Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago

Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago

Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago

Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago


In early twentieth-century America, affluent city-dwellers made a habit of venturing out of doors and vacationing in resorts and national parks. Yet the rich and the privileged were not the only ones who sought respite in nature. In this pathbreaking book, historian Colin Fisher demonstrates that working-class white immigrants and African Americans in rapidly industrializing Chicago also fled the urban environment during their scarce leisure time. If they had the means, they traveled to wilderness parks just past the city limits as well as to rural resorts in Wisconsin and Michigan. But lacking time and money, they most often sought out nature within the city itself--at urban parks and commercial groves, along the Lake Michigan shore, even in vacant lots. Chicagoans enjoyed a variety of outdoor recreational activities in these green spaces, and they used them to forge ethnic and working-class community. While narrating a crucial era in the history of Chicago's urban development, Fisher makes important interventions in debates about working-class leisure, the history of urban parks, environmental justice, the African American experience, immigration history, and the cultural history of nature.


Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in
and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength
to body and soul alike. This natural beauty-hunger is made
manifest in the little window-sill gardens of the poor,
though perhaps only a geranium slip in a broken cup.

—JOHN MUIR, The Yosemite, 1912

On October 30, 1916, Stephen T. Mather, head of the just-created U.S. National Park Ser vice, convened a hearing at the Chicago Federal Building on a proposal to create a new national park forty miles southeast of the city. The proposed reserve, the Sand Dunes National Park, featured massive wind-blown mounds of sand along the southern Lake Michigan shore. The Indiana dune area also included forests, marshes, oak savannas, prairies, and an extraordinarily rich diversity of plant life, so much so that the area became the outdoor laboratory of Henry Cowles, the American founder of plant ecology.

Speakers at the hearing gave a number of reasons for preserving the dunes and creating a national park. Some testified that the nation’s rapidly growing system of national parks underserved the Midwest, and that people there needed a signature wilderness park where they could come into direct contact with the nation’s frontier past. Others explained that this unique indigenous Indiana wilderness inspired artists, musicians, and painters and served as a vital laboratory for scientists such as Cowles. Speakers also made it clear that the new national park would serve the exploding immigrant and working-class population of nearby Chicago. Contact with the dunes would restore and renew the tired industrial workers who toiled at monotonous jobs, serve as an alternative to unhealthy urban amusements, and Americanize the foreign born.

T. W. Allinson of the Prairie Club (the Midwest analog of the Sierra Club and the Appalachian Trail Club) rose and spoke directly to this last issue. Chicago’s poor, he told those gathered, needed not only food . . .

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