In 1893, the World’s Fair was held in Chicago. Millions of visitors were attracted to the White City to witness its grand architecture and feats of modernity. For many the fair cemented Chicago’s claim as a great American city, having rebuilt itself only two decades after the devastating fire of 1871. Yet the White City, even in name, was not open to all, for minority groups were underrepresented at the fair. Many of the buildings were temporary plaster structures despite their pretense of permanence. And muckraking journalists would expose the vices of cities like Chicago in the coming decades, including Lincoln Steffens in publishing The Shame of the Cities in 1904.
Through a couple of guest lectures and an on-site class we have looked at the spatial dimension of history over the last few weeks, focusing on Chicago during Dorothy’s day–the turn of the century and into the first few decades of the 1900s. In this time Chicago was booming, becoming America’s center of commerce and the new home of waves of Irish, German, Polish, and Lithuanian immigrants (and African Americans during the initial waves of the Great Migration). Chicago’s central location and access to waterways made it America’s foremost trading hub. Yet widespread corruption and inequality accompanied economic growth, catalyzing mass socialist sentiment and labor unionism and giving rise to moments of turmoil such as the 1886 Haymarket Riot.
There was no better way for visitors to Chicago to experience industrial modernity than to visit the Union Stock Yards and Packingtown in the city’s south side. Last Monday, we went through the old yards ourselves with Columbia professor Dominic Pacyga, a native of the neighborhood, former employee at the yards, and author of a book on its history. The area was a hotbed of market activity from 1865 until 1971. The yards framed the experience of the working class and provided a livelihood for immigrant families such as Pacyga’s– fifty thousand Chicagoans were employed in the Union Stock Yard and Packingtown during WWI, the peak of the area’s history. One-third of livestock was shipped out east after being purchased at the market, while the remaining was sent to local slaughterhouses. According to Pacyga in Slaughterhouse, “All of the basic themes of modern industrialization soon played out in the Square Mile; the large corporation, the factory system with its merging of human labor and machinery, the mass marketing of goods, and a transportation system that collected natural resources from a vast hinterland and distributed goods internationally”. The grand appeal in visiting for tourists was witnessing productivity on an unprecedented scale. Tourists included important American politicians and Russian royalty. The Jungle‘s release in 1906 revealed the ugly underbelly of the yards in exposing the industry’s unsanitary practices and exploitation of workers. Public clamor forced President Roosevelt and leading Congressmen to pass regulatory legislation and compelled Wilson, Swift, and other yards packers to improve upon their practices and corporate image.
The duality of the city– grand and industrious yet corrupt and poor– was possibly more pronounced in Chicago but was an urban phenomenon in general. For Upton Sinclair, it went even further: “the place which is here called The Jungle is not Packingtown, nor is it Chicago, nor is it Illinois, nor is it the United States—it is Civilization.” Sinclair was an avowed socialist, similar to Day in her youth. Unlike Sinclair’s hope to inspire more immediate change nationwide, Day directed her efforts towards the local level in a long-term strategy of creating change. She and Maurin focused particularly on developing rural communities, possibly because she shared the perspective of urban critics like Steffens.
Day came to recognize the double nature of Chicago in her time living there. Reading The Jungle encouraged her to start taking visits to the Back of the Yards rather than to the lake and parks. The city is still this way–the experiences of Chicagoans living on the south and west sides differ drastically from those living along the north shore. Urban space is oftentimes viewed as singular, but the same city has different meanings for different people. Space informs us as people and develops our worldview and our character. Day moved through Oakland, Chicago, and New York in her youth, and in witnessing urban problems place arguably played a larger role in Day’s formation than family, as her family was not inclined towards socialism nor religion. While individuals create place through ideas and industry, place simultaneously forms those who inhabit it.