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A City of Big Shoulders and Thick Spines

Chicago: A Biography
Dominic A. Pacyga
University Of Chicago Press

In talking with Dominic Pacyga, it’s hard to tell whether he’s set his roots in Chicago or whether Chicago has set its roots in him. Born and raised on the city’s South Side in a community of Polish immigrants, Pacyga went on to earn his Ph.D. in History at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he wrote his dissertation on the very neighborhood in which he grew up. After graduate school Pacyga broadened his focus to research the rich history and intense diversity of several of the city’s many neighborhoods. Currently a professor in the Department of the Humanities, History, and the Social Sciences at Columbia College in Chicago, Pacyga recently completed what is perhaps his most ambitious project, a comprehensive history of the entire city. Wunderkammer sat down with Pacyga in his Michigan Avenue office to talk about the process involved with writing Chicago: A Biography.


Wunderkammer: Chicago is, of course, many things and has many names. But it certainly is also a city of many books—I have some colleagues that say it's downright over-studied in some ways. But in Chicago: A Biography you seek to strike a novel approach to telling the city’s story in styling it as an “urban biography.” How did this formulation develop throughout the research and writing process?

Dominic Pacyga: I started writing, and it just wasn't happening. So I started reading biographies. I also read a couple of books that I found very interesting. Peter Ackroyd's London biography, which isn't a very good history of London, but it has an interesting little hook to it. Also, a book called Paris: A Biography. I thought, “Wow, a biography of a city. Let's think about this. This makes sense.” As you say, though, Chicago is perhaps over-written about. There's probably more written about Chicago than any other place in the United States because you have the University of Chicago's sociology department and everything else that has been going on. So I sat back and thought, "I don't have ten volumes, and they're going to give me 150,000 words or so. What do I do?" I ended up reading a Joseph Ellis biography. Ellis, in one of his introductions, talks about what it means to write a biography. I said, "That's it." Let's say you're looking at Benjamin Franklin. What a wonderfully intense and varied life. You can't do a year-by-year or day-by-day. You look at the sort of important ups and downs of his life, and you try to create his spirit or character out of that. What a way to look at a city if you only have 150,000 words.

The whole idea behind it was to basically take a look at Chicago and look at events, both major events that everybody talks about—Haymarket, Pullman, the 1919 race riot, or the Fort Dearborn massacre—I had to mention those points because I was hoping that it would be used in undergraduate classes and maybe beginning graduate classes and also for the general public. . . . But there were also a lot of little events that I've discovered through my thirty odd years of teaching that I thought really showed Chicago but that nobody talks about or knows about. So that's what I thought I would put together and see if it actually came together as a story. And I think it did. . . .

I'm an urban historian, but like I said, all of a sudden I became fascinated of biography.

WK: What do you see are the key characteristics of Chicago’s “personality,” if you will?

DP: The sort of metaphor that I began to see—and they made me cut it back a little in editing—was that Chicago is sort of like a snake; it changes its skin every few years and keeps adapting to the environment. In some ways it is—and I wouldn't be the first to say this, Norman Mailer said this in his books about the convention—"America's City." It seems like every major social cultural movement that has touched the country has worked its way through here. And so for that, I began to see it as a sort of metaphor for American History, to an extent. . . . So, what I tried to do is to look at the city and put it to outside forces and what outside forces have an influence—just like your wife, your father, and your friends might have an influence on you. That's the way a biographer would work in shaping a character. I tried to do that with the city. I found that it is often wrapped up in a metaphor of the brawler, husky, player with railroads, hog butcher to the world kind of stuff, but it's much more intricate than that. It's a place that changes constantly.

Several themes emerged. Technology and how the city used technology to its advantage, at least until the 1950s. How it has constantly attracted diverse groups of people. It was once the largest Catholic city in the United States, but there were many more different kinds of people than that here. So I look at wave after wave of immigration. The way politics has developed here, and I think that politics is our best sport. We're certainly not good at anything else. And economic development.

So those became sort of the major themes as I began to look at the city and how those themes shaped the city. It's really interesting because you see themes emerging from the very beginning. There's Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable—he's half black, half white and married to an Indian. You've got diversity right from the beginning. And he's going to flee before the Yankees bring another kind of diversity with them. Who are going to flee after the Irish and Germans move in. Who are going to flee after the Poles and the Slovaks move in and Lithuanians move in. Who are going to move out when the Blacks and Mexicans move in. Who are going to move out when the Yuppies move in. We chase each other around the prairie, and one day we're going to wake up in Des Moines and scare the hell out of each other.

WK: But while you note that Chicago becomes an exemplar of American history generally, there are also ways in which the city departed from the broader themes of American history. For instance, while the nation was ambivalent about joining into the First World War, you note how Europe’s conflicts instantly showed up on the city’s streets. In what other ways was the city distinctive?

DP: By 1890, the population is about seventy-seven or seventy-eight percent immigrant or children of immigrants. They're bringing new ideas, and they're bringing social class struggles. They've read Marx, or if they haven't read Marx, someone has read it to them. And so you have a lot of social conflict here. . . . You've got German workers coming here and later Poles, Italians, Blacks, and Mexicans who also come from little villages. And they try to create their own little responses. It’s what I call an “Era of Urban Chaos.” It's not your mother's Indianapolis. It's definitely something different, though there of course is class struggle in Indianapolis. But here, it takes on a mythical kind of image. . . . And when you look at Chicago, you get scared, because it's on such a massive scale.

So that national stories are played out here, but Chicago puts a little twinge on it, a little bit of a curveball into it. I think it's largely because of these massive groups of people that are trying to work out their destiny on these streets together—but not together—because it was a very divided city and remains, to an extent, a very divided city. Not as much today as it was forty years ago, but it's still a very divided city.

This has got to be a Parisian’s idea of hell. He has to be running back to Paris as fast as he can to have a cognac and sit down.

There's a Chicago difference. I'm not sure if I've fully put my finger on it, but I think it has a lot to do with ethnicity. It also has a lot to do with the way capitalism developed here. This is a hardcore capitalist city. They don't come here for culture. They don't come here for the great view. They come here to make money. This was the fastest growing city in the country. So there was this kind of feeling that this really was the future. . . . This has got to be a Parisian’s idea of hell. He has to be running back to Paris as fast as he can to have a cognac and sit down. Chicagoans walk too fast, they talk too fast, they live too fast, and they die too fast. It all becomes symbolic. And of course the national press loves this stuff about Chicago. "Hell on the Prairie"—the day after the fire several newspapers in Southern Illinois write that the Sodom and Gomorrah of America has been destroyed. We can go back to the reality of what it means to be American. So while it is the American story for some Americans, it is the American nightmare for others.

WK: I agree that one of the things that made Chicago depart from these national stories would almost seem to be the transnational nature of its streets. The lines between neighborhoods were almost international boundaries. Such hard and fast lines of demarcation make conflict over their location a central theme of the book: conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers, conflicts between immigrants and natives, conflicts among immigrant groups, and conflict between blacks and whites. How does such hostility, which suggests the city is not a singular entity, fit into the trope of the city’s biography? Do we say Chicago’s schizophrenic?

DP: I suppose you could, to an extent. Certainly its diverse population makes it a lot more like Eastern Europe. The Poles, the Ukranians, and the Lithuanians all live in the same area and don't like each other. The only thing they can agree about is the Jews—and that the Russians shouldn't come.

What's amazing is that we haven't killed each other. We had this big race riot, but it could have been a lot worse. When you look at these clashes, that 1877 railroad strike was a social class movement, but I think there was also an ethnic tinge to it, as there was in Haymarket. That kind of theme plays itself out throughout, but I guess where it comes to a head, for me, is WWI. This is one of the biggest German cities in America. 300,000 Germans march through Grant Park cheering for the Kaiser. Meanwhile you have the Poles and the Czechs organizing against the Germans. You have the Irish planning to invade England to free Ireland. You've got massive groups of people that are just pulled apart by this event. And we don't kill each other. The closest we get is the demagoguery of Big Bill Thompson, who tries to get people angry at each other so they would vote Republican.

Of course, then 1919 happens, and everything goes to hell in that race riot and later the steel strike. That race riot is the most American of all these conflicts. It's over black-white issues. It's over settling boundaries. It's that nastiness of race that is a core right through the middle of American History. And who is in that race riot? I make the argument that it's northern and western Europeans and African Americans. Why? Because blacks and whites are arguing on three levels—jobs, housing, and politics. And there's no more vicious group than a group that thinks it might slide back into the working class once it's reached the middle class. And that's exactly what happens. These kids are largely upper-working class or middle class white kids. By middle class, I don't mean they have a house with a white picket fence. I mean their father has a job as a clerk. And they don't want to go back to butchering hogs.

WK: As the book progresses, an increasing number of photographs are credited as your own which raises an interesting question. In what ways do your autobiography and the city’s biography intersect?

DP: Let me explain something about the postcards that are being attributed to me: many of them I bought on eBay.

WK: Right, right. The world's fair photograph—I wasn’t saying you were so old as to have attended the 1893 World’s Fair.

DP: But the bigger question of how much the book is a reflection of my own life has come up because I emphasize the South Side, and I am a South Sider. I’ve never lived farther than—well I shouldn’t say never, since at one point I lived on the North Side, but I’ve doing penance for that for years now—but generally speaking I’ve always lived 20 minutes from the park of White Sox, except for those few years in Babylon. . . . One of the reasons I emphasis the South Side is that secondary sources tend to emphasis the South Side. Why? Because this is where the big clashes take place. Thirty-eight people killed in the race riot. Thirty-three killed south of Roosevelt road and east of Ashland; basically you’re looking at a places where big things have happened—big steel mills, big packing houses, big ethnic neighborhoods, big black neighborhoods, great universities, and two world fairs. All the [Chicago] mayors in the twentieth century except for Jane Byrne [come from the South Side].

Even that story about the murder of a young, black Alvin Palmer by a gang of Polish immigrant teenagers in 1957 ended up connecting to my own past. . . . I began to look and said, wow, this a big thing, this murder. It raised racial tension and blew away the code that you don’t talk about race or racial conflict. So, I’m looking into this thing and it starts to jar my memory; I was eight years old at the time. Names hung in the back of my head. I realized I knew some of the suspects’ younger brothers. I end up meeting the daughter of one of the kids who was arrested. When I did, I realized that this guy [who was convicted of murdering Palmer] lived right across the street from my grandma. Then, my memories opened up like a flood. I realized there was a young man that lived there—I was ten or eleven—who had been “away.” I always thought he spent his two years “away” in the military, because that’s usually the place people went away to… I was the altar boy at the kid’s wedding, and I was at his wedding reception. I was like, “Oh my God!” This is part of the problem with writing contemporary history, especially if it’s about your own neighborhood.

I was in a Gold-Black department store as a young kid and these gang members were coming up the stairs, wearing their gray battle jackets and confederate flags on their back—they were called the Rebels—you know it was the height of the civil rights movement


WK: Wow, the image of the children of Polish immigrants wearing Confederate flags on their jackets is quite startling.

It is dangerous because you find out you were the altar boy at someone’s wedding who went to jail for murdering someone.

DP: Right, it blew my mind, even as a kid. My mother would say, “Oh, these are bad boys.” So, it’s kind of strange. This probably why in graduate school you’re told never to do history this close to yourself. And its actually part of the problem with the 60s, because in the 60s you went to graduate school and said, I want to know why I’m here, who I am. And a lot of us ended up doing this kind of introspective stuff. Polish Immigrants, my grandparents were polish immigrants, and it is dangerous because you find out you were the altar boy at someone’s wedding who went to jail for murdering someone, so that’s a little scary. So, it is a very personal book in many ways. I’ve been here all my life and I’ve been teaching about Chicago for thirty years, so it can’t help but be. But I hope I haven’t been so prejudiced in a certain way that I’ve somehow distorted the history, because I think these stories [are important]. Alvin Palmer’s story [for instance], I think he could be as important as when Emmet Till was killed in Mississippi. Palmer was killed just after Emmet Till; but he was killed in Chicago so nobody writes about it


WK: As you point out in the introduction, Chicago has had many names,—“The City of Big Shoulders,” “The City Neighborhoods”—it always becomes embodied in various ways. Having just written this very large, very thorough study of Chicago and coming into the 21st century, is it time for a new name?

DP: The city of daunting, I guess, or daunting city. [Laughs]. I don’t know. It has just about been called everything under the sun…. People love it or hate it…. I’m not going to answer your question because I can’t; I don’t think I can give it a name. But let me just give you a little story about something that just happened to me just before you came in. I went to have a hamburger, and I stopped at a place called Blackies, which is here in the South Loop, and this guy, Jeff, who’s the owner walked by and saw me. We’d never met, but he said, “I just want to tell you I love your work, and I love seeing you on TV.” Well, he had this really interesting story—they had to buy the tavern, and they bought the tavern in the late 1930s. There was still a racial covenant; he was Italian, and the covenant said you can’t sell to Italians. So, they had a friend who was Irish buy it, and they sold it to him and broke the covenant. Who would have thought there was any racial covenant with Italians? That opens up a whole concept that I haven’t’ really thought about. There are all these stories out there. Earlier we said maybe Chicago is over-written about. But nobody’s told his story yet. And it’s a damn interesting story.

Christopher D. Cantwell is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at Cornell University.


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