City Limits


The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s, by Alan Ehrenhalt, New York: Basic Books, 310 pages, $24.00

I was born in Chicago, as the song made famous by Paul Butterfield goes, and grew up around Clybourn and Ashland, near the Tavern Pail Brewery. My neighborhood best could be described as industrial-residential, with brick two-flats, workingmen's rooming houses, and tar-shingled frames sharing space with the tanneries along the river, the Medill incinerator, big factories like Stewart-Warner and Appleton Electric, and innumerable small machine shops and tool-and-dies. Chicago's last public bath house–many houses and apartments in the neighborhood lacked tubs or showers–was located on my street, Marshfield, named after Marshall Field I, who developed the area. There were three Catholic churches–St. Josephat, St. Bonaventure, and St. Alphonsus–within a few blocks of my grandparents' two-flat (we lived in the second-floor apartment), and each ran a good-sized elementary school.

As a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, I loved this neighborhood. It was a close-knit ethnic enclave populated by lots of what Michael Novak calls PIGS–Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Slavs–and a smattering of southern whites, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans. The only blacks lived several blocks away at the Julia Lathrop Homes, Chicago's oldest public-housing project. Mine was a union neighborhood–my father was a member of Local 753 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters–which in the 1950s and 1960s meant rising wages. The area was safe and, allowing for the usual industrial toxins and carcinogens, pretty clean.

I did well in school and, unlike most of the kids in the neighborhood, went to college and, afterward, even to graduate school. Sometime in the mid-1970s, a graduate-school friend–an Ohio bank president's son who had gone to Harvard as an undergraduate–spent a few days with me and my parents while he was in Chicago on a research trip. The main thing, really the only thing, I recall about his visit was how surprised–astonished even–he was by the street life in my neighborhood: He just couldn't get over the front-stoop sitting, small-lawn watering, handshaking, bearhugging behavior of all the Stanislaus, the Attilios, the Christos, and the Boschkos on Marshfield, each of whom we had to stop and talk to every time we made our way up or down the block. To my upper-bourgeois friend, this was a world he had never experienced or perhaps even known about, not one that he had lost.

The journalist Alan Ehrenhalt does know about this world, however, and he renders it well in his provocative new book The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s. In so doing, he issues perhaps the strongest statement yet in behalf of the communitarian/civil society critique of what he calls the "hyperindividualism" said to be characteristic of life in America today. Indeed, it would not be unfair to say that social criticism is Ehrenhalt's main point all along. From this perspective, his portrait of Chicago in the 1950s, however careful and loving, is merely a means to an end, an attempt, as it were, to shed light on what he considers our present predicament.

Over the past 35 years, argues Ehrenhalt, hyperindividualism has caused social breakdown in the United States. Specifically, he argues, "The worship of choice has brought us a world of restless dissatisfaction, in which nothing we choose seems good enough to be permanent and we are unable to resist the endless pursuit of new selections–in work, in marriage, in front of the television set. The suspicion of authority has meant the erosion of standards of conduct and civility, visible most clearly in schools where teachers who dare to discipline pupils risk a profane response. The repudiation of sin has given us a collection of wrongdoers who insist that they are not responsible for their actions because they have been dealt bad cards in life. When we declare that there are no sinners, we are a step away from deciding that there is no such thing as right and wrong."

For Ehrenhalt, the solution is a return or reactivation of a sense of moral limits, limits derived from and endorsed and upheld by vibrant neighborhood communities not unlike those that flourished (just east of Eden) in Chicago during the 1950s.

By now, of course, this sort of critique has become something of a commonplace, and licentious baby boomers wantonly pursuing unlimited choice at the expense of community, order, and authority are now objects of parody, if not obloquy in some circles. To be sure, much of the communitarian carping by the chattering classes can be dismissed summarily. Hillary Rodham Clinton's fatuous It Takes a Village comes immediately to mind in this regard. Communitarian arguments mounted by serious social critics such as the late Christopher Lasch, Mary Ann Glendon, Robert D. Putnam, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Ehrenhalt cannot be treated similarly, for they raise truly important questions about the social and moral costs of freedom in the post-communist, vaguely Fukayamish 1990s. Furthermore, unlike some of the writers mentioned above, Ehrenhalt not only raises such questions, but also tries to answer them, in this case through empirical research in urban history.

In fact, the power of The Lost City derives in large part from a brilliant rhetorical conceit employed by the author: The book is built around detailed portraits of three distinct and distinctive Chicago-area communities in the 1950s, with brief, depressing looks at each of these communities again in the 1990s. Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing magazine, and author of The United States of Ambition, a well-regarded 1991 work on what might be called the American politiciate, is a gifted prose stylist, with broad sympathies and a tight story line. He also knows a thing or two about Chicago, and has chosen his target communities well.

The three areas studied reflect both the diversity of Chicago in the 1950s and the degree to which the city's diverse peoples shared certain core values, assumptions, and behaviors. To Ehrenhalt, the white, blue-collar ethnics on Chicago's southwest side, the African Americans in the teeming Bronzeville ghetto on the south side, and the middle-class whites who homest eaded in the mud-filled, tree-bare subdivisions of Elmhurst, 15 miles to the west of the Loop, differed in many ways, but not in their belief in limits, desire for order, respect for authority, and faith in community.

For the "bungalow people" of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish on the southwest side, for example, the 1950s was about loyalty to kith and kin and about stable factory jobs, about a plethora of local institutions and about fealty to Chicago's Democratic pols. And most of all it was about acceptance of limits and limitations in a patriarchal order seemingly ordained by God.

Limits and limitations were even more apparent in Bronzeville. Indeed, there is no gainsaying the fact that most residents of this area, a city within a city really, lived economically pinched, politically squeezed, and socially and culturally constricted lives. Yet even amid the filth and squalor, Bronzeville residents, many of whom had recently migrated from the South, found reason for hope. For unlike the generally forlorn and desolate situation in the area today–several of the poorest and most socially dysfunctional census tracts in the nation are located in the area–Bronzeville was a viable community in the 1950s, replete with institutions and individuals that fostered or at least represented upward mobility.

How else, Ehrenhalt asks, can one describe a community that in the 1950s boasted institutions like the Chicago Defender, the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, and the annual Bud Billiken parade? Or remarkable people such as political leaders William L. Dawson and Earl Dickerson, the Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, Nat King Cole, and Lorraine Hansberry? About limits, Bronzeville residents knew much in the 1950s. They were confident, nonetheless, that with faith, resolve, and community there existed more than a touch of hope or a dash of possibility.

Hope and possibility, of course, were what the new middle-class subdivisions of Elmhurst and other Chicago suburbs were built upon. In the 1950s, however, hope and possibility were ameliorist rather than utopian concepts, and the 15-mile trek to Elmhurst didn't relieve migrants of their sense of limits and restraints, much less transform them into libertines. If Ehrenhalt suggests that suburbanization of the white bourgeoisie was a necessary precondition for the moral chaos of our times, the process was insufficient just the same. Residents in the new subdivisions of Elmhurst valorized and promoted authority, order, limits, and conformity, albeit in different ways than did the people living in Bronzeville or in St. Nicholas of Tolentine. Elmhurst was a cuffed-pants, button-down town in the 1950s, not yet ready, it seems, for bell-bottom, fly-away days.

Both in Elmhurst and, even more, in the two other communities examined in The Lost City, life in the 1950s was about boundaries and constraints–"the limited life" is Ehrenhalt's preferred phrase–so unlike the let-it-all-hang-out era of gluttony and excess that in his view began in the 1960s. During the crowded years of the 1950s, there was still a rough consensus about cultural norms, public behaviors, and moral conventions, and most, though certainly not all, Chicagoans flourished as a result. Chicago–the "I will" city "that works"–thrived too, with safe streets, decent schools, and stable communities.

The city thrived, says Ehrenhalt, because there were clear rules and rulers in the 1950s. However arbitrary and even unjust the rules and rulers may have been at times, they charted a more or less decent course for people to follow and, in so doing, significantly increased human happiness and reduced moral confusion and uncertainty.

Central to Ehrenhalt's main argument is the idea that we could use a lot more 1950s-style rules and maybe even rulers today. To demonstrate this point, we need only look at the human waste, the hellish schools and streets, and the "unravelled" communities in contemporary Chicago.

While well-crafted and attractive in its evocation of tight-knit neighborhoods, The Lost City is nonetheless unconvincing. It romanticizes the virtues of gemeinschaft communities while downplaying or ignoring altogether the vices of such places. It is particularly difficult to buy Ehrenhalt's key assumptions: that America in the 1990s is drowning in a sea of freedom, and that most Americans, if pressed, would both prefer and be better off with fewer choices, more clear-cut moral and social guidelines, and greater respect for authority, broadly conceived.

Indeed, it pays to be skeptical about both Ehrenhalt's assumptions regarding American values and his interpretation of history. For starters, moral responsibility is as easily eroded as instilled by power and coercion. Authoritarianism, whether exercised at the federal level or at the local-machine level (as it was practiced in Chicago during the '50s), works against community and involvement in fairly obvious ways: Individuals assume that everything is someone else's problem, that the government is taking care of it (whatever "it" might be). Top-down control also makes social organizations less flexible and open. When order is maintained by doling out favors and patronage, new developments and newcomers are inevitably seen in negative terms. Such systems, which must ultimately crush dissent and unauthorized activity or risk being undermined, find it almost impossible to regenerate themselves in new and different situations.

Ehrenhalt, though, clearly prefers stability over opportunity. This predilection causes him to simultaneously misrepresent the causes, effects, and pace of change . The single biggest factor causing change not just in Chicago but throughout postwar America was a booming economy that enriched most families. Relatively poorer people have a solidarity borne out of a lack of options; once they get richer, they buy more flexibility in where they shop, where they live, and who they associate with. Throughout the '50s and '60s, people poured out of cities not because of some newly developed hyperindividualism but because they could finally afford to.

The neighborhood stability Ehrenhalt romanticizes in The Lost City is largely an artifact of the author's method: He takes snapshots frozen in time rather than following the constantly evolving lives of individuals–and communities–over time. To some–the people who lived in Elmhurst before Chicagoans began streaming in, for example–the '50s represented not community building, but unwanted upheaval and community decline. Moreover, social transformation is often less linear and certainly less predictable than Ehrenhalt insinuates. My own neighborhood in the early and mid-'70s was not so different from what it was in the '50s. It then plummeted sharply in the late '70s and early '80s, but since then has come back strongly and is now becoming increasingly gentrified.

Bronzeville's decline since the 1950s can in some ways be viewed as a byproduct of the migration of many of its more successful denizens to more comfortable areas, and anyone who has competed against York High School's powerful (and amazingly well-supported) track and cross-country teams over the years would be hard pressed to find much evidence in Elmhurst for community dissolution and decline. Things change, then, but seldom in simple ways.

On a more abstract level, The Lost City grossly misrepresents what most of us would identify as the quintessence of the American experience. Simply put, limits do not square with our historical imagination: American individualism has always been at odds with community. Even the Pilgrims and Puritans, settlers who founded communities based on common goals and aspirations, soon saw their settlements riven apart by differences of opinion and inclination. In an age such as ours, one of relatively easy and affordable relocations, geographic proximity will less and less be the main factor in the creation and maintenance of community. Recent and ongoing developments in information technology will continue to allow us to reconfigure our associations so that they will more and more be predicated upon mutual benefit and satisfaction.

In general, that's a good thing, especially if the alternative is the type of community that existed in Chicago in the 1950s. The "lost city" had its virtues, to be sure, but life around Clybourn and Ashland had its dark side, too. In particular, I remember drunkenness, brutality, and rage made manifest in countless ways. Whether we're speaking of stinko fathers beating their sons with cat-o'-nine-tails or the same boys forcing neighborhood girls into sex, the ritualistic humiliation of people suspected of being gay or the often violent harassment of people who happened to be brown or black, the type of community that existed in my old neighborhood–and in countless other Chicago-area neighborhoods in the 1950s–is not necessarily something we should look to for inspiration, much less try to emulate.

Life in America in the 1990s is in many ways disgusting, even degenerate, but we shall have a better chance of addressing contemporary problems once we get over easy nostalgia and acknowledge three basic facts: Things today are merely different, not worse, than they were in the 1950s; each and every era is good and bad in its own way; and there is at times an exorbitant price to pay for what we call "community."

Peter Coclanis is a member of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.