Big City of Small Towns
The saga of Chicago’s neighborhoods
See Illinois (unpublished)
Chicago is famously a city of neighborhoods. Every big city is, of course, but Chicagoans seem to think that it is truer here than elsewhere. The affection Chicagoans have for their neighborhoods can puzzle an outsider, there being little obviously to love about most of them. To the people who live in them, however, they are the ugly woman who can cook, the slob who’s a good father. They are home, in ways that—whatever their differences of language politics and religion—Downstate small-towners can understand. Of the several stereotypes by which the world knows Chicago—the gangster haven, the stock yards city, the corruption capital of the U.S.—the city of neighborhoods is the only one that most citizens wholeheartedly endorse.
This article is taken from the never-published draft of my guide to Illinois history and culture. At more than 17,000 words, it is quite lengthy.
In most ways, most Chicago neighborhoods are the same, or at least have the same story. There is the first building on former prairie land. There is the economic rationale—a convenient stopping point on an old road or a new rail line, a market for farmers or the opening of a factory, later, developer selling housing to people wishing to escape the latter. There is the process of civic maturation—becoming more dense in terms of buildings or people, and finally the shift in ethnic and racial composition of residents that leads to social tension and the flight of the founding residents. Ruin and revival—it is the great drama of the city.
Working-class districts—the term used to be “lower-class,” when it was the residents and not the phrase that was considered disreputable—inevitably were ethnic districts in an era when most such work was done by immigrants from other lands. (Chicago: City of Neighborhoods by Ellen Skerrett and Dominic Pacyga is for all intents and purposes is a history of ethnic Chicago.) When they had a choice, immigrants settled near countrymen for obvious reasons of social comfort, or to tap into social network of earlier arrivers.
These impulses shaped the social city from the very start. Jacqueline Peterson observed that the real first families of Chicago—those living here in the 1700s and early 1800s—separated themselves into a Yankee garrison on the south bank of the main river, a group of related British families on the north side, and French-Indian families on the far north, west, and south sides. Decades later, tribal ties still determined who lived where. Mayor Carter Harrison was among the Southern-born Chicagoans who resided in the city’s Kentucky “colony” on the West Side during the mid-1800s; the Swedes and Germans who made it big did not join the parade of swells to the Gold Coast in the late 1800s but chose to build their mansions near the old neighborhood, on Hoyne Street’s "Beer Baron Row," in Wicker Park.
Whatever the name, Chicago neighborhoods fall into a few broad categories. First is the true ghetto to which social outcasts—usually people of color—were relegated by force of law. Then there is the enclave. These are usually defined as congregations of like residents—likeness being a matter of color, creed, religion—that result from voluntary association. Admittedly, this kind of self-segregation was not always willing, to the extent the residents of the ethnic neighborhood—the commonest example of an enclave— gathered in part to protect each other from the hostility of neighbors. Also, such neighborhoods are based on principles generally found since World War II to be socially problematic, if not repugnant. However, they are, in retrospect anyway, much missed. The most common is the standard big-city neighborhood—mixed by race and ethnicity, if only partially by class, a real mutt of a society.
Politically, the larger neighborhoods of the city may be mere subsets of the corporate city, but socially, and often historically, they are distinct communities—small towns, in effect, as so many of them once were before being absorbed by the growing Chicago. (The Chicago Plan Commission titled its 1942 overview of the city Forty-four Cities in the City of Chicago.) It make sense therefore to treat these “towns” as what they are. Lloyd Lewis was unreliable in many ways as a sociologist, but he got it right in the 1920s when he noted about the city’s neighborhoods:
In scores of the ‘little Chicagos,’ not a half-hour from the towering Loop one could find all the tranquility, the local pride, the ‘decency’ which one is disposed to see—or imagine—in the tiny towns, unincorporated, through which one drives on a remote stretch of State highway.
The pride is manifest, but one can quibble about the tranquility and decency—there Lewis flatters both the Chicago neighborhood and the Downstate small town. One must also be careful about comparing them to small towns; today each of Chicago’s neighborhood averages more than 35,000 people—larger than all but a few dozen of Illinois’s towns, including Chicago’s own suburbs.
The City of Chicago officially recognizes 77 “community areas.” The boundaries and names of an original 75 were determined in the 1920s by the University of Chicago's Social Science Research Committee; two more were added after the 1970 census. Each of these official areas is made up of smaller official sub-areas; what the city calls North Center for example has no residents, in the sense that no one says they live in North Center. However, thousands live in North Center’s constituent neighborhoods such as Ravenswood, Roscoe Village, St. Ben's and River's Edge, to which people do feel they belong. The city recognizes West Town but no one lives there; they live instead in the neighborhoods that make up West Town—Noble Square, Ukrainian Village, and Wicker Park.
The visitor confronting this social labyrinth deserves sympathy. The official community areas also encompass an uncountable number of unofficial neighborhoods defined by sentimental attachment and social identification; Hegewisch for example consists of Arizona, Avalon Trail, and (Old) Hegewisch. Is Uptown’s western boundary Clark or Ashland? Does it start on the south at Irving Park Road or Montrose Avenue? Is Urkranian Village bounded by Chicago Avenue, Ashland, Western, and Division? Division, Damen, Chicago, and Western? Huron, Division, Mozart and Damen?
Everyone from sociologists to gang bangers also disputes where one neighborhood ends and another begins. To the devout Catholic, the neighborhood coincides with the parish boundaries. To the gang banger it is the extent of turf that members can defend. To the child, it is the area within one can roam on foot or bike and still get home in time for supper. To the Chamber of Commerce, it is the area that encompasses the maximum promotable real estate.
Each official neighborhood is made up of unofficial—some of them extremely unofficial—settlements. “Back of the Yards” enjoys City Hall sanction as a place name; McCormickville—the hodgepodge of housing around that firm’s reaper works—never did. The unofficial names, being creatures of local usage, often change as the neighborhoods do, to the consternation of historians. A neighborhood can have a different name from generation to generation. Little Village (as the Anglos know it) or Pueblo Pequeño (as many of the local know it) was originally known as South Lawndale and was renamed in the mid-1970s by its Mexican American majority; Polonia on the Northwest Side sprawled across several official neighborhoods that had not been named by Poles. Catholics identify themselves with their parish, but also identify their neighborhoods by their parish.
The end result is that Chicagoans could live in three neighborhoods at once—the official one, the informal one, and the parish—each with a different name. Seattle newspaper columnist Jon Hahn grew up on Chicago’s “Nortwes” Side. In 2000 he said this to Neal Samors.
Our neighborhood was referenced variously, sometimes as the Six Corners, where Irving Park, Cicero and Milwaukee came together. ...Sometimes you said you lived in Portage Park . . . . And sometimes, even if you weren’t Catholic, you told people you were from “St. Bart’s.”
Indeed, most neighborhoods had more names than a career check-bouncer. Chicago Lawn is the official name for the area bounded by Bell Avenue, Central Park Street, 59th, and 75h streets, but to many residents it’s "Marquette Park." Local parks were not the only identifiers, as Joseph Epstein, who grew up in the Chicago of the 1950s, has recalled.
If you were not a Catholic but a kid interested in sports, you might describe where you lived by the name of the nearest public park and gym: “We live over by Chase Park.” (Chicagoans have always been spendthrift with prepositions.) If you were a politician, you would describe where you lived by the number of your ward, possibly even your precinct.
In social and physical terms, Chicago neighborhoods undergo a continuing process of birth, maturation, decline, and rebirth. Usually housing was the cause; much of the worker housing built in Chicago was of poor quality—tolerable to the poor, but not to the newly-risen working class family who, when they saw a chance for better, started packing, to be replaced by poor, often newer immigrants on the lower rungs. Once-exclusive enclaves for the rich, once they were penetrated by public transit, attracted the middle-class and the working poor; the crowds the clamor the dirt would excite the posh to leave; as there were no rich to move in to take their place, the physical infrastructure had to be put to other uses, with destabilizing effects that led eventually to its becoming an enclave of the very poor.
Just as no one quite agrees exactly what are the boundaries of Chicago neighborhoods, they do not agree on where to draw the lines that separate its larger geographic divisions. The City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development draws them thus:
North Side: Bounded on the south by North Avenue (1600 N) on the west by the North Branch of the Chicago River (until it crosses Devon Avenue (6400 N)) then Kedzie Avenue (3200 W) north to the city limit.
Northwest Side: The City says it is the rough triangle formed by Metra’s Milwaukee District West Line track (beginning at around Armitage Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway), the Chicago River North Branch, and the city limits.
West Side: Bounded by the aforementioned Metra Milwaukee District West Line track on the north, the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) on the south, and the western city limits.
Southwest Side: Bounded by the Dan Ryan Expressway on the east, the Stevenson the north, and on the south by 75th Street west to Western Avenue (2400 W) thence to 87th Street west to the city limits.
South Side: Everything south of 26th Street that Is not part of the Southwest Side.
The AIA Guide to Chicago architecture nicely summarized the effect of this dynamic on the Near-south lakefront. South Michigan Avenue and streets to the south had been home to the city’s social and industrial elite. By 1910, Michigan Avenue was known as Automobile Row, and the lakefront was crowded with railroad tracks, breweries, and industrial complexes. The city’s social elite left to create a new Gold Coast on the North Side, and their middle-class cousins moved farther south and west. They were replaced by Chinese Americans and African Americans moving from their respective ghettos on the south fringes of the Loop, and once-fashionable houses into slum dwellings.
That cycle—discovery, densification, decline and rebirth—has also shaped the history of the West Town neighborhood of Wicker Park. The area was developed in the 1870s, and named for the park set aside by the developers as its centerpiece. As happened so often, that bit of green attracted middle- and even upper-class house buyers. In the late 1800s stone mansions were built by German beer barons along Pierce, Hoyne, Oaldey, and Damen streets, and new streetcar lines saw only slightly less pretentious houses go up along the boulevards. Area merchants made do with graystones, brick town houses, and two- and three-flats on the side streets.
By the 1940s, Wicker Park was already looking more than a littled ragged. In the 1960s, the Poles began migrating farther out along Milwaukee, to be replaced in what had become a low-rent district by prostitutes and drug users of the sort that resident Nelson Algren used, perversely to celebrate. Such conditions—the low rents, not the drug users—also attracted other kinds of people who didn’t have money in the persons of new immigrants, which by the late '60s and '70s were mainly Puerto Rican. That changed the Wicker Park population but did not add to it; it was not until the 1990s that more people moved into Wicker Park than were moving out. The pioneers were impecunious young bohemians who made Wicker Park a buzzword among rock circles when local bands Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill enjoyed a brief national vogue. These pathfinders of hipness were followed –as flowers follow spring ran—by affluent yups looking for housing bargains and interesting restaurants looking for space on an el line to the Loop.
Succession thus was never a matter of property merely changing hands. It also meant a decline. “More than 90 percent of Austin’s dwelling units were built before 1950,” writes Gail Goodwin in his history of that part of the West Side. “By the 1960s Austin had reached the end of its life cycle, the point when conventional wisdom and sociological theory tell us population succession typically occurs.” In non-sociological English that means the point when poorer residents succeed richer ones.
Hand-me-down housing is the familiar phenomenon, by which housing abandoned by middle class inherited by the poor, who otherwise would never be able to afford anything as good. The AIA Guide, for example, notes that in 1900 Lincoln Park had wealthy Germans living in large houses near the lake, and middle- and working-class Irish and Poles in modest flats further west. By the 1920s and 1930s, poorer immigrants had pushed the latter out, as the larger buildings were subdivided into cheap flats.
If in Chicago who you were determined where you lived, it was also true that where you lived largely determined where else you would live. A pattern as early established: rising families from the inner-city neighborhoods of the West Side moved farther west, those in north farther north, those on the South Side farther south. For two, three, even four generations one remained a South Sider—even if each generation lived in a different South Side. The Irish migrated from Southwest Side city neighborhoods like Bridgeport and Back of the Yards to the southwest, to Mt. Greenwood, Ashburn, and Beverly and into the southwest suburbs such as Evergreen Park; the Lithuanians, starting in the same place, lingered first in Marquette Park, and of late have moved farther southwest to Lemont. The Poles marched through a succession of northwest Chicago neighborhoods all the way out of the city into such bungalow suburbs as Norwood; the Italians left Little Italy on the West Side and kept moving west, into Austin and Oak Park, River Forest, Elmwood Park, and Riverside. The black middle class not only moved up they moved south—into Harvey, South Holland, and nearby towns.
In short, Chicago’s neighborhoods—extolled as bastions of tradition –have seldom been socially stable for more than a generation. Far from being the lockboxes of tradition, such places are usually their burial places. Save for Chinatown—which practices a kind of exclusion that is oddly exempt from the usual condemnations by liberals—and the remnant of Bronzeville, where few whites want to live, none of the old neighborhoods is still home to the kind of people who founded them.
The Invented Neighborhood
Some “neighborhoods’ are invented by chambers of commerce or neighborhood organizations or real estate developers and agents attempting to differentiate their wares in a crowded market. Developers do not only invent names, they steal them in their eagerness to add cachet to less favored parts of the city. “Lincoln Park” the official neighborhood, for example, is hugely smaller than Lincoln Park, the real estate concept.
Sometimes the renaming—the term “re-branding” would not be inapt—is done by residents. In the late 1940s, when the area bounded by North Avenue and Division, Clark, and Orleans streets was sipping toward slumdom, concerned residents eager to mount a preservation campaign had first to invent it as a “place,” not a physical place but a self-conscious social entity. They coined a name for it in 1948 and marketed it via art fairs and festivals, thus creating a rubric for promotion and civic concern and giving the city a brand new place called “Old Town.”
Neighborhoods disappear, too. Packingtown is gone. So is Conley's Patch, one of the notorious nests of canal workers that lined the South Branch near downtown. The area around Oak Street and Cleveland on the Near North Side in the early 1900s was known as Little Hell; that slum was replaced in 1941 by the public housing project known as Cabrini-Green, and in 1998 Cabrini-Green disappeared too, when the failed projects began to be razed to make room for a new mixed-income housing project.
By the 1960s Chicago seemed to be done making new neighborhoods, as all the available land was built out. But the conversion of land from agricultural or industrial uses to residential uses, hitherto a process associated with the periphery and its hinterland, turned inward as derelict industrial properties were cleared for new building. That had happened before too, as when the old stock yards were converted into new industrial park. What was new in the 1990s was that the big new buildings housed people, not machines.
The effects are dramatically seen in Chicago’s city center. For decades, the search for new housing took one farther away from the center of the city. Yet limits; one of the reasons real estate agents attest, for the boom in downtown house-buying is that hardworking types no longer have the time for a 70-minute commute each way to a Schaumburg. Thus the search for the neat new neigh turned back inward, toward the city, for the first time in decades.
Consider the transformation of River North. The rich for a time lived in River North but they long ago decamped for the Gold Coast or father north when that part of downtown turned into a warehouse district after 1900. In the late 1970s it morphed into a loft and gallery district, later into today’s shopping and entertainment district, It again houses people, only instead of slums they live in expensive high rises; the artists been chased across the river into another new neighborhood, River West.
Downtown now has a dozen River Norths. A new generation of homebuyers has moved in. these people, flush with cash from a lifetime of suburban real estate appreciation, are eager for the life that the cleaned up, safer downtown has to offer. Among the new uses found for vintage skyscrapers, especially in the South Loop, is classroom and dorm space. The downtown based colleges and universities—Columbia, Roosevelt, the School of the Art Institute, joined of late by DePaul University—have turned that part of downtown into a campus town, home to some 50,000 college students whose presence enlivened the streets and invigorated local shops.
Just as the West Loop was the site of the first residential district housing workers for the factories that lined the river and the canal, that area is again housing workers looking for lodging close to jobs in the city center. The difference is that in 2003 those workers are laborer’s in the information and service sweatshops of a new age. There are more than two dozen developments taking place in the West Loop between Randolph Street and the Eisenhower Expressway from the Chicago River west to Ashland Avenue. Among the projects are buildings at 1200 W. Monroe Street., 1 N. Halsted Street, 950 W. Monroe Street, and 1530 S. Dearborn Street that combined have nearly 500 condos.
The morphing of UIC from a commuter into a residential school means that students need attractive places to live. Thus did the university and its private partners set out to build what the university calls “a complete urban environment.” Such places are something between a subdivision—in which developers build housing and a few basic amenities—and the model town, which offered all that plus the municipal services. Students living the in the new student apartment buildings along Halsted are, like so many uncountable Chicagoans in such commercial neighborhood streets, living about the store—but it is someone else’s store. The building consciously mimic classic Chicago building types—town homes and six-flats (now condos). It offers amenities rare in old neighborhoods—greenways and open vies to the loop skyline to the northwest.
They have plenty of choices. The demise of the rail and river docks opened up new land; the opening of new office towers compelled classic Chicago skyscrapers to find new uses. The result is a boom in the construction of upscale housing—condos, townhouses, converted lofts in former factor and warehouses and office building.
By 1990 census-takers found 48,000 units of housing in the area from the Chicago River on the north to 23rd Street on the south and from Lake Michigan to as far west as Western Avenue, and another 30,000 were added in the ‘90s. Typical of the newest is “Lakeshore East,” bordered by Wacker Drive, Randolph, Lake Shore Drive and Columbus Drive which upon completion—magic words in Chicago, where developers’ dreams often outrace reality—will be about 5,000 residential units on its 26 acres. Redevelopment of the south Loop has been underway for more than 20 years. the conversion of redundant warehouse and factory space in lofts for theater and architecture types began way back in the 1970s. older hotel and office buildings no longer commercially viable as such, also been redeveloped; among them are the Roosevelt Hotel, 1152 S. Wabash Avenue, on the southeast corner of Roosevelt and Wabash, and the Fisher Building, 343 S. Dearborn Street.
As the new century began, the cranes were busy at some 20 projects between Congress Parkway, 23rd Street, the lake and the river. State Place, on the site of the former Chicago Police headquarters at 11th and State Streets, is a 24-story tower and adjacent terrace buildings. New building in the South Loop now stretches all the way to 23rd Street. The flagship development both a symptom and a trigger for development is Central Station. About 1,500 of a projected 4,150 homes—townhouses, condos, lofts, and apartments—are already built in an area south of Roosevelt to McCormick Place and east of Indiana Avenue over to Lake Shore Drive.
The result of this furious building is a spate of new “neighborhoods”—genuinely new, not just re-branded. The creations of developers and their marketers, they include Central Station, Dearborn Park, Printer Rows (all in the south Loop), the New East Side (the district framed by Michigan Avenue, the Chicago River, Lake Michigan and Randolph Street) and River East (its twin on the north side of the main branch) on the east, These named, and often created by developers, and thus sneered at as inauthentic by those who forgotten their city’s history; virtually all the familiar, much-loved neighborhood monikers were bestowed by developers. These new names, like buildings, acquire patina of age—coal smoke in the old days, fumes of gourmet coffee these days—and will in time come to be understood as having been there forever.
A new school at Old St. Mary’s parish has been approved by the Archdiocese of Chicago and will open in 2005. That the school is being established to meet the growing needs of young parents in the South Loop community that is St. Mary’s adds historical resonance. Old St. Mary’s parish, founded in 1833, is Chicago’s first and oldest Catholic parish. One of the parish’s original buildings served as the cathedral church for the first five bishops of the Chicago diocese, from 1843 until 1875. A new church building, the parish’s sixth since its founding, was opened in 2002, so numerous had worshippers become in the near south side and the Central Station neighborhoods.
“The Loop” used to be understood to describe that part of downtown encompassed by the rectangular loop of elevated train tracks installed in 1897—the Union Loop as it was originally known, after the Union Elevated Railroad that built it. owned it). This Loop is bounded by Wabash, Wells, Lake, and Van Buren streets. Because the Loop is downtown, the two terms over the years have become synonymous; as the downtown has grown, so has the Loop, rhetorically. These days, “the Loop” is attached to areas from the lake to Ashland, and from 23d Street north to North. One now hears of west and south Loops; the actual historical loop may someday come to be known as the Loop Loop.
The Ethnic Neighborhood
Then there is the ethnic neighborhood, which in Chicago usually means merely city neighborhoods with lots of ethnics in it. People have always lived in them, but they go in and out of vogue among the people who don’t. in the 1890s, for example, those neighborhoods were crammed—the word is apt—with restive workers, and bourgeois Chicagoans would not more think of venturing into one than they would think of voting Socialist. Instead, curious tourists (including a great many Chicagoans) flocked to the Midway at the World’s Columbian Exposition to enjoy the what James Gilbert calls the “sanitized ethnicity” on display there.
At the moment the main risk that tourists run in venturing into Chicago’s real ethnic neighborhoods is overeating. Ethnic neighborhoods are being marketed—by the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, and especially by their neighborhoods themselves—for their exoticism, if not their charm. Chicagoans of all backgrounds tour places like Pilsen and revel in the noise, the smells that would abhor were they to emanate from the houses of their next-door neighbors back home. "Chicago is a city of ethnic neighborhoods,” the chief executive of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council told the Tribune in 2007. “When you leave the Loop, you want to see the neighborhoods, you want a cultural experience."
To residents, ethnic neighborhoods are not fun destinations, of course, but refuges of sameness in a city that to cultural outsiders can seem confusing at best, hostile at worst. Their virtues to residents are those of their villages back home—social self-sufficiency and safety. The neighborhoods functioned as—and were loved because—they were defensive enclaves, social refuges from which many people fled to for protection against the Other. To the wary ethnic, it is the line on the other side of which dwell “them.”
One such boundary in the old days was Wentworth Avenue which separated white Bridgeport and the black belt to the east; the train tracks that separate Hispanic Little Village and African American North Lawndale serves the same function today. These boundaries shift as neighborhoods change. In 1980, virtually all of Chicago Lawn’s white residents lived west of Western Avenue while its African Americans lived to the east; by 2000, most whites in Chicago Lawn were found a mile or more to the west—at Kedzie Street or beyond.
Stuart Dybek, who grew up in Pilsen, observed in a 1992 essay that
The streets that formed its boundaries...kept shifting as different ethnic groups passed through like migrating tribes. There was a constant sense of flux. What Heraclitus said about rivers applied here as well: you can’t step into the same street twice.
The word “neighborhood” suggests the friendly small-town of legend, but Chicago neighborhoods were seldom friendly in that way. In the suburbs, social self-segregation means that one never lives next to anyone who does not broadly share one’s civic values; social friction is reduced, indeed hardly exists. In the poor neighborhoods of a city that is impossible. Propinquity is unavoidable. and because with rare exceptions, the neighborhoods are very mixed culturally (even if in racial and class terms they are quite homogeneous) plenty of opportunities for friction.
Ethnic Chicagoans survived with neighbors of different religions, customs, and languages by narrowing the area of social contact as much as possible. In the Bridgeport of Daley’s youth, for example, a man might work with a Pole or a black or Czech, but he worshipped, shopped, drank, and socialized with his own kind. A generation later they still might have houses on the same blocks, but they sent their kids to separate schools, drank in separate bars, shopped in separate stores, socialized in their own clubs, read their own newspapers. people who were raised in suburbs. they often grow up to praise the city’s ethnic neighborhoods as somehow more tolerant, if not more liberal than those of the suburbs—forgetting that by now many in the suburbs are people who fled from these ethnic neighborhoods as soon as they could afford it, their patience with “otherness” exhausted.
Bridgeport is widely, and inaccurately called Irish. Stanley Balzekas Sr. (a Lithuanian community leader) recalled that Bridgeport was almost entirely Lithuanian around 1912 when he had first arrived. Neither is correct, yet both are. Thus while words such as “enclave” “ghetto” and “ethnic neighborhood” have often been used interchangeably to describe them, Chicago neighborhoods seldom were occupied uniformly by people of one national background. Residents tended to cleave to their own even within a neighborhood, with the result that every Bridgeport ethnic group lived in a different Bridgeport.
A history of the neighborhood prepared in honor of the One Hundred and Sixtieth Anniversary of the Illinois and Michigan Canal by students in the architecture, art history, and urban planning programs at The University of Illinois at Chicago, in cooperation with the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, concluded, “Bridgeport was truly a neighborhood of neighborhoods—not a single urban village, but a collection of them.“ After the 1900 Morgan Street divided the Polish and Lithuanian sections, the Irish were almost fully found in the southeastern section of Bridgeport south to Englewood, Germans were split between the old section of Bridgeport near the South Fork and Thirty-first street, on one hand, and on the other in eastern Bridgeport (and Armour Square) between roughly Twenty-sixth and Thirty-fifth streets. German shops were located on Wallace and Thirty-first streets in Bridgeport and on Wentworth Avenue in Armour Square. The Works Project Administration study conducted in 1939 reported that the old area of Bridgeport was 90 percent Polish. “Enclave” is in the eye of the beholder.
Much the same could be said about many other city neighborhoods. As local residents recalled life in Logan Square in the 1970s, the Poles lived west of Kimball and Cubans on the east, and the twain never met because neither group had mastered English.
Insular, proud, tough—the company towns of the Calumet replicated the village life of their residents, most of whom were east European immigrants who were joined in the 1920s by Mexicans. Social relations were volatile; the ordinary antagonisms were exacerbated by the companies, which pit race against race and ethnic against ethnic to forestall the growth of a united worker front against the bosses, and which imported Mexicans and African Americans from the U.S. South as strikebreakers.
Even the ethnic neighborhoods that did exist—meaning those in which at least a majority of whose residents were of one nationality—did not stay ethnic for very long—or rather, they seldom stayed ethnic in one way for very long. Many Chicago novels were so real and so specifically placed that Chicago lives still on the printed page—a good thing, since many of the neighborhoods recalled by Chicago writers are gone, insofar as they are socially transformed. The corner of 47th and Prairie that figures centrally in Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Of De Witt Williams on His Way to Lincoln Cemetery,” published in A Street in Bronzeville in 1945, is still there; the neighborhood is not. Gone too is the Woodlawn of Harry Mark Petrakis. Ashland, Division, and Milwaukee, the epicenter of Algren’s Chicago, today is less Polish than Puerto Rican, and the Bridgeport of Mr. Dooley is no longer Irish.
The sociological phenomenon known as succession—what locals usually just call “changing”—has been complicating the works of demographers since before Chicago even was a city. The quelling of Black Hawk’s uprising in 1832 emboldened Euro-American settlers to pour into northern Illinois. The Potawatomis had taken no part in that doomed uprising, but their presence in northern Illinois posed uncertainties—military and legal—to white control of the land. the government pressed them to sell and the Indians, seeing that resistance was futile, agreed. A great gathering was held at Chicago in the fall of 1833, when was signed two treaties with which the Indians relinquished the last of their all claims to northern Illinois. Within two or three years all but a few Potawatomis had been pushed west of the Mississippi, and the Americans took over the neighborhood.
The process was to be repeated on a neighborhood scale uncounted times in the next 175 years. The result is that some neighborhood names describe neighborhoods that no longer exist in social terms; Pilsen retains its Bohemian name decades after most of the Bohemians who used to live there have left, to the confusion of tourists who go there seeking decent Svickova. As the once-Irish West Side began to turn Jewish at the turn of the 20th century, the six-acre grounds of a former convent at Taylor and Lyle Streets became the site of the Chicago Hebrew Institute (later the Jewish People’s Institute). After the exodus of Jews from Lawndale, most of the Jewish institutions that once dotted the Lawndale area—most built by the Jews—were transferred to new African American residents. Mount Sinai Hospital now serves a community that is black and Protestant, most of the former synagogues are now black churches, and the Jewish People’s Institute and the former Herzl Junior College were converted into public schools. Eriksson's jewelry store in once-Swedish Andersonville is today run by Koreans.
The same thing happened in the once-Jewish areas of the South Side. The Chicago Defender, the great African American weekly, was housed in a former Jewish synagogue in Bronzeville at 3435 S. Indiana Avenue, from 1920 until 1960. The former Lakeside Club, a Jewish social organization at 3140 S. Indiana Avenue that opened in 1887, in 1917 became the headquarters of the Peoples Movement Club, a political organization of Oscar DePriest, the first African American elected to the City Council and the first northern black elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The South Shore Cultural Center, a 65-acre park with a golf course, tennis courts, a bathing beach, and an impressive building, originated as the South Shore Country Club. The country club's membership peaked in the late 1950s. Simultaneously, many African Americans began settling in South Shore. Because the private club excluded black members, it went out of business in the 1970s. In 1974, the Chicago Park District purchased the property to expand its lakefront facilities. The park district planned to demolish the severely deteriorated clubhouse. However, community members rallied together to save the historic building. Rehabilitating the clubhouse as a cultural center in the late 1970s, the park district has since restored other historic features including the front colonnade, entry gate, and stables. Pride of the black South Side.
Operation PUSH headquarters at 50th and Drexel was built to house Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv (K.A.M.), the oldest (1847) Jewish congregation in Chicago. (KAM own peregrinations trace the jewish migrations, built synagogue at 33rd and Indiana; that building, now a city landmark, was designed by Adler and Sullivan in 1891, has housed the Pilgrim Baptist Church since 1922.] Built new one at 50th and Drexel; the huge Greek revival building is now the home of Operation PUSH, which bought it in 1971 when K.A.M. merged with Temple Isaiah and moved to Hyde Park Boulevard and Greenwood Avenue.
Across the city one can chart the progress of various ethnics across the landscape by the sale of church and temples by their builders. Avondale? Rogers Park? Jews sold Temple Mizpah (built at 1615 Morse in 1924) to the Koreans, who converted the facility into the Korean Presbyterian Church. The Elyah Muhammad Mosque #2 at 7351 S. Stony Island was purchased by Black Muslims in 1972 from the parish of SS. Constantine and Helen, then the largest Greek Orthodox church in North America. Sanders, in his history of Chicago Catholics, notes that within a generation after 1880, the Irish parishes of St. Stephen’s, Holy Family, and St. Elizabeth (on the Northwest, West, and South Side respectively) became Polish, Jewish and Italian, and African American.
Another good example of ethnic succession is Humboldt Park/Logan Square Originally settled by Polish and Russian Jews, then by Scandinavians, Ukrainians, and Eastern Europeans, Humboldt Park and Logan Square are now home to large numbers of Hispanic residents, mainly Puerto Rican. Ceska California was inhabited by Czechs from the 1880s until replaced recently by Mexican immigrants. When Italian sociologist deramo visited Chicago, he found
On Milwaukee Avenue, a few writings in Polish recall a past now blanked out, if not completely erased, by advertisements in Spanish: the Poles, meanwhile, have shifted north to “Jackowo” (named after a church) in Avondale between Central Park and Pulaski, where you feel like you’re in downtown Krakov: everything is Polish, from the street signs to the newspapers to the food on sale in the drugstores.
Julia Sniderman, writing in the AIA’s fine guide to Chicago architecture, recalls that the early settlers of West Town included not only Germans and Poles but also Scandinavians and Italians; they were followed by Russian Jews after World War I. and in recent years Hispanics and a new generation of Poles.
West Rogers Park is the classic “portal” neighborhood of a later era. A caravansary for West Side Jews on their trek toward the northern suburbs, it also welcomed East Indians and Pakistanis in the 1980s. Once-Jewish Devon Avenue became "Indiatown," where East Indians repaired for clothes, videos, food, and social services such as those offered by the Indo-American Center. More recently, the Assyrian Association, representing Chicago’s small but growing Iraqi-Christian community, established headquarters at 1618 W. Devon. And further west, the Croatian Culture Center of Chicago purchased a converted supermarket at 2845 W. Devon Avenue.
All do business on Devon Avenue between California and Western avenues, the main shopping strip, with commercially antic results. The western part of Devon was ceremonially christened Golda Meir Way in honor of the late Israeli prime minister; Devon at Broadway has been dubbed Dr. J. Jayalalitha Way after the Indian actor-politician; Devon and Western bears the honorary name of King Sargon Drive, after the ancient Mesopotamian ruler and a hero to Chicago's Assyrian community.
The process continues across the city in an era of renewed immigration. Uptown north from Irving Park Road to Foster and west from the lakefront to Ashland was an Appalachian enclave; it now counts Vietnamese, Laotian, Chinese, Cambodian, and Thai immigrants. One of the city’s best Arab restaurants is in what used to be known as Swede Town. Lincoln Square which used to be German and Czech, is heavily Korean; Little Saigon has taken root in an old Puerto Rican neighborhood. What was the Polka Hall of Fame is now the Zacatecan Cultural Center, run by and for migrants from the central Mexican state of Zacatecas. Bridgeport, which is to Chicago Irish what Vatican City is to the world’s Catholics, offers Chinese, Mexican, Italian, and Lithuanian restaurants. In Pilsen, the St. Procopius Church at 18th Street and Dvorak Park on Cullerton have been joined by Benito Juãrez High School on S. Laftin Street and the Rudy Lozano Branch of the Chicago Public Library on S. Loomis Street.
The passing of the “old neighborhood” is mourned in lore and song. Polish polka bands scored big hits with such laments about the old Polish neighborhoods as "Polka Lounges of Chicago"and "Polish Broadway."
Joseph Epstein remembers his Rogers Park this way:
“I don’t know in what year Friedman’s went out of business, but, if I were the local historian, I would mark the neighborhood’s change from that date. I now live only a few miles from the old neighborhood, and I occasionally drive through it, flush with nostalgia and sadness. The eastern portion of Devon Avenue is now dominated by East Indian merchants—grocery, jewelry, sari shops. Westward, past California Avenue, there are Orthodox Jews in great number, many of them in Hasidic dress: little boys, earlocks flapping, clutch their bewigged mothers’ hands. The last things I bought on West Devon, at a place called Lieberman Monument Works, Inc., were tombstones . . . . If I were a composer, I should one day like to write a Pavane for West Devon.
The changing nature of the city can have newer residents befuddled by the public art in their neighborhoods. The building used to house the Polka Hall of Fame is now the Zacatecan Cultural Center, a social hub for Mexican migrants from that state. The largely Hispanic community that has moved in around Humboldt Park might well look at the statues there of Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt and the Norse Viking Leif Ericson and shrug. That’s life in America.
Chicago’s hardscrabble neighborhoods are almost always associated in the popular mind with its newcomers from foreign places. But those ports of entry were home to many white Americans as well. Curious Hull House researchers discovered in the 1890s that most of the white people recorded living east of the Chicago River‘s South Branch were “genuine” Americans, most of them unwed men and girls under thirty from the farms and small towns of Illinois the nearby Midwest. Most of these people led what was carefully described as “irregular lives.”
White Americans came to the city, like their foreign-born counterparts, because opportunity had disappeared at home. In the 1890s, a big prod to migration was the collapse of the market for free labor on Illinois farms due to mechanization. The same thing happened, some decades later, in the American South.
Whatever their social dominance, in economics terms, that region had been no more hospitable to transplanted white small farmers than it was to black ones. As a result, Southern whites undertook their own great migration to the big-city North.
Poor whites from the South faced their own problems in adapting in spite of their privileged skins. Uptown was, as locals put it, the last stop on the Down elevator. Many were culturally as much at odds with the big city as their black compatriots, and reacted to it in many of the same ways. One of the youth gangs in Uptown in the late 1960s was the white Young Patriots Organization, a proto-skinhead outfit whose members included many white supremacists, and who sported the Confederate Flag on their uniforms. Ordinarily the handcuffed young male lying face down on the sidewalk in a news photo from that era would be assumed to be African American, but such scenes often involved white youths. Uptown even was the subject of its own “Other America”-type expose, in the 1970 book, Uptown: Poor Whites In Chicago by Todd Gitlin and Nanci Hollander.
The ethnic neighborhood in particular has been romanticized by the now-suburbanized grandchildren children of the people who actually lived in them in the same way that the Old Country was romanticized by their grandparents—and usually with about as much accuracy.
Chinatown and Bronzeville were imposed ghettos. The city’s Puerto Ricans want to create their own for themselves in the "Paseo Boricua," a "Little Puerto Rico" or “brown Chinatown” along Division Street between Western and California. The hope is that it will be transformed into a literal as well as a symbolic home for the city’s residents with ties to the island. The centerpiece of the small park near North and Artesian Avenues is a mural featuring Pedro Albizu Campos, a hero in Puerto Rican history. The facades of many of the buildings have been altered to resemble structures from Old San Juan, and offering restaurants, night life, and salsa culture, the district is intended partly as a marketing tool, but mainly because it will make residents feel Puerto Rican.
Destroying a ghetto means breaking down walls. Building an enclave often mean building them. In 2006 local residents began posting “No Yuppies” signs on newly rehabbed condo buildings. The affluent looking for cheaper homes and artists looking for the next “edgy” Bohemia have come to outnumber Puerto Ricans in Little Puerto Rico. More constructively, local business leaders seeks to keep working class Puerto Ricans from leaving Humboldt Park while luring back families. The means include newaffordable housing projects—vital in areas in which new housing driven up costs—and marketing to Puerto Rican professionals of the sort that usually flee to the suburbs.
While most of Chicago’s old ethnic enclaves survive as places, only a few survive as ethnic places of the sort that would be familiar to the people who founded them. In 1890, “Chinatown” was along South Clark Street around Van Buren, part of the vice district know as the Custom House Place Levee, where Chinese settled because no more respectable neighborhood would have them.
Even that proved no haven. In 1905 the Chinese government boycotted U.S. goods to protest the ill-treatment of Chinese in this country. The cause was just but the tactic ill-advised. It excited an anti-Chinese backlash that saw Chicago’s Chinese pushed out of the Custom House Levee around 1912 to the fringe of the south Loop around 22nd Street and Wentworth Avenue, which area was then Italian and Croatian.
There the city’s Chinese gathered for self-protection behind an impenetrable wall of language and custom. Its difference made Chinatown exotic—a vague menace to a few, an enticement to visit to many more. Much as adventuresome whites ventured into the Black Belt for jazz clubs, so they dared Chinatown to shop and eat, among less licit pleasures. Tourism is less adventuresome these days—Chicago’s trade with Chinatown consists almost entirely of restaurant-goers.
What is now the Cermak-Chinatown station on the CTA Red Line is decorated in Chinese motifs. Tile murals bid "Welcome to Chinatown" in both Chinese and English. Lion statues known as "foo dogs" are painted in part in the Chinese colors for prosperity and longevity, and on the walls hang Chinese masks. The On Leong Merchants Association Building at 2216 S. Wentworth Ave. was the headquarters of one of the Chinese secret societies known as tongs. A combination chamber of commerce, ward headquarters, and parish council, the On Leong dominated Chicago's Chinatown, as much a center of Chinese social life at the Roman Catholic church was to Poles of that faith. The building—done by architects of Norwegian descent—was derived from the architecture of the Kwangtung district of China.
The remnant of the old Chinatown at Van Buren and Clark was razed in the 1970s to build a jail—an interesting extension of that area’s historic role as a place in which the unwanted were confined. Merchants still in old Chinatown relocated not to the now overcrowded South Chinatown, but to a third enclave, this one on the far North Side around Argyle & Broadway; it attracted mainly Chinese from Vietnam who were joined other Southeast Asians, which gave it the nickname, “Little Saigon."
Work in the slaughterhouses and steel mills drew Lithuanians to the near South West Side. The 1920s boom gave many of them the means to move to new and better housing in the hinterland around Marquette Park. That area quickly became the unofficial capital of Lithuanian Chicago and remained so for four decades.
There Lithuanians sought to keep alive the cultural and religious traditions of the homeland. In 1929 new parish of The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was founded; its new church at 69th and Washtenaw, opened in 1957, was built in Lithuanian folk baroque style and decorated with Lithuanian folk art recalling the days in the 1600s when Mary appeared to shepherd children in the village of Siluva. and is said to serve the largest Lithuanian parish outside Europe. Religious processions honoring Our Lady of Siluva began in 1952, and the faithful insist that it has never rained during the procession.
As the Poles did in Polonia and the Jews did in Lawndale, the Lithuanians of Marquette Park built more than homes. They opened their own financial institutions, a hospital, and of course schools and newspapers. And fiercely protective of cultutal perogatives; in the 1960s a decision by the local Roman Catholic archdiocese to take administration of the city’s parish cemeteries from the national churches led to street demonstrations and protsts in Rome.
Age and affluence, those familiar twin enemies of every enclave, saw many Marquette Parkers relocate in suburban outposts beginning in the 1960s, replaced by non-Lithuanians whose presence sped the migration of those who were left. The Lithuanian diaspora settled in Downers Grove, Lemont, and other places, but even today the old neighborhood is home to 150,000 Lithuania immigrants and their immediate descendants—large enough to sustain the only Lithuanian-language daily newspaper outside of Lithuania.
The ethnic neighborhood is often romanticized, and none more than Maxwell Street, the area southwest of downtown known variously (including by some who lived there) as “Jewtown” or (as described on a printed postcard of the period) “The Ghetto.” The term was borrowed from Europe, but Maxwell Street not a legally enforced district to which Jews were confined.
It was founded mainly by Russian and Polish Jews who displaced non-Jews from Germany, Bohemia, and Ireland who by then were able to escape this already worn-out entrepot of Chicago newcomers. Around 1910, pushcart businesses began setting up around the corner of Halsted and Maxwell, creating a marketplace that was officially recognized by City Hall in 1912. The Jews spread south along Canal and Jefferson streets, westward to Halsted Street; by 1910, Cutler reports, the ghetto reached almost to Damen Avenue, and from Polk Street south to roughly 16th Street. (Different authorities cite slightly different boundaries.) At its height, nine of ten residents of the core of this district were Jews.
Maxwell Street was the Jewish version of every big city ethnic district, a bit of the Old World—comforting to the locals, bizarre and exotic even bizarre to strangers, as close to a European shetl as one could get on an el. Irving Cutler recalls life in this part of Greater Lawndale as alive with outdoor activity, especially in the warmer months.
Though the alleys came a constant procession of peddlers in horse-drawn wagons, hawking their fruits and vegetables in singsong fashion. Mingled among them were the milkmen and the icemen. Occasionally fiddlers would play Jewish melodies in the yards, and the housewives would throw them a few coins wrapped in paper. The area was also traversed by the “old rags and iron” collector, the knife sharpener, the umbrella man, and the organ grinder with his monkey. . . In the evenings most people would sit on their front porches conversing with their families and neighbors as a procession of ice cream, candy, and waffle vendors passed. People would go to the parks in the evening. There they would rent rowboats, attend occasional free band concerts, and sometimes sleep all night during the most stifling summer weather. Various groups met in special sections of the parks where they sang to mandolin music or danced the hora.
Cutler added that some of the intellectuals congregated outside Silverstein’s restaurant on Roosevelt and St. Louis (3500 west) to debate the issues of the day with the soapbox orators, while the Jewish People’s Institute on Douglas Boulevard was offered to satisfy every appetite—for food (at the Blintzes Inn) for dancing (on the roof garden), for concerts, plays, lectures, and (at the schools housed there) proficiency in Hebrew.
Strange to visitors from non-Jewish Chicago was the absence of saloons, which were as common in other working-class districts as weeds in a lawn; drink not being among the Jews’ vices. Instead one found synagogues (more than forty Orthodox synagogues alone) and Hebrew schools. Newspapers were in Yiddish, and Yiddish theaters offered (a Yiddish theater on Roosevelt Road near Halsted Street was where screen star Paul Mini—then Muni Weisenfreund—learned his craft.)
The main commercial arteries of the district were Jefferson, Halsted, Roosevelt, and Maxwell streets, but Maxwell Street was the most famous, what Cutler called a crowded, bustling, old-world kind of open-market bazaar. In the 1920s, sales were believed to have totaled between one and two million dollars a month on Maxwell and Jefferson alone; and the entire Roosevelt-Halsted-Maxwell Street area probably ranked third in sales in the city, after downtown and Sixty-third and Halsted streets.
Maxwell Street was an incubator of retailers. At 16, Ron Popeil went to Chicago to live with his father, Samuel. Samuel Popeil was an inventor who sold his inventions to such big store chains as Sears and Woolworth's. Ron's job was to demonstrate the gadgets to customers in the stores. He also set up stalls on Maxwell Street and at summer fairs, mastering the patter that made him the gadget king—who can forget the Veg-O-Matic? —of his generation.
As the Jews pushed out the Irish and Germans, so the Jews would be pushed out by African Americans and Mexicans. Mexicans congregated primarily along Halsted south of Hull House; the heart of the Mexican neighborhood in the 1940s was the old German parish of St. Francis of Assisi. The rest of the area was African American. More recently the district has become a sort of social demilitarized zone; it sat at a borders of several ethnic areas, which meant that it was controlled by none, with the result that blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics felt comfortable mixing there. The area’s raffishness made it popular among suburbanites who mistook it for the “real” Chicago. (Wheatonian John Belushi featured a Maxwell Street landmark, Nate's Delicatessen, in the 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.”)
Along the way Maxwell Street ceased to be a market in any formal sense, and was in fact a flea market, and a low-class one at that. (Among the treasures were used toothbrushes.) The pushcart peddlers gave way to three-card monte players and petty thieves selling stolen trinkets. In the old days there was very little stolen merchandise sold on the street, although writes Irving Cutler, there was sometimes the whispered implication so that the customer would think he was getting a real buy. That was the new Maxwell Street: where Jewish peddlers had hinted that sale items were stolen that were not, their successors insisted that items that were stolen had not been. It was all very “colorful” but in wrong ways—its eccentrics really were mostly mentally deranged. crime went up, which drove out a lot of people, and as the nearby UIC expanded, real estate values went up, which drove out even more.
The university expansion in the past 30 years is known to have uprooted the old Little Italy, but its also uprooted the early Near West Side Mexican settlement. (Mexicans moved out or to Pilsen, the old Bohemian neighborhood to the south) and Maxwell Street. The impending loss of the market sparked a vigorous preservation movement with the usual complaints about corporate greed and city hall indifference and the usual exaggerated claims for the historical sign of what was being lost. Backers, using phrases that suggests that Chicago is still a windy city, called it “one of the greatest outdoor urban bazaars ever.” In 2002, blues musician Jimmie Lee Robinson—aka the Lonely Traveler, J. R. Latif Aliomar. King of Maxwell Street—died. (“A Ballad of Jimmie Lee Robinson” by Steve Balkin (read at the funeral of Jimmie Lee Robinson goes like this:
With spurs jangling,
A fighter was he,
This Lonely Traveler
Wrestled with UIC. . . .
He twanged the Blues,
Guitar in hand,
Hoping the Trustees
Would not demolish his land.
In 1994, the Maxwell Street Market was razed by the City of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago to make way for a campus expansion. A single block of Maxwell Street itself, just off Halsted, was restored and now houses upscale bars and fitness centers; the result is what Reader architecture writer Lynn Becker described in a shower of metaphor as “a Disneyland attraction landed like an alien spacecraft into the midst of an affluent cityspace.” In 1997, the storied Maxwell Street Police Station, which had stood at 14th and Morgan for 108 years, was closed. The building was briefly the most recognized precinct house on the West Side, possibly in the nation, as a result its having been used as the setting for the popular 1980s TV cop drama "Hill Street Blues." “Old Maxwell” was later transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago, which renovated the building for use by its campus police.
The Near West Side was settled first because it was close to downtown and the river and the sweatshops and the train stations. It was a place where a man without money could walk to work. From about 1870 to the early 1950s the area around Eighteenth Street and Racine Avenue was home to many immigrant Czechs, and was named for the city of Plzen, or Pilsen, the capital of west Bohemia, whence many of them came.
Pilsen today would seem familiar and utterly strange were a Czech from a century ago to return. She would find it as vibrant an ethnic neighborhood as ever—but one in which the ethnics speak Spanish. The exodus to the city’s suburban-ish hinterland and nearby Berwyn and Cicero after World War II left the neighborhood open to settlement by a new wave of newcomers. Pilsen evolved into a Mexican neighborhood, and its main drag, Eighteenth Street, is lined with Mexican tacquerias, family-owned grocery stores, and bakeries.
Today’s Pilsen does not merely resemble a Mexican barrio, it is one. Further, it is a barrio that, as D’Eramo points out, is closer to any other Mexican town than it is to an Evanston or a Park Forest, kinds of towns that are, in cultural terms, a thousand miles away from Pilsen. As so many did in Polonia, Little Village is home to many a resident who has lived here for 20 years never having to learn English. Those that move up do not necessarily move out; many Mexicans are investing and making homes in the area rather than in the city’s outlying neighborhoods or the suburbs. Those that do leave have been replaced by the heavy influx of newcomers from the same culture, even the same Mexican states, so its Mexicanness seems assured.
Another rare exception to the instability that has characterized Chicago’s neighborhoods is West Town’s Ukrainian Village, on the near northwest side along Chicago Avenue roughly between Ashland and Western. Originally German, the neighborhood since the 1880s been the home of most of the city’s roughly 30,000 Ukrainians. It was they who built the many churches with gilded onion-shaped domes such as the Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral on North Leavitt), designed in 1901 by Louis Sullivan, a concoction of Sullivan, Byzantine, and Gothic Revival architecture adorned by Orthodox iconography that is orthodox only in a religious doctrinal sense.
Ukrainian Village has all the accouterments of the big city ethnic neighborhood, from the signs in “foreign” languages to the not quite so foreign foods (in this case pierogi and dumplings). Into the 1980s it remained the perfect Chicago ethnic neighborhood, one reasons why Mayor Jane Byrne designated Ukrainian Village the first of the city’s official neighborhood, in 1983. Already however it was dying, at least at a uniquely Ukranian place. One estimate put the local population of Ukrainian Americans by 1990 at fewer than 3,000, the rest having died and gone to heaven or the suburbs, their places taken up by yups looking for bargain-priced housing near downtown.
Enclaves need not be racial or religious or ethnic (in the usual sense). Most suburbs can be described as same-class enclaves. The city has seen cultural enclaves too. The most enduring, and by far the most important to the history of the city, is Hyde Park.
Hyde Park’s modern history divides into three phases: resort; commuter suburb; uni town. During the 1830s and 1840s commuting to Chicago done via a trail that ran along the Lake Michigan beaches. The site of the future settlement boasted a tavern for travelers and a few farmers with nary a PhD among them.
Paul Cornell was a New York lawyer who like so many saw in Chicago an opportunity to be realized. Cornell heeded the advice of Stephen A. Douglas—whose view on real estate speculation were more sound than on slavery—and in 1852 spent his savings to buy 300 acres on what was then far south of the city.
As all savvy developers, did, he subdivided land into residential lots, then set about giving people a reason to buy them. Cornell cannily named the place after posh districts of New York and London, knowing that such association would appeal to the better class of punter. gave 60 acres of his holding to the Illinois Central Railroad and In 1856, Cornell convinced the Illinois Central Railroad to build a station at Oak (later 53rd) Street, whose tracks ran through his property, then built a resort hotel at 53rd street near the lake. As it became known as a clement summer spot, the well-to-do built summer cottages nearby; people now had reasons to go and way to get there.
As local demand dictated and times allowed, Cornell turned his settlement into a community. Schools and churches were built, and in 1861 the township of which the village was a part was incorporated to improve government services; in 1872, the township sent representatives to the General Assembly, who earned their keep by persuading the General Assembly to grant the whole township a “village government,” which allowed the township to provide civic amenities such as sewerage and the water supply, paved streets, and fire protection.
People do not move to a new area for the sewers, however. The real spur to the real estate boom that put Hyde Park on the map was the creation of new parks. Cornell had a hand in this too. Because his township was still well outside the City of Chicago, he lobbied the General Assembly for creation of an independent parks board, the South Park Commission, which was set up in 1869. The South Parks came to include Jackson and Washington parks, the Midway Plaisance, and adjacent boulevards, all laid out by the great Frederick Law Olmsted. To that amenity was added transit improvements in the form of new cable car lines in 1887 which made it affordable for even the craftsman class to live there. The township’s population rose by nearly 650 percent between 1880 and 1890 to 133,500.
Hyde Park was annexed to the city in 1889. The union was a difficult one. The rest of the township—working class or rural for the most part—was still undeveloped and wanted city services; Hyde Park was already providing for itself what its neighbors craved, and opposed joining the city. the township’s voters eventually prevailed and Hyde Park became just another Chicago neighborhood. One suspects that the loss of that vote still rankles.
Hyde Park was still merely a pleasant suburban-ish outpost, but the opening nearby of the World Columbian Exposition in 1893 transformed it into a proper city district. The world’s fair, the completion of Jackson Park, a new el line, and the opening of the University of Chicago all happened within a couple of years. Between then and the end of the 1920s, some 17,000 dwelling units were built, spurring the opening of new retail centers at 53rd and Lake Park and 57th and Lake Park. By the mid-1920s the IC was running 165 trains to and from Hyde Park each day.
During the Depression decade and the war that followed, Hyde Park went through the same cycle as almost all city neighborhoods—aging housing stock was abandoned by the families that built and converted into cheap rentals. The renter population thus attracted was poorer, younger, usually darker than the founders; joining them was a tidal wave of black house-hunters, long kept out of the area by racially restrictive real estate covenants, swept into formerly all-white Kenwood, Hyde Park, Oakland, Woodlawn, North Lawndale after a 1948 U.S Supreme court ruling that voided covenants.
In six years after 1950, 20,000 whites left Hyde Park and neighboring Kenwood while 24,000 blacks moved in. Writer Leon Forrest from 1951 to 1955 attended Hyde Park High School, then one of the premier public high schools in the nation. Enrollment was predominantly white when he was a freshman; by the time he graduated, about two-thirds of the entering freshmen were black.
Members of the University of Chicago community (mainly faculty) for years formed the ranks of Chicago social reformers, both as thinkers, researchers, and politicians. Here was a social problem that had come to the university’s door. The university always shaped the neighborhood—it is its major employer by far, and the source of upscale housing demand that has stabilized the area. but the neighborhood also shape the university, as in the 1950s and ‘60s, when crime made Hyde Park such an unattractive place to live that enrollment stagnated. In the late 1940s and through the 1950s, Hyde Park, with the university and faculty in the vanguard, undertook one of the first “community renewal” projects in the country. As much to save itself as to save the area. The projects earned them disdain from being anti-black or at least anti-poor, although the verdict may be reversed by time, as the university at worst failed to do very well what no one else in Chicagoland has done better.
The slide into poverty was arrested in part by a controversial urban renewal project In which much shabby housing was replaced by some 150 two- and three-story town houses and two ten-story apartment buildings. (See Reform for more.) The project was financed by a combination of federal, city, and private monies and was strongly backed by the university, which acted in this case out of its own institutional interest, since it was, as it remains, the neighborhood’s biggest employer and biggest landowner.
The Hyde Park urban renewal projects spurred the usual arguments: that they destroyed the neighborhood feel, that the poor were being pushed out. advocates insisted tirelessly that crime was lower, and that by demonstrating that steps were being taken forestalled panic buying by whites and thus staved off re-segregation, as had happened already in neighborhood after neighborhood on the west and south sides of Chicago.
Such initiatives, undertaken while the city’s Bridgeports and Marquette Parks languished in darkness, earned Hyde park a reputation for social enlightenment, at least among whites. This view rather flatters Hyde Park. Hyde Parkers found an influx of poor blacks just as threatening as their bungalow brethren, and as Bridgeporters did, and as Bridgeporters did, mobilized the government resources it had available to stem the expansion. The difference is that where Bridgeport called on City Hall, Hyde Parkers were able to mobilize resources in Springfield and Washington. (One of Illinois’s U.S. Senators in those days was a former Hyde Park alderman Paul Douglas.) One neighborhood kept poor African Americans out with cops, the other with bureaucrats—the difference, to the affected black people, was merely one of style.
That said, educated Hyde Parkers did bring a more nuanced notion of social difference to the policy table. The aim of massive urban renewal there in the 1960s was not to keep Hyde Park white, for example, but to keep it middle-class. Political historian Roger Biles quotes comic Mike Nichols’ sarcastic lyric: “This is Hyde Park/white and Blacks/shoulder to shoulder/ against the lower classes.”
Among Chicago’s cultural enclaves are a succession of small-“b” bohemias that serve as refuges for artists, thinkers, and their hangers-on. The first one of note dates from the end of the 1800s. That’s when a rising tide of urbanization carried so many young from the small-town Midwest to Chicago was a new generation of writers, theater people, painters and musicians and would-be political agitators. Here they embraced the freedom the big city offers every young person who is convinced that the best new life is to commit oneself to the everything not allowed by the old one. They were against the genteel and for Art. They slept around, warbled anarchist anthems, swore to show the world the inevitability of socialism or the rightness of feminism. In short, they led lives that are today led by most undergraduates at the local universities who are not business majors.
These new bohemians of the Chicago Renaissance could not afford Michigan Avenue studios, so they gathered in each others apartments, or in favorite bars and restaurants. Uptown they frequented Covici-McGee’s bookshop; on the South Side they could be found at the Midway Gardens. Downtown they drank and argued at the Tavern Club on the top floor of 333 North Michigan Avenue, at Maurice’s on West Madison Street, or at the Tip Top Inn atop the Pullman Building on Michigan Avenue or at Schlogl’s Restaurant, a weinstube on North Wells Street in the Loop. Book reviewers for the Daily News were paid in lunches at Schlogl’s; the book talk over lunch became a regular feature, that drew such stars as Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, John T. McCutcheon, among many lesser lights.
The bohemians’ version of the Little Room and the Cliff Dwellers was the Dill Pickle Club, established in 1917 in a speakeasy then located at 22 Tooker Place (“Tooker’s Alley”) near Dearborn just south of the Newberry Library. There political radicals of every disposition mingled with prostitutes, and tourists, small-time crooks and mobsters. It offered a sort of intellectual floor show in the form of lectures or debates (some by quite respectable people), plays, the quality of which was heightened by the availability of bootleg booze. A sign outside read "step high stoop low leave your dignity outside." Among those who contorted themselves thus in the hope of amusement were Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Maxwell Bodenheim, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Sherwood Anderson, and Floyd Dell.
The South Side had its post-Fair bohemian outposts too. A row of storefronts near what had been the Jackson Park entrance to the world’s fair in Hyde Park built to cater to tourists were later “converted” to studios. Among the residents in this little colony were Floyd Dell and his wife, Margery Curry, who for a time they maintained digs which became a gathering place for the young literary crowd. They occupied separate storefront apartments—an arrangement taken by their confreres as a daring assertion of modern marriage, in fact a symptom of the fact that the marriage was on the rocks—on the corner of 57th Street and Stony Island just east of the Illinois Central tracks.
Memoirs from the time recall good company and good talk (mainly in the comfier digs of chez Currey) from such soon-to-be august visitors as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Carl Sandburg, Maxwell Bodenheim, Ben Hecht, Sherwood Anderson, Eunice Tietjens, Maurice Browne, Ellen Van Volkenburg, and Vachel Lindsay. The storefront was where Margaret Anderson met some of the people who would be contributors to her Little Review—indeed it was at the Dell home that Anderson announced the founding of her new journal.
The 57th Street storefronts known to Dell and Anderson were still use in the 1930s. They were, recalled Ned Rorem, Hyde Park’s Bâteau-Lavoir. No Picasso, no Gertrude Stein, no Modigliani in Rorem’s youth, certainly, but John Cage (briefly in Chicago in 1941) and the accomplished 20th century composer and theorist George Perle made appearances.
The Hyde Park neighborhood was the home, at least temporarily, of many giants of literary culture who passed through the University of Chicago as instructors, lecturers, or students; Among them are Susan Sontag and T.S. Eliot. Saul Bellow lived there, in the Cloisters on Dorchester. On the northwest corner of Hyde Park Boulevard and 56th Street is the Windermere House, which was built as a hotel for tourists to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition; Edna Ferber lived with her mother there, and Bellow lived there or a time in the 1960s; long ago turned into apartments, the Windermere House was rehabilitated in the 1980s. The campus been used as a setting for so many novels that it as exhaustively cataloged as Joyce’s Dublin. Richard Stern, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow have all borrowed it. (Bellow’s The Dean’s December is merely the most prominent.)
Saul Bellow has recalled how the life of the self-impoverished would-be intellectual, the apprentice world-changer was lived during in the Great Depression:
The National Youth Administration paid you a few bucks for nominal assistance to a teacher, you picked up a few more at Goldblatt’s department store as a stockroom boy, you wore hand-me-downs, and you nevertheless had plenty of time to read the files of the old Dial at the Crerar Library or in the public library among harmless old men who took shelter from the cold in the reading room. At the Newberry, you became acquainted also with Anarchist-Wobbly theoreticians and other self-made intellectuals who lectured from soapboxes in Bughouse Square, weather permitting.
Those storefronts were urban-renewals to rubble in the early 1960s and the artists left for not-yet-improved neighborhoods on the North Side. This happens all over the city. As one guidebook author put it adroitly, “Pilsen has come full circle, from Bohemia to bohemian.” Like many former East European neighborhoods, Pilsen attracted artists and their spawn—galleries, coffee shops, hipper clubs. The same process has transformed Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Ukrainian Village. Wicker Park for example (bounded by Division Street, Ashland, Western, and Damen avenues) was settled by Germans and Scandinavian middle-class who were replaced by Poles and other Eastern Europeans of the working class; by the 1960s Wicker Park was home to poor Latino (mostly Puerto Rican) immigrants. Shabby and dangerous, it attracted first artists, later trend-following yuppies. But wicker parks’ success destroyed the factors—low rents and outsider cachet—that made it work in the first place, and today’s adventuresome bohemians are camped in the new West Side or in Pilsen.
When the slums became dangerous in the 1960s and ‘70s, bohemia shifted to the campuses. The new arts group—that is, group formed to advance new art—that formed at the University of Chicago in 1915 and called itself The Renaissance Society, survives today as a place where young artists can still try to break the taboos, which is much harder work than it used to be.
Only recently did the old social conditions necessary to the creation of a bohemia pertain again. Wicker Park enjoyed a brief vogue among artists, as did the West Loop. Now-Mexican Pilsen is seeing a return of artists and writers, who can be identified at parties these days not by their steel-rimmed spectacles but by the barbacoa on their breath.
The True Ghetto
The famous separateness of Chicago neighborhoods is often freely chosen, the result of free people freely choosing to settle among neighbors with whom they share a language or a religion or a social class. Only rarely was neighborhood-ness imposed on people. One of those people were the city’s African Americans.
When the Great Migration of African Americans from the American South began around 1910, there were enclaves of black people on the West Side, Englewood, and Near North Side. However, most black people—nearly 4 of 5 in Chicago, or some 35,000 people—settled in the Black Belt along State Street that began around 22d Street south of downtown. As the Great Migration swelled the black population, the area push for additional housing overcame initial white resistance at several successive points, as a rising river is first contained, then eventually overtops and washes away levees—pushing south first to 35th Street, then 47th, finally 63rd, and reaching east and west from Wentworth and Cottage Grove. By World War II the Black Belt had a population of more than 300,000.
This black city within the city had no official boundaries nor did it have an official name. "Bronzeville" was coined in the 1930s by a community newspaper owned by noted African American entrepreneur Anthony Overton. What today would be called the “re-branding” of the Black Belt as Bronzeville suggested that Overton was a tourism marketer ahead of his time; it has been resurrected for just that purpose by latter-day Overtons.
Bronzeville more accurately described the skin color of its residents, as its coiner pointed out, but also a term that avoided the hint of the pejorative contained in any term using the word “black.” (Bronzeville thus is to the Black Belt as “African American” is to “Negro.”) But Bronzeville was not a term heard much in the intervening decades, and especially not after the 1960s when (mostly younger) African Americans preferred to be called black in any case.
A more substantial and accurate image was conveyed by "Black Metropolis," which was given standing with the publication of a 1945 sociological study of the same title. The term survives in the Black Metropolis Historic District, and by the private Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council that now seek to revive the area.
Bronzeville and Black Metropolis are today both in use, flags beneath which contending organizations and political faction march toward revitalization. (The City of Chicago, mindful of the need to stay above the fray, honors both designations by calling its official landmark district the Black Metropolis-Bronzeville District.)
The name “Black Belt” was mainly a white usage and has fallen out of favor even among whites. Black and white in Chicago usually refer simply to “the South Side,” it being understood that the term means the black South Side, not Hyde Park or Hegewisch. (“South Side” has specialized meaning in sports circles, as it distinguished the baseball White Sox and their fans from the Cubs of the North Side.)
By any name, this part of Chicago’s South Side in the 1940s was the capital of black America. There lived African Americans of accomplishment in a dozen fields—from Joe Louis and Mahalia Jackson to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. The black South Side was where the Defender and Ebony were published. It was the home of Provident Hospital—the country's first hospital owned and operated by African Americans and a symbol of the push for self-sufficiency—and the Eighth Regiment Armory, which was the first such facility (1914–15) in the United States built for an African American military regiment. The area was headquarters of the Supreme Life Insurance Co., the first African American owned and operated insurance company outside the South; the first twelve black certified public accountants in America had their offices in South Center, a department store complex on 47th.
Timuel Black, who grew up there, has fondly recalled how residents strolling 47th street would encounter Ella Fitzgeralds, Duke Ellingtons, Lena Hornes, Billie Holidays, and Louis Armstrongs, or, “on the intellectual side,” W.E.B DuBois, Paul Robeson, or Langston Hughes. “It was kind of thrilling.” Indeed, it must have been.
The black South Side produced its own stars too. Typical was Jesse Binga, a real estate redeveloper. Since white-owned banks would not loan him money he needed to buy and refit derelict buildings for housing, Binga founded his own bank in 1908 at the southeast corner of State and 36th Streets; it thrived for a time, enough to move into reassuringly bank-like buildings at State and 35th. Binga thought of his career in Alger terms, explained historian Carl R. Osthaus in an 1973 article. “He celebrated hard work, initiative, know-how, and thrift. To share his secrets of success, he published a pamphlet of Benjamin Franklin-like aphorisms, Certain Sayings of Jese Binga, in which he advised other to:
Learn a business and then mind it.
Save, Save. Save, and when you’ve got it, then Give, Give, Give....”
John H. Johnson’s grandparents had been slaves and his mother worked as a domestic when she raised him in Arkansas in the interwar years; Johnson went on to become the first African American named to Forbes' list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, and in 1996 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. He graduated with honors from Chicago‘s DuSable High School; it must have an especially proud moment when this DuSable alum moved his firm into a new 11-story headquarters on Michigan Avenue that Johnson liked to say was “the first building constructed in Chicago's loop by an African American man since Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable built his log cabin along the Chicago River in 1722.”
As the old Black Belt expanded, the center of black life on the South Side shifted ever southward. The black “downtown” first sprouted at 35th and State. This was the state and Madison of the black South Side, and the streets were lined with clubs, movie houses, dance halls, and restaurants whose names bring smiles to faces of many an elderly black Chicagoans—The Pekin and the Vendome, Dreamland Ballroom, the Entertainer’s, Sunset, and Plantation cafes.
From the late 1920s to the late 1950s the black downtown was centered at 47th and Garfield. The pace of the movement south suggests something of the population pressures behind it. In 1920 African Americans constitute about a third of the residents of what is known to City Hall officially as the Grand Boulevard community area—essentially the district from 39th south to 51st Streets between Cottage Grove Avenue and the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad tracks; ten years later black people composed 95 percent of the residents.
As Timuel Black recalled, the vanguard of the move south were the affluent publishers, doctors, bankers, lawyers, and businessmen, many of them “old settlers” whose residence in the city dated from the first migration a generation earlier or before. This group was acclimated to the city thanks to their long residence, and were established figures in the social and economic life of the black South Side. Their presence created demand for new nearby restaurants clubs and shops and their presence made 47th the place to go for other blacks.
Virtually every memoir of the place focuses on the black South Side as a venue for entertainment and for display. It was place where other black people came to gawk at other blacks; dressing up was competitive sport on 47th street. The hot spots changed as the neighborhood evolved. Beginning in the 1920s, the new “Negro Rialto” the equivalent of Randolph in the Loop, emerged at 47th Street and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive).
The Metropolitan Theater opened at 4644 South Parkway in 1917 as a state-of-the-art movie house, catering to the then-neighborhood audience of mostly middle class Irish and German Jewish. The Great Migration changed the neighborhood, and the Metropolitan changed too. (Its new assistant manager, hired in 1926, was the first African American employed in a managerial capacity at a white-owned movie theater in Chicago.) The Metropolitan became an important jazz venue during the 1920s, but lost popularity during the 1930s. The theater closed in 1979 and was torn down in 1997.
One of the reasons the Metropolitan tanked was that a similar movie house was opened only a block away. the Regal Theater, 4719 South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), opened in 1928 helped anchor the 47th and South Parkway district, was one of Chicago’s more impressive movie palaces. More remarkable was the fact that the Regal staffed the theater with black people at a time when blacks could not get hired in other Chicago theaters for jobs other than doormen or janitors. (Since the audience was black, there were no customers to object to black faces behind the counters.)
Later, the action centered at 63rd and South Parkway, which is where stood Roberts Show Club, which some regarded as the No. 1 black nightclub in the world in the 1950s; here played such black singing stars as Sarah Vaughn and Sammy Davis Jr., comics such as Redd Foxx, and jazz giants such as Dizzy Gillespie.
The rise and fall and rise of Bronzeville
For a time, the black South Side was considered (by patriotic Chicagoans anyway) to be a new Harlem, the nation’s center of black culture after the 1920s. That may be generous, but there were notable artists living and working there, and as often as not inspired by life there. They include painters such as William Edouard Scott, Charles White, Archibald John Motley, Jr., the creative whirlwind known collectively as Chicago jazz and the creators of modern gospel music, and dance legend Katherine Dunham. (See Fine Arts for more on all of these.) Richard Wright, author of Native Son, is Exhibit A in the case for Chicago’s prominence in black culture. Gwendolyn Brooks is an honored member, thanks to the quality of works such as her A Street in Bronzeville, her first book of verse, published in 1945.
The creative ferment in Bronzeville was not unnoticed in the city at large. While most of the clubs on the black South Side catered to blacks only, there were some “black and tan” clubs where whites and blacks mixed. Some whites came for the music—“real” jazz including many young white players. Others for an atmosphere in which sex and drink ran rather more freely than in more respectable joints. Even in its heyday, the high life was lived in distinctly low forms. When Cayton toured it, he found Garfield Boulevard crowded with policy stations, “chicken shacks,” horse racing, bookies, pool rooms along with the occasional beer garden and night club. The policy betting—a form of illicit lottery—was hugely popular in the black neighborhoods; James "Genial Jim" Knight, proprietor of the Palm Tavern and the unofficial "mayor of Bronzeville," in the 1930s, was a policy king.
There was never enough wealth in Bronzeville to sustain more than one “downtown.” As the black middle class moved ever southward, the old bright spots grew dim. Richard Wright, in a survey he did for the Federal Writers’ Project, found that State Street from 2600 to 3600 South by the 1930s was “almost solidly lumpen-proletariat,” a district of beer taverns, “dingy cafés” and restaurants, and pool halls.
It would get worse. Within two generations South State Street—once a symbol of what African-Americans might achieve in the city—was notorious as the site of public housing ghettoes like the Robert Taylor Homes, which had become a symbol of the failure of Chicago’s black people to make it. By 1990 Bronzeville's population was a third of what it had been in 1950, and two-thirds of those who remained were living below the poverty line. It was the kind of neighborhood in which stores hide behind steel grates even during the day, and customers had to be buzzed in to enter. Italian sociologist Marco D’Eramo visited in those years and reported, “the sensation of death . . . floats over the whole neighborhood.”
Why did the heart of the historic black South Side die? Certainly, the Depression hit Chicago harder than any other larger U.S. industrial city, and Bronzeville was perhaps the part of Chicago hit the hardest. Bankruptcies went through local businesses like another Great Fire. Even Jesse Binga was done in by the Depression and his own financial misdeeds, for which he ended up doing prison time. (His later years were spent as a handyman at a local church.)
Every Chicago neighborhood was hurt by the Depression. The reasons this particular one did not recover from it were unique to it. After World War II, the black SS was shaken by two revolutions, one social, the other economic. The economic revolution was the collapse of Chicago’s old rust belt economy. The lack of demand for low-skill labor left many marginally trained workers, especially new arrivals, without prospects. Socially, the civil rights revolution saw a beginning of the end to the historic discrimination that had kept African Americans largely confined to enclaves like the South Side.
The loss of jobs left many permanently poor; in a too apt symbol of the larger story of the neighborhood, the famous Savoy Ballroom became a welfare office. As federal laws opened up new opportunities for work and housing for middle class, customers who did have money began to roam the roam the city for goods. Local shops could not compete with larger, newer stores in the Loop, and the commercial core of the district collapsed. Similarly, Provident Hospital, long the pride of the black SS, could not match the quality of the care offered at white hospitals, and like the stores became starved for business. Perhaps most crucially to the future of the BM, its middle-class citizens fled to less distressed parts of the South Side and its near suburbs, as the old settlers had fled the old Black Belt. (“Black Chicago,” observed a magazine writer in 2002, “is probably the only Black city with its own suburbs.”) The result was a distillation of despair, as the poverty and its social pathology became concentrated to toxic levels. It became a part of town where non-blacks wouldn’t be caught dead, for fear of being caught dead there.
A few whites still ventured to the black south side into the 1970s but by then the black belt was ragged and dangerous, a remnant of its former self. The reasons nice suburban parents (black as well as white) abhorred it recommended it to adventuresome sons and daughters. It was an excitingly alien world at the end of the el line, not merely an ethnic neighborhood but a dangerously ethnic neighborhood. One of those sons from the North Shore was Rick Cohen who grew up to write about one outing in Lake Effect:
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“The South Side,” said Jamie. “The Checkerboard Lounge.”
Everyone I knew was afraid of the South Side. The name itself was a curse, a slander; it struck fear in the heart of every kid from the northern suburbs.
Symbolic of the postwar collapse of the black South Side was the demise of the Chicago Defender. Not since the days of the German press in the latter 1800s has the ethnic newspaper had such influence on the larger city. (The siren song that drew Southern blacks to Chicago during the 1910s and 1920s had been sung by the paper’s editorialists.) The weekly Defender was the Tribune of the black South Side, not only Chicago's but the nation's most widely read and influential black newspaper, with a million readers at its peak. By 2002 the paper was near bankruptcy, its circulation by 2002 having slipped to a tenth of its peak in the 1930s, its owners feuding, its tax bills piling up.
Bereft of initiative, leaders, role models, capital, Bronzeville was a ghost town. Black Metropolis did not prove a stepping stone to participation in the wider economy; by catering to a captive market, and its merchants never learned to market to a wider public. Indeed, judging from eagerness with which old customers take to shopping in the Loop and in outlying malls, they never learned to cater to black ones either. “The only thing that swings in Bronzeville nowadays is the wrecking ball.”
It is hard to miss the note of nostalgia in recent rhetoric about restoring “Bronzeville” to its former glory as a black city within the city. In the 1960S and ‘70S, the area was described as a ghetto, an artifact of white perfidy; in the 1990s, it began to be described as a neighborhood, an opportunity for economic self-determination. Bronzeville had acquired that self-consciousness that is the necessary first stage of turning a place into a Place.
The depressed land values opened opportunities for new housing being built at prices attractive to youngish blacks of means who also are attracted by the area’s historical associations and its proximity to the Loop and to several universities. In addition to housing, moves underway to rebuild b. as a attraction for tourists of all colors and a destination entertainment for middle class blacks. In a sure sign of a tourism spring, the area has its first bed & breakfast inn and its own convention and tourism council. The Chicago Office of Tourism Several public and private organizations offer tours of historic Bronzeville—this in a part of town that you couldn’t have paid tourists to enter even a decade ago.
The resurrection of Bronzeville is freighted with ironies and dilemmas. The segregation that created it was anything but voluntary. The borders of the district were patrolled by white thugs living in adjacent neighborhoods, properties were encumbered with whites-only restrictive covenants, and real estate agents and banks red-lined. (In 1963 Mayor Daley was booed off a stage in Chicago’s Grant Park when he attempted to address NAACP delegates irate at his earlier observation to the press that there were no ghettos in Chicago.) “Labeled or not,” writes Edward Hall, “it was already the only true ghetto in the city.”
Many blacks resented having what was to them a neighborhood popularly known as a ghetto. They saw it as merely another of the city’s ethnic enclaves. As was true of all the city ethnics, most probably would have lived there anyway. It was quite true, as James Grossman noted in his 1989 study, Land of Hope, that an all-black neighborhood allowed people the peace of avoiding the daily insult of white prejudices. But it also afforded the comfort of familiar social institutions, from churches to restaurants. The real problem caused by segregation was lousy housing, the result of years of overcrowding and hard use and indifferent landlording.
Although it is seldom said out loud, the reminiscences of many residents make plain that Bronzeville did not flourish in spite of the institutionalized racism of the day, it flourished because of it. Segregation kept blacks from buying in white shopping districts., amusing themselves in white clubs, etc. Demand for such services was concentrated in the black belt, and in this artificially rich market a generation of black entrepreneurs and professional people found rich pickings; the neighborhood was one of the few places in which sizable numbers of blacks were employed in other than menial jobs.
What is being restored as a monument to African American pride is in fact an artifact of African American subjugation. Apart from Anthony Overton’s Overton Hygienic Building and the nearby Chicago Bee Building, very little of the physical black South Side that is being restored was built by black people. There are reasons; unlike the whites who built up the area, African Americans moved into the shell of neighborhoods left behind by whites. All the major black religious organizations are housed in former Jewish synagogues—Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist in the Sinai Temple, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in the Isaiah Temple, to name but two of many. A rare exception was the Quinn Chepal 2401 S. Wabash Avenue was erected in 1891 to house the city’s oldest AME congregation; the church is significant historically because it was designed by an African American architect (Henry Starbuck) and built by African American workers for an African American congregation.
There no equivalent of the ethnic Catholic churches, nothing like the Hebrew schools of the Jewish West Side to mark the African American occupation. The supreme Life Insurance Building had been constructed by the Roosevelt State Bank. The Defender since the 1950s been in what was originally premises of Illinois Automobile Club. The South Shore Country Club at 71st Street and South Shore, which is today the South Shore Cultural Center, was built in 1908 by and for the white business elites who then lived in that part of the South Side. The refusal of the club to admit members who were either Jewish or African American doomed it in a neighborhood that came to be home to first one, then the other, and it closed in 1973
Even after the area became predominantly African American, the major building was paid for by white businessmen. Provident Hospital, long a symbol of pride in Chicago’s black community, was funded by charitable donations from the Pullman Co., presumably as part of its employee relations campaign. (Pullman porters and maids were all African American.) The Wabash Avenue YMCA, which was built because the downtown branch did not admit blacks, was financed by Y backer Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Company, with help from Pullman Company executives.
If the original Bronzeville was a creation of whites, the restored one is too, in some ways. A restored Bronzeville was one of the goals of the latest of a series of renewal plans for the near South Side put together by the city and major institutions with interests in turning the area around them from it no-man’s land back into a neighborhood. Beginning in 1990, the city and the Illinois Institute of Technology, with money donated by the McCormick Tribune Foundation, began a two-year-long planning process involving residents, bureaucrats, and local businesses that led to the founding of the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission and a 30-year strategic plan, "Restoring Bronzeville," to guide the rebirth of the area from 22nd south to 51st street between the Dan Ryan Expressway, and Cottage Grove Avenue.
It is necessary to recreate the old Black Metropolis, of course, because there is not one any more. The gradual breakdown of Chicago’s apartheid apparatus meant that by the 1960s, the ghetto walls had crumbled. When they did, the middle class fled, most of them to nearby suburbs that were, or would soon become majority black. Socio-economic progress has changed the location of the ghetto but not its isolating nature; save at work, rich and middle-class African Americans are as segregated from rich whites as poor blacks are from poor whites.
The middle-class left behind a South Side black population that was and remains much more concentrated than that of any other ethnic group; nearly all the city’s black people were there, and nearly all of the area’s population was black. But as Wilson and other noted, it is less a community in the comprehensive sense that the old black south side was, because the overwhelming majority of the area’s residents—affluent enclaves like Kenwood excepted—are poor. a ghetto of color become a ghetto of class.
But if the city still has a black ghetto it no longer has a black metropolis. The once thriving commercial strips of the black SS are battered and forlorn; indeed the whole black South Side has been described accurately as a residential desert. In the days of World War I, and again in the 1920s and in the ‘40s, its dimensions neatly described; these days, “the symbolically central South Side, which is not a point on the compass but a state of mind and a state of soul . . . ” African American elites have continued their move ever southward, and for the historical moment have encamped in Jackson Park Highlands just south of Jackson Park, and adjacent South Shore, and social locus of the affluent a-as who are the most recent occupants of inland neighborhood, Pill Hill around 87th and Jeffrey, Chatham—from 79th Street to 87th Street between Cottage Grove Avenue and I-94—or in the re-gentrifying Kenwood. The areas is still home to a few nationally known African American, such as Jesse Jackson and Louis Farakhan, but many more live miles away. Oprah Winfrey is at home in the condo ghetto of North Michigan Avenue, for example, and the star athletes of the Bulls and Bears—the Joe Louis’s and Jesse Owens of this day—tend to buy houses in the North Shore suburbs near the training facilities of those teams.
Neighborhoods have complicated pasts, but those pasts have not always been considered worth saving. Many factors contribute to the loss of neighborhood memory. Such places used to be named after their residents. Now they are more likely to be renamed by real estate developers and marketers. The old Little Italy is now known—to its new residents anyway—as University Village and Tri-Taylor.
Not were the neighborhoods always considered historically significant. Significant by anyone but the people who lived in them. This led Pierre Duis to make this complaint about the historians of the 1920s and ‘30s.
Despite the exciting changes going on in the neighborhoods, such historians as [Bessie] Pierce and the army of monograph writers virtually ignored them in favor of what might be called the “Loop Synthesis”—that is, an emphasis on City Hall politics, downtown shopping magnates, and major industrialists . . . . For years, the story of outlying events was left to sociologists, economists, and social workers . . . .
That’s changing. A number of good popular histories have taken up the slack. Chicago City of Neighborhoods by Domic Pacyga and Ellen Skerrett, one of the best books on the subject, fills nearly 600 pages and doesn’t cover all of them. Since 1993, the CHS been engaged in ongoing research into contemporary history of four Chicago neighborhoods (Douglas/Grand Boulevard, Pilsen/Little Village, Near West Side/East Garfield Park, and Rogers Park/West Ridge); the research focuses on experiences common to all—work/employment, immigration/migration, urban renewal/gentrification, and community culture—and is aptly named, “My History is Your History.”
The monument to a neighborhood is the neighborhood itself, of course. The CFA offers tours of the architecture of some 16 neighborhoods—perforce, history tours as well. The City of Chicago has discovered the tourism potential, if only to offer some thing for regular visitors jaded by the usual lakefront museums.
Alas, many of Chicago’s historic neighborhoods, having been decimated by urban rot and (just as destructive urban renewal from the 1950s through the ‘70s, these days are at risk again by prosperity. The gentrifying boom in the Near South Side for instance resulted in the razing of working-class houses in the 3500 to 3900 blocks of Prairie, Calumet and Giles avenues. The non-profit Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois has listed Bridgeport as threatened; already it has lost historic St. Bridget’s Church, old buildings are being torn down or remodeled, and new ones built that, to quote the LPCI, “are slowly, but methodically, ruining its character.” ●
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.