Richard J. Daley: A Separate World

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An excerpt from "American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley — His Battle for Chicago and the Nation" by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor

Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Even by the standards of turn-of-the-century Chicago, Daley's neighborhood was a grim place. It was Chicago's first slum, known in its early days by the evocative name Hardscrabble. It was settled in the 1830s and 1840s by the Irish "shovelmen" who built the nearby Illinois & Michigan Canal, many working for whiskey and a dollar a day. The area was renamed Bridgeport in the 1840s, when a bridge was built across the Chicago River at Ashland Avenue, forcing barges to unload on one side and reload on the other. When the canals were completed, Bridgeport's dirty work of canal-building gave way to the even less savory trade of animal slaughter. Chicago killed and prepared for market much of the livestock raised in the farm states surrounding it. Leading the nation in slaughterhouses, it was truly — as Carl Sandburg observed — "hog butcher for the world."

In the mid-1800s, Chicago slaughterhouses were being forced out of the congested downtown, and they found the vast expanses south of Bridgeport an ideal place to relocate. The area had sweeping tracts of open land, and a steady supply of water from the Chicago River available to use in the slaughtering and treatment processes. It was also near railroad tracks, which meant that once the cattle arrived from the countryside, they would not need to be led through the city streets on their way to the slaughter. In 1865, several slaughterhouses that once operated in downtown Chicago combined to form the Union Stock Yards, an enormous collection of meat-processing plants that dominated the area just south of Bridgeport.

Union Stock Yards in Chicago
The Union Stock Yards in Chicago, 1899. Click here for the full panoramic photograph.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Upton Sinclair, whose novel The Jungle exposed the horrific world of the Chicago slaughterhouses, captured the unsavory surroundings in which Daley grew up. There were "so many cattle no one had ever dreamed existed in the world," Sinclair wrote. "The sound of them here was as of all the barnyards of the universe; and as for counting them — it would have taken all day simply to count the pens."

Young Daley used to watch as the animals were driven down Archer Avenue to their demise, and he and his friends would gawk at the remnants that showed up in Bubbly Creek. Thousands of Daley's neighbors labored in the slaughterhouses, their workdays an uninterrupted assembly line of killing. Pigs with chains around their hind legs were hooked to a spokeless wheel, which hoisted the squealing animals into the air and carried them by overhead rail across the length of the building, where a man covered in blood cut their throats by hand. The blood that drained out was collected for use as fertilizer. Then the hog, often still squirming with life, was dropped into a vat of boiling water. Cattle were treated no better. It was hard, dispiriting work. Daley's neighbors were the workers Sinclair told of, those who fell prey to the chemicals used to pickle meats, which caused "all the joints" of their fingers to "be eaten by the acid, one by one." Coming of age in this violent world, Daley was robbed of any illusions early.

As its original name suggested, Bridgeport was a hardscrabble place. The neighborhood's earliest residents had lived in wooden shanties along the Chicago River that sank into the muddy soil of the riverbank. It was a wild region, where wolves ran free in the early years of Daley's childhood. The predominant form of housing, after residents gained the wherewithal to move beyond wooden shanties, was the humble "bungalow," a staple of working-class Chicago architecture. These long and narrow houses, or "shotgun-shacks," were a big step up from the squalid accommodations along the river, but they were still cheap housing for people who could not afford better. These small bungalows, on not-much-larger lots, were usually home to large immigrant families that would have been crowded in twice the space. Years after Daley was elected mayor, his wife would recall the cramped conditions of her childhood bungalow, in a neighborhood adjoining Bridgeport. "There were 10 children in our family and we only had one bathroom but somehow we all managed," Sis Daley told a newspaper reporter cheerfully.

Bridgeport was, as much as any neighborhood in Chicago, a world apart. It lay on the geographical fringes of the city, five miles from downtown, on land that had only recently been incorporated. And it was separated on all sides by imposing barriers: the Chicago River to the north, the stockyards to the south, Bubbly Creek to the west, and wide railroad tracks — and then a black ghetto — to the east. Ethnic groups had divided Chicago according to an unwritten peace treaty.

Germans settled on the North Side, Irish on the South Side, Jews on the West Side, Bohemians and Poles on the Near Southwest Side and Near Northwest Side, and blacks in the South Side Black Belt.

Bridgeport was more diverse than most Chicago neighborhoods: it was home to several different white Catholic immigrant groups. But this only meant that Bridgeport was itself divided into ethnic enclaves.

Most of its Poles were concentrated in northwest Bridgeport, west of Halsted Avenue, the traditional boundary line between Irish and non-Irish Bridgeport. Lithuanians also lived predominantly in the northwest, with Morgan Street separating them from the Poles.

Germans and Bohemians were more spread out, but they too stayed mainly on the non-Irish side of Halsted. It is a reflection of how ethnically divided Bridgeport was that in 1868 the "index of dissimilarity" — the most commonly used measure of residential segregation — between its Lithuanians and Irish was .96, indicating almost complete separation. In turn-of-the-century Bridgeport, a block or two meant a world of difference.

Tom Donovan, who would later become Daley's patronage chief, grew up at 39th and Lowe Avenue, only a few blocks from Daley's home at 35th and Lowe. But it was one parish over — Saint Anthony's, rather than Nativity of Our Lord — so, Donovan insisted, "I didn't grow up in his neighborhood." Even Bridgeport's Irish were divided up into sub-neighborhoods: the north-west Bridgeport Irish; the Dashed Irish, who lived along upper Union Avenue, once named Dashed Avenue; the Canaryville Irish, who lived in the marshy far-south end of the neighborhood; and, just north of Canaryville, the little rectangle of land around Nativity of Our Lord Church known as Hamburg.

Daley's deepest loyalties were to this small Irish-Catholic village-within-a-village. Hamburg was no more than a few square blocks, stretching from 35th Street down to the stockyards at 39th Street, and bounded by Halsted Avenue on the west and the railroad tracks along Wentworth Avenue on the east. Its major institution was Nativity, which like all Catholic churches of the time was as much a center of communal life as a place of worship. Archbishop James Quigley, who led the Chicago Archdiocese from 1903 to 1915, had decreed that "a parish should be of such a size that the pastor can know personally every man, woman, and child in it," and this was certainly the case in tiny Nativity Parish. The annual parish fair — which featured gambling games, booths selling oyster stew, and a Hibernian band playing in the corner — was almost a family gathering.

Hamburg also had an array of secular institutions tying its residents together. The 11th Ward offices, headquarters of one of the most important units of the city's powerful Democratic machine, were located on Halsted Avenue at 37th Street. Directly across Halsted was the neighborhood saloon, Schaller's Pump, which many said was the real headquarters of the 11th Ward Democrats. Young residents had an institution of their own, the Hamburg Athletic Club, a combination of sports club, adjunct to the political machine, and youth gang. Hamburg was a tight little world inhabited by people who shared a religion, an ethnicity, and a common set of values, and who were mistrustful of those who lacked these bonds. Though it was in the middle of a large city, Hamburg was "not only a separate neighborhood, but . . . a separate world — a small town on a compact . . . scale."

By one well-established formulation, a neighborhood is a "place to be defended." For all its seeming solidity, Irish-Catholic Hamburg was already in decline even at the time of Daley's birth. Nativity Parish was losing congregants, declining from 2,800 to 1,200 in the early years of the century, and beginning to encounter financial troubles. Throughout Daley's childhood, other ethnic groups were growing in size and drawing closer to Hamburg: formerly Irish Lawler Avenue, a mere four blocks west of Daley's childhood home, was renamed "Lithuanica" as the Lithuanian population around it grew. Mr. Dooley, the fictional creation of the great Irish-American journalist Finley Peter Dunne, expressed Bridgeport's fears of being engulfed by fast-encroaching ethnic rivals. In Dunne's columns in the Chicago Daily News, Mr. Dooley was the Irish-born keeper of a Bridgeport saloon. In 1897, five years before Daley's birth, Mr. Dooley was already bemoaning the fact that "th' Hannigans an' Leonidases an' Caseys" were moving out to greener pastures, "havin' made their pile," and "Polish Jews an' Swedes an' Germans an' Hollanders" had "swarmed in, settlin' on th' sacred sites."

The most telling sign of Bridgeport's "change an' decay," Mr. Dooley said, was the selection of "a Polacker" to tend the famous "red bridge," which joined Bridgeport to the rest of the city, thereby placing control of the neighborhood in the hands of a non-Hibernian. It was the rising tide of black immigration, though, that Bridgeporters found most worrisome. Daley's youth coincided with the start of an unprecedented migration, as southern blacks moved north to take industrial jobs in the Northeast and Midwest. Most of the blacks flooding into Chicago were settling in the South Side Black Belt, just a few blocks east of Bridgeport, and the ghetto was always threatening to move closer.

By the time Daley was born, many Bridgeporters had decided that their tough little neighborhood, with its workaday bungalows and slaughterhouse ambience, was best left to the new ethnic groups that were engulfing it on all sides. Irish residents of Hamburg who had the money — like Mr. Dooley's Hannigans, Leonidases, and Caseys — were already moving out to more attractive and prestigious neighborhoods where the lawns were larger and the air did not smell of blood. But despite all sense and logic, Daley's family, and later Daley himself, remained intensely loyal to their small Irish-Catholic village. Daley never moved out and, it might be said, he spent a lifetime defending it.


Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Copyright © 2000 by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of Click here for ordering information for "American Pharaoh" at