Sunday, July 30, 2006

Touring Chicago, Revisiting The Jungle

Touring Chicago, revisiting The Jungle
Sara Paretsky

2006 marks the centennial of the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Set in the meatpacking yards of Chicago, the novel described in unbearable detail the slaughter of livestock—13 million a year at the height of the yards’ activity—and the exhausting, debilitating work performed there by men and women and children trying to piece together enough money to live on.
Because of the centennial, Mayor Daley has proclaimed The Jungle the current “one city, one book” novel for Chicago. The book is filled with so much pain I found it hard to make it through certain sections of it. On the other hand, its publication stirred a national debate on working conditions and sanitation that ended up making major changes in some aspects of urban life. Chicago became the first city in America to provide clean drinking water to its residents, and The Jungle gave a big push to the unions trying to organize the people working there.
I recently had the chance to explore the Back of the Yards, or Packingtown, with Dominic Pacyga. Prof. Pacyga grew up there; he worked in the yards in their twilight years, and now he teaches urban and immigrant history at Columbia College in Chicago.
I’ve lived in Chicago for forty years, but I never had been in the Back of the Yards before. At the height of the Yards activity, the meatpacking plants were popular tourist attractions: as many tourists visited the stockyards as did the 1893 Worlds Fair. Americans couldn’t get enough of the majesty of their industrial machine; seeing 35000 animals killed in a day was proof of the power of the Industrial Age.
The houses in Packingtown today are the same ones Sinclair describes in the Jungle. Some time in the thirties or forties, new siding was slapped on and indoor plumbing built into the kitchens, with tiny bathrooms off to one side, to save the expense of running pipes throughout the buildings. Waves of immigrants have lived in these houses. Today’s population is mostly Mexican, but they’ve followed Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Irish. Only a few of the thirteen original Catholic churches remain. Built by eastern Europeans, they show Jesus sitting despondent with his head in his hands, weeping for humanity.
Most of the bars of the old Whiskey Row are gone, too—including the Lone Star, whose owner, Mickey Finn, invented the original Mickey Finn, the powder his bar girls put in drinks to knock out customers; they’d strip their patrons, then roll their unconscious bodies out into the alleys.
In the thirties, the smoke from the yards was so thick it could cloud the field at Comiskey Park a mile or so away. Mr. Pacyga says it’s an urban myth that games were cancelled because players couldn’t see the field—but the Sox choked on more than their bats back then.
The last of the stockyards in Chicago closed around 1970. They’d become obsolete in the age of refrigerated trucks and air cargo planes. Meatpackers now operate in anti-union states like North Carolina and Nebraska. Reading accounts of the speed at which people have to slaughter hogs in the Smithfield plant (http://www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/2741/ ) in North Carolina is like being right back in the Jungle.

40 comments:

ab said...

Thanks Sara, there is so much one doesn't know about the Chicago slaughter houses and their history.

For the animals - I am not a vegetarian and we need to eat, but I can't help but feel that killing animals in an industrial like Auschwitz manner dehumanizes us. We may not think about it very often, but we know it's going on. We could eat far less meat and treat and slaughter animals in another fashion and with more respect. The history of the slaughter houses is their story as well.

Libby Hellmann said...

Speaking of slaughtering, I wonder how many meatpackers followed the kosher method of slaughtering, which is supposed to be the most humane... ie one quick slice across the throat...

Anyway, the thought that keeps coming back to me -- in relation to The Jungle -- is the extraordinary power of words, at least 100 years ago. One book prompted intense debate and actually changed the course of history... for the better.

Can we still say that now? Or is there just too much "clutter"? Too many competing voices?

Thanks, Sara, for reminding us about
that power. I hope we use it wisely.

Sara Paretsky said...

thanks, Libby, and AB, for your comments. Sinclair Lewis was a vegetarian, which perhaps added urgency to his description of the yards. i do agree with you, AB, that those of us who continue to eat meat need to try to make sure we are eating animals cared for in humane conditions.
Libby, the one remaining slaughter house in Chicago is a Kosher one. The BBC, who sponsored the tour, wouldn't report on it, because the British think Kosher houses are the most inhumane possible, whereas Jews and Muslims, who follow the same slaughter rituals, believe it is more humane than hitting animals in the head with a mallet.
How can we know? I always think it would be more moral to give up meat, but am not ready to make that step!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

There is some symmetry, I think, to the fact that this is also the year Chicago banned foie gras.

Mary Alice Gorman said...

Thanks, Sara, for your info.........very much to the time.
The choice of "The Jungle" is a good one,I think, for community discussion.
In an earlier life, I taught this book in High School........back in the day when teachers could do that. I remember my seniors talking about how the words affected them and their wish that they could write something that would move the hearts and minds of people and create awareness.
Now more than ever we need to be reminded that the overwhelming deceit in political leadership should not stop our hearts and minds.
Thanks, mary alice and mystery lovers

ab said...

Sara and Libby, you've brought up this serious question: Is there a common arena anymore? Can there be another "Silent spring"? It's not just the clutter I think, it´s the direction a great deal of the media are taking into some foggy jungle of indifference and stupidity, which ill prepares young people (or any people) for important discussions, giving them the sense that they count. I suppose what we need is a new Silent spring that kicks our own backsides, kicks courage and streetsmartness and a solid conviction and fighting spirit into intellectuals.

Libby Hellmann said...

Interesting thread... What about "An Inconvenient Truth"? Although film just doesn't seem to have the same "staying power" the the written word does... And it hasn't triggered the same kind of emotion that Silent Spring did... sad to think that the one book that has (the Da Vinci Code, and yes, I realize it was a mystery) was fabricated.

Maybe we're all just too jaded.

ab said...

Michael Moore says liberals don't fight hard enough. Writers put important stuff in their books all right, and I wouldn't like a world without that. But do we lack backbone as a "community"? I see the couregous ones out there. I am in Europe, so I only see the American scene from afar. Closer than I'd like to, though, I see the Patriot Act example influence my own government. And the resistance is sort of spread out with no core. Yes, I think we are jaded to some extent!

Sara Paretsky said...

Libby, AB, we're fragmented into so many "market segments," that we don't seem to have community any more. The fanatics do, in that they go to a churc/mosque/temple that preaches what they all believe and fans the flames.
I worked hard with Planned Parenthood and NOW in the 2004 election cycle, and one of the problems that people who aren't fanatics face is--where do you get everyone together to talk about the issues that concern us? The Radical Right in the U.S. has used the churches very effectively for that, skating very close to the edge, if not over it, of violating their tax-exempt status in endorsing Republican candidates who are homophobic and against reproductive choice. We tried to work on campuses, but that's a much looser less coherent community.
Everyone on all sides of the spectrum realizes that cable TV means people pick and choose viewpoints that they already agree with. The problem comes in the fact that the Right owns 2 radio conglomerates, that control 80 percent of the AM frequencies throughout the country, so that outside major metropolitan areas, people get only William Bennet and Rush Limbaugh's take on the world. 38 percent of Americans get ALL their news from Fox, which tells you what they're hearing.

In other ways==look at how people sitting together in restaurants, walking side-by-side down the street, are on cellphones, isolating themselves from each other. The other morning I was in a public washroom. A woman in the adjacent stall changed her toddler, used the toilet herself, all while carrying on an animated conversation at top volume.

Don't know the answer, but think we're seeing the problem. The SILENT SPRING wouldn't have the punch today, because we're all looking at tiny fragments of the world.

Sara Paretsky said...

by the way, I said "sinclair Lewis" when I meant Upton Sinclair; I edited it in the original post, but couldn't see how to edit it in the comments.

ab said...

Sara,

I had hoped you would tell me there IS a well-functioning humanistic community in the US, that I am all wrong and that you have arenas and channels.

Still, your nation is the nation Franklin Roosevelt had difficulty dragging into WWII. And a lot of people, including victims, felt alienated by the silly one-eyed rethorics after 9/11. So there must be a strong humanistic streak in there. I get the feeling people both in the US and here want to speak up and object but are feeling discouraged and ill at ease. They seem to feel there is t point or hope for success.

And surely fragmentation is a great part of the problem. As well as a consequence, I think. Fanatics have it easy, as you say, because they have their religious places and they do not have to think about options or question anything. Maybe we need Humanistic Centers in every city, places for education and discussion?

Fanatics are good at turning their heads and hearts off and channel personal frustration into hostile politics. But turning your head and heart off is not a natural thing for human beings.

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