GUESS WHAT…(insert dramatic drum roll here)…It’s finally FALL.
Ah yes, the season when leaves capture our attention with a change in color, coffee shops begin to make everything pumpkin flavored, mother nature eases up on the scorching heat of summer, and the Ramonat Seminar takes a tour of Back of the Yards. Back of the what? Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
Although it was published in 1906, for most of modern society, Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle serves as our only understanding of Chicago and its stockyards. And while The Jungle is an important novel within the canon of literature for our current school systems, it was of much greater influence during its publication. Moreover, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle as a means to expose the working conditions in the meat-packing industry in Chicago. Shortly after the novel’s publication, many individuals demanded sweeping reforms in the meat industry. Even President Theodore Roosevelt was sickened by the narrative within The Jungle. So much so, that he demanded Congress pass a law establishing the Food and Drug Administration while also setting up federal inspection standards for meat.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, so let’s back track and answer some crucial questions that you may be asking yourself. Such as:
Q: Where was Chicago’s meat packing industry located within the city?
A: On Christmas Day in 1865, Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and Transit Company officially opened its doors. With this, came an established set of boundaries (Pershing Avenue, Halsted Street, 47th Street, and Ashland Avenue), separating the stockyards from the rest of the city. These boundaries can be seen within the map provided below.
Q: What were working and living conditions like at the Stockyards and the Back of the Yard?
A: The best explanation of working conditions in the Stockyard is written by Charles J. Bushnell within The American Journal of Sociology, 1901.
Bushnell states: “When we try to account for these conditions and turn to some of the physical causes of the disparity, we do not have to look very far. In the first place, the Stock Yard district is very badly paved, where there is any paving. most of it is of wood, in a very bad state of repair, so that riding over the district on a bicycle is a difficult and uncomfortable process. This wood paving, of course, absorbs considerable impurity from the drainage and from the air. In the Hyde Park district, on the other hand, except on Wabash avenue and streets immediately adjacent, the paving is largely of macadam or asphalt. But in this district almost all of the streets are paved, while in the Stock Yard district many of the streets are for miles in rainy weather scarcely better than mud holes. A glance at the health department reports shows that the amount of sewering per mile of streets is also considerably less in the Stock Yard district than in Hyde Park. Of course, this is partly to be accounted for on the ground that there is more unoccupied land in the former district than in the latter. The housing conditions of the two districts are so diverse in point of quality as to be at times almost incomparable. Anyone who rides observantly throughout the Stock Yard district, and then throughout the district east of it, cannot fail to be struck with the general appearance of squalor, dirt, and general dilapidation in the former, and of comparative neatness, cleanliness, order, and beauty in the latter. Many of the houses in the more thickly population portions of the Stock Yard district are
built in the rear of those fronting the streets, and the sanitary conditions are correspondingly bad. Another element vital to the interests of health of the community is that of food. Aside from the mere question of quantity, or luxurious delicacy, of the food, the quality of the food of people in the Stock Yard district is neither as nutritious nor, on the who, as well prepared as that in the other district. A mere glance into the lunch boxes of the school children is sufficient to satisfy any candid mind of this fact. It may very truthfully be said that the families of the district near the yards do not, as a rule, know how to buy or to prepare food in the most economical and nutritious way. Poor cakes, jellies, and unwholesome pastry will frequently form a large part of the luncheons of the school children, who seem to have almost a special craving cultivated for such things;
and a study of the budgets of some of the most typical families of the district reveals much the same condition of affairs. But perhaps the most striking physical evidence of the bad sanitation of the district comes to light in connection with the city garbage dump situated in this locality. The dump, which for many years was a standing by-word in the district, was located on and near Roby street, between Forty-fourth and Forty-seventh streets. Views of this dump are shown in the accompanying photographs. It is not to be wondered at that, with this vast amount of refuse cast within a stone’s throw of some of the citizens’ houses, the death-rate of children should have been in the past years very high in this locality.” (Bushnell 300-302)
As you can see, the living conditions in the Stockyard neighborhood (aka Back of the Yards) were far from ideal. Given that the majority of the neighborhood were immigrants, the living conditions were secondary to the family’s need for money and survival. So while poverty, overcrowding, and illness plagued residents, it was more important to have a job than to complain about the living conditions.
The following chart by Charles J. Bushnell within The American Journal of Sociology, 1901 depicts the immigrant population.
The following photos by Robert Hunter are an example of the living conditions.
I recognize that was a lot of information to throw at you all at once, but just hang in there! If you’re anything like me (i.e. I constantly need to recap what I’ve learned) the following video provides a great (and at times more in depth) overview of the Chicago Stockyards. It also includes an interview with Dr. Dominic Pacyga, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Did I mention that Dr. Pacyga gave us the tour of the Back of the Yards? Pretty cool huh? That’s not even the best part! Dr. Pacyga actually grew up in the Back of the Yards and worked at the Stockyards while growing up. Needless to say, my classmates and I were incredibly fortunate to have Dr. Pacyga tour us around the stockyards. It’s not often these days that you can hear first-hand accounts of events from someone who actually experienced it.
I have to admit, it’s hard to conceptualize the fact that all of this happened. During our tour of the stockyards, it was entirely evident that they are nothing like they used to be. The way I’ve come to understand this phenomenon is that the place of history will always remain because you obviously cannot erase the past, however, the space in which history occurred has, and will, continue to develop. Moreover, the concept of ‘space’ comes into existence once it has been associated with historical significance. And so, while the stockyards are physically different, the physical area remains. It’s almost as if history is always with us. Cool, right? That’s what I thought too.
I'll be back soon. Until then, keep on ramblin'