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

By Colin Fisher | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Nature and Leisure in the Black Metropolis

For sheer physical beauty—for sheen of water and golden air, for
nobleness of tree and flower of shrub, for shining river and song
of bird and the low, moving whisper of sun, moon, and star, it is
the beautifulest [sic] stretch I have seen for twenty years; and
then to that add fellowship … all sons and great—grandchildren
of Ethiopia, all with the wide leisure of rest and play—can you
imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild?

—W. E. B. DU BOIS, “Hopkinsville, Chicago, and Idlewild,”
Crisis, 1921

In his weekly “Keep Healthy” column for the Chicago Defender (the black paper of note for Chicago and much of the nation), health editor Dr. Wilberforce Williams frequently urged his African American readers to venture to the countryside surrounding Chicago and also to the city’s parks and beaches. For Dr. Williams, these landscapes were not just mere public spaces. They were places where one could escape exhausting work, pollution, and overly stimulating amusements in the seemingly artificial city and retreat back to nature. Take the family for a ten-cent trolley ride out to the woods and fields at the city limit, he urged his readers in August 1913. Such an all-day excursion “under sun and sky” may wear you out, but a day spent breathing “clean, fresh country air” in “close communication with birds and trees and flowers” will help you sleep. “Besides, for the little ones, a day amid such surroundings is worth a whole week in school in the new and instructive lessons they will get from the greatest of all teachers, Nature.” For poor blacks unable to pay the trolley fare, Williams prescribed nearby urban parks, which he described as “beautiful bits of God’s country brought right into the city for the benefit of those who dwell in sections were air, sun and elbow room are hard to get.”1

Large numbers of black Chicagoans took Dr. William’s prescription. While the “talented tenth” ventured into Chicago’s recreational hinterland, those with limited resources passed their scarce leisure in urban green spaces within or not far from Chicago’s congested South Side ghetto. But

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