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

By Colin Fisher | Go to book overview

shelter, and clothing but also outdoor recreation in a wilderness area such as the dunes, a place where they could “refresh the eyes and breathe pure air into the lungs” and “test disused muscles.” To demonstrate the powerful effect of nature on the poor, he explained how he had taken two Lithuanian workers from Chicago out to the dunes to help build a home for sick children. After seeing Lake Michigan and the dunes, “the first thing one of those men did … was to drop his tools, stretch open his arms, look around and up to heaven, take a deep breath, and say, ‘Just like Lithuania.’ ” Those in the hearing room laughed and applauded.3

This book does not focus on the historical experience of Mather, Allinson, members of the Prairie Club, or Anglo American nature tourists. The story of these privileged nature lovers has already been well chronicled. Instead my interest is in that unnamed Lithuanian worker and others like him: hundreds of thousands of newly arrived immigrants, their American-born children, African Americans, and industrial workers. I argue that during their scant leisure, large numbers of marginalized Chicagoans sought to escape what they saw as an artificial urban environment and come into contact with nature. Like more established Chicagoans, my subjects sought nature in rural and wild landscapes in what environmental historian William Cronon calls Chicago’s recreational hinterland. But they also found nature much closer to home: at urban beaches, breakwaters, and piers along the Lake Michigan shore; along the banks of canals and polluted urban rivers; in the city’s extraordinary public parks; in commercial groves, beer gardens, and cemeteries; in vacant lots and industrial yards; and even in sidewalk cracks, back alleys, and tenement rooftops. Furthermore, I argue that marginalized Chicagoans often made places they saw as green into important sites for forging community identity. While the privileged used rural and wild landscapes to imagine themselves as Americans, Chicago’s rank and file made their green spaces into places to imagine themselves as Germans, Irish, Polish, and Mexican, as ethnic Americans, as Americans of African descent, as American industrial workers, and as members of a revolutionary international proletariat.4

One objective of this book is to contribute to scholarship in environmental history, in particular work on leisure in nature. Environmental historians have long explored this topic. It was in fact the subject of the field’s first big book, Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind (1967).

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