Race, Class, and Chicago's Past

By Keating, Ann Durkin | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Race, Class, and Chicago's Past


Keating, Ann Durkin, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Race, Class, and Chicago's Past Chicago. By Jane Byrne. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2004 reprint. Pp. 385, photos, bib., index. Paper, $19.95).

Pictures of Home: A Memoir of Family and City. By Douglas Bukowski. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004. Pp. 245, photos. Cloth, $26.00).

Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman's Memoir. By Leon M. Despres [with Kenan Heise]. (Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2005. Pp. 168, photos. Cloth, $19.95).

Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago. By Harold L. Platt. (The University of Chicago Press, 2005. Pp. 592, halftones, line drawings, maps, tables, index. Cloth, $49.00).

Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago's West Side. By Amanda I. Seligman. (The University of Chicago Press, 2005. Pp. 320, halftones, maps, index. Cloth, $25.00).

Packing Them In: An Archeology of Environmental Racism in Chicago, 1865-1954. By Sylvia Hood Washington. (Charlotte, N.C.: Lexington Books, 2005. Pp. 213, halftones, index. Paper, $19.95).

The beginning of the twenty-first century provides an interesting moment to reflect on W.E.B. DuBois's 1903 prediction that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." His prediction is particularly cogent when coupled with a look at Chicago in the last century. A growing body of historical studies and memoirs now help us to evaluate DuBois' prediction through the lens of Chicago.

Care must be taken, though, not to overemphasize race in exploring the twentieth century. Race is clearly important to Chicago's current situation, as well as its history, but more nuanced accounts show that race is also mediated by other factors, especially class, in understanding Chicago's past and present situation. We have been challenged, by among others, sociologist William Julius Wilson, to consider class and race when trying to understand the twentieth century urban experience. Keeping an eye on both race and class is a tricky business, but in the end well worth the effort. It helps us to better understand twentieth-century Chicago.

Among recent books published on Chicago history, a number address race and class in the twentieth century. This group of authors include memoirists and historians, which is immediately interesting, since these two groups are motivated by different factors. For those writing memoirs, the intention is to help place themselves within history-to define their legacy. For historians, the choice of topics is shaped by existing literature, current trends in the historical profession, as well as personal interest. That both groups carefully consider race and class is a clear indication of the importance of them to understanding twentieth-century Chicago.

Let us start with the memoirs of Leon Despres, Jane Byrne, and Douglas Bukowski. Neighborhood is very important in these memoirs, and in a region where residential areas are frequently segregated both by class and race, this provides ready entrance into issues of race and class. Léon Despres is the oldest of the group. He was born in 1908 and has lived most of his life in the south side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park. A graduate of The University of Chicago Law School, Despres served in the Chicago City Council from 1955 to 1975. The Despres volume is part of Northwestern University's Chicago Lives series, which has received funding from the Chicago Community Trust. Despres, working with journalist Kenan Heise, presents a critical view of a career in local politics that paralleled that of Richard J. Daley. At nearly every turn, Despres found himself facing off against the Daley machine. For Despres, being a Chicagoan was deeply intertwined with Hyde Park, The University of Chicago, and his commitment to public service. He recounts the urban renewal of Hyde Park, which pushed out poor residents, largely black, leaving a more affluent, integrated neighborhood by the 1960s. …

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