- Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago by Brian McCammack
"Black Chicago" may well be the most-studied (some say over-studied) African-American community in the United States. The fascinating blend of environmental and cultural-history methods in Landscapes of Hope shines new and exciting light on the so-called Black Belt, forcing us to look again at what we thought we knew so well. In this work, McCammack's deft attention to the making and imagining of "natural" and landscaped environments on Chicago's greater South Side brings exciting new approaches to both urban and environmental studies.
Instead of telling the expected story of black struggle with environmental injustice or simply collecting a series of African-American musings about "nature," McCammack offers a literal landscaping of the modern Black experience. He includes all of the usual sites of examination in his study—southern farms, urban toil in slaughterhouses, racial conflict in Washington Park, and pleasurable release along Chicago's famed leisure district "The Stroll." But McCammack examines these well-known venues for their spatial qualities and the meaning of their physical dimensions to demonstrate the ways in which Black Chicagoans thought about and shaped their environments to make themselves over as modern. This is an important project!
Alongside the places to which every student of Chicago turns, Landscapes of Hope also visits new corners of the metropolitan experience. McCammack's deep archival analysis and close readings of resorts and camps on the "margins" of what most of us understand as an urban experience are particularly striking. We learn much from the adventures and adversities that African Americans faced at ymca, ywca, and Boy Scouts summer camps; the Cook County Forrest Preserves; and the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps. Building resorts and engaging in leisure practices in semirural spaces like Michigan's Lake Idlewild were central to how African-Americans understood themselves as black, made sense of their class position, and physically navigated the Midwestern metropolis, especially given migrants' contested and ambivalent relationship to land in the Jim Crow South. This book nicely complements other works, such as Andrew Kahrl's The Land was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South (Chapel Hill, 2016) and Colin Fisher's Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago (Chapel Hill, 2015). Landscapes of Hope stands, however, as one of the first studies [End Page 512] to place urban parks and nightlife alongside semirural summer and work camps in a study of Black environmental and urban history.
Landscapes of Hope offers three key interventions. First, it brings together environmental justice and African-American history in ways that move beyond a focus on environmental racism. Second, its mapping of environmental experience continues the push of urban studies along the path of considering rural and semirural landscapes as central to its field of study. Third, it provides cultural history not only with a new set of materials but also with a new analytical tool kit for recovering meaning from a racialized urban life. It presents the city park, the resort, the youth camp, and the ccc work camp as sites for understanding personal desire, collective community building, social conflict, and race in the interwar urban north. Hopefully, environmental historians will hear its subtle call for race to become central to any treatment of environmental inequality and environmental experience in general. This powerful project is more than just a study of "Black Chicago" or of a particular community. Although it certainly succeeds as a deep local history, it also demonstrates how broad and deep histories of space and the built environment can inform us about the making of place, race, power, and everyday life in different ways.
McCammack's use of Richard Wright as a reoccurring voice throughout is relatively effective, though not so much his use of Wright as a sort of omniscient voice given what could be seen as Wright's adversarial position against much of the landscape that animates this text. Other literary...