- Nature in “The Jungle”Ethnic Workers, Environmental Inequalities, and Subaltern Cultures of Nature in Chicago’s Packingtown
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest in the little window-sill gardens of the poor, though perhaps only a geranium slip in a broken cup.—John Muir, The Yosemite
Like Walden Pond, Manhattan’s Central Park, or Yosemite National Park, Chicago’s Packingtown is a common place for US environmental historians. The stockyards figure prominently in dozens of articles and monographs, including Nature’s Metropolis (1992), William Cronon’s seminal urban environmental history. Packingtown, or Back of the Yards as it was better known by residents, appears in environmental history textbooks as an important example of urban environmental inequality during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And each semester, professors of US environmental history classes ruin the lunches of thousands of undergraduates by reading passages directly from Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking classic, The Jungle.1
What more can we say about a place that has become a cliché of urban environmental blight and injustice? As I will show in this article, by moving beyond seeing residents as mere environmental victims and exploring how they actually responded to the industrial environment on the South Side of Chicago, we shed new light on the environmental [End Page 330] history of Chicago’s Packingtown and the environmental experience of industrial workers in general. As we will see, workers viewed places of leisure as a crucial antidote to an urban living and working environment that many found profoundly unnatural and alienating. Of particular interest to urban environmental historians is the fact that a surprisingly large number of residents found relief from the industrial milieu by escaping to green spaces: wilderness parks on the urban fringe, city parks, public beaches, commercial groves, riverbanks, and vacant lots. Like more-privileged Anglo Americans, many ethnic workers in Back of the Yards reacted to the urban environment by seeking out nature. But unlike middle-class Anglo Americans, who used the landscapes of “Nature’s Nation” to forge a hegemonic American identity, working-class residents on Chicago’s South Side used green spaces to imagine themselves as old-world villagers, citizens of diasporic nations, representatives of Chicago neighborhoods, and ultimately members of an industrial working class.
Environmental Historians and Back of the Yards
We know that since the Civil War, Chicago meatpackers profited by industrializing one of the world’s oldest forms of labor: the killing and butchering of animals. Railroads enabled meatpackers to exploit Chicago’s far-reaching hinterland. From short-and long-grass prairies formerly dominated by Native Americans and bison now came millions of domesticated animals that were sent via railcar to Chicago’s Union Stockyard, which at its largest was one square mile. Inside that square mile, meatpackers constructed stock pens that could hold tens of thousands of animals; laid out tracks and rail yards; and built killing floors, fertilizer plants, rendering facilities, glue factories, tanneries, and warehouses. It was a harsh, gray industrial environment designed to transform millions of living animals quickly and efficiently into commodities: steak, hairbrushes, bacon, fertilizer, canned meat, glue, lard, and dozens of other products.2
Environmental historians have also shown us that workers suffered meatpacking’s considerable environmental effects. Back of the Yards was notorious for being smelled before being seen. As Sinclair wrote, the neighborhood had a “strange, fetid odor . . . a ghastly odor, like all the dead things of the universe.”3 And we know that the smell was probably [End Page 331] the least dangerous environmental hazard in Back of the Yards. Flies bred prolifically at the fertilizer plants, in the stinking heaps of trash, and in decaying animal skins drying in “hair fields.” And there was smoke. Small, residential, coal-burning stoves and furnaces produced significant air pollution, but this was nothing compared to adjacent industry. The meatpackers’ furnaces and the coal-burning freight trains that ran on the rails that circled the neighborhood fouled the air. According to labor activist A. M. Simons, great...