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  • Structuring Poverty in the Windy City: Autonomy, Virtue, and Isolation in Post-Fire Chicago by Joel E. Black
  • David Roediger
Structuring Poverty in the Windy City: Autonomy, Virtue, and Isolation in Post-Fire Chicago. By Joel E. Black (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2019) 259 pp. $55.00 cloth $24.95 paper

In this engaging and ambitiously researched contribution to urban history, public policy, and legal studies, Black carves out his topic with considerable independence of mind, bracketing a period around the calamity in its subtitle and the New Deal reforms and continuities with which Structuring Poverty closes. The 1871 Chicago fire functioned on this view much as disasters do in the writings of Klein, providing a “shock” that also creates opportunities for elites to rebuild environments and social relations from the ground, and to take their own planning roles still more seriously.1 The urgencies of rebuilding Chicago on a vastly greater scale turned especially on providing housing and on attracting labor, without assuming ongoing responsibilities for the fate of the latter during depressions, relocations, and personal tragedies.

Where poverty was concerned, the “Making of an Order,” as described in the book’s initial full chapter, involved a redeployment of (anti-) vagrancy laws long-standing in the Anglo-American tradition. It also created new discourses and institutions uniting the press, experts, and law in support of a putatively more efficient and more modern control of the poor. Coinciding with legal decisions protecting liberty of contract from state attention (however repressive) to a multiplicity of [End Page 164] circumstances, claims, and needs, the new order took shape in a highly uneven process over decades. Joblessness and homelessness specifically came to be more clearly described as deficiencies of those unable or unwilling to compete successfully. Not until more than three decades after the fire did a new system of municipal courts fill a void left by the police courts that had collapsed under the weight of corruption and chaos.

The book’s midsection contains its strongest three chapters, each organized around a keyword illuminating how the new order described subjects according to race and gender. The first keyword, autonomy, fit well within the regimes of contractual liberty to describe what poor white men had to embody in order to conquer poverty’s roots in their personalities and habits. Reform promised to save the men involved, rescuing them and their dependents from being without work and without adequate housing; some experts on poverty likened even tenement dwelling to homelessness. The subjects of reform, as excellent sections on hoboes and the Hobo College show, had their own ideas about the place of wage, work, and family in a good life.

Chapter 3 treats virtue as a keyword structuring approaches to the poor. It especially illuminates the regulation of unemployed women who looked for work, those who worked in waged jobs, and those who “fell” into sex work, whether full-time or in casual transactions to supplement inadequate pay in a city filled with tempting commodities. The fourth chapter details the new system’s strategy of isolation as a way to keep the allegedly polluting and degrading impacts of black migrants away from workplaces and neighborhoods—“quarantining” African Americans (in the great phrasing of Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake), even as it connected them to vice, disease, and criminality (101).

The last substantive chapter, “‘Gangster Tramps,’ Contracting Women, and the ‘New Negro,’” rehearses the breakdown of the post-fire order based on liberty of contracts, individual autonomy, idealized families, and municipal courts. Eventually the corruption and callousness of such courts succumbed to the forces of migration, women’s self-assertion, and collective resistance. The epilogue to Structuring Poverty sees the New Deal as emerging in part from this breakdown.

Amid the many threads that Black weaves into his new view of the fabric of poverty, one is conspicuously absent. Minimized are the visions of the left and of the labor movement regarding the relations between the poor and those who ruled. The general strike of 1877, the Haymarket events of 1886 (not to mention Parsons’ extraordinary writings about tramps and impoverished women), and the labor-politics experiments of the 1890s and...


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