Ready for Reform
Innovative social action in Chicago
See Illinois (unpublished)
A very length chapter in my never-published guide to Illinois and culture was written to orient readers to the role played by churches, parks, schools, and institutionalized culture in civilizing Chicago. I decided it would be a mercy to readers to divide that chapter into more digestible chunks. This section can stand alone as a summary of the reform impulse in that city. Readers interested to learn more about the role of the godly in saving Chicago can click here; the elevating influence of educational institutions is similarly summarized here. Movements to reform the city's politics and government are recalled here.
For much of its history, Chicago and (to a lesser extent) its hinterland was considered a backwater. Beef and hogs and grains and people were drawn to Chicago as if by a magnet but civilization seemed to have passed it by. The closest thing to poetry that the city inspired among its visitors was their fervently felt denunciations of the townspeople’s lack of learning, their crudities, their crassness, their impiety.
Such was the challenge of Chicagoland’s spiritual, social, and educational improvers. Like its architects and engineers and entrepreneurs, they had a city to build too, not one of new factories and skyscrapers but of ideas and habits. That they failed to achieve what they aimed for was to be expected; that they achieved as much as they did is to be wondered at.
In 1955, on the occasion of the election of Richard J. Daley as mayor, Alderman Paddy Bauler famously said, “Chicago ain‘t ready for reform.” The remark is widely taken to say something fundamental about Chicago, but in fact it is misleading. Chicago was ready for reform almost from the day it was founded. Chicago has produced reformers in the same way that ill-fitting shoes produce blisters. At some point or another, just about faction of polite opinion in Chicago—newspapers, religious leaders, leading businessmen—wanted to “reform” one thing or another, at one time or another, for one reason or another, and by one means or another. As Illinois’s biggest city, and the one with the biggest problems, Chicago, in the words of progressive-era historian John D. Beukner, produced “most of [Illinois's] intellectual, economic, and organizational leadership, while functioning as the seat of power for nearly every important political [reform] faction.”
Depending on who was doing the looking, the cause of Chicago’s distress in the half century after 1875 was, variously, too much booze, not enough God, too many Bolsheviks, or not enough trees and grass. Some concluded that the problem was that not enough virtuous people lived in it; others saw the lack of virtue in the city itself—its air and water, its crowded dingy streets, its poor provision for housing. Businessmen—mostly Republican—pushed for structural reforms, believing that what was wrong with government was that it needed to be more honest, cheaper, more efficient. Labor unions and parties of the political left—people who in the view of the businessmen were Democrats or worse—believed that the problem was not that government was inefficient at delivering benefits, but that it was delivering them to the wrong people. Social reformers—mostly the cosmopolitan elites, plus those religious souls who believed that salvation might be achieved in this life—backed measures that put disposition of the people’s resources into the hands of the people rather than the aldermen, via the initiative, referendum, and recall of elected officials. A few brave souls devoted their lives to redirecting, if not reinventing, human nature, replacing “bad” habits with “good” ones, through temperance, education, Americanization, religion.
Reformers in Chicago thus came in all sizes and shapes, from angry immigrants and coddled millionaires’ wives to earnest students of government, wild-eyed radicals, aggrieved ethnics, and scripture-quoting clerics. The era’s heroes included helpful ladies running settlement houses and innovators in parks and juvenile justice; labor organizers who sought to change the relations between boss and worker; political radicals who despairing of reform of the old system, sought to install a new one; feminists who pushed to expand the roster of “citizen” to include women and others once outcast; good-government advocates who hoped to transform Chicago’s traditionally corrupt partisan politics into an efficient machine for governing; utopians who tried to create perfect communities by creating places for perfect people to live, and planners and architects (including landscape designers) who believed that bad behavior owes at least in part to bad environments and attempted to create more perfect people by creating more perfect environments for them.
The result was a movement, albeit a loose one, of people and parties that shared little beyond their mutual unease about the industrial city. Collectively they proposed basic changes to Chicagoland’s familiar social economic and political arrangements, changes that defined life there for the next century. The region saw revolutions in all manner of realms—architecture, parks and playgrounds and housing, political and labor relations, education and the arts. No approach worked perfectly, indeed they often were at odds with one another, but all did some good.
In the process Chicago made some history. The work of art on which many Chicagoans lavished their attention was the city itself. Garry Wills makes an essential point when he states that what should be remembered about Chicago during its golden age was not the bigness of its shoulders but the brain atop them. One could make a respectable history of Chicago by tracing its experiments in playgrounds and juvenile justice, in parks and water supply, in city planning—indeed, several historians have. Chicago was for a time a national workshop in which 19th century ideas were bent and remolded to fit a new, 20th century urban industrial order.
Times of crisis found reformers especially eager to organize themselves, as is revealed by the founding dates of the city’s most important reform organizations. The Citizens’ Association was founded in 1874, during the city’s first bouts with worker unrest and street violence. Chicago was so demoralized after the Great Fire, and public drunkenness became such a major social problem, that a group of leading citizens and clergymen formed the Committee of Seventy to battle crime and the liquor industry. Another group, the Committee of Twenty-five, was formed to improve the moral fabric of the City.
At the turn of the 20th century, when Chicago was besieged by the social strains of immigration, depression, and political corruption, the city boasted reform organizations the way it would later boast street gangs. As Carl Smith points out, Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, Jane Addams’s Twenty Years at Hull House, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—three essential Chicago texts, indeed in the view of many people the only three—were published with just four years after 1906. Each offered different analyses of what was wrong with the city, and different sorts of remedies, but all agreed that something was very wrong.
During Prohibition and the gangster wars, the Chicago Crime Commission (1919) and the Better Government Association (1923) were set up to restrain the buffooneries of politicians of the Big Bill Thompson type. The Independent Voters of Illinois and its companion organization, the Independent Precinct Organization, was an artifact of the neo-Progressivism of the 1960s.
The golden age of reform in Illinois, at least in the social and political realms, was the progressive era, which lasted roughly from 1905 to 1921. Most of the impetus for those reforms—the ideas, the votes, the expertise—came from Chicago. Denounced in their day as radical, these progressive nostrums were (like most reform efforts) ultimately conservative. They were adopted to correct the worst of Illinois’s governmental structural ailments in order to forestall more fundamental changes; reforms in the process of government was a corrective to the excesses of the prevailing individualist political culture, not a rejection of it.
Active members of the reformer class in Chicagoland was never very numerous. The Committee of 100, which was formed in 1896, included just about all of them. William E. Barton, the prominent pastor from Oak Park, is said to have enjoyed telling this story: “One day, as he sat down with Jane Addams and others at the first meeting of a new civic committee, she looked about at the faces of her tablemates and remarked, ‘Well, I see it’s the same old bunch. What’s your name today?’”
Chicago’s progressive social reformers of the era enjoy reputations as world savers not because they saved the world. Their heritage was not one of enduring programs; none of the programs or institutions established under progressive auspices were ever funded at anything approaching an adequate level in Illinois, and they tended to be progressively less well administered once the founding generation of administrators—nearly always drawn from the ranks of the reformers—left their posts. The movement produced its share of heroes, if not, perhaps, quite as many as admirers like to claim.
In the nearly a century since the demise of progressivism, Illinois has been unable to come up with new ideas about how save society, so its more thoughtful and public minded politicians and civic leaders simply kept going back to the old ones. The progressive battles, first won by World War I, had to be re-fought and re-thought because its generals kept losing ground to old enemies. By the 1940s, after barely a single generation, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson made this report:
The State of Illinois was, not so long ago, one of the most progressive commonwealths of the Union. It was often referred to as a great social laboratory. Its social legislation, such as The Juvenile Court Act, probation etc., became models to be copied in virtually every state. The care of our dependents, the supervision and guidance of our wayward children, our educational system, were inferior to none. We have lost our preeminent position in this respect. So far as the quality of our government is concerned we are now regarded as among the backward States.
The villains in Stevenson’s day were patronage and fiscal niggardliness. More recently, free-market orthodoxies have reasserted themselves. One result is that the state's regulation of utilities—once one of the triumphs of the era—has been scaled back. The institutions for the insane, the crippled, the wayward by the 1960s began to be closed—no great loss in many cases, given the state they were in a a result of underfunding and inattention.
Social welfare historian Joan Gittens has noted how by the 1960s a new generations of social theorists, social activists, and historians saw that day’s social welfare programs not as good programs badly administered, but of evil intentions, an attempt to muster the power of the state to restrain the poor and immigrant newcomers who were flooding their society, and to sanitize Illinois society by isolating its citizens officially deemed substandard, such as the mentally handicapped. In the critics' view, schools, the juvenile court, welfare programs, Gittens writes, “were not benign efforts of well-meaning, civic people but instruments of repression and ineptitude.”
The rationale for state intervention advanced by the Hull House women, for example, in order to protect its dependent citizens simply justified in the end a nightmare of intrusion in the form of substandard prisons, reformatories, and asylums that lasted 50 years.
The noise of that work echoes today, as the city struggled with many of the same problems using same means, some forgotten and reinvented, others applied with renewed energy, if never again quite as much hope as before. ●