Rise and (Partial) Fall of Chicago
The Racial History of a Great Midwestern City
by JUDSON HAMMOND
When I told colleagues and friends I was spending a week’s vacation in Chicago, they asked if I had relatives there. “Nope.” “Friends?” “Not anymore. They’ve all moved away.” My colleagues and friends thought I was crazy. Vacation in Chicago? Why not summer in East St. Louis!
Predictably the strongest reaction was from people who had never been to Chicago and assumed it was just another grimy, crime-ridden notch in the rust belt. Certainly some areas are as bad as they come. But that’s not the whole picture, not by a long shot. Ask anyone who has spent some time there-as I did while in graduate school in the early 70s. Since then I have visited the area on just two occasions, both three-day weekends. Neither trip gave me the opportunity to really explore the city and see how it had changed, which was my objective on this latest trip in the summer of 1997.
I dwell at length on Chicago because the city should occupy a special niche in the hearts of Instaurationists even if they’ve never been there. Here was once a mighty city-state on the shores of a great inland sea where all the tribes of Europe ingathered. Despite the ravages of white egress and dark ingress, the city’s greatness has not been totally eclipsed.
Chicago’s rise to prominence was rapid, even by the heady standards of 19th-century American growth. A marshy, small town of 350 in 1833, when America’s east coast cities were already well-established if not full grown; Chicago was built on the site of Fort Dearborn, which was abandoned after an Indian massacre in 1812. By 1837, when the city was chartered, the population had grown to 4,200. In 1848 the completion of he Illinois and Michigan Canal provided a link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. The building of railroads in the years before the Civil War further secured the city’s future as a transportation nexus and the nation’s busiest railroad center. By 1860 the city of more than 100,000 was now large enough to host its first national political convention, the historic Republican convention that nominated Lincoln. By 1893 when the city hosted its first World’s Fair-the Columbian Exposition to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage-there were 1.1 million Chicagoans. In a six-month period the Fair attracted 27 million visitors, almost half the U.S. population. (Today one-third of Americans live within 500 miles of Chicago.)
A number of writers who visited Chicago in its more dynamic days offered their impressions. Bursting at the seams with extremes of wealth and poverty, capitalism and socialism, puritanism and libertinism, it fascinated and appalled Europeans. Rudyard Kipling made these comments during an American tour:
I have struck …a real city ….The other places do not count. …This place is the first American city I have encountered….Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. The saga-in-the-making known as Chicago attracted writers and journalists eager to minethe city for stories. Young men of letters found a muse in Chicago-a find that would have been unlikely in, say, Cleveland or Detroit. The roster of Majority Chicago writers is long: Ernest Hemingway, James T. Farrell, Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Edgar Lee Masters and Charles MacArthur.’ Most writers saw the city as indisputably masculine. In the words of Hinky Dink Kenna, a notoriously corrupt alderman from the Levee, an erstwhile south side den of inequity, “Chicago ain’t no sissy town!” Carl Sandburg put it more poetically:
Hog butcher for the world,
Tool maker, stacker of wheat,
Player with railroads
and the nation’s freight handler;
stormy, husky, brawling,
city of the big shoulders.
Carl Sandburg-Windy City’s Homer
I n a 1911 passage Theodore Dreiser apotheosized:
To whom may the laurels as laureate of this Florence
of the West yet fall? This singing flame of a city, this ail
America, this fX>et in chaps and buckskin, this rude, raw
Titan, this Burns of a city! By its shimmering lake it lay, a
king of shreds and patches, a maundering yokel with an
epic in its mouth, a tramp, a hobo among cities, with the
grip of Caesar in its mind, the dramatic force of Euripides
in its soul. A very bard of a city, this, singing of high deeds
and high hopes, its heavy brogans buried deep in the mire
H.L. Mencken was quick to grasp the Chicago connection in American literature:
Find a writer who is indubitably an American in every
pulsebeat, snort and adenoid, an American who has some
thing new and peculiarly American to say and who says it
in an unmistakably American way and nine times out of
ten you’ll find that he has some sort of connection with
that gargantuan and inordinate abbatoir by Lake Michigan
…that he was bred there, or got his start there, or passed
through there in the days when he was young and tender.
As the city grew, it became a mecca for architects,
who rightly surmised that the Chicago Fire of 1871 would
afford them the rare opportunity to redesign the city almost from scratch. In the process they gave birth to that singularly American edifice, the skyscraper. The legacy of William LeBaron Jenney, Daniel Burnham, John Wellborn Root and Louis Sullivan2 is still obvious to any pedestrian in the Loop who cranes his neck upward from the crowded sidewalks to contemplate the great forest of office towers. In studying the history of Chicago architecture, it be comes apparent that Chicago has torn down more architecturally Significant buildings than most other cities have erected. A young city is usually a magnet for gifted young men
and the young men drawn to Chicago throughout the 19th century were overwhelmingly Nordic. The earliest arrivals
and the earliest city fathers were primarily old stock Americans from New England and upstate New York. The first European immigrants were largely Irish and German (somebody had to dig that canal); the latter were not so celebrated as the former, but their percentage of the city’s population never dropped below 25% from 1840 to WWI. The later addition of Scandinavians assured a Nordic preponderance until the turn of the century.
The early years of the 20th century witnessed the expansion of Chicago’s multiethnic, though not yet multiracial, character. The WASP, Irish, German and Scandinavian mix was seasoned with Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Hungarians, Rumanians, Italians, Finns, Latvians, Armenians, Greeks, Slovaks and Slovenes. In later years
the north side even had a “hillbilly ghetto” comprised of rural whites from Appalachia.
With 75 distinct ethnic neighborhoods the city was a Europe in microcosm. Ironically, Chicago, frequently described as the quintessential American city, was largely composed of the foreign-born. In 1 890, 80% of the people were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Blacks comprised just a little over 1 % of the population. Even by 1910, 50% of the population was foreign-born. Thanks to the process of “chain migration,” residents of European villages were brought over and planted en
masse to form a constellation of neighborhoods. As a result ethnic ties were considerably stronger in Chicago than in many other American cities. In more recent decades social science gurus lamented that Chicago was the most segregated of all Northern cities.
Surprisingly one famed Chicagoan crossed ethnic lines
to good effect. AI Capone, of Neapolitan origins and
Brooklyn-born, employed plenty of paisanos but he was
not loath to recruit non-Italians. If he thought a Jew, an
Irishman, a Pole or a Negro could be of use to him, he
brought him into the fold. His right-hand man, business
manager Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, was a Moscow
born Jew. This may have been one reason why Capone
easily surpassed the old ethnic-minded gangsters, such as
Big Jim Colosimo and Johnny Torrio, Capone’s mentor.
Since every ethnic group has its criminal class, Capone’s
foray into equal opportunity gangsterism was bound to
work better than government social engineering.
With an overwhelmingly white, preponderantly Nordic
gene pool, the building of a great city was assured. But the
seeds of decay were being sown even before the city’s
growth had maxed out (the city peaked at 3,620,000 in
Just what caused the decline of Chicago? As Inspector Renault says in Casablanca, “Round up the usual suspects.”
Jews had been present in Chicago since its incorporation as a town. By 1900 the city contained 7.5,000 Jews; by 1930 almost 300,000-about 9% of the population. Chicago boasts of having the third largest Jewish population of any city in the world, surpassed only by New York and Warsaw. Unsurprisingly the earliest arrivals were German-Jewish merchants. The Chicago fire of 1871-dare we call it a holocaust?-was especially hard on Jews who lived and worked in and around the downtown area. Some 500 Jewish families were burned out of house and home. A number of Chicago Jewish enterprises, such as Florsheim, Sara Lee, Hertz, Spiegel and Hart, Schaffner ,~ Marx are still household words. But the flip side of Jewish success is where they put their money. A case in point is Julius Rosenwald. As President and Chairman of the Board of Sears, Roebuck and Co., Rosenwald built the firm into a retailing giant. He provided the money for the foundling of the Museum of Science & Industry in Jackson Park. Max Adler, his brother-in-law, also a Sears executive as well as a concert violinist, provided a lot of start-up money for famed Adler Planetarium, which opened a year after his death. While the founding of this world-class museum, still Chicago’s most popular tourist attraction, will forever
redound to Rosenwald’s favor, it must be noted that his other philanthropic efforts were less beneficial to non Jews. He was a big player in Jewish charities which supplied funds for the erection of thousands of schools, YMCAs and YWCAs for blacks, not in Chicago but in the rural South. Rosenwald also coughed up operating capital for the basically antiwhite Urban League during its early days.
The accumulation of wealth, whether Jewish or Gentile, is usually made possible by the sweat of Gentile workers. With its long history of labor unrest (the Haymarket Riot of 1886 and the Pullman Strike of 1894 are the most celebrated), Chicago was a particularly rich environment for Jewish labor organizers. The best known was Sidney Hillman, who rose to power with the CIO in the 30s and sat at the right hand of FDR during the 40s. During the civil rights era, agitators like Saul Alinsky showed Chicago Negroes how to organize and shakedown whitey. The gradual decline in Chicago’s fortunes, however, can’t be blamed entirely on jews. Then as now, liberal Protestants had similar social agendas. Illinois was the Land of Lincoln-ergo, scads of abolitionists. Chicago was also the home of jane Addams, altruistic founder of Hull House, whose aid to the poor and efforts on behalf of in ternational peace made her a household word.3 In more recent years the same One World mentality that reached out to white immigrants in Chicago has smoothed the way for nonwhite immigrants, legal or otherwise.
While Hull House was in its early years, another famed institution was born in Chicago. In 1892, John D.
Rockefeller, the world’s richest Baptist, at the behest of
vne of his advisers on philanthropic matters, wrote a
check for $600,000 to establish a university in a city he
had never visited. In the early 1900s he upped his ante for
the University of Chicago with a big-bang donation of $35
million. The combination of supercharged salaries and
light teaching loads ensured that the university would
have a world-renowned faculty from day one.
It was generally acknowledged that the C.T.C. degree (Called to Chicago) was the most sought after academic distinction of
the day. The slant of the curriculum, even in its earliest days, was do-gooder, reformist, “progressive,” liberal and
feminist. (The school was coeducational from the start.) john Dewey, James Angel, William I. Thomas, William F.
Ogburn and George Herbert Mead were some of the social science luminaries who spread the gospel of egaIitarianism and environmental ism to their students who then fanned out to join the faculties of institutions of higher
learning throughout the U.S. Fittingly enough, the university’s founder, Baptist William Rainey Harper, was a Hebrew scholar. As the area around the university became stocked with well-to-do Jews, the university itself became a haven for Chosen egg
heads. Murderers Leopold and Loeb were doubtless the most notorious jews to attend the university. In time Jews
occupied larger and larger percentages of the student body and faculty as the Iliberaliberal bent of the university was
leavened with an activist, subversive tone.4
The fusion of liberal Protestantism and Jewry still
wreaks havoc, not just in Chicago, but nationwide. But in
those days it was something new. It came at a bad time
because blacks were just beginning to move in. While
Jews congregated around the university, Southern blacks
poured into other south side neighborhoods in response to
the labor shortage of WWI. The Great Migration of blacks
took place because the Great War in Europe resulted in
restrictions on international migration.
In 1914, 1.2 million Europeans came to these shores. In 1915 the number
fell to 327,000. With the arrival of Southern blacks formerly white
neighborhoods on the south side quickly changed color.
The Chicago Defender, a Negro newspaper with a nation-
wide audience, exhorted blacks to leave the rural South.
The short-term result was the 1919 race riot, a five-day
melee that started on a south side beach and spread to
other areas, including the Loop. The body count included
38 deaths, 500 injuries and more than $2 million in property damage. During a year of rapidly escalating inflation
and strikes (for good measure, the Black Sox scandal also
occurred in 1919), the last thing Chicago needed was a
flood of cheap, non-union black labor. Nevertheless the
influx of Negro voters eventually resulted in the election of
the first black congressman from a Northern state.s
The long-term result was that south side and ghetto became synonymous and the Chicago public school system
is now widely acknowledged as one of the worst in the nation. Chicago, like other American cities, has watched its
population shrink while its suburbs expanded, thanks to
white flight. Though a friend of mine who recently lived in
Hyde Park assured me that Jewish activism was alive and
well there, it is worth noting that Jews have also made the
move to the suburbs, particularly to the more desirable
realms north of the city limits. Niles, Evanston, Morton
Grove, Glenview, Northbrook, Wilmette and Winnetka
are 10% to 25% Jewish, while Glencoe, Highland Park,
Lincolnwood and Skokie are almost 50% Jewish. The latter town, which attracted a great deal of media attention in
1978 when some American Nazis wanted to parade there,
supposedly has some 7,000 Holocaust survivors. Overall,
the jewish proportion of the population of Chicago proper
is now down to 3%. About one in three jews in the metropolitan area lives within the city limits.
Among Chicago suburbs, two towns, Evanston and
Oak Park, occupy key roles in the history of the area and
were established long before bedroom communities became stylish adjuncts to American cities. Evanston is best
known as the home of Methodist-founded Northwestern
University and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Oak Park, another hotbed of Protestant “progressives,” is
the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway and the workplace of
Frank Lloyd Wright. (Less well known is that Edgar Rice
Burroughs was an Oak Park resident.) The leafy streets,
stately homes and numerous churches in both towns are
home to scores of relentless meddlers and bleeding hearts.
The headquarters for the Baha’i religion is located on the
border of Evanston and Wilmette. Oak Park’s Unity TemTemple, erected in 1904, was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first commission for a religious denomination. A Unitarian, Wright
was the nephew of Jenkin Lloyd jones, a prominent Unitarian clergyman. The town’s elite were largely the descendants of transplanted New England congregationalists and transcendentalists.
No booze was allowed in Evanston or Oak Park which
Chicagoans dubbed “Saints Rest.” Both towns were bastions of an activist, do-gooding, reformist, female
dominated brand of Christianity that men generally find
tiresome if not oppressive, the ecclesiastical equivalent of
nagging. Read the accounts of the youthful Hemingway’s
struggles with his overbearing, religious mother and you
will have some idea of the problem. It may have been inevitable, however, that roistering, anything-goes, almost
pagan Chicago had to be bound on all sides-Evanston to
the north, Oak Park to the west and Hyde Park to the
south (Lake Michigan is the eastern border)-by Jewish
and Christian social engineers.
So the drama of metropolitan Chicago was cast with a
masculine “ain’t-ready-for-reform-yet” city of Catholics
and Democrats, and feminine, reformist suburbs of Protestants and Republicans. In the pithy words of Bathhouse
John Coughlin, a south side scoundrel of an alderman, “A
Republican is a man who want you to go to church every
Sunday. A Democrat says if a man wants to have a glass
of beer he can have it. ” With one saloon for every 200
residents, the taxes extracted from Chicago bars was very
important to the revenue flow for the State of Illinois, making any serious efforts at prohibition unlikely before the Volstead Act.
Chicago history was not one of my strong points when
I lived there during 1971 -1972. At that time, I resided in
Evanston, which was not terribly inconvenient, since Ho
ward Street, the Chicago border was just down the road
when a beer run had to be made. I quickly learned that
just about everything worth doing in Chicago was close to
the lakefront. The north side was overwhelmingly white
and still liveable. I wandered around there at will. The west
side, largely humdrum and residential was too far removed from the lakefront to offer much to non-residents.
The south side, even then, was overwhelmingly black.
There was no reason to go there unless you were going to
see the Museum of Science and Industry, Frank Lloyd
Wright’s famed Robie House, the Gothic buildings on he
University of Chicago campus or a White Sox game at old
During my most recent visit to Chicago the change in
the ethnic mix was obvious. Asians, rarely seen outside a
discreet Chinatown around Cermak Road on the south
side, are now everywhere. Hispanics, once confined to a
few small pockets, are even more numerous. Their numbers are more in keeping with a southwestern city (say, Dallas or Houston) than an upper midwestern metropolis. The Albany Park area on the northwest side, once
heavily Jewish, is Chicago’s answer to Blade Runner. Get
off the ilL” at Lawrence Avenue, the end of the Ravens
wood line, and you will find yourself amidst a blitz of Korean signs and a pedestrian flow of Filipinos, Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis and God only knows who else. To a Majority member it can be very disorienting-or should I
While whites are now just another minority in the city
(one suspects that the old ethnic identities have now congealed around the “white” category), they are much in evidence in the best neighborhoods. A stroll around the Gold Coast or Lincoln Park areas will reveal urban living
at its best. The latter area is a favorite of yuppies. Strollers
stuffed with rosy-cheeked tots are a common sight, though
most tended not by mama but by someone of another
Chicago’S forest of skyscrapers
race, doubtless a maid or babysitter. This immediately indicates that the neighborhood is pricey. In Chicago, as in
the rest of urban America, if you are white and rich or
nonwhite and poor, your housing choices are abundant. If
you are white and midd e class, you will be stymied.
espite the influx of darker races,_during the workday
there are still plenty of blondes visible in the Loop, most
probably commuters from the suburbs. I cou dn’t help but
no i that on the whole the women seemed to be some
what plumper. Could it be the peasant origins of so many
of th eir ancestors?
White flight or not, Chicago still evices races of its
populisl ethos. The Lincoln Park Zoo is free at al times_
and the city’s world-class museums have a policy )f offer
ing free admission one day a week. If you plan it nght, you
can visit the Art Institute, the Field Museum of Natural His
tory, the Museum of Science and Industry, th Shedd
Aquarium and the Adler Planet rium without spending d
penny. The major drawback is the vast quantity of pickit
ninnies on field trips. Also along for the ride are adult Nf’
gresses, whose steatopygic physiq -es make It difficult 0
maneuver in a crowd. A sop to bl ack conscl.)usness is a
large e hibit on the slave trade at the Field Museum. TI e
ubiquitousness of Michael Jordan, as well as the tiresome
promotio of Chicago as the home of the blues, is another
favorite mode of stroking egroes- The late Harold Wash-
i ngton, the city’s first back mayor, is memorial ized in name of the downtown community college campus a d in
the city’s new downtown Iibrary, a much more imposing
edifice than a black hack politician deserves.
As in other large ciies, homosexuals are flexing their
muscles, politically as well as physically. Despite Chicago’s masculine ethos, queer neighborhoods have sprung
up. One such neighborhood is along Halsted Street. An
other, Andersonville (no relation to the famed Civil War
prison camp), at one time a Scandinavian enclave, is now
heavy with homos.
As for the famed suburbs of Evanston and Oak Park,
they also have witnessed changes, most noticeably graffiti.
While visiting Evanston, I picked up a copy of the North
western student newspaper_ I was taken aback by the addition of a police blotter, which would hardly have been
necessary when lived there. I noted that one Porfjrio
Flores had been charged with aggravated assault for pulling a gun on his daughter. Twenty-five years ago, if there
was anyone with a name like that in the Evanston phone
book, you can bet he would have been a professor of
Spanish at Northwestern, Yet another item caught my eye:
a snippet on an upcoming Ethnic Arts Festival. Sixty-five
count ’em!-sixty-five different cultures will be represented! AI! but one are local. I wonder what this city will be
like in another 25 years!
As for Oak Park, the trip out there on the ilL” is less
than inspiring. The entire west side of Chicago is an urban
nightrnare with housing projects, vacant lots, abandoned
buildings and barbed wire fences surrounding assorted
down-at-the-heels enterprises. Like Fort Zinderneuf squat
ting in the middle of the Sahara (remember Beau Geste?),
sparkling new United Center, where Michael Jordan
the Chicago Bulls hold court, stands out from the
landscape. Just why this pleasure palace was plunked
down in the middle of such a wasteland, I have no idea,
but I have to believe that racial politics had something to
do with it. (Rebuilding the new Comiskey Park next door
to the old one on 35th Street in the heart of the south side
may reflect a similar agenda.)
Once in Oak Park, I couldn’t help but notice that the
neighborhoods with the old Frank Lloyd Wright homes are
holding their own, but pockets of “diversity” are also apparent. The high school attended by Ernest Hemingway
has added a small monument to him near its front steps.
It has been defaced, of course.. by graffiti.
But don’t the idea that Chicagoland has deteriorated beyond repair. The “L” trains are still clean and efficient. While other cities have brought in modern, hush hush, light rail systems, the “L” trains still rumble and
lurch around the loop. (Chicago ain’t no Disneyland, so
don’t look for that to change any time soon.) Michigan Avenue is still one of America’s great urban walkways, from
the phalanx of skyscrapers on South Michigan adjacent to
Grant Park, across the Chicago river, past the architectural
gateway formed by the Wrigley Building and the Tribune
Building, and northward past the old \t\later Tower and the
new office towers. One feels the urge to step lively, not
just in the winter when the weather is every bit as bad as
Then there is the lakefront, the focal point of Daniel
Burnham’s master plan of Chicago, with the Navy Pier,
the parks, the statues, the fountains, the museums, the
beaches and boats. With skyscrapers straining for the
heavens, the seaward vistas of Lake Michigan to the east
and the landward vastness of the American prairie extending in all other directions, Chicago’s reputation as a wide open city is easy to understand.
But even a city that stretches in all directions can be
hobbled. An incident I witnessed on the “L” neatly symbolizes the problem. I was riding the train going back to the Loop after a night game at Comiskey Park. Normally any train coming up from the south side will be overwhelmingly black, but after a ball game it is filled with white fans. As the train pulled into the next station north of the ballpark, a black girl ran up the platform and lodged
herself in the doorway of the car. Time after time, as the doors attempted to close, the girl held them back. No one said a word. The girl stood her post, holding the doors open and consequently holding up the train, until her mother and a babe in arms came chugging down the platform and boarded. As the train finally pulled away from the station, the black woman was immediately offered a seat by a middle-aged white woman, who stood next to her and gazed lovingly at the little black bundle in her
arms as though it were the reincarnation of the Christ Child. I will close by saying there is a strong spirit of preservetion in Chicago pertaining to architecture and the physical infrastructure of the city. Remember the controversy about adding lights to Wrigley Field some 50 years after night baseball was first introduced. Laudable as these efforts are, they will amount to naught without attempts to preserve the race that conceived and built the mighty metropolis.
1. Sullivan’s firm benefited greatly from jewish money. He re
ceived a number of commissions from jews thanks to the con
nections of his partner, Dankmar Adler, son of a local rabbi.
2. Detroit-born Nelson Algren, author of A Walk on the Wild
Side and The Man With the Golden Arm, is usually near the top
of the list when the topic of literary Chicago crops up. Despite
the Swedish surname, he is half-jewish.
3. In City of the Century: the Epic of Chicago and the Making
of America, author Donald Miller asserts that the sainted jane
Addams probably had a lesbian relationship with Hull House’s
principal contributor, Mary Rozet Smith. The termagants at NOW
would doubtless cheer this avant-garde coupling.
4. For what it’s worth, six jewish faculty members have won
Nobel Prizes, the first being physicist Albert Michelson in 1907.
5. Ironically the history books agree that the first permanent
resident along the banks of the Chicago River was one Jean Bap
tiste Point du Sable, a Caribbean mulatto who established a trad
ing post in 1779.
Cutler, lIVing, The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb,
University of Illinois Press (Urbana/Chicago, 1996).
Kobler, John, Capone: The Ufe and World of AI Capone, G.P.
Putnam’s Sons (N.Y., 1971).
Miller, Donald L, City of the Century: the Epic of Chicago
and the Making of America, Simon & Schuster (N.Y., 1996).
Sommer, Robin Langley, The Genius of Frank Lloyd Wright:
Oak Park, Barnes & Noble (Greenwich, CT, 1997).
Tuttle, William M” jr., Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Sum
mer of 1919; Studies in American Negro Ufe, August Meier,
Gen. Ed. Atheneum (N.Y., 1970).
Wagenknecht, Edward, Chicago (The Centers of Civilization
Series), University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK, 1964).
Historical Information About Chicago, compiled by the staff
of the Chicago Municipal Reference Library (Chicago, 1975).
The Encyclopedia of American Cities, Ory Mazar Negral, ed.
E.P. Dutton (N.Y., 1980).