Robin F. Bachin. Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago 1890-1919. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. ix + 434 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-03393-8.
Reviewed by Leslie Wilson (Department of History, Montclair State University)
Published on H-Urban (August, 2006)
Writers have always been hypnotized by the charm of post-fire Chicago. Its opportunity to start over, due to the devastation of its core, made Chicago the nation's first modern city. Rebuilt with skyscrapers and fueled by an active civic leadership, Chicago's triumphant and rapid rise has been the subject of countless books. Is there really a need for another historical capsule of the city's imperial ascent? Robin Bachin answers in the affirmative and offers Building the South Side as the latest entry in a distinguished collection.
Inspired from foundations laid by William Cronon and Michael Ebner, Building the South Side supports the hypothesis that the city's geographical sections are vastly different and need separate analysis. It tackles the formative years of the city below the Loop by exploring place, space and human interaction in three parts. This framework is highlighted by part 1, "The University and the City," which examines the rise of the University of Chicago as a great university and then as a social entity, as a neighbor to the emerging South Side. Next, part 2, "Parks as Public Space," investigates the creation of public parks. Part 3, "Commercial Leisure and Civic Culture," focuses on the building of Comisky Park and racial relationships in other public spaces (p. 6).
Bachin breathes new life into a period already well analyzed in other literary works and documentaries, by presenting a different interpretation of the growth of the city. Building the South Side examines a critical time period in the nation's social development, that also saw the role of Progressives in designing and maintaining cultural communities. By focusing solely on the South Side, Bachin exposes dynamic tensions within a community in search of a lasting identity. Additionally, she examines community development during the Progressive Era while considering the interplay of race, ethnicity, gender and class. The 1893 Columbian Exposition was a catalyst for some communities to cohere.
Bachin counters prevailing notions by making the emerging University of Chicago, rather than the Columbian Exposition, central to her thesis. The selection of the university is critical as it focuses on permanent urban planning and not the idealized images of the World's Fair or its dualist missions of cultural uplift (the White City) and mass amusement (the Midway). Preceding the opening of the Columbian Exposition by two weeks, the university (founded in 1892 by John D. Rockefeller) became the focal point of the South Side. Not only did it become a lure for residential neighborhoods south of the Loop, it also became the city's key intellectual and spiritual core. Robert Herrick, a member of its faculty, posited that the university "was like the city of Chicago itself, for it represented the hope that the West held for the nation" (p. 23).
The university, according to Bachin, "sought a unique role in the city" (p. 27). It was destined to be one of the first great urban institutions formed during the transformation of higher education in America. Throughout the initial chapters, Bachin illustrates how the university pursued pathways of change. William Rainey Harper, the school's first president, convinced leading lights like Marshall Field; Martin Ryerson, director of the Corn Exchange; and train magnate George Pullman, to support the new school and/or serve as it trustees. These elites purchased the land, built facilities, and became well entrenched in community affairs. Marshall Field, for example, set a tone by purchasing land for the university for both educational and speculative purposes. As a result, as Hyde Park transformed from an undeveloped inner suburb into a burgeoning district, the university had control of its form and function. Often acting as a secret landlord, the university's dealings influenced area real estate practices.
In its use of the university as a moral compass, Building the South Side raises numerous points about the role and function of civic leaders in educational development and community building. The university's influence was widespread. It set educational policy and dictated social constructions. The university, for instance, ended Chicago's trend of religiously affiliated institutions by breaking with its initial mission as a Baptist- based theological and classical educational institution, and instead adopted the German paradigm. It became an institution devoted to empirical investigation and scientific research.
Bachin suggests that the university's stance as a center of knowledge, civic leader and good neighbor encouraged Chicagoans to look to it for innovation. Chapters relate how the university promoted new concepts of student culture through collegiate spirit and sports, co-educational study, gender-specific physical fitness, and community involvement. Similarly, museums and institutes were part of the university's earliest buildings. At the same time, the University of Chicago associated with leading architects and often gave them land in Hyde Park as commissions. It also introduced new academic affiliations by merging with Rush Medical College. Through the leadership of John Dewey, the university ushered in a new wave of educational theory by operating experimental/laboratory schools through its College of Education, and by engaging in social activism through the University of Chicago Settlement. Decades later, Bachin states, the school of sociology made its presence known and became the leader in community analysis.
By demonstrating the university's commitment to civic affairs in part 1, Bachin easily illustrates its leadership in the movement for playgrounds and other recreational space in the book's middle sections. Playgrounds were built adjacent to poorer neighborhoods, large parks were established around Hyde Park, and lakefront access was constructed. As successful as these ventures seemed, however, the concluding chapters reveal that the realities of public space for all people was illusionary. Access was often denied due to factors of race, ethnicity and class. The idea of the public good, analyzed in the earlier chapters, was challenged by many of the same elites who advocated the university's position in its formative years. One test of this thesis is the contest of wills between two wealthy men over the construction of public space. A good portion of part 2 recalls the bitter rivalry between merchandising moguls Marshall Field and Aaron Montgomery Ward over the proper use of public space at Lake Front Park.
Other challenges to the idea of community are presented with the building of Comisky Park and the development of the Black Belt. The shrewd placement of the ballpark in a poorer area supported the unifying goals of the reformers. Baseball's arrival on the South Side had to break the hold of local clubs and even the Negro Leagues. Although Comisky was built for all, its audiences were not free of racial, ethnic and economic barriers. Blocks away from the mecca created by the construction of the stadium, the emerging black neighborhood was constricted by violence and restrictive covenants, implying that, in some cases, the reformers acquiesced to segregation. As the Black Belt turned inward, its vibrant communities called attention to the contradictions of successful enterprises often associated with vice and the promotion of race-based civic institutions.
For better and worse, since it is not the definitive work of the period, Building the South Side often sidesteps larger issues relating to the city in its entirety. No place is this more evident than in the book's concluding sections. The conclusion is tied to 1919, the year of the mayoral election, the famous race riot, the Black Sox Scandal, and the Red Scare hysteria. As each of these subjects is a separate volume, they are summarized in relationship to the ideals of Progressive reform. These events illustrate how easily coalitions forged between races and classes unraveled. In each instance, Chicago's progressive movement suffered defeat. Although the university remained a player in the storyline, it was no longer an activist against, but rather an investigator of, the problems. Building the South Side presents an urban model for the rise and functions of the modern university. Though not perfect and clearly not a disinterested party, the University of Chicago offered a blueprint to institutions in other cities that came of age during the twentieth century. My main criticism of the text is whether or not the university remains central to the work in the third part and conclusion.
Bachin's synthesis has significant appeal to urban historians and planners. Her South Side might lack true physical boundaries, since her approach is more about the concept of space and community, but the message rings true nonetheless. Her analysis of intertwined relationships among the university, the elites and reformers, and the Hyde Park neighborhood, the South Side and, ultimately, the entire city, are the most convincing aspects of the book. However, the accounts of the fight over the Lake Front, the "Stroll" and Comisky Park are her most compelling chapters. Building the South Side is an important, well-written contribution to our understanding of Chicago and higher education. Bachin's thesis makes for interesting and illuminating reading. The work will broaden the lens of those concerned with issues of race, class and power.
. See for example, James R. Barrett, Work and Community in the Jungle (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991); Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969); and Bessie Louise Pierce, A History of Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957).
. Cronon; and Michael Ebner, Creating Chicago's North Shore: A Suburban History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
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Leslie Wilson. Review of Bachin, Robin F., Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago 1890-1919.
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