Dunbar Park: Poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar with Towers in Douglas
Chicago was volatile in the first decades of the last century in ways not unlike how things are volatile now. Big business seemed all powerful. Workers wanted more than wage concessions – Anarchists and Socialists agitated for fundamental change. Racial resentment erupted into a bloody race riot that started with the murder of a black child.
Then as now, volatility seems to require clampdown, some kind of control by force. Whites enforced the boundaries of the black ghetto by custom and law and when law failed with violence -- crowds in the street with bricks in their hands. Big business rallied its Pinkertons, mobilized the force of the state to make workers submit.
Though what saved big business from socialism, or decades of violent suppression, launched it instead toward a new era of prosperity, wasn’t force. It was change, the promise of opportunity.
Looking back from the 1940s, the authors of Black Metropolis write that a whole class of clerical occupations came up to manage the great volumes of paperwork required by big manufacturing firms. All that clean work was something new, it opened the prospect of a large white-collar middle class, something “neither radicals nor capitalists of a previous epoch had visualized.”
In the 1930s, the Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci surveyed the American economic system and called it “Fordism,” after Henry Ford, with his assembly lines. Gramsci meant a whole system of business, government and cultural life that extends from them.
At its core is a bargain reached (and not without conflict) between owners and labor. Labor gives up its control, its pride of craftsmanship and sense of self direction for a place on the assembly line. Owners find their workers will show up reliably if they’re paid enough to buy the car.
For the next 40 years, business, labor and government all rally around the virtuous circle of fair employment and mass consumption. The economy transforms from an arena of crushing conflict to something like a national faith in the cumulative expression of popular choice.
Big business more or less runs the machine, chasing lower costs and lower prices in its pursuit of monopoly. Government works as machinist -- it builds the regulatory framework for safe markets, and the welfare state that keeps the bottom from dropping out when people struggle. And for when people prosper, government builds a physical infrastructure to smooth the way of the consumer engine: the FHA mortgages to buy houses, the expressways to bring families out to further suburbs, and to carry the interstate commerce that will help them furnish their lifestyle as it steadily improves.
To perpetuate itself, the system must be sewn into the popular imagination, it must be worked into what people want and strive for. In 1945, the authors of Black Metropolis thought that the most profound change to mark Chicago in the 1920s “was a gradual shift in the content of the American Dream as presented by men of power.”
They write that 19th century elites thought labor erred when it failed to see wages as a temporary condition of dependency that workers should inhabit only until they could save enough to shrug it off and open some small shop for themselves. They promoted an American Dream that turned on “thrift, the establishment of small business, and investment in large ones.” Businessmen of the 1920s had changed their minds, they “began to encourage the masses to spend rather than to save.”
They developed new arts of advertising and new mass media to inform and entertain. The advertising was to tell people what they should buy, the media to show them who they might be. It would feed their shared social repertoire by power of example.
Think of the television shows of the golden era – their picture of the family, of friends and neighbors and of benevolent authorities. People might squabble but conflicts were resolved, everything was alright in the end. Then think of the police procedurals of the 1980s and 90s.
When it first came out in 1981 Hill Street Blues was applauded for its edge, for its willingness to depict unlikable characters and its real world crimes. Entertainment’s willingness to be honest to men’s less attractive impulses had trumped its responsibility to represent the police as guardians of a precinct that is fundamentally safe.
The sense of safety was never uniform. There was always an audience impatient for a more honest portrayal of the darker parts of life. Veterans returning from foreign wars joined their bike gangs, youth rebelled against the compromises made by their parents, outsiders in their ghettos might admire the picture and still chafe at it.
Philosophy professor Paul Weiss chides black writer James Baldwin to be more upbeat about the prospects available to him on the Dick Cavett show. Baldwin tells him “You want me to make an act of faith… on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”
Tribute to the Past, by Ramon Villareal.
"To all the union men and women and their families who shared the steel dreams."
By 1962, the fruits of Fordism are abundant, the nation buzzing with prosperity, and Drake and Cayton write a preface for a new edition of Black Metropolis to acknowledge “new factors which none of us could have foreseen.” The economy has achieved full employment, there is a “vigorous national concern for civil liberties,” and “renewed devotion to the American Creed.”
There’s a new introduction by the sociologist Everett Hughes, who describes cycling through a neighborhood far south of the old boundaries of the black belt, a neighborhood of grassy lawns and brick bungalows originally built for second or third generation ethnic whites. He says he began to notice black and brown faces among the homeowners out washing their cars in the driveways, mowing their lawns, doing the Saturday morning shopping. First a few of them, then all of them.
“The forces which move people toward the middle-class American ethos are tremendous among Negroes of American decent,” he observes. He believes their growing purchasing power will command respect in a way that law might not. “It is the Negro consumer who sits-in demanding the right to be served and to consume the products of American abundance and to use his leisure as other Americans do.”
Though even in 1962 he sees telling changes in the employment apparatus. There are more white-collar positions, and fewer unskilled ones. “The automated steel mill needs no large roving labor gang,” he writes. Rural newcomers once relied on those jobs to get their foothold and acclimate. They will have to learn new skills faster than their predecessors did, or “they may easily become part of the pool of permanently unemployed.”
IIT Campus, Crown Hall, on the site of the former Mecca Apartments
Richard J. Daley took office as Mayor of Chicago in 1955, and by 1963 national magazines like Time and Holiday are publishing enthusiastic profiles with warm praise from the city’s Protestant business elite.
Advertising executive Fairfax Cone, “a Republican and a gentleman” tells Holiday “Now let’s be frank. People brought up as I was, in a completely Protestant atmosphere, can’t help a certain feeling about Catholics.” But Daley had won him over. He says other Protestant businessmen he knows feel the same way.
“Before Mayor Daley came along, Chicago was stalled. From 1929 to 1946 not a single major building went up.” Depression and global war made that true for most big cities. And the magazine profiles all allude to uncertain urban futures, made more tenuous by racial change. They say Daley gave Chicago’s business elite something to be confident about.
By 1968, Chicago’s American reports a building boom has virtually remade the city’s central area in 10 years. It counts more than $2.5 billion invested, more than 35 million square feet in new office, commercial and civic construction projects completed and underway.
They include new public buildings, like the Civic Center and a suite of new federal buildings, modern towers with wide plazas, built by famous architects -- using new government powers for assembling large blocks of land. But most of the buildings on the list were private.
Daley had mobilized what would later be called a growth coalition, business and government moved by a common interest in a strong city center, and by a common fear about the city’s long-term prospects.
When the 1960 census came in, Chicago’s population had dropped for the first time in its recorded history. It would have dropped a lot more if the black population hadn’t grown by more than 300,000 people in the 10 years from 1950. Which makes it all the more striking that in Douglas, the original hub of Black Metropolis, the population fell so sharply -- from 79,000 people in 1950, to 52,000.
The growth coalition had got its start in Douglas in the 1940s. Private business and institutions took the lead, test driving the new public powers for acquiring and accumulating land. By 1960, Douglas has been almost entirely leveled and rebuilt from the ground.
Michael Reese Hospital, the Illinois Institute of Technology and New York Life Insurance launched three synchronized projects that replaced 12 square miles of the old urban fabric with new middle-class housing and a university campus, most of it modern high-rise towers surrounded by vast green lawns. They left a small area where you can still see what the old neighborhood looked like – a pocket sometimes called The Gap, between 31st and 35th Street, Prairie Avenue and Calumet.
Prairie Avenue in The Gap
In the same decade that the populations of Douglas and Grand Boulevard dropped by some 62,000 people, the black population of Englewood rose by almost 600%. It jumped 900% in Kenwood, and 1,400% in Greater Grand Crossing. Neighborhoods turned from white to black.
Even as it was happening the public knew that realtors were using fear tactics to get white homeowners to sell low, threatening how their property values would fall when black families moved in. Then turning around and selling to black families at inflated prices. The courts had released the forced boundaries on where they could live, and they had the purchasing power to buy the American Dream.
Carpenter Street in Bridgeport
Meanwhile, Bridgeport’s population had continued its gentle decline, from 46,000 people in 1950, to just under 42,000 in 1960, and just 65 of them were counted as Negros. The cottages of Bridgeport are of the same vintage as the ones in Douglas. Though Bridgeport’s homeowners had access to credit, they weren’t wanting for city services. And no one called it blight, or proposed it might be best to clear it out and start over with something new.
This is the third of 5 parts on Bridgeport and Douglas and the image of Chicago.
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