More than 75% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, and it is estimated that 1/3 will live in slums. As urbanists of all stripes consider the consequences of these changes, I’m finding it helpful to recall the history of urban industrialization in the U.S. In the span of 100 years – possibly one person’s lifetime – a remarkable transformation has taken place here. But it is perhaps too easy for us to forget the tenements, terrible working conditions, and environmental degradation of our past. As we preach to industrializing countries and decry the sins of zoning (segregation of land uses leading to sprawl), we should take time to reflect on the conditions that existed in American cities at the turn of the last century. This passage from Robert Gottlieb’s Forcing the Spring (pp. 64-65, 1st edition, 1993) stands out:
Settlement reformers first became involved with the conditions in “Packingtown,” as the stockyards community was known, through the establishment of a settlement house at the University of Chicago near the stockyards. This settlement house was headed by the ersatz “garbage lady,” Mary McDowell. In her new location, McDowell was immediately appalled at the back-of-the-yards environment and sought to develop what one reform publication characterized as a “neighborhood consciousness” about the surrounding area.
In this small, dense, urban neighborhood was an extraordinary mix of environmental hazards. It was bounded on the north by the stagnant backwater of the South Fork of the Chicago River, where putrefying refuse filled in the river bed and formed “long, hideous shoals along the bank.” The decaying organic matter released quantities of carbonic acid gas, which continually broke through the “thick scum of the water’s surface,” causing this section of the river to be named “Bubbly Creek.” To the west lay the city’s garbage dumps, four huge holes from which the clay had been dug for neighboring brickyards. These vast, open pits were fed daily by horse-drawn wagons carrying trash from throughout the city. This included waste from the packers that was then burned, creating a permanent stretch of fire surrounded by a moat to keep it from spreading. To the east was vacant land used as “hair fields,” containing animal hair and other incidental slaughterhouse wastes that putrefied while drying. And, finally, to the south lay open prairie. Without paved streets, without trees, grass, or shrubbery, with no sewer connections or regular trash pickup, and with its densely polluted air and powerful odors, Packingtown had become an urban environmental catastrophe by the turn of the century. “No other neighborhood in this, or perhaps in any other city, is dominated by a single industry of so offensive a character,” wrote two settlement figures in 1911.
Upton Sinclair was a regular visitor at McDowell’s Northwest Settlement, and his experiences there informed his book on life in the stockyards community, The Jungle, published in 1906 (Gottlieb, 1993).