Building the South Side

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Robin F. Bachin. Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago, 1890-1919. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2004. pp 434. Cloth: ISBN 9780226033938. Paper: ISBN 9780226033945



In Building the South Side Robin Bachin examines the relation between the creation of urban spaces and civic culture in Chicago during the Progressive area. She argues that urban planning was a political and cultural process that allowed both men and women city leaders to create an urban pubic sphere that emphasized their sometimes conflicting ideas of order, civic identity, and respectability. Bachin emphasizes that the creation of these spaces for civic culture was a contested process, and it served as a battle which often blurred the lines of private and public over who had cultural authority in transforming the different aspects of urban politics, labor, leisure, civic, and commercial in Chicago. Instead of focusing solely on the elites, Bachin examines Progressivism through many different groups, such as industrialists, labor leaders, immigrants, entrepreneurs, and middle-class reformers. (11) This, she argues, allows Progressivism in Chicago to emerge as a process in which these varied groups worked to reform the city based on their conflicting ideas of public spaces, the planning of cities, and urban citizenship. Three models emerge to reform these three different landscapes-- control through centralization, civic activism with cross-class alliances, and legitimizing mass culture and leisure.

Building the South Side is separated into three distinct sections—the establishment of the University of Chicago where corporate leaders had the most input, access to public parks through citizen activism and cross-class alliances, and the legitimization of mass culture through theaters and the professional sports stadium Comiskey Park, in addition to the Black Belt area of Chicago. However, eventually there was an invasion of vice districts into the Black Belt after they were pushed out of the white districts, which strengthened the need for African Americans to find their own methods of leisure separate from the vice districts. (261) These different sections all demonstrate how the Progressive reformers in Chicago felt that the physical design of the city equivalent to ideas on urban culture. Building the South Side ends with the Chicago race riot of 1919, demonstrating the end of cross class, ethnic, and racial solidarity in Chicago. (289)


Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Spring 2015

In her introduction, Bachin immediately defines “civil culture” for her work as “the desire to foster a shared sense of local identity and social engagement that had the potential to transcend boundaries of ethnicity, race, religion, and class.” (6) It is particularly useful when scholars explain upfront the terms that they discuss throughout the book, as it allows the reader to engage more with the argument and evidence.

She does include women, class, and race in her analysis, and this is to be expected given the publication date of 2004. One of the strongest examples of this is the treatment of the African American women reformers who sought to combat the vice districts through modeling respectability and finding appropriate leisurely activities, such as the opening of a YMCA. (262) Bachin's work particularly flourishes in the section on the Black Belt, where she examines these women reformers, jazz clubs, and black entrepreneurship, which gave more agency to African Americans and women. One issue is that I felt that the book would have been stronger had she separated it into four sections, allowing the Black Belt to have its own section beyond the sports realm. Despite her efforts to tie these all together as leisure, it would have made more sense to include the professional baseball and African American leagues as their own section, while creating a new chapter for the African American entertainment and culture of the Black Belt.

The book starts with the upper class, white Protestants with the creation of the University of Chicago, moves to the combination of classes with the founding of public parks and professional sports spaces, and then eventually the Black Belt, which both involves black businesses and leisure, but also the invasion of black spaces by whites with the vice districts. This all promotes her argument of the contesting of the public spaces of the South Side of Chicago.

Lastly, Bachin’s use of imagery is helpful to her analysis, illustrating important points that she wants to portray. Throughout the book, she has significant amounts of maps and images, including flyers promoting different spaces, which help the reader to understand the particular section, which is helpful for those that are unfamiliar with the Chicago area or the struggle over spaces.

Stephanie Seal Walters, Spring 2016

Chicago after Reconstruction was a city that struggled to define it's own distinct culture. The city saw immense immigration from the south, where former slaves sought to flee their former masters and create a new life for themselves outside of white supremacy, and from the Eastern United States and Europe where immigrants came to work in plentiful factory jobs. Both of these cultures flooded the city in the hopes of building a new identity and finding a better future for their families. In Building the South Side Bachin examines Chicago as a case study for how Progressives and the United States sought to "shape their civic and social cohesion" in large cities (6). Bachin examines this relationship by discussing the role of urban planning, the creation of civic identity, the creation of the University of Chicago, parks, and the emergence of the Black Belt (6). Bachin argues that the Progressive Era in Chicago was an attempt to create an ideal city.

However, true to Progressive nature, one of the biggest issues surrounding the development of Chicago was the idea of creating separate spaces. While progressives sought to break down the barriers between classes and ensure that men and women were treated fairly at work and at home, the idea that blacks and whites lived and worked close to each other was not entertained. Upper and middle class whites wanted to keep their streets and neighborhoods segregated from the large population of blacks who moved into the area at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Instead, there was a creation of white and black neighborhoods, parks, districts, etc. While separated by civic barriers, African Americans created their own world. Everything from music, sports, entertainment, and jobs helped create and new African American identity in Chicago--in what would become called Chicago's Black Belt.

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