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Reading: Back of the Yards

Bloody, boozy, and blatantly political, it was in many ways the quintessential Chicago neighborhood.

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Back of the Yards, Back of the Yards,

In Old Chicago town.

Where each fellow and gal

Is a regular pal,

And they'll never let you down.

Where an ace is an ace,

Any time, any place.

Now I give you my fondest regards.

Well, I feel mighty proud,

And I'm shoutin' out loud,

That I come from the Back of the Ya-a-a-a-ards!

For a hundred years, the Back of the Yards area on the south side of Chicago was home to the Union Stockyards, the legendary institution that put its stamp on the entire city. The neighborhood has been the home of successive waves of immigrants- Germans and Irish in the 19th century, various Slavic groups through the 1960s. and the Mexicans who have settled in the area since around 1970. For over a century, it was a neighborhood where new arrivals could come and find work and begin the process of becoming "American." It was a neighborhood proud of its churches and famous for its bars (at the turn of the century there were 500 taverns in the 16-block-square area, and in 1910 there were 46 bars on the stretch of Ashland Avenue between 42nd and 45th). It was a classic ethnic city neighborhood, where the people were clean and thrifty and not afraid of work;. where immigrant groups formed enclaves-in churches, bars, and social clubs -for protection and recreation.

But Back of the Yards was different, too. As far as I know, it's the only neighborhood in Chicago -- if not the world -that has its own song. Back in the 50s, at least, it was a song that everyone on the southwest side -from Back of the Yards, or Brighton Park, or Marquette Park-knew like they knew the national anthem. It was rarely sung before two or three in the morning, after most of the singers had made a night of drinking and carousing and fighting and fumbling at romance; but it was always sung with gusto, at great volume, and more or less in unison. It had the effect of bringing the crowd together, wherever they'd come from and however far from the Yards they were.

Which, of course, was ironic. Back of the Yards -the foursquare-mile area that runs from 39th Street on the north to 55th on the south; between Halsted on the east and Western on the west --was not a place to which Chicagoans flocked to live. It wasn't pretty; it wasn't trendy; it didn't have much to offer but two-flats, churches, a few parks, and those hundreds of taverns. It was, in fact, a place that many people shunned. The stockyards were there, in the northeast corner, and the yards were something you couldn't ignore. When they were working, the fumes would lie on parts of the city -depending on the wind direction -like a moldy blanket, the smells of blood, manure, and rotting flesh creating a palpable stench for miles around . Yet the Back of the Yards had a song, and late at night, in bars throughout the city, people would proclaim their pride in a neighborhood they'd never dream of living in. There was something almost mystical in the loyalty they'd profess, as though being from Back of the Yards was a badge of honor.

In some ways it was, of course. For over a century the meat-packing industry was the quintessential Chicago business, putting its mark on the city in more ways than one. Upton Sinclair made the stockyards a national scandal and a symbol of Chicago's character in his novel The Jungle, where he traced the misfortunes of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, and showed the world the gory realities of working in the packinghouses and living at the mercy of exploitive employers and landowners. Carl Sandburg immortalized the city as "Hog Butcher to the World," an image that recurs in works about Chicago even though the meat-packing business has all but disappeared over the past 20 years. The yards, violent and bloody, became an apt metaphor for the home of Capone and Dillinger, as rendered in countless books and movies 30 or 40 years ago. The yards put their mark on the city's literature, reminding writers like Dreiser and Algren and Bellow of the unromantic realities of life in the "abbatoir by the lake." As one writer (I can't remember who, and I'd be obliged to anyone who could track the quote down) put it, the stockyards probably had a lot to do with the grimness of Chicago literature, with the naturalistic bent of much of its fiction. "You try to write romance with that stench in your nostrils," he said, or something like it. As well try to hum an opera at a boxing match.

In Chicago's formative years, in the mid-19th century, the stockyards and their neighboring industries were more than symbolic, of course. They were central to the city's economic life. In 1848, Chicago's livestock and packing business was a modest affair, with only about 30,000 animals processed that year. Cincinnati owned the title of "Porkopolis" then, its situation on the Ohio River and the dominance of river transport making it a convenient center for shipments east and west. The hog kill alone in Cincinnati in the 1850s was 350,000 annually, and it peaked at 600,000 in the winter of 18623. But river transport was doomed, made obsolete by the booming railroads, and the Civil War hastened Cincinnati's decline as a packing town because navigation of the Mississippi was interrupted for a time. But the war, and the city's extensive railroad connections, vaulted Chicago to the top as a meat processing center. In 1860, livestock shipments out of 'Chicago amounted to 250,000 animals. By 1863, that number had nearly quadrupled, to 925,000, and Chicago was to reign supreme in the packing world through the middle of the, 20th century.

In 1875, the Chicago Tribune estimated that nearly one-fifth of the Chicago population was dependent on the stockyards and packinghouses, and by 1880, livestock receipts in the city amounted to 8.8 million head, or three times the number that arrived in 1870. The city really was the hog butcher to the world.

Louise Carroll Wade's Chicago's Pride: The Stockyards, Packingtown, and Environs in the Nineteenth Century traces the early developments in the stockyard industry with meticulous care. She has sifted through a mountain of -resources, from city records to old neighborhood newspapers, hundreds of books and articles, unpublished theses and dissertations, to compile the facts and figures -including the ones mentioned above-that form the foundations of her work.

Her subject is the stockyards itself, and also the neighborhoods -- originally separate towns and villages -that comprised the south side in the mid19th century-the town of Lake, Hyde Park, and Englewood. She traces the history of that enormous area -stretching from the lake on the east, to Lyons on the west; from 39th on the north, to 87th on the south -that formed the original town of Lake, with the worldfamous Union Stockyards, opened in 1865, near its center.

The "Pride" of Wade's title reflects the residents' feelings toward the bloody business that made the area grow, and it suggests the origins of a community feeling that ultimately produced a song.

As Wade announces in her introduction, her book pursues ,'multiple themes" in its attempt to document the importance of the livestock industry to the city's growth and development. She studies the "growth of the livestock trade and meatpacking, air and water pollution, expansion of the packinghouse work force and the status of those employees, changes in the burgeoning neighborhoods, the role of voluntary associations in forging the community, and the process of self-government." She traces the forces that shaped the communities, the problems that various ethnic groups faced in asserting their identities, and the leaders who emerged to guide the area in its formative years.

Wade's accounts of these business and political leaders are thorough and sometimes fascinating, and they shed light on the place names of the region. Swift, Armour, and Wilson are part of the city's -and the world's -business history, of course. But many of Chicago's streets and parks, schools, and other institutions got their names from other men connected with the packing industry. Loomis and Sherman, Allerton and Laffin, Chanute and Clybourn, Hubbard and Newberry, Hammond and Cornell -all these men had connections with the stockyards area, and their names are immortalized on maps and guides to the city.

Wade's careful research makes her a chronicler of the low and obscure as well as the high and the mighty. Sometimes her work is thorough to a fault, as when she discusses the ethnic groups and even the individuals who settled or boarded in certain areas: "Many homeowners in the Northeast Corners had relatives living with them. Peter McGurk, for example, was a weighmaster at the Stockyards, and he sheltered a sister who did housework and a brother who worked at the Yards as well as his wife and child. The boardinghouses were usually small. Margaret Hanley's in the 3900 block of Wentworth had four Irishmen, one Canadian, and one Swede. A railroad brakeman born in Scotland lived on one side of Mrs. Hanley; on the other side was Louis Oppenheimer, an Alsatian-born saloonkeeper."

And Wade falls into a similar pattern in passages like the following, in which she identifies the early settlers and developers of the Englewood area: "Among the newcomers who promoted further development were lawyers Albert H. Veeder and Elmer A. Adkinson, both of whom left small midwestern towns to practice in Chicago and live in Englewood. Robert A. McClellan moved from Peoria to cultivate the greener fields of Englewood real estate, while Chandler S. Redfield arrived in 1873 to combine insurance and real estate. There were businessmen like Edward Kirk, who had an iron factory in the Northeast Corners, and Chicago hide dealer C.T. Northrup. Civil engineers J.T. Foster and his son, J. Frank Foster, helped build the waterworks and both became Englewood residents."

As such passages suggest, Wade's work is long on information, but short on analysis and interpretation, and readers may find their interest flagging or their minds turning off at this demographic overload. But Wade's scrupulous concern for detail, both homely and notable, makes her work a valuable resource for anyone interested in the impact of the meatpacking industry on Chicago. Her documentation of its economic importance, her accounts of the environmental problems it created, and her exploration of the political conflicts and tensions it generated are detailed and precisely documented. If her style is sometimes turgid, her scholarship is thorough and meticulous, and Chicago's Pride should earn a place on the bookshelves of readers who want to be fully informed about the city's history.

Robert Slayton's Back of the Yards, for good or ill, is longer on interpretation, shorter on data, and lighter in every way. He undertakes to explain how the sometimes disparate Slavic groups who lived in the Back of the Yards for the greater part of this century were able to put aside their many differences and come together in the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), an organization formed during the Depression by community organizers Joseph Meegan and the legendary Saul Alinsky. Slayton, like Wade, states his intentions clearly in his introductory chapter, in which he takes issue with earlier chroniclers of the stockyards area who, Slayton says, misread the community. Too often, he argues, either because of their training or their own earlier experiences, these researchers used the traditional, coherent European village as their basis for comparison. Looking for that kind of homogeneity in the American neighborhood, they were, Slayton says, "blind to similar bonds of community among immigrant workers." Slayton points out that even a sensitive observer like sociologist Robert Park concluded that the neighborhood was chaotic, that "the intimate relationships of the primary group are weakened and the moral order which rested upon them is gradually dissolved." And Harvey Arbaugh, in his minor classic The Gold Coast and the Slum, was completely off the mark, according to Slayton, when he contended that the city's neighborhoods were "vastly different from the town or village community," and that they included "no common body of experience and tradition," so that "local life breaks down."

Slayton's thesis is simply that "communities did exist in urban industrial immigrant districts, that bonds between people did form, and that institutions did persevere." Slayton cites a number of such bonding institutions, including the lively foreign language presses that abounded even 50 years ago. In addition, there were "the factory, the family, the church, the social club , the tavern and the grocery store," says Slayton, all of which served "as different arenas in which to fight the battle for peace and stability." And Slayton further argues that each ethnic group's experiences with its own institutions prepared it for the democratic efforts the BYNC eventually organized, which helped the neighborhood survive and even flourish after the packing industry left Chicago.

The BYNC was organized in 1939, by Alinsky and Meegan, to unite the disparate ethnic groups in the neighborhood, to forge them into a political force that could get responses to the community's problems. They wrote a declaration, a call to a community conference, which set out the group's agenda in broad terms: "This organization is founded for the purpose of uniting all of the organizations within the community known as, 'Back of the Yards' in order to promote the welfare of all residents of that community regardless of their race, color, or creed, so that they may all have the opportunity to find health, happiness and security through the democratic way of life."

Three hundred and fifty people, representing 76 organizations, showed up for the first meeting, and the BYNC was on its way toward becoming a potent force in the city. It gained support for food distribution programs in schools and churches, it developed a job program to help fight juvenile delinquency, it provided support for beleaguered strikers in the packinghouses, it provided day-care services for working mothers, and it built a huge park and playing fields at 47th and Damen. In the 1950s and '60s, after the packinghouses had departed and the neighborhood should have sunk into decay, the BYNC rallied home owners to the task of modernizing and remodeling their homes, preserving the area's real estate values. In 1951, Adlai Stevenson told Joseph Meegan, the former park district administrator who led the BYNC through its formative years, that he thought the BYNC was a model. "If I were asked to choose in all America a single agency which I felt most admirably represented all that our democracy stands for ... I would select the Back of the Yards Council," Stevenson said in his letter to Meegan. And, as Slayton says in his final paragraph, the seeds of the council's success had been planted years before, in those clubs, churches, and burial societies, which had given the immigrants a chance to test themselves and to learn to work cooperatively: "The fundamental notion of democracy -that individuals determine their 'own destiny'- did not suddenly appear in Back of the Yards in 1939; it was as old as the neighborhood that had formed around the Union Stockyards many years before."

Some of Slayton's argument borders on the self-evident. Everyone who has ever lived in an ethnic neighborhood in Chicago-or in any big cityknows how important churches, taverns, and social clubs can be in such places. These institutions, strengthened by common languages, served as both foundations and safety nets for the immigrants who had only tenuous connections with the dominant culture. The ethnic relationships the "village ties," as Slayton calls them--performed a number of functions. They "provided a way for residents to create and enforce social values" so that individuals had to conform or be ostracized; they encouraged "the management of resources" so that people of limited means could share skills and materials to help them survive in the larger community; they performed a screening function; to insure that members of a group were compatible; they offered protection, especially against the predations of rival groups that might inflict physical or economic harm; and they provided a system of information exchange, in bars, stores, barbershops, and, churches, so that people could be kept informed of recent developments in the community.

Slayton performs his best service in tracing the work of specific neighborhood institutions that were active in Back of the Yards. He discusses the roles of specific parish churches in each ethnic group and explains the ways in which political leaders -- Democratic, of course -organized the area for their own -- but also for the residents'- benefit. He also suggests how the Irish established a firm hold on the politics of the area. "Most Eastern European groups hated each other more than they did the sons of Eire," Slayton explains, "and the Irish used this to advantage." He quotes an Irish pol, one James McDermott, who explained the Irish success in simple terms: "A Lithuanian won't vote for a Pole, and a Pole won't vote for a Lithuanian. A German won't vote for either of them -but all. three will vote for a Turkey [an Irishman]."

Slayton's study is specifically focused, in both space and time. He confines himself to the fourmile-square Back of the Yards area, and he limits his study to the period from around 1900 to 1970, when the neighborhood was populated primarily by "unskilled Slavic workers who slowly built upon a basis of solidarity, support, and protection and who eventually created a thriving and closely knit residential district." Slayton provides some demographic facts and figures-on the numbers of bars and grocery stores in the neighborhood, on the workers' wages, on the number of foreign language newspapers available, for example -but he is most interested in human responses, in the memories, anecdotes, and recollections of living residents. He employs the techniques of oral history to try to give readers a feel for the neighborhood and its culture.

Such an approach has potential with a subject like this, since the city abounds with people whose memories include lively recollections of the time and place that Slayton examines here. But Slayton's intentions are undermined by the dubious ways in which he uses the residents' recollections. Most of the time, his subjects are allowed to express themselves only in tantalizing fragments that add little to Slayton's narrative: "Michael D. recalled that his Slovak countrymen 'enjoyed their songs and their dances.' Anthony W. remembered that accordions were popular throughout the neighborhood." Readers may well wonder why Slayton bothered Michael D. for such a banal observation and why Anthony W. is dragged in at all, given the nature of his contribution.

Later in the book, we get some quotations from one Mary Z., who is described simply as "a woman who suffered many tragedies," although we aren't told the nature of these tragedies, nor how they relate to her life in Back of the Yards. "I am a tough person," says Mary, "because I was born so tough, that's why." And Slayton cites this as evidence of the "self-awareness" of the women in the community.

Most of Slayton's sources are quoted in cryptic snippets like these, which add neither substance, texture, nor color to the portrait. If reading parts of Chicago's Pride is like reading parts of Genesis, then reading much of Back of the Yards is like reading the man-on-the-street section in USA' Today. You get essentially unknown people boiled down to a single opinion or judgment, with no suggestion about how incisive or representative they are, and you're left to guess at what it means. Back of the Yards is unsatisfying as oral history, in short, because it lacks the fullness and color that longer, more thoughtful testimonials might have contributed.

In addition, Slayton's book is marred by a number of typographical and/or stylistic flaws, some of which may not be his fault.

Both Chicago's Pride and Back of the Yards provide valuable services by reminding us of the origins and implications of a classic Chicago neighborhood. They help us understand the forces that shaped the community, the people who were shaped by it, and the leaders who made the neighborhoods work. They even help us understand how an area like Back of the Yards -- superficially splintered, but spiritually unified by common problems, common interests could generate the spirit that could foster a song. But the two books leave room for future chroniclers of this uniquely Chicago place. Between Wade's mountain of facts and Slayton's slivers of memories, a great many stories remain to be told, in greater depth and in a style that more truly reflects the flavor of the neighborhood.

Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy by Robert A. Slayton, University of Chicago Press, $22.

Chicago's Pride: The Stockyards, Packingtown, and Environs in the Nineteenth Century by Louise Carroll Wade, University of Illinois Press, $32-50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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