Back of the Yards and the Ghosts of its Past
Mexican street vendor in Back of the Yards. Photo. A. Zavala
Every time I walk through the Back of the Yards neighborhood it reminds me a lot of the city of Zacapu, a city in the northwest part of Michoacán, Mexico.
The Back of the Yards area is just as poor, just as gritty and just as Mexican as Zacapu.
The faces I glance at along 47th Street, the main thoroughfare of this neighborhood, have the same stoic but ancient look to them as those in Zacapu. They are Indian faces that keep most of their thoughts and suffering to themselves.
It is easy to conclude as I walk through this part of the city that it has more of a past than it does a future.
The Back of the Yards area, so called because of the Union Stock Yards that were located here just north of 45th Street until they were closed in 1971, has gone through several transformations as if it were a mist that on some days disappears and turns into a bright sunny day and on some days, it turns into a rainy and downcast day.
On those gloomy days chances are that the ghosts of this historic neighborhood are taking a stroll thru its worn-down concrete streets.
This area began life not as part of Chicago but as a separate entity called the Town of Lake which was founded in 1865. It was nearly three-square miles in size.
However, as the city of Chicago expanded due to industrialization and the opening of the Union Stock Yards in 1879, the Town of Lake was annexed by Chicago ten years later in 1889.
Local residents agree, and outsiders as well, that the boundaries of Back of the Yards are Halsted on the east, 39th on the north, 55th street on the south and Leavitt Street on the west boundary.
After the town was annexed everyone started calling this neighborhood Packingtown due to the many packinghouses that were located in the area, next to the stock yards. Companies such as Continental Packing Co., Libby, McNeil & Libby Co., Nelson Morris Co., Swift and Co. and the Armour Packing Co. were all located here from 45th Street all the way to 41st Street east of Ashland Avenue.
These companies employed thousands of workers, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. Irish, German, Lithuanian and Czech butchers came from Europe to work on the killing floors of the Union Stock Yards.
According to the website Chicagology.com, which cites an article from 1907 published in Chicago the Great Central Market Magazine, the number of animals slaughtered almost daily at the Union Stock Yards were in the thousands.
“It was Monday; and 35,000 cattle, 50,000 hogs, 35,000 sheep, and 1,500 horses had been swallowed in the capacious maw of the yards since early Sunday evening,” according to that article.
But if Packingtown was prosperous for the owners of these companies, it wasn’t so for the thousands of workers who settled in Packingtown. They lived in overcrowded apartments on unpaved streets with alleys full of mud and garbage thrown about. Disease was often the result.
At the start of the 20th century began the arrival of workers other than Europeans. African Americans, fleeing the segregated South, came up North and many of them found work at the packing houses.
In the 1920s, due to the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution and a shortage of labor here due to expanding industrialization, Mexican workers began to arrive, too. They were mainly from the states of Guanajuato, Jalisco and Michoacán, as Robert Redfield, a famous University of Chicago anthropologist, found out when he did research on Mexican workers in Chicago in the 1920s.
Redfield found out that in the 1920s Mexicans concentrated in Brighton Park, near 28th Street and Kedzie; on Wentworth and 31 Street in what is now Chinatown. Also around Hull House on Halsted and Polk; and at Packingtown, near the University of Chicago Settlement House on 4630 S. Gross, a now non-existent street which became McDowell Street in 1936. Another Mexican enclave or “colonia”, as they were called by the Mexicans themselves, sprouted in South Chicago next to the steel mills.
One of those arrivals was my maternal grandfather Cristobal Magana, who came from Coeneo, Michoacán, with his wife Cecilia Tapia and his children Petra, Galdino and Victoria.
A customer exits a Mexican bakery on 47th Street in Back of the Yards. Photo. A. Zavala
They had come to the United States in 1919 but after Cristobal worked in Colorado and other states such as Ohio, he settled in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and went to work at the Armour Packing Co.
Victoria, my mom, was a year-old when they had crossed the border in 1919 and later when they arrived in Chicago in the mid-1920s she went to school in this neighborhood.
But as the meat-packing business became more diversified in the 1940s and 1950s and moved to other parts of the country, such as Texas and Nebraska, the local Union Stock Yards lost their grip on Chicago’s economy and on this historic ethnic neighborhood.
Nowadays Back of the Yards is at least 57 percent Latino, mostly Mexican, according to the last U.S. Census. Another 29 percent is African American, mostly on its southern edge. There are a few whites and even less Asians.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census a total of 44,377 people live here and most of them can be considered poor. The median income here is $25,647 a year.
As you walk along 47th Street you can expect to find an abundance of paleterias, often just two blocks from each other. You also find images of the Virgen of Guadalupe painted on fences and a string of beauty shops (called salones de belleza), taquerías, re-sale shops (called segundas in Spanish), and perhaps too many liquor stores.
One local bank announces with a large carboard sign “Aceptamos La Matricula Consular”, translation: we accept the Mexican Consulate issued ID card.
Over on Ashland Avenue one can find a large number of furniture stores, a giant Dollar Store, hardware stores, several supermercados and Mexican bakery shops.
A block long mural on Ashland Avenue proclaims “Planting seeds of hope, dreams and dignity”. I pause and take a picture of it.
Perhaps hope is indeed what is in short supply here and a lack of dreams, too, and both are needed to make this southwest side neighborhood flourish and make life better for its many residents.
Along the back wall of a building on McDowell Street is a large mural that calls on young people to forego gang violence. The “Think Life-Stop Gangbanging” mural lists at least 120 names of local youths who have lost their lives to street violence over the years.
But if the present looks bleak, this area, which later began a new makeover as New City, has plenty of local figures from its past to inspire local residents to do for themselves what the politicians often do not or cannot do for them.
Take Mary McDowell, for example, a local hero who ran the University of Chicago Settlement House she founded and ran from 1894 until 1929 when she retired at age 82.
According to LivingHistoryofIllinois.com, McDowell was an associate of another firebrand, Jane Addams, and was just as effective in bringing together the community to fight back.
McDowell fought for women suffrage, world peace during WWI, improved healthcare, defended the workers and pushed for honesty in government which today we call transparency.
She was also instrumental in cofounding the National Women’s Trade Union League, supported striking packinghouse workers and worked with all immigrants in Back of the Yards so that racial tensions would ease and not erupt into violence.
A commercial view of businesses on 47th Street. Photo: A. Zavala
The settlement, which consisted of an auditorium, a gymnasium and a three-story building, was also a center where Mexican workers and their families went to get help, attend English classes and learn leadership skills.
After she died in 1936 the settlement house was renamed after her and continued open until the 1970s when it was demolished. Gross Street became McDowell Street after she died.
Another local historical figure which today not too many may know about is Refugio Martínez, a Mexican labor organizer during the 1930s and 1940s who worked in Back of the Yards. A native of Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico, Martínez came to this country in 1924.
He worked at the Swift and Co. packinghouse until he was fired during the Great Depression. Due to his skills and heightened political awareness, he began working with the Unemployed Councils during the Great Depression.
He also worked with some local Mexican organizations of the time such as Frente Popular Mexicano, the Mexican Civic Committee and even with the University of Chicago Settlement House.
Perhaps his greatest work, according to the Illinois Labor History Society, was as an organizer with the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee starting in 1938 when he began organizing the workers at the Swift packing plant.
Later during the McCarthy era, he was targeted by the government and was deported in 1953. He died one day after arriving in Mexico at the age of 48.
His supporters had taken the fight to stop his deportation all the way up to the Supreme Court but lost that battle but his memory lingers on in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
Another historical figure local residents can be proud of, and perhaps learn a thing or two about organizing themselves, is Saul Alinsky, considered one of the best community organizers ever.
He spent the decade of the 1930s organizing in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. His method was to get people together to discuss the issues and then use direct action to pressure the big wigs. He then let the local residents manage their own organizations.
He was instrumental, along with Refugio Martínez, in unionizing the workers at the meat packinghouses at the Union Stock Yards which proved a historic victory for labor at the time.
He was also a key figure in getting the many diverse ethnic groups in Back of the Yards together, along with Joseph Megan, to form the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in 1939, which still exists to this very day.
At this group’s founding convention about 350 residents, representing 76 different organizations or groups, showed up and this long-standing community institution was born.
Alinsky continued to work in the Back of the Yards until 1940 when he left to organize African Americans in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. Later in the 1950s he went to other parts of the nation and had a chance to teach all he knew to a Chicano organizer named Cesar E. Chávez, who went on to found the United Farmworkers Union.
Today Back of the Yards has some serious problems that include unemployment, bad housing, gang violence and crime and a lack of recreational outlets.
Local leaders say they feel forgotten by the rich and powerful at City Hall and that their voices are never heard.
A hauntingly beautiful mural in an empty lot in Back of the Yards. Photo: A. Zavala
At the community level, some local residents do what they can to sell food services to other residents in the street in order to offset the unemployment that plagues this neighborhood, which it seems has dropped its high-sounding moniker of New City and proudly calls itself again Back of the Yards.
According to the area’s history, the term New City was applied to the area in the 1930s by the interns of the University of Chicago in order to dispel the bad reputation it had as Packingtown, an area that was widely polluted and covered with the constant stench from the Union Stock Yards.
A tamal vendor on 47th Street, whose name I’ll keep out of the story in order to protect him, said the area is plagued with robberies and armed assaults. One time a man tried to steal his car right in front of his eyes as he was attending a customer, he said.
“The police never do anything unless it’s a domestic violence case or there is a drunkard lying in the street, then you see a lot of squad cars,” complained the vendor.
He called Back of the Yards a no man’s land, not even a part of the United States unlike South Chicago where he lives. “Allá sí es parte de Estados Unidos,” he said. Down there, it is still part of the United States, he said.
Despite its problems Back of the Yards is a neighborhood that can rise from the ashes if it connects with its historic past. There are many good signs. There’s a new high school there, Back of the Yards College Prep, a new public library inside the same school; and the César E. Chávez Multicultural Arts Center.
Recently a new café opened there, which bodes well for business entrepreneurs who want to take a chance on a Mexican neighborhood called in Spanish El Barrio de las Empacadoras.
I’m sure that if Mary McDowell, Refugio Martínez or Saul Alinsky could see the neighborhood today they would say: “Don’t sit idle nor wait for City Hall to come and help you, get the people together and get organized! ¡Sí se puede!”
Planting seeds of hope with art on Ashland Avenue. Photo: A. ZAvala
Antonio Zavala is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago and writes about the people and neighborhoods of Chicago. He has a published book of short stories Pale Yellow Moon, available at Amazon.com and at the National Museum of Mexican Art store in Pilsen.