from the South. Life took a different turn.”
The collision of social forces triggered by black expansion reshaped Chicago physically, socially, and politically. For example, it created the black South Side. When black Chicagoans were few, they posed no threat to white social status or jobs and were widely tolerated. Before the Great Migration, a fifth of the city’s African Americans lived in what were otherwise all-white (95 percent) neighborhoods (many of them, it must be said, as live-in servants in white households). Even the “black belt” was about one-third white. Within a generation after the gm began, however, nine of ten Chicago black people lived in areas in which they constituted more than 50 percent of the population.
It was not the creation of a black ghetto that confounded whites—the ghetto was their creation after all—but its expansion. Like water from an open tap pouring into an overflowing tub, the push outward from the original South Side black belt was inexorable as long as migration continued to draw new people into the city. By 1930 the push southward from the Loop engulfed 49th street and was lapping Hyde Park and Englewood south of that. Whites simply fled, abandoning their old neighborhoods (which is some cases were only a generation old) to black families, a process that stopped only when immigration stopped.
The Great Migration occurred just as industrialism was dying in Chicago. Steel, car-making, the stockyards, the railroads—one by one, the industries that relied on sweat rather than smarts died out. When the time came for African Americans to follow the Irish and the Germans and Slavs and the Poles and the Italians up the social ladder, the ladder was gone. The result, in the view of most sociologists, was the urban underclass, the permanent dependent population that had traded sharecropper shacks for public housing towers—the welfare state, affirmative action, white flight.
Not exclusively urban
The immigrant factory hand and sweat shop worker of legend was a city type. The immigrant’s rise—new arrivals crowding into city ghettos for a generation or two, then slowing climbing up the economic ladder before they are transformed, as a caterpillar is transformed in its chrysalis, into an “American”—is generally understood as a city saga. But while that was the story of most 19th century and early 20th immigrants to Chicago, recent scholarship makes clear that the ethnic and racial composition of Chicago's suburbs was nearly as complex as the central city.
Chicagoland’s first ethnic “suburbanites” weren’t—suburban, that is, at least in the modern sense of the term, since they lived in independent farm and trading towns in the hinterland of a still-smallish central city which did not become suburbs until later. But the residents of many of these towns were unmistakably ethnic. Many Germans began arriving after the failure at home of various revolutionary movements in 1847–48; today’s East Dundee on the Fox River, for instance, was settled largely by German emigrants, mainly Protestants from the northern states, who had fled the 1848 Revolution. The village logo of Schaumburg features an "S" placed on a heraldic rose borrowed from the coat of arms of Schaumburg-Lippe, the German principality from which many of the town’s early settlers came. Mount Prospect, settled in the 1840s by mostly Lutheran immigrants from the southern Germanic states, is another of the dozens of such immigrant stations.
Most Dutch Chicagoans came to the U.S. to worship God in ways proscribed at home; colonists were heading toward the new Dutch settlement at Holland, Michigan, in 1847 when a storm on Lake Michigan forced them to dock in Chicago. While a smallish enclave was located on Chicago’s Near West side, in the vicinity of Ashland Avenue and 14th Street, most gravitated to the southern suburbs where they made livings as truck farmers.
South Holland was settled in the 1840s by Dutch farmers, many of whom hailed from in and near the town of Schoorl, others from the lowlands outside Amsterdam. They founded a Dutch Reformed church in 1848; the original church bell is preserved on the grounds of that first church’s successor building. The 1870s the Paarlberg Historical Farm includes the restored Paarlberg family home and a farm tool exhibit in the barn. (South Holland was where Edna Ferber set her 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel So Big!; Mrs. Paarlberg inspired one of the main characters.) Its Dutch Protestant heritage survives too in strict Sunday closing laws and a ban on the sale of alcohol.
Another of the four main Dutch settlements in Chicago was nearby Roseland. Emigrants from the low-country town of Eenigenburg sailed in 1849 and landed in what they called the "high prairie," (A museum commemorating the emigration was opened in 2006 in Eenigenburg.)
Immigrants of all nations sought jobs and cheap rents, and while most of both were in the city, there were plenty of each outside the city. The role of the peasant Irish in populating Chicago is well known, but the Irish peopled the suburbs too. They began arriving in the Chicago area with the first wave of Germans, in the 1830s, but the Irish tended not to take up the plow but the shovel. They became the first citizens in canal-worker settlements such as Lemont.
The purely residential enclaves of Chicagoland remained mostly white, mostly Protestant (or at least Christian), and mostly middle-class for decades. Later in the century, Eastern European immigrants were drawn to factory suburbs such as Cicero, Chicago Heights, Calumet City, and Harvey. where there was demand for unskilled labor. (“Far to the southeast, on lowlands dominated by the countless chimneys of the steel-works” write Lloyd Lewis in 1929, “existed another great colony of those hardy, slovenly, and plucky Europeans.”)
While immigrants who settled directly in the suburbs were not rare in the later decades of the 19th century, they were concentrated in a handful of industrial towns. Within the suburbs, the largest concentrations of immigrants are found in and around the older, poorer sections of older satellite cities such as Waukegan, Elgin, Aurora, and Joliet, and in inner-ring suburbs such as Cicero. (Cicero may be a separate political entity from the city, but in social terms it is part of a continuous band of immigrant neighborhoods that reach west from Pilsen and South Lawndale in Chicago.) Such places are the classic immigrant port of entry neighborhoods, albeit in new locations in the spread-out city.
But in a shift of historic proportions, immigrants of all classes and backgrounds beginning in the migrations that surged in the 1990s began skipping the city in numbers, making their first residence in the U.S. outside Chicago’s borders. Nearly half of Du Page County's population growth in the 1990s, for example, is believed to have come from immigrants. Indeed, never have so many new arrivals begun their lives as Illinoisans outside the inner city. As a result, for the first time since the mid-19th century more immigrants today live in the suburbs (788,000 persons) than in the city (629,000), most of them Mexicans, Asian Indians, Poles, Filipinos, or South Koreans. Nearly half of all Mexicans lived outside the city in 2000, according to one study; about two-thirds of the metropolitan area’s people of Asian origin did.
Many of these suburban newcomers are Asian Indians. Immigrants from the subcontinent constituted the most numerous foreign-born residents in western suburbs such as Du Page and suburban northwest Cook suburbs. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Asian Indians sponsored their relatives under the family re-unification clause of the 1965 law, and the size of the Indian community in Chicagoland nearly doubled to some 58,000 people by 1990. By the 1990s, university students and computer professionals working in the high-tech corridor of the west suburbs around Naperville made up a big part of the new Indian population. The Daily Herald in Arlington Heights no doubt surprised many readers when it pointed out in 2003 that there were more Patels—427 listings—than Smiths in the Schaumburg telephone directory. The suburban Sikh community is small—most of the suburbs’ roughly 2,500 Sikh families live within 30 miles of Palatine; nonetheless, Sikhs in white-bread land are numerous enough to sustain Sikh cultural societies, a weekly newspaper and Fulkari TV, a Punjabi-language television channel.
What Germans were to Chicago in the 1850s, Hispanics were in the 1980s and ‘90s. Chicago by then had the second-biggest Mexican population in America, behind only Los Angeles and well ahead of places like Houston—enough to turn Chicago into what The Economist in 2003 called “our kind of cuidad.” Cook County's Hispanic population grew by nearly 130,000 from 2000 to 2006, a 12 percent increase. Contrary to popular assumptions, this growth has been driven not by migration but natural growth within what is by now a large permanent population.
Less remarked is the fact that by 1990 another nearly 400,000 Hispanics were living in the region outside Chicago. Aurora by 2000 was 11 percent African American, three percent Asian—and 33 percent Hispanic. Elgin’s 2000 population was more than 34 percent Hispanic, nearly double what it was in 1990. Waukegan’s Hispanic population that year was 45 percent of the total.
That these largely industrial satellite cities should attract immigrants is not surprising. What is, is the increase in Hispanic population in other part of Chicagoland. Seventy-eight precincts in five Northwest suburban townships have enough Spanish-speaking residents who lack of fluency in English required bilingual election judges for the 2003 municipal election. Schaumburg's Hispanic population grew 118 percent in the 1990s, to nearly 4,000 people, while Arlington Heights' Hispanic community grew almost 66 percent, to more than three thousand. In nearby Hanover Park, Hispanics now make up 26 percent of the village's nearly 39,000 people, and in Wheeling, 20 percent of its population is Hispanic. From 2000 to 2006, the Hispanic population in Will County more than doubled to more than 90,000, while the equivalent populations in Kane and Lake counties grow by more than 40 percent while McHenry County's grew by nearly 67 percent.
To the north, Hispanics are concentrated in Waukegan and Highwood, but Hispanic laborers are seen in older neighborhoods of Highland Park, where the contributions of many adult wager-earners make it possible to pay the rather North Shore extravagant rents in larger and older houses; area school systems such as Vernon Hills-based Hawthorn Elementary District 73 are having to set up dual language programs for Spanish and English-speaking students. Preliminary forecasts by the research staff of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC) suggests that by 2030 Hispanics will make up a third of Chicagoland's population, and they are well on their way.
The immigrant experience
Chicago makes Babel seem an uncomplicated place. The variety of cultures and histories, cuisines and costumes on display in Chicago and its hinterland is bewildering. But the city’s diversity is in some ways deceptive. What is more striking is how similar the histories of Chicago’s immigrants are. However disparate their starting points, they trace a similar path. They arrive in new neighborhood, crowd out the locals, achieve social dominance and stability—a golden age that seldom lasts more than one generation—until a new group arrives to push them out.
For all their differences, however, the various immigrations to Chicagoland have enough traits in common that it is possible to understand much of what can be called the Immigrant Experience.
The urge to move
One cannot understand the city unless one understands that so many of its people were ambivalent Chicagoans, if they intended to become Chicagoans at all. That ambivalence owed to the fact that few immigrants left their native lands entirely freely. They did not choose to come to Chicago but fled or were pushed out of their homes by tyrannical governments, by revolutions (including their own failed ones), by religious and political persecution, by war, or by poverty and lack of opportunity.
No better example exists than Chicago’s Poles. Poland is unhappily situated between Russia and Germany, and as a consequence has been conquered and carved up by one neighbor or the other since the start of the modern era; each dismemberment bled people who fled to places such as Chicago. The Poles who landed in the city between the 1850s and the early 1920s were mainly hungry peasants thrown off their land by land partitions. During and after World War II these aging populations were bolstered in the city by hundreds of thousands of Poles fleeing Nazism and the subsequent Communist takeover of Poland. A third immigration, which began in the 1980s, was (broadly speaking) political, consisting mainly of “intellectuals” (including professionals and artists of the sort that fled Germany in the 1840s for much the same kind of reason) who came to Chicago after martial law was imposed on Poland. Most recent is a scarcely smaller wave who came seeking economic opportunity after the collapse of the old Soviet system in 1989.
What was true of the Poles has been true, more or less, of all foreign-born who ventured to Chicago. Chicago, for example, owes a vast debt to the world’s bad kings. The Germans were, with the Irish, the first of Chicago foreign hordes. Many came as political exiles after the rulers of the Germans states Prussia, Baden and Wurttemberg clamped down after a failed rebellion in 1848. The “Forty-Eighters” were only the first; by 1914, with 800,000 Chicagoans were either German-born or of German descent, Chicago had become the most Germanic of American cities.
The Czechs also rose in 1848, against the Hapsburg monarchy; their failure spurred the first sizable Czech immigration to the U. S. By the 1870s, Czechs were numerous enough in Chicago to compose a Czech community along De Koven Street known as “Little Prague.” The first large settlement of Ukrainians arrived in Chicago as early as the 1870s, but that community established itself as a community in the 1920s after the independent, non-Communist country called the Ukrainian People's Republic was crushed by the Communists. Between 1945 and 1950, political repression caused displaced people from other places in middle and eastern Europe to wash up on Chicago’s shore. Many of the Hungarians who fled to Chicago as a consequence of the 1956 uprising against their Communist rulers settled in West Pullman and South Chicago and in Chicago around Burnside (89th Street and the Illinois Central Tracks), near the steel mills and railroad shops in which so many of them worked. Chicago’s Chinatown saw a spurt of growth in 1950s and 1960s, when the Communists of Mao Tse Tung took control of the mainland; by 1970, Chicago had the fourth-biggest Chinese population among U.S. cities.
Poverty usually was the prod to migrants from Mexico and Central America, but as was the case with so many new Chicagoans, oppression and political upheaval at home was a factor too. David Cerda, who grew up on Near West Side, recalled in the book, The Old Chicago Neighborhood, how his laborer father began crossing the border during the Mexican Revolution in 1915 after revolutionaries came into his village and killed his older brother.
Ethnic and religious persecutions figure unhappily in many of the stories of Chicagoland’s new arrivals. The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Chicago in the 1870s. The transcontinental railroad was finished, and California, Oregon and Washington no longer welcomed them. They moved east, some to find work, others escaping anti-Chinese hysteria; by 1890, 567 Chinese had found their way to Chicago. Armenians who fled the campaign of extermination waged against them by the Ottoman Turks during World War I settled in Waukegan, lured by the prospect of jobs; the local Armenian community grew to some 3,000 people within a generation. Some of that generation lived long enough to see a man of Armenian descent, Robert Sabonjian, elected mayor, in 1957.
The first wave of Jews who came to Chicago were German. But most Jews who arrived between roughly 1880 and 1930 could just as easily be classed as eastern Europeans. The expulsion of Russian Jews as a result of pogroms and repressive laws in the 1880s sent tidal wave of refugees to the U.S. that by 1900 has overwhelmed Chicago’s older German-born Jews; by 1930, reports historian Irving Cutler, four of every five of Chicago’s estimated 275,000 Jews were Eastern European.
Persecution on a wider scale drove many European Jews to the West just before and during World War II. In his introduction to Chicago Architecture and Design 1923–1993, John Zukovsky notes—if not in so many words—the debt that Chicago owes National Socialism in the Germany between the world wars. Repressions of the arts and of Jews sent to Chicago architects and designers from Central Europe and Germany—Moholoy-Nagy, Ludwig Hilberseimer and Walter Peterhans, and of course Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. They were joined by Russian Jews in the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union began allowing the latter to leave in numbers; in 2000–2001, a study commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago found more than 22,000 more Jews were in the region compared to 1982, and that nearly all of that increase was accounted for by immigrants (mainly from the old Soviet Union).
Not a few of the millions displaced by wars abroad have found refuge in the Chicago area. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from southeast Asia in 1975 led to the collapse of the governments of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Thousands of nationals from these countries fled to the U.S.; those who came to Chicago settled mainly Uptown/Edgewater. That neighborhood had long been a port of entry; it offered cheap rents and an infrastructure of social service agencies which was built originally to tend to such displaced groups as American Indians from reservations and whites from Appalachia. Argyle and Broadway and Sheridan in northern Uptown remains the Loop of the city’s southeast Asian community, although their economic progress since arrival has allowed many to move their residences into nearby Edgewater and Albany Park and adjacent suburbs.
Many of Chicago’s Japanese Americans fled a war not in their country but in this one. Some 20,000 Japanese Americans internees began arriving in Chicago even before the war was over, in flight from the west coast of the U.S. where had been living before been rounded up and imprisoned as potential spies in “relocation camps” during World War II. The war in the Balkans in the mid-1990s resulted in an estimated 40,000 Bosnian refugees moving to Chicago. Arab immigrants for instance tend to cling to their culture rather than assimilate, in part because so many hope someday to return home when life in that war-torn part of the world calms down.
No foreign master is harsher than poverty. Want drove on the first of the mass migrations to Chicago, that of the Irish, when famine in the 1840s confronted peasants of hat island with the grim choice of starving or leaving. Poverty had already pushed Irish to Chicago in the 1830s, when the city became accessible from the coastal cities of the eastern U.S. by boat. Most were single men, and they worked as laborers, and went where such work was; Bridgeport’s beginning as Irish community owes to fact that it was the terminus of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which was dug largely by Irish hands beginning in the 1830s. The Irish also made up its lumbershovers and quarrymen, and not a small proportion of its labor agitators and convicts.
While the Irish famine was the most terrible, the Irish were not alone in suffering in those years. The population of Sweden had doubled between 1750 and 1850, putting stress on farms already too small and overworked. Like the Irish, the Swedes packed up and went west. The great Swedish migration to America began in the 1840s. Chicago was the portal to the West for Swedes but many never got farther west than Western Avenue. In 1890 Swedes comprised Chicago’s third-largest immigrant group, after the Germans and Irish; by 1900, one in ten Swedish Americans—perhaps 150,000 people—lived in Chicago, making it by some reckoning the world's largest "Swedish" city after Stockholm, and many more lived on farms in the hinterland.
Here and there in Andersonville one can still see traces of the origins of Chicago’s Swedish population. Simon Lundberg 's Swedish tavern at 5210 N. Clark, for instance—known locally in the 1930s as the N&N, for "No Norwegians"—still boasts murals by painter Axel Olsson of the Dalecarlia region of the old country from whence so many came.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the economic chaos that resulted from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire of which Croatia had been a part, aggravated by years of poor harvests, spurred a wave of Croat emigration to Chicago. Many—perhaps most—Italians in the south suburbs before World War I were “birds of passage” who meant to stay in the U.S. only long enough to earn the money to buy land back in Italy. More recent migrations of Hispanics also owe to the chronic poverty of their homelands.
If land was the frontier in early 1800s, business was the frontier in the late 1800s. Immigrants flocked to Chicago they way they flocked to the prairie a generation before from all corners, only this time they came for jobs, not land. The rate and origins of Chicago’s imported labor changed with changes in the economy and immigration laws, but it never really stopped. Chicago’s sizable Puerto Rican community traces its origins to the importation of contract labor for service, farm, and manufacturing work after World War II. Like most immigrants other than the Germans and Jews, the Puerto Ricans were unskilled and largely uneducated, and the local community suffered for the absence of teachers, religious leaders, merchants, and professionals.
As happened with the Mexicans in the steel mills and the Lithuanians in packing houses and the Irish along the canal, Asian Indians came to Chicago to solve a labor shortage. In this case the Indians—beneficiaries of the British school system that equipped them with language and skills in demand in Chicagoland—that shortage was of physicians, engineers, and scientists. Indian immigration began in numbers after the national immigration law was amended in 1965 to abolish racial quotas, with the result that the region’s population of peoples of Indian origin doubled in the 1990s.
The immigrant of popular imagination is usually assumed to be a European who sailed the sea in crowded ships, but the largest waves of immigration to Chicago in the 20th century by far came from North America by car and train. The African Americans who made up the Great Migration is one such group. Another is Mexicans. Like the African Americans, Mexicans began arriving when the European immigrants who had been industry’s chief source of cheap labor were shut out of the U.S. by changed immigration laws. (Jobs in the U.S. provided the opportunity; social upset in Mexico attending the Mexican Revolution provided the motive.) Beginning around World War I, Mexicans were recruited by Chicago railroad, steel, food processing, and other industries, who hired them to do the work that Anglos considered too dirty or dangerous to do, or to break strikes. Many ended up in South Chicago’s steel mills, which made that suburb a port of entry, what the West Side was to, say, Russians of the late 19th century; Mexican Americans also are among the largest ethnic groups in nearby Hegewisch.
This inflow continued for a decade. The men in the mills and on the railroad track crews were joined by seasonal workers at harvest time. These temporary workers given the lowest pay and the least protections on the jobs; when they were no longer needed, they were often deported, so that the Mexican population of Chicagoland ebbed and flowed. By 1930, for example, it was perhaps 30,000 but as the Depression dried up jobs some left voluntarily while others were repatriated by government program meant to reduce the number of foreign-born on the dole. (Many Mexicans complained of harassment by relief officials, as they would complain a generation later of harassment by immigration officials.) By the 1940s, when war (and the subsequent postwar boom) created demand for workers, the immigration—legal and illegal—peaked again.
As the Irish had done in the 1830s, the Mexicans men usually came alone to Chicago. As the heavy industries that hired the first generations of Mexican Chicagoans have shuttered, a new generation of immigrants has found work in new service industries as landscapers (the suburban version of the farm field work that occupied their grandparents), restaurants, and cleaning staff—the last work of the sort that many other Chicagoans regard as too hard or too ill-paid for them to bother with, and that not long ago was done largely by African Americans also just up from the South.
Nothing in common but being uncommon
The forces at work pushing emigrants toward Chicagoland are seldom simple. Political upheavals often beget poverty, which excites political unrest; ethnic persecution often has economic competition as a complicating cause. A few immigrant groups have suffered from all three. Poverty, political injustice, and ethnic persecution, for instance, were all factors in the exodus of African Americans from the U.S. South.
It was a story that was already familiar to many of the city’s Poles. In the latter 1700s, Poland was gradually dismembered by its neighbors Prussia, Austria, and Russia, each of which proved a bad master in its way. The Protestant Prussians repressed the Catholic Church in their part of Poland and took its wealth and its young men to fight Prussia’ wars. Austria was then ruled by the Catholic Habsburg dynasty, but while the spirits of the Poles were sustained, their bodies often were not, as the region was wracked with poverty. The Russian tsar proved the most brutal master of all, confiscating the Poles’ lands, suppressing their language, barring them from jobs, and attempting to break the Catholic church. Rebellions in 1795 and in 1830 and 1863 were put down, forcing many to flee to the U.S.
If Chicago’s immigrants shared motives for leaving, many also shared a method. As noted, the Irish and the Chinese and the early Mexicans came as laborers, and seldom brought their families. But in general, immigration was undertaken by whole families, if not parishes, even villages. James Grossman, in his study of the Great Migration of African Americans to the North, noted that Southern pastors would organize the move of their flocks; neighbors helped each other too, often through “migration clubs” that enabled them to obtain lower-cost charter rates from the Illinois Central.
Asians Indians came alone, and spoke English when they arrived (thanks to British-schooling). Those are the only similarities to the Irish experience that predated theirs by a century and a quarter. Many of the vanguard of Asian Indian immigrants were highly skilled males in the sciences and medicine, computer programmers, and business managers admitted under the 1965 immigration law. Once established, these pioneers sent for their kin to join them under the provision of the law that allows an immigrant who becomes a U.S. citizen to sponsor family members wanting immigrant visas. By the end of the twentieth century, Chicago had the third-largest concentration of Indians in the United States. Less adept at English and often untrained, many of these late-comers found careers in the only field in which these were not only not handicaps but boons—running restaurants and clothing shops for their countrymen in Chicagoland. Many of the merchants along Devon Avenue as an Asian Indian shopping center is directly linked to the arrival of the sponsored relatives of the vanguard professionals. Many of them lacked the skills they needed for corporate jobs like those held by their kin so they used their knowledge of language and customs to cater to their countrymen’s retail needs by opening shops on Devon Avenue.
Most immigrants also found themselves—whatever their status back home—on the lower rungs of the social ladder in their new home. Swedish women often worked as seamstresses in sweatshops, while their men toiled away as underpaid laborers; the Polish cleaning lady is a staple of folklore. When a Chicago kid these days hears a clatter from the top of her house she thinks not of reindeer but of Mexican roofers. Even some skilled artisans had to settle for low-level jobs because they were unable to communicate with their American customers; the Vietnamese professional men who had to take up janitoring because they could not speak English well enough to practice law or engineering represent a resource sadly lost to the city.
Once arrived, kinsmen cleaved to each other, forming the nucleus of a parish or a neighborhood in their shared new home. And each group looked on later arrivals with fear lest they be dislodged from perilous toehold in the city. The recently arrived accused the just-arrived of working for unfair wages, of being unclean, of being politically corrupt. In Chicago, class conflict has always had an accent.
The difficulty all immigrants faced in adjusting to a bewildering city is a staple of the Chicago novel. Church and kin did what they could to ease the adjustment. What they could not was left largely to the settlement house (as it still is), such as the Northwestern University Settlement House at 1400 West Augusta Boulevard, which began serving Polish immigrants in Polonia on the Northwest Side in 1901. (Its name did not reflect its location but the sponsor, Northwestern University.) The clientele of Jane Addams’ famous Hull House consisted largely of immigrant families from (mostly) central, southern, and eastern Europe. It was unusual in its size and scope of its facilities, but also in being ecumenical in national terms.
The Wabash Avenue YMCA functioned as a settlement house, providing housing and job training for new arrivals from the African American South during the first eave of the "Great Migration," before World War I. The black newcomers had no established churches that might succor them, and to ordinary anti-immigrant bias was added racism. James Grossman, in his history of the Great Migration, credits the orts to assist and the Chicago Urban League—founded in 1916, of necessity funded (as were many settlement houses) by white philanthropists and social reformers—with providing most of the settlement-style services that reached the Southern migrants. By 1919, more than 20,000 original visits to the League were being made in a year.
Once established, most immigrant groups left to found their own settlement house or similar service agency; the Bohemian Settlement House that served the (mainly) Czechs of Pilsen in the late nineteenth century is only one of these. The Chicago Resettlers' Committee, later the Japanese American Service Committee, was set up in 1946 as a social service agency to assist in the resettlement of the 20,000 newly-arrived Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II and then grew (as most do) into a general-purpose social service agency serving that community. Victims of ethnic cleansing efforts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, many Bosnian refugees found help at the Bosnian Refugee Center set up by the Illinois Department of Human Services; that organization in 1997 became the independent nonprofit Bosnian & Herzegovinian American Community Center.
Asian Indians turn to the Indo-American Center on Devon Avenue; Koreans support the Korean American Community Services operation on North California Avenue. In Chinatown, the Chinese American Service League, founded in 1979, serves as both a cultural center for established Chinese Chicagoans and a social agency that offers newcomers service from day care to English lessons and job training.
Social dislocation is a function of cultural distance, not miles, and immigrants from North America have also found need of help in settling in Chicago. In 1954, members of the various Native American tribes with members in Chicago formed two support organizations: the All-Tribes American Indian Center and St. Augustine's Center for American Indians, to help them cope, functioning much as did the settlement houses of the turn of the 20th century in helping euro immigrants. (both of which are still going strong today.) The Casa Aztlan Community Center on South Racine Avenue is the former Bohemian Settlement House property and since 1970 again serves immigrants, this time from Mexico.
Because of discrimination in rentals or because that’s where the costs are lowest or both, immigrants to both city and suburb tend to settle in what the social scientists call contiguous census tracts, and what everyone else calls the bad part of town. Until well into the 1900s that meant that most new foreign-born crowded along the downtown stretches of the Chicago River. Germans, Irish, and Scandinavians lived Goose Island, the Irish in Bridgeport and adjacent neighborhoods, the Bohemians along the South Branch, and the Near West Side were largely German and Irish and supplied workers to the iron and wood manufacturers.
The locations of these “ports of entry” shifted as the location of factories shifted—first to the far south side around Lake Calumet, later in new industrial suburbs. The south suburbs of Chicago Ridge, Hickory Hills, and Oak Lawn are the newest ports-of-entry for young Irish immigrants, many of whom are attracted by the prospect of construction jobs. By the time Russian Jews were allowed to emigrate from the old Soviet Union beginning in the 1980s—following a path to Chicago worn by the thousands of their compatriots who fled to Chicagoland 100 years earlier to escape Czarist pogroms—the port of entry for the Russian Jews was not Chicago’s West Side but Rogers Park, adjacent Skokie, and parts of Des Plaines, Palatine, Wheeling, and Buffalo Grove.
The larger suburban Latino concentrations in Chicagoland are often expansions of clusters established around World Wars I and II, when workers imported by local railroads and factories. Many of the jobs that originally beckoned are gone, but the descendants have become important source of low-wage labor for the suburban service economy. Mexican laborers constitute the new servant class in the suburbs, where they wait on in the stores, tend the babies, and mow the grass; the suburban lawns are to them what the steel mills were to their grandparents. Some estimates put as many as 24,000 Latino immigrants, many of them undocumented, living in Lake County. The South or “real” Chinatown remains a port of entry for immigrants from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan According to the Chinese American Service League (CASL), 70 percent of the Chinatown residents are new immigrants.
People seek housing where kin or fellow villagers have already established a beachhead, and can provide advice contacts and help. The result that immigrants in a given neighborhood or church often hail from the same place. Italians speak of the concept of quintadina in which newcomers followed the path—invisible to others—laid down by kinsmen or neighborhood from home and settled into their new home near neighbors familiar from the old one. The first major wave of Mexican migration to Chicago carried people from the Central Mexican states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Jalisco; the North Side German neighborhood was populated initially by immigrants from Bavaria and Württemberg, with East Elbians gathered along both sides of the North Branch of the Chicago River on the near Northwest Side.
James Grossman has recounted how in the 1920s African American transplants from at least nine Southern states gathered in clubs whose purpose was to steer newcomers to businesses or professionals with similar roots, thus easing the transition to a new life in the North while sustaining an identity as a Southerner. Other ethnic groups opted for slightly different mechanisms—churches, fraternal societies—but all served the same ultimate function.
Chicago thus has never been not quite the perfectly strange place to the immigrant that it might have been. Orthodox synagogues in the Lawndale in the 1940s bore the names of the communities in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, or Romania from which their founders had come. In 1900 most of the thousand or so Chinese living in Chicago hailed from the Sai-Ya district near Canton. Dominc Pacryga, who has charted many of these human tides, has noted that a great many of the Poles who came to the Back of the Yards were probably from the region of Galicia, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; more specifically, many of the stockyard Poles came from the High Tatra Mountains.
Remembering her youth in Italian Chicago, Anne Marie DiBuono writes:
Different regions of Italy settled in different sections of Chicago, and most of the people from my father and mother’s town settled in this section. It was called Accerra, and it is a province of Naples. They all settled in this section from Ryland to Loomis Street, from Harrison to Taylor Street. I think that it was the biggest or second biggest Italian section in the city. The Sicilians settled around Oak Street in the Cabrini area. The Tuscany and Venice regions settled around 24th and Oakley. The Neapolitans all settled around [Little Italy] where I am located.
Grossman notes how on the black South Side, businesses such as Robert Horton’s Hattiesburg Shaving Parlor, the Florida East Coast Shine Parlor or the Carolina Sea Island Candy Store advertised the origins of their proprietors to attract compatriots who had followed them to the big city. On one five-block stretch along Rhodes Avenue in the Black Belt were the Mississippi Coal and Wood Company and other small businesses owned by Misssippians.
In the suburbs the dynamic was much the same. Dominic Candeloro’s study of the Italians of Chicago Heights reported that nearly half of Chicago Heights Italians came from just six towns in that country and four of five of those applying for citizenship came from five regions in southern Italy. (Most were Marchegiana, from the San Benedetto area, with an admixture of Sicilians, Abruzzese, and Lazioni.) Dozens of Puerto Ricans living in Elgin in the 1980s hailed from the village of Aguada on the island's west coast. Nearly 80 percent of all Mexican migrants to Chicagoland came from the states of Guerrero, Jalisco, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Michoacán.
Immigrants share their new neighborhoods with other immigrants; the first “Chicagoans” they meet often are not. A famous survey of residents in the Hull House neighborhood in 1893 found eighteen nations represented in a third of a square mile. New residents of the “Hispanic” areas in near-southwest and near-northwest parts of the city may speak the same language but are strangers in terms of history and culture, comprising as they do peoples from a dozen nations.
Those kinds of neighborhoods—real mixing pots if not melting pots—still exist, although they now are found in different parts of the city. Today it is Albany Park on the far Northwest Side that has the largest percentage of foreign-born residents of any community in Chicago. The mainly Jewish population of the 1960s had by the 1980s been augmented by Greek, Korean and Romanian immigrants, who have been joined more recently by Hispanics and Asians; visitors are bemused to find that the local elementary school walls bear clocks set to the time in the students’ cities of origin in Bosnia, Israel, Indian, and Vietnam, and that community meetings require as many translators as a UN session.
Not everything about the immigrant experience of the 21st century is the same as that of the 19th, however, mainly because the immigrants are not the same. Many new immigrants hardly constitute a huddled mass. Nearly two-thirds of Chicagoland’s Asian Indian immigrants over the age of 25 have college degrees, according to one university study. Newcomers with educations have always bypassed the traditional “portal” neighborhoods in the industrial city; immigrants from mercantile and professional families in northern Italy, for example, dispersed throughout the city since they began arriving in the of the 19th century. But immigrants of such backgrounds have never been so numerous as they are today.
In one sense, however, the new immigrants were honoring an historical precedent: As immigrants have always done, they sought homes near where the jobs are. The difference is that the jobs these days are no longer, or rather no longer only in, the city. In 1990 only three suburban neighborhoods in Cook County were “ports of entry” for more than 1,000 immigrants; in 2000, 14 census tracts were. In the 1990s northwest Cook County and in central and southwestern Du Page County drew immigrants to employment centers such as Mt. Prospect and Arlington Heights, Schaumburg, Westmont, and Wheaton.
Denied a place in the society in which they found themselves, most immigrants clung the more determinedly to their old one. Memories of home were never far away for most of Chicago immigrants, who were seldom willing exiles. They recreated it as means allowed in their churches, their restaurants, their holidays. It is hardly a surprise that memories of repression stayed sharp too, considering how many immigrants suffered under repressive state or religious regimes. Striking packing workers in 1921 engaged in running battled with police at Davis Square, a small park located near 43rd Street and Ashland Avenue; as they heaved bottles and bricks at the police, the rioters, most of them Lithuanians and Slavs, called them “Cossacks,” likening them to their hated oppressors from home.
The Poles were especially insistent on preserving and perpetuating the language, customs and religion of homeland. The Polish migration to Chicago could be said to have begun in the late 1700s when Poland was partitioned out of existence as a nation-state by her more powerful neighbors. The Poles rose in revolt four times against Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary over the next 70 years, but the failed uprisings left Poland a nation without a state. Polish immigrants in Chicago devoted much energy to realizing the dream of a free Poland, and to exacting revenge on those blamed for the failed revolutions. These preoccupations animated Polish politics in Chicago for decades, to the puzzlement of outsiders ignorant of or indifferent to their history.
The city’s Poles were an extreme instance of what has been called “long-distance nationalism” but they were hardly the only group who felt the perturbations in the faraway homeland as an amputee might feel a tingling in a long-vanished limb. In a metropolitan area in which so many people have foreign roots, every “foreign war” becomes as local an issue as schools or parks. Conspicuous among these romantics are the Irish of Chicago, who long demonstrated a kind of hypernationalism. St. Patrick’s Day, the celebration of which become identified with Chicago—“oh yeah, the city where they dye the river green”—may be all about beer and leprechauns to the non-Irish, but the day was first celebrated by Irish paramilitarists known as the Montgomery Guards, in the 1840s. And many a dollar that supported Irish independence came from Chicago for the next more than a century.
In the same way that old-country history soured relations with co-believers suddenly thrown together in Chicago, so city politics was shaped by issues that often bore only distant relation to Chicago. The Germans for example were not economic but political refugees whose sensitivity to injustice or servitude made them eager backers of the antislavery republic party of Lincoln. Later, they backed Democrat John Peter Altgeld, not only because he was a countryman, but because he was a stalwart defender of immigrants. A generation later, the Chicago Germans voted for a mayor who could not have differed more from Altgeld—Big Bill Thompson, who endeared himself to German American voters by his vigorous detestation of Britain, Germany’s foe in the Great War then underway. Meanwhile, Jewish émigrés in Chicago organized relief committees to aid war victims in the towns in Russia, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and Galicia from which they had come.
German agitation on behalf of the fatherland stirred reaction among nativist and pro-British Chicagoans that led to a crackdown, the sort of wholesale violation of American traditions of political liberties that politicians often indulge in when they are feeling especially patriotic. It was a fascinating episode that some historians regard as among the turning point in the city’s history, insofar as it changed Chicago from being a very German city into, well, some other kind of city by forcing what was in many ways its most intelligent, accomplished minority into a social and political quiescence.
Sometimes foreign wars come back to haunt Chicago. During 1977 and 1978, a small group of neo-Nazis from Chicago announced plans to rally in Skokie. Perhaps one half of Skokie’s then-population of 66,000 was Jewish, many of them survivors or relatives of survivors of the Nazi-led holocaust. village officials, responding to what many in and outside the town saw a deliberate provocation, tried to stop the march by passing ordinances banning lit distribution of “hate materials,” parading in military kit or without an insurance bond. The ordinances were challenged in state and federal courts and overturned, and the neo-Nazis were eventually issued a permit to demonstrate in Skokie. by then a massive counter-demonstration had been organized; cowed, the splinter group opted instead to hold rallies in downtown Chicago and in Marquette Park in south Chicago. inconsequential as political persuasion, the Nazi march touched off a national debate about the limits of civil discourse that generated some light in spite of the heat with which the issues were debated.
No place is so far away from Chicago that the city’s recent immigrants do not involve themselves in remedying the conditions that caused them to leave. Many of the Punjabi supporters of an independent Kahlistan live in Chicago. Chicago’s Croatian community did not skimp on the funds, arms and men they sent to support their compatriots’ cause in Europe; Chicago’s Serbs also sent volunteers to fight in what was then still Yugoslavia. Palestinians from the Chicago area have been arrested in Israel for helping fund the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist outfit Hamas, and have demonstrated in Chicago in support of the Palestinian intifada uprising against Israel.
Immigration, which branded one an outsider to the natives, carried a cachet in many an ethnic community. Veteran newspaper editor Bernie Judge grew up in Our Lady of Peace Parish in South Chicago.
The marvelous thing about the neighborhood was that it was the complete reverse of a class system. My father was born in Ireland—the old country — so I had more status. It was a point of pride to have immigrant parents, because that really tied you to Ireland and its ways. It meant you really knew more about your history and were more inside the real Irish culture.
Usually, Chicago immigrants influence affairs in their homelands only indirectly, but not always. Chicagoan Valdas Adamkus had emigrated to the U.S. in 1949 to escape the Soviet occupation of his native Lithuania and made a career as a top administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; in 1998 he was elected president of his homeland. Mexican nationals living in Chicago have run for at-large seats in that nation’s federal congress. Mexicans in Chicago also vote with their money; hometown associations based on the social networks of people hailing from the same places raise money for public works and other projects back home.
Those back in the home nation have been solicitous toward the people many regard as exiles in America. Construction in 1903 of the Louis Sullivan-designed Russian Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral and Rectory on North Leavitt was partially paid for by Russian Czar Nicholas II. The governor of the Mexican state of Zacatecas raised about half the funds needed to purchase and renovate a cultural center in Chicago for Zacatecans here. The Puerto Rican government helped Chicagoans with ties to that island buy a building near Paseo Boricua on the Northwest Side that houses the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture.
The one thing that immigrants of all backgrounds have in common is the experience of gradually ceasing to be an immigrant. But Americanization happened in Chicago at different rates for different groups. Many immigrants resisted assimilation both as a concept and as a process. Chicago’s Poles for example sought to become Polish and American rather than Polish American; the children of Greek immigrants, for example, through after-school programs and church schools, often ended up speaking more fluent in Greek than did their parents. The Poles were not alone in fostering separate institutions, even physical isolation within enclaves; so, to varying degrees, have Jews, Ukrainians, and Mexicans. Jon Hahn, a reporter at the Chicago Daily News, grew up in Chicago’s Northwest Side in the 1940s “in a red brick two-flat with our grandparents, great-aunt and uncle and great-grandparents. Downstairs we spoke Chicago; upstairs they spoke German.”
Ethnic identity tended to be protected less aggressively among immigrant Italians, Irish, Germans, and Japanese, with the result that members of those groups became for the most part classic hyphenated Americans. Some cultures went beyond assimilation to something annihilation and vanished almost without a trace, as was the case with the French-Indian métis and the biracial Ben Ishmael tribe.
If becoming an American was a debatable question among Chicago immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries, being in America was not. Whatever their commitment to the culture of their new home, permanent residence as forced on most immigrants by the cost and distance of a return. But going home is much easier to do these days. Transportation is better, and in real terms cheaper. Travel to and from the homeland is especially easy for immigrants from this hemisphere. Mexicans maintain intimate ties with home states through travel and telephone, and vice versa that their European predecessors could only dream of. These days Hispanic immigrants, especially Mexicans, make was once a once-in-a- lifetime journey to America once a year. They practice "shuttle migration," in which farmers come north to work during the summer, then going home to plant a crop during the Chicago winter. Others make temporary moves north when jobs were available; faced with layoffs, the new immigrants simply go home rather than suffer workless in Chicago.
Because ties to home are never quite severed, today’s immigrants see themselves less as, say, Palestinian American or Armenian American as Palestinians or Armenians in America. The result is what some academics have dubbed transnational communities, the sociological equivalent of the “Spanglish” that is spoken along the southern U.S. border.
” They did not understand....”
A town that is a center of immigrants is doomed to be a center of anti-immigrant prejudice too. The middle class and rich were dependent on immigrants, whose labor they exploited; at the same time they were fearful of their numbers, and of the alien ideas they brought with them packed in their trunks. Immigrants have been blamed variously for cholera, for crime, for political unrest, for unemployment, for unsettled workers.
Fear led to a system of barriers, social stigma, and discrimination intended to keep immigrants in their place—a place, of course, assigned them by the ruling elites. By keeping the supply of willing labor high, for instance, immigration helped keep wages low, which is why the Knights of Labor had backed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which closed U.S. borders to immigrants from the country.
Mrs. O’Leary—Roman Catholic, immigrant, poor, Irish and female—was a perfect patsy for the Great Fire of 1871. The authors of probably the best all-around portrait of Richard J. Daley, American Pharaoh, recall how the future mayor learned at his mothers knee the Irish tales of woes at the hands of the English, the landlords, the Protestants, and, of late, Chicago’s WASP establishment. They recall a scene when Daley, at that time one of most power politicians in America, spoke to an Irish American dinner at Chicago's venerable Conrad Hilton Hotel. "I can't help thinking of your mothers and fathers and grandparents who would never have been allowed in this hotel," Daley declared. The lace-curtain Irish crowd laughed, but Daley did not. Instead, he offered a prayer “for those departed souls who could never get into the Conrad Hilton."
“Labor” and “immigrant” had come to mean the same thing in Chicago beginning roughly in 1870. The fact that immigrants were exploited is not accident of their history; they were imported precisely because they could be exploited. A worker rebellion against wage slavery was inevitable. The one thing that was different from the homeland was political freedom. Labor unions or workers political parties were tools to fight the owners that workers could only dream of at home. If the bourgeois saw the labor left as threats to American freedom, the workers saw them as the ultimate expression, and guarantor of it.
Among the cargoes that came to Chicago on the boats and trains from Europe was political ideas. Most of the “agitators,” from trade unionists to socialists to bolshevists to anarchists, were immigrants. Marco D’Eramo reminds us that the word “Italian,” which today evokes mainly images of the gangster Al Capone, in the 1920s brought to mind Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the immigrant anarchists who were condemned to death in 1921 after a sensational trial, and executed in 1927.
Socialism, communism, and anarchism were all movements with a strong German accent in 19th century Chicago. Many unions ere made up of Germans who dominated many skilled trades; many already had experience of worker politics in Europe, and had emigrated to the U.S. after the government there clamped down on socialist activism. Many Germans came from radical political backgrounds, and thus had a sophisticated vocabulary with which they defined issues like unemployment in terms of class; they were among the leaders on the pulpit and in the streets, and made up a big part of the militants.
“Foreign” and “left” melded in a fearful public mind; foreign-born people and foreign-born ideas became one enemy. At least one Chicago newspaper blamed the violence at the Haymarket in 1886 on “Polish rioters,” and suggested that authorities here might borrow a page from the czar’s manual of repression, since the Poles were unfit to enjoy liberty. Examples of such rants from the 1880s through World War I could fill volumes; they were as common in the newspapers of the day as, say ritual denunciations of communism were in the Tribune in the 1950s.
In the 1880s, Marshall Field hired only American farm girls to be sales clerks because they didn’t speak with “foreign” accents. Settlement houses and churches that catered to immigrants—Hull House, the Catholic Youth Organization, Chicago Hebrew Institute, and the Japanese American Sports League, among others—had to set up sports programs because ethnic youths were so often barred from varsity sports at public schools. In the 1920s, nativists decried the presence of Mexicans—“slave types” is one of the kinder terms used to describe them. Such resentment has led to periodic U.S. government expulsion campaigns, which were only slightly dignified by such terms as repatriation and deportation. It happened in the 1930s—when the Mexican population in Chicagoland was nearly halved, to 16,000—and again in the 1950s.
As noted, class friction was an ingredient in anti-immigrant feeling. So too was racism—the immigrants who have been most opposed have been without exception the darkest of skin—and anti-Catholicism. An aging Edgar Lee Masters gave vent to the prejudices of his Downstate youth in The Sangamon:
The Illinois and Michigan Canal work brought hordes of Irish Illinois. It took time to assimilate these foreign stocks with their race-hatred and religious bigotries. They did not understand the faiths of New Salem, they did not understand the institutions of the country. They spoke their own language, celebrated the feast days of their own saints, and took America as a place where liberty meant the right to do as they pleased.
That complaint can be heard today, with few details changed, although one might have to listen a little harder than in Masters’ day. Accommodation in suburban Chicago has been complicated by the usual cultural misunderstandings. There are the usual flashpoints in parks over noise and parties, zoning for mosques and temples, language and dress.
As happened in the city, much of the anti-immigrant agitation comes from people whose not-very-distant ancestors were immigrants. Elgin in the late 1800s and early 1900s was more than 25 percent foreign-born. That heritage was largely forgotten within two generations; thanks to 50 years of assimilation. In the 1980s, Elgin saw another wave of immigrations—mainly Mexicans and other Hispanics and Laotians—that has again made it substantially foreign-born, with all the social and political stresses that attend accommodation.
The southwest suburbs burgeoned in the 1960s and ‘70s when whites fleeing the arrival in their old neighborhoods of African Americans sought new havens. Of late, the area has put up resistance (less virulent, it must be said) to new generation of dark-skinned newcomers, from Hispanics to Arab Americans. Arab Americans, mainly Palestinians, migrated to the south suburbs in such numbers in the 1980s and 1990s that the area accounts for almost a third of metropolitan Chicago's approximately 150,000-strong Arab community, which is the nation's third largest.) The attacks in New York City on the World Trade Center brought a latent prejudice into the open; a noisy march on a mosque in Bridgeview had to be stopped by local police, and an Arab American community center was the target of a Molotov cocktail that damaged only the area’s reputation for tolerance.
Inevitably, anti-immigrant prejudice in every era found political expression (as did resistance to it; see Politics for more.) Immigrants competed with early poor arrivals for jobs and housing of course, and stirred resentments that politicians were happy to indulge. In the 1830s, allowing unnaturalized Irish canal workers to vote was rejected for fear the Irish a would muster a majority in local races. Later, prohibition and “law and order” platforms often had a strong anti-immigrant aspect.
In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party elected a mayor, Levi Boone, who in 1855 undertook a selective enforcement of the city’s Sunday closing law and stiffened licensing requirements, both measures aimed mainly at Irish and Germans. Germans saloon keepers resisted, the police arrested, and tension exploded in the famous Lager Riots, sometimes called Chicago’s first civil disturbance, when an armed group of North Side Germans marched on City Hall to rescue imprisoned compatriots resulted in militia being called into the streets. The casualties of that incidents were, officially, one dead and approximately sixty rioters arrested; unofficially, the hopes of the Know Nothings also were hurt. Rather than squelch the immigrants, their outrage mobilized them politically, and thereafter immigrant voters would be precisely the force in city politics that the Know Nothings feared they might be.
Of course, there were tensions not only between groups but within them. To the Americans, an Irishman was an Irishman. To the Chicago Irish, one was a Ulster man or a Cork man. Fights among Irish recently arrived from rival counties in an early Irish settlement along the Chicago River near Erie Street were so in earnest that Chicago Police disdained to enter the area.
Relations between the major factions of the Jewish community—Germans Jews and Eastern European Jews—were expressed less violently than among the Irish, but were just as keenly felt. By the 1880s the city’s German Jews had become middle-class and largely Americanized. The arrival, beginning in that decade, of Eastern European Jews unsettled not only relations between Jew and non-Jew in Chicago, but between Jew and Jew. Both immigrant groups shared a religion—a fact that was enough to make them brothers in the eyes to many non-Jews—but the manners, the speech, the politics, the poverty, the primitive religious practices of the newcomers who piled into the West Side ghetto were alien to the settled, genteel Jews in affluent enclaves such as Hyde Park.
The Ashkenazic newcomers have been described by Irving as “Yiddish-speaking, synagogue-building, religiously conservative, and sometimes politically radical.” But these “Orientals” —from Lithuania, Poland, the Ukraine, Bessarabia, Galicia, Latvia—were also Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians, Bessarabians, Galicians, Latvians, and thus were divided by all differences that makes each of those nationalities distinct from—and antagonistic to—the others. Ideas were at issue too; among the Jews who moved to West Town in the late 1800s were socialists, secularists, and Zionists as well as Orthodox Jews. The solution, concluded many German Jews, was to turn the newcomers as quickly as possible into Americanized Jews like themselves—a project to which the German Jews devoted much money and apparently not a little bit of condescension.
The term Ostjuden would have to have been explained to them, but everything else about that tension would have been familiar to the “Old Settlers” of Chicago’s black belt. The Old Settlers were either from the Upper South or had been born in the North, while the migrants were coming from a part of the South that not only was rural but was deeply poor. Their arrival threatened the image of middle-class respectability that the Old Settlers had worked hard to build. (This and kindred tensions had a parallel in the Yankee-Southerner tension in so many Downstate counties.)
The city’s established blacks, many of whose families had been in Chicago for decades, had acquired a sophistication that was for the moment beyond most of the rather ragged newcomers. Timuel Black recalled that the influx of mostly rural Southerners into the Black Belt altered the cultural mix there by creating a market for new kinds of musical entertainment. The Regal Theater went from a showcase of advanced jazz to one offering more down-home fare such as rhythm-and-blues.
Socially conservative, jealous of their small victories over white prejudice, earned by scrupulous code of conduct that demanded that they be whiter than the whites. They found the sharecroppers from the Delta dirty and uncouth, an embarrassment to the race. Through such mouthpieces as the Urban League and the Defender, they issued rules of behavior for the newcomers that would prevent their becoming an embarrassment to the race.
The Defender never wavered in its conviction that it knew what was good for “the race.” In 1917 the paper published a famous exhortation titled "Things That Should Be Considered," that offered improving dos and don’ts for the benefit of migrants from the South, including these:
Don’t use vile language in public places.
Don’t act discourteously to other people in public places.
Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into street brawls.
Don’t use liberty as a license to do as you please.
Don’t take the part of law breakers, be they men, women, or children.
Don’t make yourself a public nuisance.
Don’t encourage gamblers, disreputable women or men to ply their business anytime or place.
Don’t congregate in crowds on the streets to the disadvantage of others passing along.
Don’t live in unsanitary houses, or sleep in rooms without proper ventilation.
Don’t violate city ordinances, relative to health conditions.
Don’t allow children to beg on the streets.
Don’t allow boys to steal from or assault peddlers.
Don’t be a beer can rusher or permit children to do such service.
Don’t abuse or violate the confidence of those who give you employment.
Don’t leave your job when you have a few dollars in your pocket...
Of course, any immigrant group brings its history with it. They import, with their family Bibles and heirlooms ancient animosities that color their reactions to events in new land. The arrogance of the Poles toward their Eastern European neighbors in Chicago owed in part to history; in old Poland, a Polish minority ruled over a vast non-Polish majority made up of Lithuanians, Latvians, Germans, Ruthenians, Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Gypsies, as well as one of the world's largest Jewish settlements. Thus, observed Marco D’Eramo, “when a Pole got into an argument with an Italian on a Chicago street, if you wished to unravel the chain of causes leading to the event, you would soon become enmeshed in a morass of political vicissitudes, from the decrees of a German chancellor to the desperate act of a Russian nihilist.”
The Chinese had their version of this conflict, in their case between the descendants of the Chinese coolies who had founded the Chicago colony and the political refugees from Maoism who joined them in Chinatown in the 1950s. So do Asian Indians; as noted by Vinay Lal, the UCLA historian, in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “The ethnic, linguistic, and cultural divisions that prevail in India have been carried over with organizations such as the Bengali Association, the Bihar Cultural Association, the Tamilnadu Foundation, the Telugu Association, the Punjabi Cultural Society, the Maharashtra Mandal, and at least three Gujarati associations.” Bosnians who came to the city often chose to associate with peoples of other nationalities (albeit with a shared ethnicity) than associate with other Bosnians of different faiths; Bosnian Christians in Chicago identified with coreligionists from Croatia and Serbia, while Bosnian Muslims identified themselves exclusively as Bosnians.
Nothing separated immigrant communities like politics. Not American politics, toward which many ethnics took a utilitarian, what’s-in-it-for-us attitude, but the politics of the homeland. The local factions in the fight for Irish independence led to killings in Chicago streets as long ago as the 1880s. (As time went on, supporters of the IRA’s campaigns against British rule in Ulster confined themselves to raising the money so that others could do the killing back home.) Chicago Poles were split into those who envisioned a future in which Poles would return to a free Poland, and those who accepted that the future of Chicago Poles was in the U.S.; rather than free Poland from the Soviets, the job was to protect Polish language, customs, and churches against the Americans. The dispute generated rival organizations, political movements, scandals, even street fights.
Destined To Remain Forever Foreign
Absorbing people from other cultures is generally judged to be a boon to the city. Classical musical culture would scarcely exist in Chicago without the Germans, for example, just as science and the arts would be poor indeed without the contributions of the Jews, to take just two of many examples. But immigrant populations in the 19th and early 20th centuries were factors in several of the unlovelier aspects of Chicago life. The fifty years of immigration from eastern and southern Europe between roughly 1870 and 1920 left the region in a state of almost constant social tension, even tumult. As voters they were loyal constituents of a succession of political machines. (See elsewhere this section.) It was a factor too in the balkanization of its residential districts—it could be called the “city of enclaves” rather than the city of neighborhoods—and of its Catholic churches.
Immigrant labor was a factor in Chicago’s rise as the first great industrial city. Employers preferred to hire ethnics—they worked harder at jobs that natives wouldn’t touch, and were moderate in their wage demands, being fearful of losing their jobs. The sheer diversity of the workforce also made it harder for workers to organize themselves to protect themselves against the predations of the bosses; they couldn’t easily communicate with each other, for example, which was an impediment to strike talk. (Unions later succeeded in no small part because the earlier immigrants had learned English and the newest—African Americans—already spoke it.) As D’Eramo notes, business leaders—political and social conservatives—urged “open door” policies not from any love of social diversity but because the constant inflow of immigrants made it easier for the bosses to frustrate agitation for improvements in wages and working conditions.
Since 1945, Chicago become one of the most ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse cities in the world. Its earlier migrations have long since been absorbed, its members having become, if not Americanized foreigners, at least hyphen-ized Americans. But of the 2000 Chicagoland population of roughly eight and a quarter million, foreign-born people numbered nearly one and a half million, or 17.2 percent of the total. That is not nearly as dramatically high as it was a century ago, but it remains higher than Illinois as whole, where a bit more than 12 percent of the population that year was foreign-born. Chicago and its hinterland continues to offer the visitor the spectacle of strange tongues and unfamiliar faces.
If immigration by 2005 had ceased to be a phenomenon, or even much of a social problem—it is more a fact of the city’s life, like the weather—it continues to shape Chicagoland’s future. Jeff Libman, who compiled 20 oral histories of recent immigrants for the book, An Immigrant Class, noted that the more than 110 languages spoken by students from 144 countries at Truman College were proof of what he calls “the cultural smorgasbord” that is the U.S. in the 2000s. Chicago seems destined to remain forever foreign.
To say that immigrants left their marks on Chicago is a truism. Just as the Native Americans left behind trail-marker trees or mounds that hint at Chicagoland’s richer ethnic past, so did the region’s European peoples leave physical reminders of their occupation. The buildings, landscapes, and institutions shaped by immigrant hands are beyond counting. One can point to the Danes who designed Lincoln Park, Swain Nelson and Olaf Benson, and Jens Jensen. Musical life would have been moribund without Germans like Theodore Thomas, its architectural life likewise without Dankmar Adler or Mies or Helmut Jahn. The contributions of Italian and Swedish craftsmen to local architecture are massive.
In some ways the most eloquent of the memorials to Chicago’s immigrants are the churches they built. Most immigrants began to build churches almost as soon as they landed in Chicago, as Eskimo might hurry to build an igloo with a blizzard approaching. What is by some measures the oldest church building in Chicagoland owes to this impulse: St. James on the Sag Catholic Church, at 107th and Archer, was built by Irish immigrants in 1833 from local limestone dug out to make the Illinois & Michigan Canal. The Irish were the first but far from the last to rebuild a part of home in Chicago in brick and plaster. Bohemians of Pilsen established St. Procopius parish in 1875, and within eight years build the large church—in the Romanesque style that was by then passé in that part of Europe—that still stands at 18th and Allport.
These churches were built to serve immigrants, were paid for by their donations, and often were built at least in part by their hands. They were usually designed and decorated in the style of the old country. As a result, in many a Chicago neighborhood of the West, Near South, and Northwest sides, taking trip to old Krakow or Kiev required that one merely step from the sidewalk into a church such as St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral 2238 W. Rice Street on the Northwest Side. Norwegians still gather in the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church in Logan Square to hear services in their native tongue and perhaps to reflect on when that neighborhood was heavily Scandinavian. The Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral and Rectory 1121 N. Leavitt Street was designed by Louis Sullivan, but he borrowed from the design of the Russian provincial churches that were familiar to his clients; the Greek Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral at 1017 N. LaSalle Street was built by the first Greek Orthodox congregation in Chicago to resemble the Cathedral Church in Athens.
The Poles of Chicago sought not merely to recall the old country but to recreate it. The sanctuary wall of St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church at 1656 W. 17th Street is painted with scenes from Polish history and its windows celebrate Polish saints. The Irish St. Stanislaus Kostka is Old St. Patrick's, built on the near West Side at Adams and Desplaines streets in 1856. The 15 church windows from the 1920s are a lesson in Celtic Revival Art, based on the Book of Kells. (The windows were restored in 1996.)
It is not only churches that immigrants built to recall the homeland. Thalia Hall was built by the Bohemians of Pilsen in 1892 as a meeting hall and theater. (Thalia was the Greek muse of comedy and pastoral poetry.) Its theater recalled the Old Opera House in Prague. The Bohemians are long gone, but the hall now serves a new generation of immigrants—students and faculty attracted to the burgeoning university neighborhood round the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The West Side districts as Garfield Park and Douglas Park, is littered with monuments to the industry of the old Jewish community there. Built mostly in the 1920s by first and second generation immigrants, mainly from Russian and eastern Europe, they include the Hebrew Theological College at 3450-3458 W. Douglas Blvd., the Jewish People’s Institute across the street at 3500 W. Douglas Blvd. (where Leo Rosten taught English to immigrants in the classes that inspired his humor classic The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N), Congregation Anshe Roumonia at 3622 W. Douglas Blvd., Anshe Kenesseth Israel at 3411 W. Douglas Blvd., and the Anshe Sholom Synagogue at 3803 W. Polk Street.
A few of the settlement houses survived. The Arts & Crafts-style Northwestern University Settlement House at 1400 W. Augusta Boulevard is an official Chicago landmark. Hull House the institution changed as the world changed. So did the original building complex that housed it—barely. Hull House was a place of national significance, and when it was threatened with demolition, a protest was planned by such national luminaries of the left as Eleanor Roosevelt and Mrs. Sidney Hillman, widow of the leader of the powerful Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Of the 13 buildings that once filled its two-block campus, only the relocated 1905 Dining Hall survived the clearing of the area in 1967 by the University of Illinois at Chicago. The university did agree to reconstruct the original mansion at 800 S. Halsted as a monument and museum.
Just as Chicago’s immigrants passed from one neighborhood to another, so have many immigrant landmarks been passed from one immigrant group to another. On the West Side for instance buildings once central to the civic and religious life of that area’s Jews today serve the same role in the lives of the African Americans who replaced them. The Hebrew Theological College was for a time the Lawndale Community Academy, today’s Independence Boulevard Seventh-Day Adventist Church began life as the Anshe Sholom Synagogue, Shepherd’s Temple Missionary Baptist Church was the home of Anshe Kenesseth Israel, and the current Lawndale Community Academy was once the Jewish People’s Institute. Such conversions make for a tortured sociology; the façade of today’s Stone Temple Baptist Church includes a Star of David and depictions in stone of a menorah and the Torah.
Chicagoland’s Germans left mementoes of their occupation behind in the form of several windmills they built in Du Page County in the mid-1800s. The Old Holland Mill, built by Louis Backhaus in the 1850s York Center (later Elmhurst), worked for about half a century but by 1914 was falling into disrepair. Businessman “Colonel” George Fabyan had the 68-foot Old Holland Mill taken down, transported to his estate on the Fox River at St. Charles, there to produce his own flour during the Great War. The Graue Mill in the settlement of Brush Hill (now Oak Brook) dates from 1852; it survives as the only operating waterwheel gristmill in Illinois.
Structures are not the only reminders of what the region owes to its immigrants. Immigrants of every nation brought with them new ideas about God, politics, and food. (As a Cicero booster recently proclaimed to readers on the Web, the presence of immigrants in that town has done wonders for the local restaurant fare.)
Immigrants left enduring marks on the land of northeast Illinois. From the air, one can see occasional interruptions of the rigidly rectangular patterns of farm fields, laid out under the township and section land surveying system imposed by the Federal government. Among the earliest groups to settle Kane County for example were the Irish, who sought out the wooded areas in Rutland Township, in the north of the county; their farms consisted of small irregular fields, laid out in pre-grid days according to systems familiar from home. Scots and Welsh also settled in the area, and they laid out their fields in so-called long-lot patterns. Historian David Buisserett found that the old Scots fields in Elgin and Plato townships, and those worked by the Welsh in Big Rock Township along the Big Rock River were still visible from the air in the 1980s.
Statues of ethnic heroes abound in Chicago, but monuments to the unheralded heroes who trekked to America are rare. One exception is the bronze group known as "Pioneer Family Memorial" (also “Pioneer Memorial Monument” and "Pioneer Family") at Kimball Street Bridge over the Fox River in Elgin is a tribute to the pioneers settling the Fox River Valley; as sculpted by Elgin native Trygve Rovelstad, the work depicts a family and their scout. At King Drive and 26th Place in Bronzeville stands “Fly Away,” a monument to the Great Migration by Alison Saar. It depicts a man standing atop a mound of worn-out shoe soles, dressed in a suit made of shoe soles. The shoes, the artist has said, are symbolic, of the often difficult journey from the South—a point that would have more force if almost everyone who came to Chicago from the Delta had not ridden aboard the trains of the Illinois Central.
At the Art Institute, a painting touches on the experience of the African American immigrant. Walter Ellison in 1936 painted Train Station, depicts scenes at a central rail terminal—possibly Macon, Georgia—in which white travelers are shown heading south for vacation and blacks heading north, as Ellison himself did, when he came from Georgia to Chicago.
For all its importance to the history of the region, there is not a museum of immigration in Chicagoland. Most of the dozens of ethnic museums in the region are museums of national culture and so do not concentrate on the specific experience of the Chicago immigrant.
An exception is the Swedish American Museum Center in Andersonville, which has the distinction of having been officially blessed by a sitting monarch—Sweden’s King Carl XIV Gustaf. It offers a permanent exhibit titled, “The Dream of America—The Swedes Who Built Chicago.” The SAMC’s new Children's Museum of Immigration also provides youngsters the chance “to experience the immigration phenomenon firsthand.” Alas, while the children can see a Swedish farmhouse, or stuga, and a Viking ship, the artifacts of that people’s journey to America, in the form of, say, steerage deck on an immigrant steamer or log house of the sort that once stood across metro, is missing.
More typical is the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center houses the archival collection of Greek Immigrant Experience, a series of full-scale recreated scenes revealing the life and history of Greeks in America—not Greeks in Chicago—since the turn of the 20th century. That said, these museums can be considered artifacts of their founders’ common immigrant experience insofar as the impulse to build them had its roots in the rise of ethnic, national, and religious self-consciousness that so often was a result of the builders’ submersion in an alien culture. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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