My apartment opens to a busy Chicago Avenue. At night, the street is loud with hipsters, tourists, buskers and custom car stereos. Young men and women Whoo and Whoop and the bars clink with bottles and glasses. Sounds are continuous, a constant roar punctuated by thumps and yells, with engines rumblings and street musicians jamming.

Mornings are different. Sound is episodic. Single cars and trucks, conversations, the barking of a dog. I hear people, not crowds.

The bike lane is full. More and more people are cycling downtown to their jobs. Some take their bicycle commute seriously, kitted with panniers, reflective tape and extra mirrors. Others are more spontaneous. They pass by in a steady stream.

A difficult intersection is up the street, a hundred feet or so from my door. When halted by a red light, the they start together as a mass, a morning peloton.

I like to linger – not watching but listening. I want to hear shifting, the sounds of gears changing. The sound of a well-tuned bicycle is extremely satisfying: silent with perhaps the quietest of hums, depending upon pavement, save for the changing of gears.

A gear change announces itself with a small but purposeful rattle. It is a hiccup, a deep breath before starting something strenuous, a machine readying itself before picking up a piece of work. The pause is brief, less than a second. And then, with a decisive click, the gear engages.


David Potash

Chicago’s Block Clubs

Chicago is often described as “a city of neighborhoods” and there is much to that claim. When meeting someone from Chicago, more often than not they will immediately volunteer their neighborhood. “Oh, I’m a South Sider” or “Wrigleyville” or “Bronzeville.” It seems to be especially true for life-long residents of the city.

Historically, local Chicago communities have carried a host of associations along with their geographical boundaries. Neighborhoods were known for certain industries or employment (steel, meatpacking, transportation), with a particular race or ethnicity, or for a parish or organization. Neighbors were invested in their local community. Figuring out the nature and meaning of that local attachment is the focus of Amanda I. Seligman’s Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City. A professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Seligman is interested in urban history and questions of community.

The book is closely researched hyper-local history about activities for which there is often little by way of written record. Seligman overcame the research challenges by working, in her words, where there was archive material – in the light. Block clubs are informal neighborhood groups. Totally voluntary, they became a fixture of Chicago in the early half of the 1900s initially through the efforts of the Chicago Urban League to help African-Americans in the great migration north. They were not just for African-Americans, though. Many other groups organized and supported block clubs. Clubs sprouted throughout the city during World War II. The numbers of block clubs have declined – bearing in mind that there is no official “count” – but they still are an important part of the Chicago landscape.

Anchoring the book are the records of the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference, a block club with a robust archive. Herbert Thelen, a long-time professor of education at the University of Chicago, was HPKCC’s driving force. Seligman’s book, interestingly, does not study block clubs through chronology and the shifting priorities of Chicago’s history. Instead, she organized her observations into clusters: why block clubs matter, how they were developed, and their primary functions – beautification, local improvements, sanitation and regulation. We gain a strong sense of on-the-ground dynamics and activities, but missing are the clubs’ roles in the larger context of Chicago politics, economics, and change.

David Potash


Which Side Is The Other Side?

Natalie Y. Moore is a product of the South Side of Chicago. For those who do not know Chicago, “North Side” and “South Side” conjure up much more than a region. They embody a history, a mindset, and a way of life, separate and distinct from each other. They are often about race and ethnicity. Many who live in the city think of their home as a neighborhood, not the larger city. In all there are 77 of neighborhoods and together they make Chicago a fascinating and dynamic metropolis. Yet the sides of the city are not easily thought of as one, as expertly chronicled by Moore in her book, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. Racism and geography can create destiny.

south-sideMoore is a journalist. She reports on the South Side for WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station. She has covered other cities and other countries. Her writing is in newspapers and national publications. Her investigation into the South Side is in great part informed by her reporting skills. She brings history, politics, economics, and culture to bear explaining the who, what, where, when and how of the South Side of Chicago. Starting with a clear-eyed look at the terrible history of racism in the city, Moore examines housing policy and practice. She describes red-lining, economic exploitation based on race, and the myriad of failure of the Chicago Housing Authority. Moore anchors housing in the local histories of neighborhoods unable to shake free from poverty. It is a story of generations trapped.

Training her eyes on Chicago’s public schools, Moore paints an equally chilling picture of segregation. Chicago actively resisted calls and judgments to integrate its school system, despite marches and protests and well-meaning pressure from progressives of all stripes. Her chapter on CPS is titled “Separate and Still Unequal.” Class matters, too, and Moore is equally sharp when looking at grocery stores, food stores and restaurants across the city. On one level, her book is a study of the effects of systemic racism.

The South Side is more than a work of journalism, however. Moore is no embed reporting to a distant and curious public. She is fiercely proud of her city. She loves the South Side, warts and all, and wants readers to understand and appreciate it. A resentment to those that would demean it givers her prose attitude and passion.

Moore grew up in Chatham, an African-American neighborhood that had been an Italian, Hungarian and Irish neighborhood in earlier decades. After World War II the whites moved out and black families moved in. Chatham provided a solid foundation for Moore’s childhood and she found a home in Sutherland, an integrated CPS elementary school in nearby Beverly. For high school, she attended Morgan Park HS, which was known for its college preparatory program. When Moore was a student it was mostly black, with white and Hispanic students. (Today it is 97% black – segregation in schools for much of the city has significantly increased). Moore looks back on her high school education fondly and is proud to call herself a product of CPS.

She rails against the violence in the city – and is equally angered at those who label the city with a broad brush of little but racism, crime and despair. Fear is increasing, she writes, even as overall rates of homicide, measured not year to year but over the long-term, is down. Moore wants policy discussions about violence to be guided by facts, not emotion. She sees the underlying economic problems and high levels of unemployment as the real issue. Looking to leaders like Harold Washington, Moore believes that Chicago can build political coalitions to push back against racism and segregation.

Moore works to end her book on a positive note. She talks with activists, academics, artists and legislators, arguing that change is possible.

Don’t read The South Side to look for policy suggestions. Don’t study it expecting an agenda for future mayors and aldermen. Instead, Moore wants us to reconsider, reappraise and appreciate the South Side. She tackled the task with integrity and care.

David Potash

Brown in Chicago: A Different History

Popular culture can reduce race to a black-white issue. It is not. A thoughtful look makes clear that race in the US is complex with a complicated history. When I taught history and immigration, issues of race and racism were always part of the conversation. Students worked to identify similarities of experience across times and groups, but we tried to be vigilant noting importance of looking at the unique challenges and opportunities facing each grouping of people.

The history of Latinos/as calls out for special attention. Neither “black” nor “white,” the emerging Hispanic population in the United States has a unique history or, more properly, histories. For example, Mexican Americans were categorized as “white” through a nineteenth century treaty and only formally first identified through the Census bureau in 1980 with a question asking for “Spanish origin.” Inhabitants of Puerto Rico are citizens. The role of Latinos/as has not been stable and it has shifted through time and across areas.

Brown in the Windy CityLilia Fernandez, a professor at the Ohio State University, teaches this lesson very effectively in Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. It is closely researched, well-written, and an essential work to understanding the city and its racial dynamics. It sits at the intersection of many vibrant areas of research: immigration, labor history, identity politics, neighborhood activism, race studies, gender history, and urban history. Every library on Chicago history should contain this book.

Windy City opens by explaining Latino/a immigration to Chicago from an economic perspective. Fernandez sketches out the reasons that people from Mexico and Puerto Rico made the journey, emphasizing that the issue of citizenship and status made for different opportunities and different challenges. Depending upon their skin color, connections, and local environment, these immigrants to the city faced a range of responses and racial attitudes. Jobs with state sponsorship and support made immigration attractive. Mexican immigrants were often in the US through the bracero program, which was developed to help address labor shortages. Similarly, the government of Puerto Rico worked to sponsor labor leaving the island for jobs on the mainland. Opportunities were plentiful in the years after World War II, but by the 1960s jobs were starting to leave Chicago. The drop was 13% from 1960 t0 1970 and continued in further decades. Massive numbers of jobs were instead created in Chicago’s suburbs. The most noticeable shift was in the steady decline of Chicago manufacturing. Many of the Latino/a immigrants worked, or tried to work, in these sectors.

The book, though, is less about economics than about place considered broadly. Fernandez wants to understand what physical places the immigrants moved to and why. She examines how they established individual and group identity through building community. She also cleverly pivots the concept to study what place in the social and political order of the city that the Latino/a immigrants took. The hub of Latino/a immigration in the 1940s and 1950s was the Near West Side. Hull House, Jane Addams’ famous Progressive Era settlement house, was at the center of this rapidly changing community.

Demographic changes did not take place without human influence and intervention. The Latino/a communities were part of a larger racial redistribution of the city. City leaders were very conscious of who lived where. The Near West Side was in play in a larger game of power. Despite local neighborhood activism, the area was destroyed and redeveloped through highway construction, the siting of the University of Illinois Chicago, and local incentives for business and housing. Residents had to move. The impact of those decisions is evident today.

The Puerto Rican community resettled mostly to the Near North Side, then to West Town and Humboldt Park. From that context and history, it is easier to understand the evolution of the Young Lords Organization. Fernandez covers this well-known history of non-violent street gang to neighborhood activism very well. She also details the Mexican community movement to Pilsen, the area around 18th Street and then beyond. From these two intercity migrations the Puerto Rican community learned grassroots activism and gained political power, particularly through decades of strife with abusive police. In Pilsen, the Mexican community grew in tandem with a larger Chicano movement.

Fernandez provides some very interesting information on pan-Latino/a organization, with special attention to gender. Her work on women’s activism and the founding of Mujeres Latinas en Accion (Latina women in action) is fascinating.

Fernandez observes that some Latinos/as tried to address their role in the city through the lens of ethnicity, not race. It was a strategy that ultimately was not successful and did not have political clout. Latino/a neighborhoods were situated in buffer spaces between blacks and whites. This was an open secret in Chicago politics. Groups needed to organize in order to compete for resources. Once group identity was asserted – through voting, marches, and activism, the established power structure took notice. It is a pattern seen again and again in Chicago.

A political theorist might argue that in a pluralistic power structure, survival depends upon effective mobilization. The larger question, and one that Fernandez does not raise, is why Chicago’s default organizational pattern is pluralistic. Missing from her narrative as well as much of Chicago’s history is a sense of the shared or common good. I hope that greater understanding of the challenges that different groups face may help with that more idealistic goal.

David Potash

Second City Hometown Associations

Making sense of Chicago is no easy task. The city is an amazing jumble of neighborhoods and histories that are easy to misunderstand or miss. Chicago has the second largest population of Mexican immigrants in the US. However, the structure and social fabric of this community is not well-studied or well-known. Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacan

Xochitl Bada, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, opens an important window into this world in her book, Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacan: From Local to Transnational Civic Engagement. The title may be imposing but the read is informative. Grounded in scholarship and the product of Bada’s graduate studies, it is a thoughtful and carefully crafted work. It is also a correction on assumptions one might make about civic engagement and the Mexican immigrant community.

Drawn to the topic because of her interest immigrant rights and activism, Bada volunteered with the Federation of Michoacan Clubs in Illinois (FEDECMI). The Federation’s scope and history gave her a unique view to examine the HTAs and the people they affected. She saw the growing organizational prowess of the HTAs, in Mexico and across the Caribbean, and also the impact of a change in Mexican law that gave those living abroad the right to vote in state elections. All of this occurred against a backdrop of anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant laws and action in the United States.

Bada sketches out the broad conditions and history of Mexican immigration to Chicago. She focuses on the experiences of those who hailed from Michoacan, a state in western Mexico. Mostly driven be labor opportunities in the earlier parts of the twentieth century, Michoacan immigrants journeyed to the US and were supported by mutual aid societies. In 1964, the bracero program ended, meaning that laborers to the US were no longer “guests.” Consequently, the mutual aid societies became less relevant. For Mexican immigrants to Chicago, that spelled an increase in the importance and relevance of hometowns and hometown associations for the immigrant community. The HTAs range from social clubs to sporting groups to active political groups.

Using history, journalism, and first person interviews, Bada explores the Chicago – Michoacan HTAs. She maps their internal networks, the connections with church and state, and examines how they both recreate and challenge traditional social structures. Undergirding their importance to Mexico over the years are the consistent flow of remittances from Chicago. The HTAs are more than local Chicago organizations – they also have a powerful impact in their home towns and region.

By the 2000s, Mexican politicians would regularly visit Chicago HTAs to connect with the community and drum up support. Many members of the HTAs held dual citizenship and the organizations fostered a special kind of dual civic engagement. Bada digs deep into theory and practice to explain how. The HTA’s clout led to joint funding opportunities for economic development in Michoacan. While the projects did not meet financial expectations, the HTAs have maintained an active voice in local Mexican politics. When those living away from Mexico were granted voting rights in 2007, the importance of the HTAs increased significantly. They consistently press a democratic counter narrative to the plans of large-scale development as pushed by international organizations and states.

Pulling the pieces of these organizations and their history together, Bada explores what they mean in terms of identity, geography, and community. Organizations whose membership and focus spans countries face particular challenges just in terms of basic logistics, which also mean difficulties in terms of communication, trust and agency. Technology has been a powerful enabler. Bada does not write about this, but it clearly has an impact.

Bada does explore the consequences of transnational organization and advocacy. She rightly identifies the city as a key context for communication and interaction. Cities facilitate collaboration much more than nations. The democratic tendencies of the HTAs, which emerged in rural Mexico, have found support and meaning in Chicago’s urban environment. What happens in one area can resonate in the other, and the exchange is often mediated by the HTA.

The very nature of the book raises provocative questions. In an era of global travel, multiple identifies and instant communication, what does citizenship look like? How does one understand community? It is interesting work, indeed.

David Potash

Steel Barrio – Labor, Immigration, and Chicago

Getting a better understanding of Chicago – an endlessly fascinating city that never fails to engage, challenge, and surprise – is an ongoing project of mine. It’s also a project without an end. Chicago presents itself many different ways. As I have listened and learned more from many Chicagoans, I have increasingly turned to the past to try to get a better feel for the present. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Chicago is the second largest site of Mexican immigrants in the United States. (Los Angeles area is first and Houston is second). Why Chicago? How and when did this happen? Who were the first Mexican immigrants to Chicago? And what has life been for those who have journeyed from Mexico to Chicago over the years?Steel Barrio

Great insight into these and other questions are found in Michael Innis-Jimenez’s Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940. The book is thoroughly researched and carefully argued labor and immigration history of the best kind. Innis-Jimenez is a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama. A study of the first-wave of immigrants to Chicago, Steel Barrio goes far in explaining the foundation of the Mexican community in the windy city. It adds much to the puzzle that is Chicago.

The pull for Mexican labor came from the steel mills of South Chicago. First recruited in large numbers to break the 1919 strike, Mexican workers found themselves in a cauldron of labor and racial strife. For these early immigrant workers, their hopes and experiences were different from many other groups who moved to Chicago for economic opportunity. History, geography and citizenship laws were part of the difference. Most Mexican laborers did not express a desire to make America their long-term home. Special immigration rules and status created a mobile network for Mexican labors, who could move from job to job in the United States. Even if they remained in Chicago for years, their overall tendency – as reported by Innis-Jimenez – was to see the arrangement as temporary. They had what Innis-Jimenez calls a “sojourner” attitude, engaging in civic and cultural life differently from immigrants who believed America would be their new home.

Innis-Jimenez explains how racism and power structures limited opportunities to Mexican immigrants. Chicago was less a melting pot for immigrant groups than a city where groups competed for resources. Racism ran in many directions and life was tough. Without governmental protection and support, Mexican immigrants had to help each other. They formed mutual aid associations and other systems, formal and informal. Innis-Jimenez highlights their efforts and how the contributed to a vibrant culture and shared identity.

Sports figures prominently in the community and in Steel Barrio. Neighborhoods took great pride in their athletes and teams. Baseball was very popular. Through baseball games and Mexican inspired fairs and events, the Mexican community made claims on public space.

Innis-Jimenez provides thoughtful analysis of how gender roles and expectations shaped daily life. The immigrant community reflected very traditional Mexican gender roles. Women tended to stay home and focus on the family. Men worked and were more active in public life, but only in certain arenas. The workers tended to stay away from unions. Language was both a community bond and a barrier. Overall, Innis-Jimenez effectively helps the reader understand the community’s path to activism and achieving a greater voice in economic, political, and cultural matters.

While the history covered in Steel Barrio ends with WWII, the legacy of these early immigrants remains. It is a very good book, one that I hope is regularly taught in college classrooms. It has a pride of place in my growing library of Chicago studies.

David Potash