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Reviewed by:
  • Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago, 1890–1919
  • Steven J. Hoffman
Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago, 1890–1919. By Robin F. Bachin ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 448 pp.).

In Building the South Side, Robin Bachin examines several aspects of urban development to explore the ways in which Chicago's public culture was shaped, debated and formed during the early twentieth century, and the ways in which those debates were reflected in the physical space of the city. By examining the development of the University of Chicago, the South Park system, Comiskey Park and the emerging Black Belt, Bachin investigates the ways in which contested cultural ideas are played out in the creation and use of local spaces, and offers a detailed examination of contending political and social values during the Progressive Era.

Bachin divides her study into three parts, each examining a discreet aspect of urban culture and public space. Focusing first on the creation of the University of Chicago campus, Bachin suggests that the built environment was consciously designed to promote elite ideals of order and cultural uplift. According to Bachin, the founders of the University of Chicago suggested that "the University could provide a new model of civic culture in Chicago,... one defined by the scientific pursuit of truth rather than by cultural uplift through the stewardship of commercial elites." (p. 31) Bachin, however, highlights the irony of the school's initial construction being entirely dependent upon the generous contributions of Chicago's business elites, noting that "the financing of the university illustrated the tensions and contradictions in some of its founding ideals and their implementation" because "rather than challenging the rise of commercialism in Chicago, the financing reflected the central role of corporate capital in promoting and defining culture in the city." (p. 31)

The contradictions and conflicts over the control of public culture and its implications for the built environment are evident throughout Bachin's account. In the case of the physical construction of the University of Chicago campus, for example, the ultimate design resulted from a compromise among competing perspectives on architectural style and building placement. In Bachin's analysis, "the link between Gothic architecture and moral values allowed Chicago's industrialists to divert attention away from their mercenary practices" at the same time that the "campus design also illustrated the segmentation and specialization of knowledge created by the modern research university." (p. 72) Bachin's purpose here is not so much to provide a detailed historical overview of the creation of the University of Chicago, although she does do that, but rather to show the ways in which contending elites held competing values whose ultimate resolution was reflected in both the built environment and the creation of a new [End Page 1231] public culture for Progressive-era America. In this endeavor, she is largely successful. In addition to exploring aspects of financing the University of Chicago, Bachin also looks at the contending public values over the role and function of the University during the Progressive era, particularly in the face of professors such as John Dewey, among others, who were arguing for greater engagement with the civic life of the community, particularly as it related to the settlement movement. Ultimately, however, "the emphasis on science and professionalism limited the kinds of public activities available to professors," and those professors had to find allies outside the university to enact their vision. In a spatial sense, though, the ascendancy of the kind of specialization and differentiation within the university that undermined the type of integration and discourse with public culture envisioned by Dewey "was inherent in the design of the institution, with each department occupying separate facilities, with its own libraries and laboratories." (p. 124) According to Bachin, the physical spaces actually built reflected the contending visions of their creators.

Bachin also examines how different perspectives on the use of public space manifested themselves in the development and subsequent use of the parks and playgrounds. Neighborhood parks became places for a multitude of uses satisfying the needs of a multitude of users. No longer simply places for urban residents to be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 1231-1233
Launched on MUSE
2006-07-11
Open Access
No
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