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

By Colin Fisher | Go to book overview

Drawing on previous scholarship in the field of American studies (such as Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land, Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness, Hans Huth’s Nature and the American, and Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden), Nash argued that wilderness was the key to unlocking American culture or identity. The heroes in Nash’s account were far-thinking individuals (such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Teddy Roosevelt) who fundamentally reoriented American culture by convincing their compatriots not to fear or hate wilderness but to love it. According to Nash, these pioneering romantics were so successful at sparking recreational interest in wilderness that by the 1950s and 1960s, middle-class tourists threatened to love the wilderness to death.5

Starting in the 1990s, environmental historians began taking a far more critical view of recreation in nature. First, scholars documented how the creation of landscapes of leisure (such as Yellowstone National Park) often entailed the removal or eviction of Native Americans and working-class people who had long used the land for sustenance and work. Second, they showed that once established, wilderness parks and other places of seemingly uncontaminated nature often served as a “landscape of authenticity” where elite tourists naturalized or reified masculinity, national identity, and race. Lastly, historians argued that when we view nature as a mere tourist destination, as a sacred place that we only visit during our leisure, we forget the nature in our own backyard as well as our quotidian relationships with ecosystems when we eat, use water, fill up our gas tank, flush the toilet, make consumer purchases, or go to work. For these authors, fetishizing Yellowstone’s seemingly pristine wilderness and making it the only nature that counts is actually a significant impediment to responsible environmentalism.6

In both Nash’s account and in more recent revisionist scholarship on “the trouble with wilderness,” the presumption is that while the privileged knew nature through leisure, the marginalized knew nature almost exclusively through work. Even urban environmental historians inspired by the environmental justice movement pay very little attention to working class or minority outdoor recreation. Their focus is fixed on how their subjects lost access to natural resources, such as estuaries and other urban food production sites, which were often transformed into middle-class recreational amenities. At the same time, these historians of urban environmental inequalities chronicle how their subjects were disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards (toxic industries, dumps, incinerators, and

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