The mythos of the Great Chicago Fire is that it gave us the great metropolis we have now—out of tragedy, the city came together and built the city of the future on its ashes, a story of resilience and unity.
And the city was rebuilt, with astonishing speed and even grandeur. And it did, in many ways, give us the city we have today. Much of that you can see in the built environment, but one profound physical legacy it left the city, and cities throughout America, is more mixed, and sometimes ugly.
A 1916 New York City law is often cited as the first zoning law in America. But in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire, the city established the “fire limits,” which eliminated the construction of wooden single-family homes in the city center, and which housed the city’s working class. They were to be replaced with safer brick construction—though highly flamable roofs were still permitted—effectively driving out the city’s first wave of working-class homeowners over considerable, and briefly successful, protest. Downtown became a commercial center as capital flowed in to build under the expensive new codes. Unable to rebuild, the city’s workers fanned out across the city limits, driving Chicagoland’s first great wave of suburbanization.
Some followed employment, like residents of the Town of Lake (now Back of the Yards), as the meatpacking industry sought cheap land. The Great Migration built not only the Black Belt but also suburbs like Robbins, whose semi-rural, semi-agricultural history is still physically evident.
Cal-State Fullerton professor Elaine Lewinnek began charting this history of early suburbia with an ad for a turn-of-the-century suburb, a subdivision at 47th and Ashland, and the title of her new Oxford University Press book shares the ad’s title: The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl. “Where all was darkness, now is light: A home at $10 a month,” it read. But 47th was the southern boundary of the stockyards—a famously fetid part of the city suggesting neither reward nor light, nor the quiet existence we typically associate with suburbia.
From that ad, Lewinnek follows the complex development of the metropolis that invented real estate as we know it—and the development of the Chicago School of sociology, which sought in vain to apply schematic models of city growth to the sprawling region. That desire to simplify, codify, and divide shaped Chicagoland as it grew. And this way of thinking spread to other cities.
Now it’s somewhat in retreat, as central cities swell with an influx of residents. Plus, urbanists are challenging categorically restrictive zoning codes, and instead promoting diverse, mixed-use guidelines in cities and the suburbs that surround them. I spoke with Lewinnek about how Chicago became the way it is, what that meant for America, and how we’re looking back to a way of thinking about cities before all of that history.
How did you come to be interested in Chicago?
I was interested in suburbanization. I grew up in a suburb, though I only spent two years of my childhood in Chicago. And there were two early things that triggered this project. One of them was looking at the advertisement that’s the cover my book. It gets reprinted in suburban histories all the time, and my professor, Dolores Hayden was constantly telling us, you need to look at maps. You need to figure out where things are. If you want to understand things spatially, you need to make sure you know where they are in space.
I found it an intriguing ad, and realized that ad, that shows up in all these histories of suburbs, is actually for a space that was at the gateway to the stockyards. It was so hard to wrap my head around that—how the stockyards could also be a suburb—that I realized I need to figure this out more. That ad made me realize that there’s something I don’t understand here.
And then there was Paul Groth’s book about hotels in San Francisco. He wrote this really terrific book about people being evicted from single-room occupancy hotels in the ’70s. It would seem to have nothing to do with Chicago, except he had a lot of quotes and a lot of people who were saying, “we have to get everybody living in houses. Living in hotels is going to be terrible for their morals.” And the people he was quoting were Chicagoans.
I just found that fascinating. So it was kind of a confluence of all these different sources that were about Chicago. Early in my book I quote Richard Wright, who says, “Chicago is the known city.” Especially for the period I’m looking at. There were so many people documenting Chicago.
Some of them were documenting it to boost it and promote it, and somewhere documenting it to advocate for change, and altogether you get this amazingly nuanced picture of how the city was growing. Chicago, being the known city—and I didn’t realize how many books there are about Chicago and how much there is to understand—but it made it good for me, because I think across disciplines. I want to read short stories and look at advertisements, and reformers’ critiques, and maps, and urban planners, and on and on. With Chicago, you can do that.
A lot of the patterns that are familiar to us in the 20th century in Chicago really emerge with the Chicago Fire.
The Chicago Fire is a really well-known event, but what fascinates me is not the typical story of, “there was this horrible fire and then there was this great resilience in the city.” That typical story has been told. What fascinates me is what happened in the year after the fire—how quickly Chicago rebuilt, but did not rebuild in exactly the same way.
What had been a fairly dense and fairly mixed city, the way most American cities were before industrialization, became a more separated city. There were new rules about what you could build next to what. There was new class separation. And new pressure to move further out of the city.
And it wasn’t only the fire. Factories had been moving out of the city since 1865, but the fire was this moment where—it’s like the flash of a camera, it illuminates a lot because a lot of people were talking about how to rebuild the city.
Part of what happened after the fire were new rules that we would now call zoning, but back then were called fire limits. The building rules meant that you could not build a humble wooden house within the city. That was the new proposal. They wanted only brick houses. Which makes sense on the surface after such a horrible fire, of course you would want a fireproof city, except the brick houses weren’t really fireproof. They had fancy mansard roofs which were amazingly flamable.
It was more of a class issue than just a fire issue. And Chicagoans saw it that way, especially the working-class immigrants. The Irish and other immigrants on the near North Side led a march to City Hall protesting these new fire limits. They were mocked terribly for it, but it was this incredible march—in some places the city is still smoldering, and yet they’re holding signs that say, fire here and there might be okay, we still need humble houses. Their argument was that, if the new zoning rules passed, they couldn’t rebuild their houses. So they owned these plots of land that they were going to have to sell at a loss, and they saw this huge risk to themselves of being pushed to the suburbs. So they stormed City Hall.
The police had to evict them from City Hall, and they won. Those fire limits weren’t passed in 1871. They had the right to rebuild their humble houses in the city. It was a case of people resisting suburbanization, and a case of people talking, in a way that we can now trace, about where’s the right place to build a house, what are the right kinds of houses, and which classes and ethnic groups get to live where.
The fire is fascinating, but it’s that conversation after the fire that I’m most fascinated with.
But in the end, the fire laid the groundwork for downtown.
It did. The fire limits were passed in 1874, so it was only a temporary victory for the workers who wanted to live in closer-in urban areas.
Downtown moved from where it had been—it moved a little further south. Our concept of downtown that has executive offices downtown, and actual production further out, that sort of thing was established after the fire. In all kinds of amazing ways: the O’Leary family, who were accused of starting the fire, after the fire they moved to the Town of Lake, which was an industrial suburb that got absorbed back into the city later, and that we now call Back of the Yards. It all came back to that ad for the Back of the Yards suburb.
What’s going on, at the time, where people all of a sudden have these ideas for how to organize a city?
There’s a lot of things going on. Some of it can just be summed up as industrialization. In pre-industrial America, you lived close to your work. Farmers lived by their farms, mom and pop stores had mom and pop living upstairs. The wealthy lived close to the poor—the slaves are right around back of the master’s house. The apprentices might live within your home. If not within, close by.
With industrialization, we get bigger class separation and less inclination to live close to work. Suddenly work is a lot more smelly than just that bakery downstairs. Those who have a choice don’t want to live as close to their work, and we get a bigger difference between the elite and the poor. Now the poor are speaking a different language, they’re eating different foods. Part of industrialization is a separation of home and work.
This I find hard to teach to my students, because it’s hard for them to understand that home and work were once quite close together. On a farm, often, your home is your work. Some people had to commute, but not as many. Things were much more dense, partially because they were scared of what was outside—early Chicago was a fort.
It’s also at a time when they’re separating ideas of what they think of as men’s spheres and women’s spheres. There were a bunch of binaries that came around the mid-19th century, and for a whole bunch of different reasons, people started to spread out. Now there’s a streetcar, you can live a little further away from work, and a ten-minute journey can still get you to work. You get new technologies, but that’s not it alone. There’s new class separation, new gender ideals.
It gets really complicated, because as some people are moving further away from work, the work itself is moving outside the city. Chicago used to do its meatpacking within what we now think of as the Loop, and it was disgusting—people were driving packs of pigs and cows over the streets, the meatpacking factories are disposing of the carcasses in the Chicago River, which was even more sluggish then than it is now.
In the 1860s, meatpacking especially was feeling this pressure of municipal regulation, and they moved out of town. They were also consolidating, getting pretty big selling meat to the army during the Civil War. They moved out of town, and they were one of the first assembly line industries.
The assembly line needs horizontal space. Businesses like sewing don’t get done on an assembly line, and you can still have sewing happening in central downtowns. But businesses that get done by assembly line require horizontal space. That’s expensive. You can find it cheaper out of town. You can also get some place where the regulations are lighter. It was better for the companies to move out of town, perhaps akin to the way companies now move overseas.
The companies in the 19th century also thought they might get better workers out of town, because the workers would be homeowners, would may be less tempted to join a union.
So elites were moving to some suburbs, factories were moving to other suburbs, workers were following the factories while others were fleeing the factories. All of that makes for a complicated centrifugal pressure that’s separating what had previously been tightly knit cities.
And as these really complex patterns of suburbanization are emerging, at the academic level, there’s a desire to impose simple models. How does that emerge?
The Chicago School of sociologists were incredibly influential. They really wanted to understand the city. And they left us—especially Ernest Burgess’s zonal model—this abstract model of the city expanding in a kind of bull’s eye. I think of it like a pebble dropped in water.
But it wasn’t the only model. They had another ethnographic, on-the-street model, like Fred Thrasher’s book on gangs. And the students of Burgess, who aren’t so famous, but you can still find their dissertations deep in the basement of the University of Chicago library. Their dissertations show an incredible on-the-ground complexity.
Early 20th-century sociology had a desire to make schematic diagrams. Making schematic diagrams can be very useful, but what they ended up doing was making something oversimplified. And then that also fed into a popular-culture oversimplification of suburbs, too, that was reinforced in the ’50s, this idea that all suburbs are the same. They’re all white, middle-class, residential. It’s a really strong idea repeated again and again in movies, in songs, and in stories. It effected the academic study of suburbs, especially when it was pioneered in the late ’70s and the early ’80s—the first studies of suburbs focused on white, middle-class, homogeneous suburbs.
It wasn’t until just after I started my project that the same realization I had of, oh, look, this classic ad of suburbia is at the door of the stockyards, that others started to have that realization too. My friend Mary Barr has just written a book about growing up in Evanston. It’s a suburb, but it’s not your typical suburb—it’s formed around a university. And for a very long time, it had a very large African-American population. She wrote this wonderful academic book that’s centered on an eighth-grade picture of her and her friends. Many of her friends are black, many are white, and they were all friends in eighth grade. She traces how they grew up in the same place, went to the same school, going to the same parties, but now Mary is a professor; she’s white. Most of her black friends in that picture, most of them are in jail.
That story, that you could grow up in a diverse place, and have similar childhood experiences, and not have similar outcomes, that’s a story we need to tell. Mary Barr is one of the first ones to tell it.
It comes up in your book: early in the 20th century, Evanston started implementing restrictive covenants, and pushed the black population west.
One of the things that fascinates me is that stuff we assume is naturally eternal actually is fairly recent. We can see how it was created. Things used to be more mixed. The lines of what we now think of as the ghetto hardened over time. All sorts of things that we assume have to be that way… well, they don’t. We can see where they came from.
In Chicago, what’s called the Black Belt wasn’t always there. As it was being formed, some Chicagoans were pointing out that the first real-estate owner in Chicago was a black man. And he owned land at what was now the Magnificent Mile.
Myths around property values needing to be in segregated space, those myths come from Chicago in the 1910s. Chicago wasn’t just interesting because of the social workers and the sociologists and the boosters and the advertisers, but it’s also interesting because of the real estate industry.
Chicago’s real estate industry was a national leader. The first texts of real-estate appraisal were written by Chicagoans. The first real-estate lobby, which is one of the most powerful lobbies in America, was formed in Chicago. These ideas that we need single-race, single-use spaces in order to have our property values go up—these are actually new ideas that can be traced back to Chicago in the 1910s.
That seems to be where the leap from the academy to public policy happens, with people like Homer Hoyt and Frederick Babcock.
They actually come from the private sector—Homer Hoyt was a real-estate person first. Then he got his PhD, and wrote this terrific book that we all still rely on, called 100 Years of Land Values in Chicago, and then moved to policy-making organizations—especially during the 1930s New Deal housing programs. He wasn’t the only Chicago person doing that, moving from real estate to the academy to national housing programs.
They ended up setting policy that became mortgage lending policies. We call it, now, self-fulling prophecies. Ideas like, banks shouldn’t lend money in mixed areas because mixed areas must be declining. If banks act on that, mixed areas will decline.
But it’s incredibly complicated, because in earlier Chicago, the poorest people weren’t getting money from banks anyway. They were forming their own banks, what I call immigrant microlending institutions, what they called building and loan societies. They were finding different ways to access credit. That story of who gets to access credit and how is a really important story about who gets to access upward mobility in America. I think it’s a story that’s still playing out. Our most recent recession has a lot to do with who gets to borrow money for housing and what that money means.
The creativity of early Chicagoans wasn’t as possible after the 1930s, for very good reasons—we got national banking laws that imposed a rigidity on what had been a flexible system. The variety of early Chicago became less possible after the 1930s.
One passage that jumped out for me: “America has inherited a model of metropolitan expansion that was developed in Gilded Age Chicago.” Was it government policy that was really behind that spread? Or the rhetoric of home ownership?
I tend to reject monocausal explanations. I don’t think it was only the policy—there was also the postcard company that made pictures of downtowns that was a Chicago-based company. Ideas about what makes a natural and good downtown; pop culture representations of where’s a dangerous place, and where’s a safe place. All of those things come together to reinforce stuff.
The policies end up dovetailing, too. In Brad Hunt’s book about public housing in Chicago—at first they wanted to build public housing in poor white areas as well as poor black areas. But Chicago’s white people, even the very poorest, had managed to access home ownership through these very creative methods. And they fought fiercely to save their homes. So very little public housing was built in white areas. Public housing became black housing, and hurt an entire group of people. We didn’t have to inherit this.
In the early 20th century, you go from what we now might call “ethnic whites,” but then there was a lot of differentiation in the public sphere between different groups of European immigrants. But over a fairly short period, they get lumped in as “white.” It’s not a process I understand very well.
This is one of my favorite things to teach. The best term for it is “not quite white.” American immigration laws, since 1790, allowed in free white persons. So immigrants, throughout the 1800s, had enough whiteness to come in, but they weren’t seen as fully white. Another term academics use is “probationary whites.” They were white enough to immigrate, you could come in if you were Italian or Irish, in a way that you couldn’t come in if you were, say, Samoan.
But when you got here you weren’t fully seen as white. People talked about races for groups that we would now talk about as ethnicities or religious groups. And they actually did mean “race.”
The best way to understand this is to know that race is not a biological fact; it’s a political alliance.
Groups were white enough to come in, but not white enough to come into any neighborhood. People were explicit about this—which groups they saw as whiter than others. Italians and Greeks were at the bottom of the ladder.
Racial ideas change over time; it’s a hard thing to wrap your head around, but most people have actually experienced it. Your grandparents might perceive different racial groups than you do. And we know that it’s difficult to trace race through the census, because every ten years or so we keep reorganizing how we count race.
There are other ways to see it; I like to show my students old racist cartoons where they actually thought that the Irish had dark skin and looked close to African-American. It’s bizarre to see because it’s not at all my stereotype of Irish. But they had these pictures of the Irish looking close to monkeys and being compared very explicitly in the cartoons to being just as low as blacks. They also have pictures of the Irish lightening over time. They felt that wealth whitened.
There are all sorts of studies about who got to be in the group of whites and who didn’t get to be in. It was slippery. I don’t like to say what we now think of as white wasn’t white—they were white enough to come in, and white enough to sometimes pass into the majority group. They had possibilities for rising that more firmly non-white people didn’t have—Asians and African-Americans didn’t have it. But it was still something that could go one way or the other.
I teach my freshman students a book about Johnny Otis, the musician. He was a great R&B musician; he was born to Greek immigrants in California at a time when Greek was not quite white. He went to school not knowing English, only knowing Greek, at a time when Greeks were very discriminated against in the 1920s. As he grew up, notions of whiteness solidified. Partly because of real-estate practices—groups that weren’t quite white, or not seen that way, they were allowed into white suburbs by the mid-20th century.
It wasn’t just real-estate practices that helped consolidate our sense of whiteness; it’s also fighting a war against Hitler. One of the things we did was try to distinguish ourselves from Hitler’s racist ideas. And there’s a whole bunch of other ways in which whiteness changed between about 1910 and 1950. But even in the ’50s you get books like Protestant, Catholic, Jew; people thinking that each of those different religious groups was almost racially different. Now very few people will talk about Jews as a race, let alone Catholics as a race.
Johnny Otis, this Greek immigrant in the 1920s, saw this happening and decided, actually declared that, if society says I have to be either white or black, I choose black. So this Greek immigrant man, he often passed as a black man, married a black woman, had black kids, created this music that he credited black people for, lived in south-central LA in Watts and Compton. He didn’t ever pretend to be biologically black, he said that he was black by choice.
George Lipsitz wrote this book called Midnight at the Barrelhouse that I teach my students, and it helps them understand that racial groups in America pretend to be these natural, eternal groups, but actually are alliances. And there are a few people over time—Johnny Otis, some of the people he recorded too. Little Julian Herrera, who was seen as this Chicano Elvis, actually was a Hungarian Jew.
These are some very American stories that we’re just beginning to tell. The fluidity that Julian Herrera and Johnny Otis had in California wasn’t quite the same fluidity that ended up in Chicago. There was a greater rigidity. It had been diverse, but it had a very small African-American population that increased incredibly rapidly in the 1910s, and with that rapid increase came a real hardening of the color line.
Structural things have gotten harder and harder, and there’s a long legacy of the built environment. If your ancestors were allowed to get housing in the 1910s and the 1920s, you probably got in on the upward-moving escalator of real estate values. Even though now we don’t have as much racist ranking policies and racist housing policies, we still have this long legacy of who profited from getting housing in a neighborhood where property values were moving up, and who profited from getting housing in a neighborhood where schools were decent.
This is all sort of the hidden privilege of who got to be white by the mid-20th century versus those who didn’t.
At the end of the book, you argue that learning from this past is a way of preparing for the future. What did you learn in researching the book that you think we should learn from?
The things that people developed on their own—the real struggles to own humble, small houses, were things that they clung to. With the institutionalization of public housing, the small houses were bulldozed and people were put into huge towers that didn’t end up being good places to live. Now we’re going back to public housing that looks more suburban, more dispersed. Part of what working-class Chicagoans invented in the late 19th century and the early 20th century is some of what we might be coming full circle to.
And some of those possibilities, too, of living in diverse spaces; being conscious of the whole range of suburbs. To me those are kind of exciting possibilities.
It’s interesting that you mention SROs. There are really fancy SROs going up—one discussion in Chicago right now is a SRO for Logan Square, which is gentrifying very rapidly. SROs in Logan Square and on the north side, which look like what SROs were intended to be in the 1920s.
Hopefully now the social orders will have more respect for people who choose to live long-term in a hotel, whereas in the 1920s they thought these people were shiftless, not doing enough housework for their morals. They didn’t see why people might choose that.
One of the cities I see people who are interested in urban planning talking about is Houston—this city with very loose zoning, looking at that as a model to emulate when loosening zoning codes in northern cities.
I began this research just to say “things are more complicated than they seem,” but I may have ended up there too. There were moments of looking at Burnham’s Plan of Chicago and thinking “that’s just so arrogant.” And thank goodness it wasn’t all built. But there are parts of it that were built that are wonderful. The lakefront parks are amazing.
When you participate in these zoning meetings now it just seems so mild. Burnham’s old dictum, “make no little plans, they have no power to stir men’s hearts"—I feel less disdainful of all these different older paths than I once felt. There’s a model of park building and of good zoning that’s worth holding on to, with perhaps more consciousness and respect for varied choices.