The following prose was a piece originally written for the South Side Weekly by the author of this blog.
Long before I moved to Back of the Yards, I was familiar with the neighborhood’s history as Chicago’s meatpacking district. In high school, I was introduced to Carl Sandburg’s poetry, in which the neighborhood earned Chicago the title of “hog butcher for the world.” I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the iconic and gruesome novel about a Lithuanian immigrant’s struggles as a packinghouse worker at the turn of the twentieth century. This is the lens through which most outsiders view the neighborhood: an apex of class struggle and humiliation. A community dwarfed by the stench of factories, stockyards, and slaughterhouses. And in a more contemporary sense, a neighborhood rife with gang violence.
The name “Back of the Yards” refers to the community area including and surrounding what was once the Union Stockyards—and is today known as the “Stockyards Industrial Park”—but it’s important to note that the neighborhood is larger than that. Back of the Yards goes from Halsted to Western and from Pershing to Garfield. In the early 1900s, the neighborhood was primarily populated by immigrants of various European backgrounds who came to work at the stockyards. The neighborhood underwent a number of demographic changes starting with African Americans from the South arrived in Chicago, as part of the Great Migration, and Mexican immigrants started settling in the neighborhood as the descendants of the earlier European immigrants started moving out to the suburbs.
The first time I visited the neighborhood, it was 2009 and I was filming a documentary about its history. I approached this visit with the aforementioned mindset, but was quickly introduced to a much broader sense of what the community is all about, and what is so frequently missing in the outside narrative of struggle—the response, the organizing, and the ceaseless determination.
Several years ago, I interviewed Les Orear, a former packinghouse worker and a founder of the Illinois Labor History Society. He told me that, despite the segregation in the neighborhood, individuals from every single ethnic and racial background could be found at union hall meetings. Thirty years prior to this country’s Civil Rights Movement, workers of all races could be seen going on strike together, marching together and holding signs that read “Black and White: Unite & Fight!” At a time of racial tension and riots, Back of the Yards set a precedent for unity in the face of greater adversity.
The neighborhood today can be summarized as a small world in a big city. Everyone knows someone who knows someone else. Everyone knows the boundaries, too: both the physical ones—the streets, the viaducts—and the ones that are imagined, but nonetheless real. Which turf belongs to which gang. Which portion of the neighborhood is predominantly Mexican, and which is predominantly African American. But just as they were in the neighborhood’s past, the continued struggles of today’s Back of the Yards are marked by activism and collective organizing by numerous residents and organizations. These stories don’t always make the news, but they’re important to mention because they’re a continuation of efforts that have had an impact on the city and the country. The volunteers who coach kids’ soccer teams to keep them out of trouble in the summertime, the traditional dance group that won several national championships while promoting Mexican culture, the entrepreneur who rehabbed a previously vacant warehouse and now uses it as an indoor farm for the community—these efforts might be part of an uphill battle, but they have meaning.
For decades, Back of the Yards has been a launching pad for incoming migrants and immigrants. Even my own family is emblematic of this: I’m a transplant from Wisconsin, and my husband is a Mexican immigrant. For us, it’s important that we not only consider the history of our neighborhood, but we honor it by continuing the tradition of standing up to adversity and connecting with others around us. We never lose faith. The fight must continue.