Publication Date

December 1, 2011

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

The AHA meeting arrives in Chicago at a fitting moment, when discussions of class are influencing national politics more than at any time in recent memory. Historically, Chicago has been the center of American labor radicalism and an active site of protests for greater equality. Even if such movements have often floundered, they have not been exceptions in a city known for its machine politics, dynamic urban ecology, and ethnic and racial conflict. Class tensions and economically based politics have been endemic to the development of what has been described as the modern American city.1

Just a short walk south from the meeting hotels you can see how the aspirations of the Chicago elite have shaped the city. The most recent effort to create a “global metropolis” is reflected in Millennium Park‘s privately financed public spaces and in the Art Institute of Chicago’s striking new Modern Wing. Compare those “postmodern” installations to the original turn-of-the-century beaux-arts skyscrapers lining the west side of Michigan Avenue. During the AHA meeting, you will also have a chance to view a temporary exhibit at the Art Institute on the work of architect Bertrand Goldberg, whose mid-20th-century projects bridged the modern and postmodern eras (see also the corn-cob-shaped Marina City Towers at 300 North State Street).

Under this surface of architectural grandeur is a history of not-so-pristine urban development. A century ago downtown Chicago was a buzzing industrial center with glutted streets, a heavily trafficked river, and pollution so bad the city actually reversed the river’s flow away from its main source of drinking water, Lake Michigan.

Daily competition for opportunity often erupted into open protests for greater equality. During the “Bread Riot” in the winter of 1872–73, hundreds of Chicagoans were beaten by police when they occupied the intersection at LaSalle and Kinzie Streets to demand relief for residents still languishing after the Great Fire of 1871. In 1877, workers from lumber and rail yards on the edge of downtown helped turn a nationwide railroad strike into a citywide general strike. The 1877 strike, which President Rutherford B. Hayes called “an insurrection,” led to the “Battle of the Viaduct” at 16th and Halsted Streets, where some 10,000 striking workers squared off with nearly 6,000 police officers, federal troops, state militia, and Civil War veterans. In 1910 and 1911, 40,000 textile workers protested in front of factories near Franklin and Monroe Streets, blowing whistles and waving shears, demanding an end to sweatshop practices and recognition of a union for the largely immigrant, female workforce. And in the 1930s, protesters marched downtown seeking everything from public aid to a stronger teachers’ union. In more recent years,downtown Chicago has also been a site of protest politics. To name just one example, every May 1 since 2005 tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters have marched downtown demanding opportunities enjoyed by previous generations of immigrants.

The downtown area is rich with history, but visitors to Chicago must get out into the neighborhoods. Historians will especially enjoy the Chicago History Museum, where you should see the “Out in Chicago” exhibit, telling the largely untold story of the city’s politics of gender and sexuality. The exhibits and archival and map collections at the Newberry Library are another must. While at the Newberry, note the park once known as “Bug House Square,” an open-air forum for debate that nurtured Chicago’s radicals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Just west of the meeting hotels at the intersection of Randolph and Desplaines Streets is Haymarket Square, where a clash between Chicago police and activists seeking the eight-hour day on May 4, 1886, initiated the first major “red scare” in the United States and became the inspiration for May Day, the international workers’ holiday.

Two blocks west and 11 blocks south of Haymarket Square is Jane Addams’ Hull-House at Halsted and Taylor Streets, which includes an exhibit focused on the city’s Progressive reformers and their efforts to, as they saw it, bring order to a city struggling with diversity, deep economic inequality, and labor conflict.

Directly south of Hull-House along 18th Street is the central commercial strip of the Pilsen neighborhood. In the late 19th century, Pilsen housed a largely Czech and German community and their multilingual socialist and anarchist movements. Since the 1960s, Pilsen has been a base for Mexican American struggles for community, political power, and immigrants’ rights, as can be seen in the Mexican Fine Arts Center and Casa Aztlan community center.

With a bit more effort you could visit the Pullman model town, where the famous 1894 strike and boycott began, via a Metra commuter train that also stops in Hyde Park, the home of the University of Chicago. Or, take a taxi to the South Side Community Art Center at 3831 South Michigan Avenue, the only surviving Works Progress Administration art center in the country. This working gallery was a critical part of the network that fostered working-class-based movements for labor and civil rights in the 1930s and 1940s and sowed the seeds for subsequent civil rights and Black Power struggles.

The collapse of the city’s mass manufacturing industries has shifted the base of the city’s economy toward high-tech, service, and hospitality industries. City leaders promote development by attracting corporate headquarters to downtown offices and white-collar workers to once-gritty blue-collar neighborhoods. This new economy has created new inequalities. And many Chicagoans continue to think of themselves as citizens of a divided city, acting upon interests in ways that show how race, gender, sexuality, and class overlap. This is true whether they are residents of neighborhoods battling the effects of deteriorating schools, violence, and mass foreclosures; union members fighting for good jobs in the city’s hotels and retail industries; protesters seeking to reduce the influence of corporations on politics; or White Sox fans making fun of yuppie Cubs supporters. In all these ways, class politics remain endemic to postmodern Chicago.



  1. Before you go, take advantage of online resources that will enrich your visit, such as the Encyclopedia of Chicago. []

Jeffrey Helgeson is an assistant professor of history at Texas State University—San Marcos, who writes about the politics of race, class, and urban development in 20th-century Chicago.