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Fall Books Special: Chicago's Life Story

Popular Columbia College prof Dominic Pacyga's been telling the city's history in pieces for years. Now he's put it all together.

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Chicago: A Biography Dominic Pacyga (University of Chicago Press)

Columbia College professor Dominic Pacyga grew up in the shadow of Chicago's stockyards, working his way through UIC—where he ultimately earned a PhD—as a livestock handler and a security guard for the Union Stock Yard & Transit Company. A south-sider nearly all his life, he's been teaching his streetwise brand of Chicago history for 30 years and has written about pieces of it in books he authored or coauthored, including Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago, Chicago: City of Neighborhoods, and Chicago's Southeast Side. Now he's put it all, including the history he's witnessed, into a new book, Chicago: A Biography, published this month by University of Chicago Press.

What made you think we needed yet another book about Chicago?

The last really good Chicago survey was by Mayer and Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, and that came out in 1969. There's been so much research done since then and 40 more years of story that had to be told. That book looks more at the physical city and I look more at the social city

A biography? You're treating Chicago like a person?

This book is an attempt to give an overview of the city's life. So I tried to do what I think a biographer does: he looks at various ups and downs in a person's life, talks about the turning points, and tries to shed light on the person's character.

So it's anecdotal?

It's a history that tells the story of race and ethnicity, technology, economic development, and politics, through various high and low points. If that's anecdotal then I guess so.

Were there any surprises?

Even after teaching the history of Chicago for 30 years, I wasn't aware of the paranoia about anarchism that has been in the city, from the Haymarket on, till about 1968. That struck me. Lucy Parsons, the wife of Albert Parsons, who was hung after the Haymarket affair [in 1886], was still getting blamed for things in the 1920s. She lived till 1941, and every time there was some sort of labor agitation, they looked for Lucy Parsons.

Anything else?

As a native Chicagoan, I'm well aware of ethnic and racial conflict, but I was struck by the intensity of it sometimes, or how it was almost like a little guerrilla war after World War II. Alvin Palmer's murder [for example]. Alan Ehrenhalt [author of The Lost City] called me and asked if this murder was very important. I said, "Gee, I never heard of it.' He says, 'Well, I don't think it was much of an event." When somebody tells me that, I decide well, maybe I should look into it.

What did you learn?

In March of 1957, Alvin Palmer, a 17-year-old high school student, was killed at the corner of 59th and Kedzie by a gang from my old neighborhood, a white gang. The gang was out, driving around, looking for a black kid, and they found him. They killed him with a ball-peen hammer. It shocked the city, because it was a random event. It wasn't over jobs, it wasn't over housing—or at least it didn't seem to be. But the Back of the Yards was under pressure on its edges as racial change was taking place.

And you were living in Back of the Yards then?

When you do contemporary history and especially if you write about people from your own neighborhood, it suddenly becomes a personal kind of thing. I tried to step away from it. I went ahead, looking into the Palmer stuff, and I started writing about it and presented a talk about it at a historical conference. Then I got a phone call from a black historian, and she says his parents are still alive. They wouldn't talk to me, they were in their 90s and sickly and they just wanted to put the whole event behind them. But that got me to thinking more. I was eight years old when this happened, but I knew some of those kids' names from the neighborhood, and then I realized I went to school with their younger brothers.

Then a student appears in my class. She says, "I know where you're from—Back of the Yards. I can tell by your accent. And you're probably from Sacred Heart Parish." I says, "Yeah." And she says, "Well, we lived right across the street from Sacred Heart Parish and my father grew up there." Her father's name was the name of the kid who was driving the car. And he lived right across the street from my grandmother. It turned out that I was altar boy at his wedding. That shocked me.

The city tried to hush things up. There were reports of blacks and whites fighting across the city—there could have been race riots breaking out. They cooled it down rather quickly, but it opened up this whole idea of post-World War II racial conflict.

It doesn't look like you're a fan of the redevelopment and expressway building that went on around that time.

There's a lot of myths about the Dan Ryan —you know, "it's a racial wall." And every time somebody quotes that in the book they quote Don Rose or Leon Despres, who had very little to do with the decision. So I decided that I would look, and I found no smoking gun. I've got a map in the book that shows the route of the Dan Ryan and the neighborhoods around it—what percentage they were black in 1950. That's 12 years before it opened.

So you don't think it affected the racial makeup of the neighborhoods?

No I don't. Englewood was already turning black in 1950. Those neighborhoods to the west were already turning African-American. I think it's kind of racist to think that blacks can't cross a bridge.

Bridgeport is different. The expressway was originally planned to go right through Bridgeport, just west of Comiskey Park. The planners of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s were looking for the cheapest housing to go through so it would cost the least amount of money. So they cut through working-class neighborhoods, white and black. Daley had it moved over a few blocks. The reason for that is his house would probably have been on the off-ramp. But Bridgeport had political and gang clout, and Comiskey Park. It didn't need the Dan Ryan to protect itself racially. I think that was a political argument used by detractors later on. There's lots of stuff to hang Daley on racially, but if you're going to do it, do it the right way.

The expressways did have impact though.

Eight thousand one hundred families were moved for the expressways—if you figure five per family that's 40,500 people. A lot of neighborhoods and institutions, just bowled over. Big, big federal money, big local money was moving things around in the 50s and 60s. When you look at it, it kind of shocks you— how big these movements were, and how they transformed the city.

What about the future of Chicago?

One of the points I make in the book is that Chicago's like a snake: it changes its skin every 30 years or so. And that's exactly what's happening now. We began as a fur-trading post and we became a broker—sold livestock and grain east, and eastern products we sold west. Then we became a manufacturer for local use and then for national and international use. And now we're in a postindustrial period and I think we really are a global city today. We're beginning to be on the level of a New York or Los Angeles, because of our economic and business acumen but also because of our academic connections. When I was a young boy, there was no state university in Chicago. Now you've got a really good University of Illinois campus, you've got Northeastern, you've got Chicago State—plus Loyola, DePaul, Columbia, and, of course, Chicago. One of the things that struck me was 50,000 students in the Loop each day. That's a hell of a lot of students, and it's transforming the old Loop. It's no longer the place to shop like it was. It's the place now for students to shop.

What does that say for future financial viability? Are we just going to be a huge college town?

I don't think we'll be only a huge college town—somebody's buying those $1.2 million town houses in the South Loop. And those are people who are delivering global services. Lawyers, investment bankers, the Merc, Board of Trade. This I think is the future. And we're still the biggest manufacturing town in the country. And the third largest container port in the world—the largest in the western hemisphere. You would think Los Angeles would be, or the greater New York-New Jersey area. But they ship all their containers to Chicago to get distributed on the railroads.

Our original reason for being was we were a transportation hub. And our continued success, even as a manufacturer, was because we could distribute goods cheaply. Our continued success in the future will be the same thing. We may be moving Chinese TVs around, or Korean widgets, but America's still one of the greatest consumer markets in the world, and as an organizer and a distributor we will continue to make a profit.   

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