Back of the YardsPACKINGTOWN'S LATEST DRAMA: CIVIC UNITY
by KATHRYN CLOSE
Back of the Yards, Packingtown, or New City, as the neighborhood is variously called, has often broken into newspaper headlines through crime, labor riots, nationality strife. Authors have found a fascination in its poverty and disorder. Thirty-five years ago Upton Sinclair called it "The Jungle" and made it the setting of a novel. More recently James Farrell created Studs Lonigan to rebel at its cruelty, though the neighborhood then was far more respectable than in the earlier days. Now again Packingtown has demonstrated its dramatic nature, but this time with a difference.
The quality of the new drama may be gleaned from almost any issue of the Back of the Yards Journal, the neighborhood's weekly newspaper, unique in its opportunity to print statements of CIO officials urging local business men to join the Chamber of Commerce or of Chamber of Commerce officials endorsing some action of the unions. But goings-on behind the stockyards are not limited to fine phrases. There are new programs for health improvement, youth employment, recreation, beautification of the neighborhood, the handling of child delinquency, all drawing their energy from the people whose problems they are and who will benefit by their solution.
The programs are visible in Packingtown. There is the recently opened health center where mothers may take their babies for check-up and advice; the small trees and bushes which have begun to appear on the neighborhood's ugly bare spots; the once vacant land by the railroad tracks which has become a combination ball park and playground; the new pavement of long neglected streets; "SchoolGo Slow" signs. Small achievements are these when viewed separately, but together they represent the outward signs of a reawakened vitality Back of the Yards, a vitality far more important for its centripetal nature which is drawing together people of diverse backgrounds and interests, than for all the material accomplishments that may be achieved.
It all began in the spring of 1939 when Saul Alinsky, a young sociologist then with the Institute for Juvenile Research, went down behind the stockyards to make a survey. Mr. Alinsky believes in going to original sources for sociological material. Several years ago when he was studying Chicago's criminal gangs, among them the Capone group, he became intimately acquainted with the gangsters themselves, participated in their social affairs, acted as best man at their weddings, pall-bearer at their funerals, was to all appearances one of them. His role in gang study has been characterized by a number of criminological authorities as a "participant observer." Less sensational, but no less dramatic, was the role he was to play in Packingtown. What he found in his survey was a community with the highest infant mortality rate in the city, the highest delinquency rate, few facilities for lowering them. He also found that the people of Packingtown were humansuspicious of outsiders who "know what is good for them," sincerely delirious of finding better opportunities for their children, sociable with those of their "own kind," anxious for prestige, jealous of their neighbors. There were Germans, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Poles, Mexicans, Irish, each group aloof from the other, unaware of the common threads that guided the destinies most of themthe stockyards, the Roman Catholic religion, Packingtown itself.
For a long time, Mr. Alinsky had nursed a theory based somewhat on the idea that democracy begins at me. He saw that in Packingtown democracy meant little more to some folks than a form of politics bringing baskets to the poor at Christmas time and providing them an opportunity now and then to make a few dollars through a vote. The democratic way was barricaded by a strong absentee political machine. Political reform in such a set-up was improbable, particularly since the 87,000 people in the neighborhood were only a portion of the 3,500,000 in the machine's bailiwick. Mr. Alinsky's dream was an organization through which the people could :press and satisfy their needs in spite of politics. Today that dream is a reality in the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council.
Social workers and the civic minded have often encouraged community organization, sometimes with effective results. Back in 1919 a neighborhood of 12,000 persons in Cincinnati was organized under the Social Unit Plan [see The Survey, November 15, 1919] giving representation to every block and to the various types of occupation within the block. At present other communities have councils comprised of representatives from health and welfare agencies and similar organizations interested in improving the lot of the "underprivileged." One of this type, the Community Council of the Stockyards Area of Chicago, which has been in existence for twenty-two years, has placed its emphasis on summer recreation programs and cooperated with the University of Chicago Settlement, particularly in the days of the late Mary McDowell. in clearing away some of the worst features of the old "Jungle." But the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council is unique in being based on a federation of practically all of the natural organizations of the people themselves. These serve as a life-line from the council to the people and back again.
Packingtown people, like most Americans whether they are of the first or the fifth generation, are joiners. They belong to athletic and social clubs, religious societies, fraternal orders, labor groups, business associations. Mr. Alinsky believed that if these groups could be brought together into some form of unity they would find a common and vital interest in the improvement of the neighborhood on which the welfare of all depended. Fortunately for his plans he met the director of one of the district city parks, Joseph B. Meegan, a young man who, as a product of the neighborhood, was keenly aware of its shortcomings but deeply resentful of the tendency of outsiders to come in and "view with alarm." The idea of helping Packingtown to pull itself up by its own bootstraps worked as a spark to ignite Mr. Meegan's boundless Irish enthusiasm. Together the two men began to plan and act. Within four weeks the first general congress was called by an incorporated Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council and a general program protected revolving around health, child welfare, employment, housing. Within six months the council had several achievements to its credit and was accepted as a member of the Chicago Community Fund. On its first birthday its affiliated organizations numbered over a hundred.
The council operates through an executive board comprised of the minister of a Mexican Baptist church; the president of the local laundry company; president of the local Chamber of Commerce; the vice-president of one credit clothing company and president of another; proprietor of a furniture store; district director of the Packing Workers Organizing Committee, CIO; vice-president of the Elevator Operators and Starters, AFL; priest of a Greek Orthodox church; a police captain; six Roman Catholic priests; representatives from the boiler makers local, AFL, three young men's social clubs, a young men's athletic club, a young ladies' sodality, a Holy Name society, a church ladies' auxiliary, a day nursery, local 346 of the American Federation of Teachers, the neighborhood YWCA, the neighborhood unit of the Catholic Youth Organization.
The executive board meets on call, often two or three times a week when a special project is in the offing. The board of directors, containing representatives from all the constituent organizations, meets twice a month. A general congress of all the members of all the organizations comes together at least twice a year. All questions of policy must be voted on by the general congress.
Jobs Doneand to Do
WITHIN ITS FIRST YEAR THE COUNCIL WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN bringing definite improvements Back of the Yardsamong them: the infant welfare station secured from Chicago's Infant Welfare Society and operated in Davis Square Park where Mr. Meegan is supervisor; a rerouting of the garbage trucks to eliminate annoyances to residents of the neighborhood; the new recreational center on land leased from a railroad company for $25 a year. In the spring the council distributed grass seed in the neighborhood and backed a citywide "lawn conscious" campaign. In the summer it served 1,200 hot lunches a day to children at a summer school project at Davis Square with food secured from the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation. The project is being carried on during the winter in collaboration with the schools. The council has also promoted several community entertainments including free boxing shows and a donkey baseball game.
In addition to the programs it sponsors directly, the council helps support many carried on by its affiliates. For example, the Packing Workers Organizing Committee sent several hundred children to camp last summer with funds stemming equally from the PWOC and council treasuries. The council hopes eventually to establish a camp of its own to accommodate many more children.
Each of the council's main committeeson health, child welfare, housing, unemploymenthas subcommittees for studying and recommending action on particular phases of the program. The membership of the subcommittees reaches down into the rank and file of the constituent organizations spreading the responsibility of "a job to do" as widely as possible. In this way the council becomes a living, working reality to inconspicuous members of St. Rose's Young Ladies' Sodality or of the boiler makers' union.
One of the most effective of the subcommittees is the committee on juvenile delinquency in whose care the police place every first offender under sixteen. The committee makes a careful study of each case brought to attention. If unemployment of the family wage earner found to be a contributing factor in the delinquency job is sought for the parent. The local merchants deserve special praise for their cooperation in this project. than one has created a job in his firm at the suggestion the committee in order to make room for the parent of a delinquent child.
Members of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council seem just as confident of their ability to see results from long range programs aimed at better housing or re-employment as from programs more closely cone to the local neighborhood. They are definitely aware the council's possibilities as a pressure group. It is their contention that when a whole neighborhood become vocal about the need for a housing project the local Congressman, who voted against the Federal Housing will change his tune. That local political leaders see the point is evidenced is their unanimous cry for adequate relief standards and other social reforms on which council's general congress has expressed its views.
In spite of the swiftness with which it was launch the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council has not ways met with smooth sailing. One of its earliest a was to pass a resolution urging the Armour Company' sign a contract with the PWOC when temperature running high in the Union Stockyards. Naturally, packers tended to regard the organization as a tool of the CIO. But members of the council explain the resolution by pointing out that almost every family in the neighborhood has a member, or at least a relative, working at a packing house, that peace in the stockyards is a, concern of the whole neighborhood. They also refer to the fact that the resolution was proposed not by a spokesman but by a Catholic priest and seconded by a local merchant. Today, the council numbers one of large packing companies among its contributors.
There are those who have scoffed at the council for being dominated by the Catholic church. This could hardly be considered a legitimate criticism in a community with a 90 percent Catholic population. There are seven Roman Catholic churches in Packingtown, literally and figuratively dominated by smokestacks and steeples. In actual fact, the churchin the person of the Most Rev. Bernard J. Sheil, auxiliary bishop of Chicagohas been the godfather of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council from its earliest inception. From the first he has placed before it the benefits of his prestige, energy, and wisdom. Mr. Alinsky and Mr. Meegan had some trying days dodging the epithets "Reds!" and "Reactionaries!" hurled by the opposing forces in a bitter war of words, but Bishop Sheil never once has wavered in his support of them.
Social Workers Watch and Wonder
THROUGH THE BACK OF THE YARDS NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL now has become a member of the Community Fund, social workers both inside and outside the stockyards district have not yet wholly granted it their seal of approval. Certainly there is little of orthodox social work in the council's manner of doing things. It attacks the community's problems in the same way that a family would attempt to cure its own troublesby improvising with the tools that are at hand. However, the social worker who is skilled in dealing with individuals in trouble and knows that the wrong treatment may do more harm than good, is alarmed at the spectacle of a group of laymen taking the treatment of delinquency into its own hands; and the trained group worker is naturally hesitant to approve a playground with no supervised recreation program.
Members of the council are the first to admit that much of what it has attempted might have been done by any small group interested in bringing improvements to the community. But, say its enthusiasts, when the people themselves have worked to secure a baby health station hey have attained a proprietary interest in it which gives considerable momentum to its educational efforts. More important, the very fact that the people have succeeded in arriving at a common objective strengthens their unity and spurs them on to greater efforts.
Recognizing the intrinsic welding value of a mere "get together," the council directors have stimulated the council into sponsoring various community entertainments. Most successful from the standpoint of attendance was the Jungle Jamboree, a large dance held in a rented hall last spring. Every affiliated organization worked feverishly to promote the affair which had the secondary purpose of raising money for the council's work. Hundreds turned out to what proved to be a pretty boisterous party. The news that a bar was set up in the hall came as a shock to social workers who, for a long time, had been attempting to raise standards in the community. But the people Back of the Yards have never been noted for being teetotalers, and since the Jamboree was their own party they prepared it as an affair they expected to enjoy.
More fundamental to social workers, who are really interested in what is going on Back of the Yards but are afraid that the council has got off on the wrong foot, is the council's use of its Community Fund appropriation for unsupervised, unplanned projects. Back of the Yards, as almost everywhere else, young people travel in gangs, groups less formal than clubs, but usually influenced by a natural leader. Some gangs are athletic in nature with softball or football as their central purpose; others are held together by no more than a name, like "The Dooties" or "The Bats," and a hangout, often a poolroom or a corner saloon. Last year the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council approached thirteen gangs and offered them each a "budget" of $50. Though having $50, or any dollars, drop from the sky was a novel experience to the gangs, even more startling was the knowledge that plans for spending it were being left entirely up to them. Observers waited with bated breath expecting the whole Jungle to be painted red over night. But the young people of one gang spent their money taking their younger brothers on a picnic; several others bought athletic uniforms; budgets were actually made out and turned in to the council. Many of the gangs, stimulated by a new sense of importance, transformed themselves into formal clubs with duly elected officers. The upshot of it all was the Back of the Yards Youth Committee, an organization of young people's clubs, affiliated with the council and having job-finding as its goal.
The council's dealings with the young people of the community is typical of the philosophy on which the whole movement Back of the Yards is baseda faith in the essential ability and dignity of people. But mixed in with this idealism, the council directors have applied a lot of realism. They recognize human weaknesses as well as virtues and have used them expertly in building up council membership. Lack of hesitancy in the use of subtle pressure methods is probably the most valid criticism that can be leveled against them.
The real test of the council's value has been in its ability to elicit enthusiasm from former doubting Thomases. Many persons who were once among the most skeptical are now on its executive board and are counted among its most energetic participants. "It gets into your blood" says Jack Finn, president of the local Chamber of Commerce who, once reluctant at seeing the Chamber of Commerce become affiliated, now spends two or three nights a week at council board or committee meetings.
THE MOVEMENT HAS NOT STOPPED IN CHICAGO. INSPIRED BY the happenings Back of the Yards, a group of interested persons have set up a national organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation, to study the needs of other industrial areas throughout the country and to make recommendations for their improvement. On the foundation's board are Bishop Sheil; Marshall Field of New York; Kathryn Lewis, daughter of John L. Lewis; G. Howland Shaw, chief of foreign service personnel, U. S. State Department; Stuyvesant Peabody, president of the Peabody Coal Mines; Britton I. Budd, utilities magnate; and Hermon D. Smith, chairman of the budget committee of the Community Fund of Chicago.
The new foundation through Mr. Alinsky, its executive director, has already made a study of the Armourdale district in Kansas City, Kan., and is beginning one at South St. Paul, Minn. Only a few weeks after the Kansas City study was completed and the seeds sown, an Armourdale neighborhood council began to sprout, of the same variety and species as the Back of the Yards council. The Kansas City organization is only a few months old, but if it too grows and produces fruit, then it may serve to indicate that the Chicago experiment is not a sport, that something important in the development of American democracy has come out of the "Jungle."