January 15, 2009

History on the south side

Last semester I taught a social history course that centred round students doing primary research with the 1924 Houghteling survey of 477 Chicago families. One of the students did a very interesting essay that mapped the distance to work of two groups of employees. Using the file of addresses that he had compiled I then set out to see some of the houses, and whether they still remained. Most of these houses are on the south side of Chicago, where there has been a bit of urban change in the last 80 years.

Setting out with a map and camera I had a list of 40 houses. I did this historical research on foot. To this degree I was being faithful to the original investigators who certainly walked around the Chicago neighborhoods collecting the surveys. With 40 houses to cover I ran. If you are familiar with the south side of Chicago you will appreciate that a white guy running around with a piece of paper and a camera taking photos of people's houses might attract attention. However, I only had one person ask me what I was doing. He was bemused by the explanation that I was an historian. I guess that's what the Chicago Police Department now call undercover agents -- historians. Covering 21 miles (2:50 running, 4:00 total out there) I only got to 31 houses. About half of them were probably the original 1924 house. The results are summarized in the table below for those who are interested.

The diversity of the transformation was interesting. Some of the houses had been replaced by UIC. Others had been replaced by gentrification, particularly in the Bucktown area. Yet others, particularly near UIC and around 18th - 21th St were now largely Hispanic neighborhoods, perhaps today's unskilled immigrant laborers*

This was a particularly fulfilling intersection of running, research and teaching. With the addresses of all 477 families computerized I could envisage a student project to map the transformation of all of these houses. This would even be possible from New Zealand with Google's Street View. But such a project would hearken back to an earlier era of social science which studied neighborhoods as things in themselves. Modern social scientist might perhaps declaim that study of the neighborhood as superseded by a methodological focus on the individual and family in different contexts. So, there goes the neighborhood.

You can see a picture of the transformation here: www.evanroberts.net/chicago_houses

* I hasten to add that I am not implying Hispanics to be unskilled laborers, but am echoing the title of the original research.

House is now Total
Presumed to be 1924 house 16
Newer construction, sympathetic style 2
replaced by industrial buildings 2
apartment building 1
Church parking lot 1
Newer construction, since abandoned 1
Parking lot for Howard-Orloff Jaguar Volvo car dealer and on-ramp for I-90/94 1
Presumed to be 1924 house, but front unit probably knocked down 1
Presumed to be 1924 house, but front unit probably knocked down? Original survey doesn't mention front units 1
Public housing units 1
replaced by commercial buildings 1
school(?) and park 1
UIC Environmental Safety Facility 1
UIC Parking lot for Eye & Ear Infirmary 1
Grand Total 31
Posted by eroberts at January 15, 2009 10:20 PM