How the Other Half Loved Nature
Colin Fisher, Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015)
Chicago’s worst racial bloodletting erupted at a South Side beach on Lake Michigan in 1919. Its single deadliest day of labor-capital conflict unfolded in a field next to a steel plant in 1937. Some of its infamous battles over racial integration in the 1950s took place in city parks. Various manifestations of the city’s deep radical tradition (Communists in the early 1930s, antiwar dissidents in the 1960s, Black Lives Matter activists in the 2010s, and so on) have used the city’s public spaces as terrain from which to make claims and reimagine the world. Chicago’s richest sociohistorical moments and processes, in other words, may not be fully intelligible until we reckon with their partial grounding in the outdoors.
This is the general premise that drives Colin Fisher’s Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago. A blend of social and environmental history, the book works to reconstruct how immigrants, African Americans, and the working class (broadly defined) sought out and interacted with nature in and around the city in the late Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and Depression. Its best (and most beautiful) parts channel a sense of wonder about Chicago’s natural world. The city has been characterized famously as rough-hewn—think Carl Sandburg’s “city of the big shoulders”—but it is also steeped in natural beauty. Fisher introduces us to the amateur naturalist Leonard Dubkin, a Ukrainian Jew who immigrated to Chicago’s West Side in 1907, and who never perceived his new home as a dirty, bleak place devoid of nature. Instead, he saw it filled with awe-inspiring environmental possibility and found nature everywhere in the city—not just in the parks or the forest preserves, but under bridges, in abandoned lots and resurrected landfills, and on top of buildings, where he could sit and watch the birds.
Fisher embarks on what he calls “a social history of nature,” exploring how everyday people like Dubkin who lived in the city’s heart—in some of the most dilapidated and squalid neighborhoods in the United States—found pleasure and meaning in nature. He shows us German and Irish immigrant workers enjoying their one day off (Sundays) drinking beer and playing games in city parks, and other immigrants congregating outdoors to celebrate Old World traditions and conjure dreams of their homeplace. We see the children of those same immigrants escaping the watchful eye of parents and authorities in Chicago’s vast network of public green space, where they cultivated new American identities. We find black people coming together to celebrate their collective past and forge racial solidarity in South Side parks, and labor radicals rallying crowds in parks and fields to chase their freedom dreams. In between are dozens of stories of Chicagoans forming both individual and collective relationships with the natural environment.
Fisher’s central argument is, then, that people without significant means or social capital, far from simply bending their backs to the drudgery of the industrial metropolis, enjoyed and made use of nature just as much as their more privileged counterparts. This makes intuitive sense and is a useful intervention. Scholarly analyses of outdoor recreation in these decades have mostly disregarded working-class leisure, and Fisher offers a necessary correction.
But, one wonders, is there a distinction to be made between people embracing nature and people doing things that happen to take place outdoors? The book doesn’t explore the possibility, for example, that radical political organizers held rallies and meetings in Chicago parks because they couldn’t get permits or permissions to hold them anywhere else, rather than because of a desire to be outside. Or that the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, an annual tradition in black Chicago, took place outside because the sheer number of people that its originators hoped to convene couldn’t fit anywhere else. Or that some people might have preferred to stay in the privacy of their own homes rather than venture outdoors, but that Chicago’s punishing political economy made their living conditions so crowded, dangerous, and miserable as to send them outside in search of something better. Or, perhaps most basically, that many of the leisure activities that people would have undertaken indoors (theatergoing, concerts, sporting events, etc.) cost money that many of Fisher’s subjects simply didn’t have.
These alternative explanations should not tarnish Fisher’s accomplishment. Urban Green is a fine social history of working-class recreation, illuminating much about the lives of turn-of-the-century Chicagoans, and many of its examples of people embracing nature for its own sake are illuminating.
But Fischer explicitly wants Urban Green to be useful in the present, so we must resist romanticizing working-class agency and discounting realities of social power and political economy. Fischer is clear that African Americans and immigrant families faced discrimination and exclusion. But the book sometimes reads as though they simply made the best of things despite such challenges.
Yet the truth is that many of them couldn’t, and still can’t. The costs of such exclusion were steep and self-perpetuating. And they weren’t created equal. This is especially true for black and Latinx communities who have not, like European immigrants and the white working class, successfully been absorbed into the fabric of American whiteness and been granted equal access to the city. Indeed, the racist bridling of what social theorist Henri Lefebvre famously called “the right to the city,” is an ugly subtext to Fisher’s story that should be better drawn out.
Consider this: in the 1920s and 30s, black people (kids especially) did, as Fisher argues, spend significant amounts of time outdoors, often in untraditional recreational areas. Surely, this was in part a matter of personal preference, but it was also a function of overcrowded housing and insufficient creative and recreational opportunities. Either way, they lay exposed to a social system that that was dominated by political officials and arbitrated by law enforcement agents, who saw black people as innately deviant, making them disproportionately likely to face erroneous arrest for public-order violations and juvenile delinquency. That is a story that stretched across the duration of the twentieth century, increasing in severity for both black and other minority populations. By 1966, Chicago was engulfed in two separate uprisings against police (one on the black Near West Side, the other in the Puerto Rican Paseo Boricua on Division Street), which were driven by the harassment and abuse of black and brown people out in Chicago’s public areas. The former was precipitated by police shutting down a fire hydrant that black children had opened on a particularly hot day in order to play in the street—which would, if we carried Fisher’s analysis forward thirty years, seem to fit within his vision of people enjoying nature.
This remains true today. We can think, for example, about young black and brown people playing games in an abandoned lot as them taking advantage of the natural world offered to them. But the reality is that those places are poor substitutes for the well-maintained playgrounds and rec centers that other children enjoy, and those kids are as likely as not to be treated as criminally suspect while at play.
Fisher closes with a call to use Urban Green as a vehicle for considering why we need environmental justice for cities like Chicago, now more than ever. In so doing, we need to be very careful about how much we romanticize this history. Then as now, when marginalized people embraced nature, they were, as often as not, in the grip of social and capital power that presented them with few other options.
Featured image: “Visual Interpretations of Pullman,” the mural on the north side of the Pullman National Monument Information Center in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood, originally laid out as the planned worker community for the Pullman Car Company. Photo by Jay Galvin, May 2017.
Simon Balto is Assistant Professor of History and Director of African American Studies at Ball State University. His writing has appeared in Time, the Washington Post, the Progressive, the Washington Spectator, and numerous other platforms. His first book, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2018. Twitter. Contact.