If Only Walls Could Talk: Making the West Side

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The “closers” for the May 19, 2016 Hull-House public forum, “Making the West Side,” left to right, Alice O’Connor, University of California Santa Barbara; Yolanda Knight, program officer for the Steans Family Foundation; and Jennifer Scott, director of the Hull-House Museum. (Photograph by Ellen Skerrett)

The elegant Hull-House dining room was filled to the proverbial rafters on May 19, 2016 as historians, community residents, and activists shared insights and experience about neighborhood change on Chicago’s West Side.  Could any place have been more perfect for this wide-ranging conversation, part of a one-year NEH “Humanities in the Public Square” grant?

Jane Addams, ca. 1896-1900 (Swarthmore Peace Collection)

As Hull-House Museum director Jennifer Scott noted in her welcoming remarks, the Arts and Crafts dining room was the place where Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr and settlement residents broke bread with visitors while discussing the burning questions of the day, on labor, immigrants’ rights, the criminal justice system.  At the heart of the conversation was always the question, “How we can be better neighbors to one another?”

It’s the rare conference that connects the past and the present, but what struck me throughout the day was the way in which history illuminated and deepened the experience of West Siders who are engaged in finding solutions to issues of inequality in education and healthcare and disinvestment in their neighborhood.

You could see and hear nods of recognition from neighborhood activists in the room as Rutgers’ historian Beryl Satter showed images of North Lawndale and discussed her father’s efforts to represent African Americans who purchased homes under the segregated practice of contract buying in the 1950s and 1960s.  Her award-winning book, Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America, put a human face these predatory lending practices that devastated the social fabric of the neighborhood and its housing stock.

Rufus Williams of the Better Boys Foundation and Amara Enyia of the Austin Chamber of Commerce argued convincingly that the loss of manufacturing jobs and the closing of public schools has made it difficult to attract development and investors.  Indeed, many stores have become vacant lots since the riots along Madison Street in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   In a city with a flourishing downtown and North Side, Williams and Enyia agreed, the challenge is how to get policy makers to see value and equity in the West Side.

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Hull-House’s Smith Hall in 1910 (Library of Congress)

The West Side wasn’t always invisible.  In fact, just the opposite.  In the second panel, historian Rima Lunin Schultz reminded the audience that 126 years ago on May 19, 1890, Chicagoans got their first glimpse of Hull-House in a Tribune feature illustrated with exterior and interior drawings of the settlement. Entitled “Two Women’s Work,” the newspaper story praised Addams and Starr for organizing “lectures and classes and parties [for] the uncultivated.”

Committed to being better neighbors, the Hull-House residents investigated conditions in local sweatshops and mapped thirty blocks east of the settlement as a way “to focus attention on the worst scenario of industrial conditions that immigrant laborers faced.” Part of a federal study of “slums,” Hull-House Maps and Papers was published in 1895 and received widespread acclaim as innovative and influential.

Ironically, noted Schultz, “by defining its neighborhood as the poorest and most disadvantaged, Hull-House unintentionally . . . began a process of urban renewal.”

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A map from Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895) that identifies the ethnic background of the neighborhood.

Continuing the discussion of the role of social scientists and neighborhood change, UIC historian Cynthia Blair characterized the 1895 study as a “map of exclusion that begins to define African Americans in Chicago.”  Hull-House Maps and Papers were not free of bias. In the wages map, for example, Blair noted that brothels near the train stations were designated white, even though they employed African American women.

Ohio State University historian Lilia Fernandez recounted the presence of Mexican Americans in the Hull-House settlement, particularly in the pottery program in the 1920s and 1930s.  So it is all the more puzzling that the displacement of Mexican Americans by urban renewal and expressway construction is so little known.

Richard Anderson of Princeton brought the conversation full circle in recounting the attitudes of reformers in the 1950s and 1960s who believed that urban renewal was the “surgery” necessary to eradicate “blight and slums.” Often glossed over in accounts of the siting of the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, for example, is the role the federal government played in terms of public housing and expressway construction.  Understanding this history also challenges us to reclaim the work and vision of women activists such as Florence Scala, dismissed as a “housewife” in the battle to save Hull-House from demolition in 1963.

The fourth and final panel of the afternoon featuring Rosa Cabrera, Dave Stovall, Kathy Catrambone, and Quiwana Bell was a powerful reminder that community organizers and activists work on behalf of ordinary people whose voices are not heard in public policy debates over education and health care. As I listened to their stories, I couldn’t help but think of the old saying, “If only walls could talk.”

More than a century ago in the Hull-House dining room, Jane Addams and the Hull-House residents engaged visitors from around the world who were eager to debate solutions to the thorny problems of poverty and workers’ rights.  What I heard on May 19th was something else: historians and community activists grappling with the legacy of Hull-House and the challenge of making the West Side, once again, visible.