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Chicago : A Biography


Dominic Pacyga


Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

462 pp.  ISBN 978-0-226-64431-8


Reviewed by Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec

Université de Caen


Say “melting pot,” and probably the first thing that comes to mind is the flood of European immigrants that once filtered through Ellis Island.  Yet, Dominic Pacyga’s careful tracing of Chicago’s history demonstrates another side to the truthfulness of the Great Migration song “Sweet Home Chicago.” Chicago was and still is a city of immigrant neighborhoods with names like “Czech California” [222] now “Little Village” [391], Chinatown,  Pilsen, Greek Town, Skokie, and Little Italy.  “In 1910, the foreign born and their children made up almost 80% of Chicago’s population” [184] writes Pacyga. The story of Chicago métissage begins with its first full-time resident, the man who first settled where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan and lived there for almost 25 years. He was Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable (Pacyga spells his name de Sable; others have spelled it Du Sable, as does the Du Sable Museum of African American History in Hyde Park).  He was of mixed West African and French ancestry, and to melt the pot a bit more, he married a Pottawatomie named Catherine.  They came to the smelly place the Indians called Chicago (named for the wild leeks, onion or garlic that grew in the marsh) during or just after the American Revolutionary War, and their farm was “a gathering place for Indian and fur trader alike” [12]. In 1800, after The Treaty of Greenville (1795), Native Americans were forced to cede the area around the mouth of the Chicago River, and De Sable also chose to leave, selling his property to Jean La Lime, before Americans from the East arrived.  Given the Puritan endorsement of slavery, it was probably a wise choice…

By the 1840s, the Indians had ceded all of their territory in the region.  Meanwhile the place had declared itself a city (1833), formed a local government, and its population of 4,470 inhabitants in 1840 would soon mushroom, first with an influx of Yankees, as Pacyga calls them.  Before Chicago was the Windy City (named for the city’s boastful politicians, [1, 140]), Black Metropolis [224], Gangland [240], Second City [382], or “the Paris of America” [231], it was mudville, with its main streets unpaved late into the 1860s [23, 33].  At first it was dominantly male, with no public transportation and no hospital until 1852.  Yet it soon became the transportation capital of the Mid West, with the completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 and seventeen railroad lines running in and out of the city in 1855 [27].  This fostered the activity in the stockyards, and a half century later, also gave the African American Chicago Defender, excellent distribution, eventually leading to the Great Migration of the first half of the twentieth century:


Banned by some southern town and cities, Pullmanporters and others working on the Illinois Central lines secretly distributed the Chicago Defender despite attempts at censorship. [205]

The “merchant city of the West” [34] was also immigration city, with the  ChicagoTribune stating in 1856 that Chicago “contained a larger percentage of the foreign born than any other major city except Milwaukee” [30].  In the 1860s and 1870s, the foreigners were Irish, German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, English, Welsh, Scottish, Czech, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, Slovakian and the city also boasted the third largest Jewish population, following Warsaw and New York [119]. Pacyga calls the city streets “spatially integrated, but socially segregated” [153].  That was still better than the fate of African Americans who were used as strike-breakers and “to foment fragmentation in the labor force and prevent unionization” [152].

Pacyga, who has spoken about the Haymarket Affair on American Experience Radio Broadcasts, develops this period of Chicago history in chapter three, "The Era of Urban Chaos” [84-9], with special emphasis given to the influence of the Paris Commune on Chicago’s labor movement [71, 76, 79, 82, 86, 89, 90]. Radical leaders in Chicago were following the Paris uprising of 1870, and Chicago’s labor struggle came to a head in the Haymarket incidents of 1886.  The author’s sympathies side with labor, as his treatment of the town of Pullman near the Hyde Park Pullman plant (1880s-1890s) and Jane Addams’s Hull House (founded with Ellen Gates Starr in 1889) demonstrate.  Pacyga notes that Addams’s focus was on helping the poor, not the researchers who flocked there to learn about the poor.  Yet, “in many ways the work of Jane Addams and her colleagues at Hull-House gave birth not only to modern social work but also to modern sociology” [128].  Pullman’s town, on the other hand, was dismantled in 1897, following the 1894 Pullman strike, led by Labor leader Eugene V. Debs [144-146]. 

In a later chapter, “The Progressive and Not So Progressive city,” Hull House comes up again.  It was “Florence Kelley and Progressive women connected to Hull House” that “began a national movement to curtail child labor, which culminated in 1916 with the first Federal Child labor law, the Kealing-Owen Act” [162].  Sociologist Charles Zueblin and Jane Addams shared a common concern about the importance of providing public parks to all, especially to the working poor [167].  Park spaces often contained field houses, which came to be seen as “a model for parks all over the nation” [169].  Meetings were held in field houses, along with sporting events, making the parks neighborhood centers.

In chapter six, “The Immigrant Capital and World War I,” Pacyga notes that when World War I broke out, “the city faced the possibility of Old World violence on its streets” [191]. According to the 1910 census of Chicagoans, that would mean potential uprisings for some 2,185,283 people. The Chicago Abendpost published articles promoting the German war.  Fighting did break out between Chicago’s Serbs and Germans in South Chicago and in Gary, Indiana [193].  After the war, German names were changed throughout the city, for streets such as Berlin, Hamburg, Loblenz, Lubeck and Rhine.  “In May 1918, the Germania Club changed its name to the Lincoln Club, the Bismarck Hotel became the Randolph Hotel, and the Hotel Kaiserhof changed its name to the Hotel Atlantic” [200]. 

The final chapter, “Apocalypse ‘Now’ or Regeneration” begins with the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1976, ending 21 years in office, and the ensuing struggle for power among the aldermen.  Michael Bilandic emerged, and was able to win the election, becoming Mayor to face numerous problems:  racial tensions, inflation, and unemployment.  The blizzard of January 12-14, 1979 ended Bilandic’s chance at being re-elected: 

...transportation came to a standstill; the electrical motors of CTA trains running down the center of expressways failed because of the excessive use of salt [...] to deice the roads; rapid transit as well as buses, cars, and planes came to a halt; garbage piled up, and cemeteries delayed burials. [362]

Next in office was Jane Byrne, who “had grown up politically in Daley’s machine” [370], and was elected in April 1979 with “82 percent of the vote” [371].  She temporarily moved into the Cabrini-Green Housing Project, but she unwisely distanced herself from the African American electorate, and they turned against her.  The results of the 1983 primary election for Mayor surprised Byrne and Richard M. Daley:  Harold Washington was elected, in part thanks to Jesse Jackson’s voter registration drive, where “the African American electorate awoke to its own power” [374].  The issue of race dominated the April election, and after Washington’s victory, he too had to face “the political realities of Chicago,” working with “a city council controlled by white ethnic alderman who had opposed both his nomination and election” [376].  Council wars ensued, preventing effective city government for three years.  When the next primary election came, February 1987, Bryne ran against Washington, in a campaign where race seemed the key issue.  Washington won.  He then defeated Vrdolyak and Haider in April.  But Washington died unexpectedly in his office in November 1987, and “political chaos again threatened the city” [379].  After Eugene Sawyer emerged as interim mayor, the next election, in April 1989, would go to Richard M. Daley.  Distancing himself from his father’s machine, since “many in it had tried to block his chance at the mayor’s office” [380], he turned to groups “his father would not have considered politically viable” [381]:  gays and lesbians, Hispanics, white ethnic groups, and African Americans.

The book itself is a melting pot of information, divided into eleven chapters that read well as individual essays and that cohere nicely together, apart from the occasional repetition. There may however be some reader frustration that in order to follow a subject, for example the history of the African American Community, you must read a bit of one chapter, and then a bit of another and another, rather than finding the information all together in one place.  This is because, as a biography, the book’s organizational structure was apparently designed as strictly chronological.  Typographical errors are rare, which is noteworthy when one must constantly be consulting multi-language source texts, although one should probably read “Marseillaise” for “Marseilles” [90]. History Professor at Columbia College in Chicago since 1984, Dominic Pacyga has written and lectured on many aspects of Chicago history, and this book marks a focal point in the culmination of a career, which also includes a recent visiting lectureship in Oxford.

From my viewpoint, that of a literary person reading a history book, there should be an addition or two… while Langston Hughes [237], Nelson Algren [405], and Harriet Monroe [137-8] are mentioned, the founding of Poetry, A Magazine of Verse is not, nor is the recent establishment of the Poetry Foundation.  Perhaps more disturbing is that Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright, and Saul Bellow are not even found in the index.  It would have been easy enough to mention Sandburg concerning the 1919 house bombings [207] and race riot [225], which he wrote about extensively for Chicago newspapers.  In fairness though, no one would suspect that Pacyga is unaware of these writers: quotations from Sandburg’s poem "Chicago” (published in Poetry in 1914) occur throughout the text, such as: "the city would have to shed its ‘Big Shoulders’ image...” [383] or “No longer ‘hog butcher to the world,’ the city is still a ‘player with railroads’ “[400].

These few critiques notwithstanding, this is a book that everyone interested in the city of Chicago should own, given its scope and depth. Chicago : A Biography is engaging reading, for the lay reader and the professional, and will work as well on the bedside table as in the reference section.  But don’t take my word for it:  look at the pictures!  The numerous and excellent illustrations include the African American baseball team, the Chicago American Giants, in 1905 [227], blues musicians at Maxwell Street Market [333], Martin Luther King at a Civil Rights rally in 1964 [352], and of course, “the first Chicagoan to occupy the White House,” Barack Obama [409].




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