Touring Chicago, revisiting The Jungle
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.