CITIES AND SOCIAL JUSTICE: LESSONS FROM THE LAISSEZ-FAIRE METROPOLIS
Jennifer Gray | Jennifer L. Gray is an Art and Architectural Historian at Columbia University and an educator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The essay that follows focuses on Chicago in 1900 and how an architect, collaborating with a group of activists that included teachers, writers, and philanthropists, among others, combated social inequality in the city. Chicago is the case study simply because my academic research centers on the Midwestern metropolis, and so I am equipped as a historian to talk about Chicago. However the strategies and theories advanced locally in Chicago were also universal, part of an international progressive movement that impacted cities around the world. So its lessons have wide application.
Which brings me to one final question: why publish a newspaper? By definition newspapers are ephemeral, transient, and quotidian, qualities that hardly seem useful to so ambitious a goal as “changing the world.” What possible difference can these flimsy pages make? History shows us that grass roots initiatives advanced by everyday people – publishing pamphlets, political lobbying, equipping playgrounds, occupying parks, engaging with schools, and so forth – have transformative potential. These humble pages likewise bring together artists, critics, teachers, designers, and historians into a new kind of collaboration – a tactical urbanism – that hopes to galvanize public awareness about the current state of our cities, our democracies, and to inspire actionable change, to “do something” about the problems we face today.
Chicago was in a veritable state of emergency by the early twentieth century. Years of unprecedented and unplanned expansion had produced tremendous growth and profits, but also intractable class conflict, violent labor disputes, unspeakable living conditions, and political corruption. Little more than a frontier outpost in 1840, Chicago ruled an economic empire by 1890 that stretched from the Ohio Valley to the Rocky Mountains, connecting the agricultural and ranching industries of the west with the commercial and manufacturing centers of the east. It dominated the nation’s meat slaughtering and packing industries. A population explosion accompanied such extraordinary economic growth, as people poured into the city looking for jobs. The population in 1840 had been 4,500 people; by 1900 it was 1.7 million. Remarking on how thoroughly industry had reorganized society, John Dewey, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, concluded, “one can hardly believe there has been a revolution in history so rapid, so extensive, so complete.”
Compounding these challenges was a disproportionately high immigrant population. Foreign-born individuals or children of immigrants made up 77% of Chicago’s population in 1900. Most were uneducated, unskilled laborers who worked primarily in industrial occupations and lived in overcrowded tenements lacking adequate access to water, waste disposal, and other critical services. By the turn of the century then, Chicago was congested with industrial facilities spewing forth pollution and products alike and manned by an increasingly disgruntled labor force that together with widespread environmental degradation threatened democratic self-government in the eyes of many community organizers. Jane Addams, a pioneering social scientist and founder of Hull House settlement, spoke for many when she concluded that “the idea underlying our self-government breaks down” under such circumstances.
CRITICAL CARTOGRAPHY: MAPPING POWER
Alarmed by the mounting social and environmental crisis, Addams together with an architect named Dwight Perkins developed new cartographic techniques – new kinds of maps – that helped them advance political change by visualizing the intangible experiences of inequality that coexisted with the physical streets of Chicago. Addams first experimented with critical cartography when she and an activist named Florence Kelley conducted a sociological investigation of Chicago. After spending years conducting interviews, door-to-door surveys, and other kinds of oral histories and fact collection, the study was published in 1895 as Hull-House Maps and Papers. Along with essays exposing social injustices, the document included multicolored “data maps” of the nineteenth ward, one of the city’s most intractable slums. These projections combined a conventional street map with statistics on the neighborhood’s national and ethnic makeup, wages, occupations, and housing conditions. They were some of the first maps to draw connections between race, poverty, and geography.
Perkins capitalized on these techniques in 1905 when he designed a metropolitan plan for all of Chicago. The maps he created for the project superimposed data on population densities, rates of mortality, infant mortality, diphtheria, typhoid, and crime over Chicago’s street grid. They clearly demonstrated that overcrowded, poor communities lacking in schools, parks, and public spaces were also the most dangerous and unhealthy in the city. During a time when most people considered poverty to be a moral failure, data maps demonstrated that conditions like crumbling tenements, uncollected garbage, and cholera epidemics were connected to unstable employment patterns, exploitative labor systems, and exclusionary social structures that barred certain groups from educational, recreational, legal, and other opportunities for advancement.
The critical cartography developed by Perkins and Addams is remarkable because it suggested how concentrations of poverty, disinvestment, and inequality are produced by economic, political, and cultural systems. Capitalism naturalizes uneven growth as the inevitable outcome of competition, but as Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, and other Marxist geographers have demonstrated – scarcity is created. Space is produced by political and economic power. As spatial systems, geography and cartography are inherently ideological, the ultimate cross-disciplinary and revolutionary terrain because they intersect with all modes of human experience. Recognizing that maps were not neutral representations but expressions of power, Addams and Perkins leveraged maps to advance their social politics. Their maps made visible the power imbalances that conventional maps took for granted and, in the process, implied that such inequalities were not inevitable. They could be changed.
The environmental determinism advanced by critical cartography had profound consequences for architecture, because it suggested that improving the built environment could solve social problems. To this end Perkins collaborated with an activist named Charles Zueblin to advance design solutions for the laissez-faire metropolis. Zueblin was a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, founder of two settlement houses, president of the American League for Civic Improvement, author of several books on urban planning, and cofounder of the American Journal of Sociology. He argued that cities were preeminently democratic because they were collectives. In his publications and teachings he lobbied tirelessly for cities to build public parks, squares, schools, and other civic centers – spaces where social democracy could be practiced. The public awareness and sense of mutual responsibility that characterized metropolitan life would foster a new civic spirit based on cooperation, which he believed could ameliorate many of the injustices of the market revolution.
Perkins translated such theories into architectural strategies. His metropolitan plan proposed a network of local community centers – playgrounds, recreational facilities, schools, even a nature preserve – that together would facilitate social exchange, educate users, improve public health, and safeguard the natural environs. These neighborhood centers would contain libraries, gymnasiums, showers, and meeting rooms and also would provide social services such as clean milk dispensing stations, organized athletics, and educational programs. Joining together architectural and social interventions was critical to his project, as the inequalities of the laissez-faire metropolis were structural, operating across, and indeed ordering, all territories of society.
Organizing the city as a network of interconnected systems – a rhizome – had a tremendous advantage over conventional planning techniques because it was flexible, equalitarian, and engaged local communities. The network could be constructed gradually, one neighborhood center at a time, as budgets, populations, and needs demanded. As a distributed system, the network serviced communities on the periphery of the city as well as in the center, poor and affluent neighborhoods alike, which helped to overcome problems of uneven access to facilities and services. Even at the scale of individual buildings, Perkins pioneered expandable templates and connected-group plans that facilitated future additions, to be built by other architects, so that neighborhood centers easily could grow and change over time. The picture that emerges is a vibrant web of local choices, incremental changes, and participatory processes that together convey the pluralism of democratic society in their messy collision.
This incremental urbanism is radical precisely for its contingency, because it accepts existing urban conditions, respects local differences, and advances piecemeal improvements over time. In this context a comparison to Chicago’s most celebrated urban renewal scheme, Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, is instructive. Burnham shared with Perkins the desire to improve quality of life in Chicago, but he embraced different strategies for doing so. Burnham proposed to rationalize the city through a hierarchical composition of neoclassical monuments, axial boulevards, ceremonial plazas, and a grandiose, centralized civic center. The approach is authoritarian and its implementation would require wholesale demolition of downtown Chicago and massive population displacements. Such monumental architecture creates exclusionary geographies. The imposing buildings metaphorically alienate everyday Chicagoans, even as their centralized locations practically impede access.
The ways in which Perkins and Burnham envisioned the city – its architectural representation – reproduced the distinctions between incremental and autocratic urbanisms. Burnham hired seven gifted artists to design the illustrations for his plan, which plied viewers with fantasies of an uncluttered, unified cityscape, many drawn from an aerial perspective so elevated that the curvature of the earth is visible. One of their most incongruous aspects is that the renderings entirely ignore the modern, commercial architecture pioneered in Chicago, such as skyscrapers and warehouses. They flattened the actual, variegated cityscape into an imaginary and uniform fabric, transforming Chicago into a tabula rasa for Burnham’s creative imagination.
Perkins visualized the city in purely diagrammatic terms – there are no images of architecture in his proposal, only maps of the network. Though certainly less seductive, his illustrations shifted the focus away from utopian idylls of a future Chicago to the physical and social realities of the existing laissez-faire metropolis. Diagramming rather than drawing also meant that Perkins relinquished creative control over design specifics. He abandoned illusionistic rendering techniques in favor of sociological mapping that challenged traditional “bricks and mortar” urbanism because it considered the intangible social spaces, informal economies, and unexpected qualities of living cities. He resisted provocative but impractical urban transformations and instead championed piecemeal interventions that were feasible, affordable, and participatory. His plan was a framework rather than a blueprint, and its flexibility was arguably its most revolutionary feature.
IN DEFENSE OF CONTINGENCY
Incremental urbanism linked Perkins to an international progressive movement that advanced social change through moderate, evolutionary tactics rather than abrupt revolution. As the modern market economy evolved into a complex web of mutually dependent relationships, progressives came to understand that social relations were likewise reciprocal. As Addams wrote, in a democratic country, no higher political or civic life can be achieved except through the masses of people, and so “the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain…until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into common life.”
Driving these democratic ambitions were theories of social psychology and pragmatism espoused by John Dewey. Social psychology conceptualized individuals as inherently social beings whose values were shaped by their environments. Challenging liberal ideology that individuals were atomistic and purely self-interested, Dewey argued that men were inextricably grounded in social communities and therefore mutually dependent. Perkins matter-of-factly summarized such theories when he described his community centers as based on the premise that “what is good for the whole is good for the individual, and vice versa.”
Informing such progressive strategies was a radical theory of knowledge articulated by Dewey and other social psychologists such as William James. According to these pragmatist philosophers, knowledge did not exist a priori according to idealist theory but was created and perpetually reconstituted through continuous experimentation in the real world – personal choices made under specific cultural conditions that were mutually influential and constantly changing. In this scenario, progress is achieved through an ongoing process of questioning, testing, adapting, and testing again.
Progressivism was, in many ways, the political corollary to pragmatist ethics. The theory that individual and social values were mutually determined confirmed progressive faith in the efficacy of social cooperation over individual competition. The belief that cultural values were in flux rather than predetermined rationalized the rejection of Marxism and laissez-faire, both of which were based upon “inevitable” economic laws. Pragmatist experimentation also mirrored the democratic process, whereby change was achieved little by little through the messy, gradual process of compromise rather than through an abrupt and comprehensive reorganization of society. Progressive reform in the United States was populist and collaborative; it emphasized active experimentation, a conditional approach to problem solving, and embraced change. It denied fixed and rigid scenarios, which fueled optimism that conscientious action could change society.
ARCHITECTURE AS SOCIAL PRACTICE
Pragmatism offers us a theoretical framework with which to understand the architectural and political strategies that Perkins employed to advance social democracy, strategies that have contemporary relevance. Perkins spent a considerable amount of energy collecting data, working with nonprofits, organizing interest groups, lobbying government officials, and publishing pamphlets in ways that prefigure contemporary research-based practices and grass-roots activism. He cofounded a civic organization called the Municipal Science Club that sponsored lectures, conducted environmental surveys, distributed leaflets, and generally pressured the Chicago City Council on issues related to social change. He worked with aldermen to establish a municipal department charged with constructing and maintaining public playgrounds around the city. He held official appointments designing schools for the Board of Education and recreation centers for the Lincoln Park District. He was also a nascent environmentalist, campaigning for decades to preserve native prairie landscapes around Chicago.
Working for decades through public and private channels, Perkins clearly believed in the power of ordinary, private citizens to realize palpable change to the status quo, to confront the challenges of modern society. He also recognized the limitations of private philanthropy, arguing that truly public, tax-supported initiatives avoided the paternalistic nature of charity because they “derive their support and authority…from the people themselves.” So he lobbied politicians, drafted legislation, and otherwise worked to institutionalize progressive reforms at the state level, to make social change permanent. He understood that public spaces were the backbone of democratic society, and dedicated his architectural practice to creating them for all classes of people. Considering the reactionary postures prevalent today regarding security and surveillance, manifested in the proliferation of “privately owned public spaces” and gated communities, Perkins’s trust in others and his optimism about the democratic process suggests a certain faith in public life that seems forgotten today. Working in the gap between moribund cultural institutions and the public allowed Perkins to revitalize a new civic imagination capable of not just making things, but of making things happen.
RESISTING THE LOGIC OF LATE CAPITALISM
So what can we learn from Perkins and other progressive reformers who challenged the inequalities produced by the market revolution? Though the logic of late capitalism differs from its initial expressions, there are similarities. Privatization of resources, global migrations, terrorism, and economic and environmental crises have again created conditions of excessive inequality that our atrophied government, cultural, and urban institutions seem incapable of engaging. Given such overlaps – what relevant lessons can we take from the laissez-faire metropolis?
Perkins understood cities as contested social and political spaces as much as architectural ones. He understood that democracy requires social responsibility. He worked with local and state governments as a public servant and also challenged these institutions from the outside as a private individual. He was committed to local communities and believed in the power of people to change their circumstances and their governments. His practice was highly collaborative and interdisciplinary. He mediated between local governments, nonprofits, developers, and others in processes that combined architectural, political, and advocacy work – allowing him to design projects uniquely suited to specific communities that embrace both physical and intangible spaces. He was a citizen-architect.
It should be stressed that Perkins’s practice was not an uncomplicated exercise in community building. Public protests, labor disputes, and insufficient funding delayed or impeded many of his projects. But these struggles could also be read as the contentious, disputatious – one might say democratic – process of compromise that comes with an architectural process dedicated to social practice. Perkins arguably sacrificed vision for contingent progress, but he ultimately succeeded in realizing many of the spaces – both physical and cultural – that he had envisioned in 1905 by acting through a variety of civic, juridical, and architectural processes.
Despite his significant achievements in the civic realm, Perkins is excluded from histories of urbanism. Even his historiographical status is that of the marginal, the outside. This is not necessarily discouraging. His omission could, perhaps, be regarded as a sign of his success – local schools, playgrounds, and community centers are today considered so fundamental to modern cities that we take their existence for granted. In other words, his individual actions and modest, tactical urbanisms helped advance a complete paradigm shift in social relations. That is the transformative power of social engagement.
- Teddy Cruz, “Democratizing Urbanization and The Search for a New Civic Imagination,” in Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Creative Time Books and MIT Press, 2011), 57.
- Jose L.S. Gamez and Susan Rogers, “An Architecture of Change,” in Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism, eds. Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford (New York: Bellerophon Publications, Inc., 2008), 20.
- John Hogan, Class and Reform: School and Society in Chicago, 1880-1930 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1985), 2.
- John Dewey, The School and Society (Chicago: John Dewey, 1900; rev. ed. 1915, 1943); reprinted as combined edition with The Child and the Curriculum with introduction by Leonard Carmichael (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 9.
- Ibid, 2-3; David Nasaw, Schooled to Order: A Social History of Public Schooling in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 93. Unlike earlier waves of immigrants from Germany and Northern Europe, the majority of immigrants settling in Chicago after 1880 were from southern, eastern, and central Europe, dramatically altering the ethnic composition of the city and contributing to a perceived threat on the part of native-born Americans. These immigrants held 50% of jobs in the meatpacking, quarrying, woolen textiles, coal mining, and blast furnace industries and almost 70% of jobs in copper mining, iron mining, and suit, cloak, and coat production.
- Jane Addams, “Hull-House, Chicago: An Effort Towards Social Democracy,” Chicago Historical Society [1900?], n.p.
- Residents of Hull House, eds. Hull-House Maps and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities and Wages in a Congested District of Chicago together with Comments and Essays on Problems Growing out of the Social Conditions (Boston: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1895).
- Dwight Heald Perkins, Report of the Special Park Commission to the City Council of Chicago on the Subject of a Metropolitan Park System (Chicago: W.J. Hartman Co., printers, 1905).
- See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, transl. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Blackwell, 1991; orig. 1974); David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development (Verso, 2006); Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1984; rept. 1990; rept. 2008).
- Kevin Mattson, Creating a Democratic Public: The Struggle for Participatory Democracy During the Progressive Era (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 23-24, 27.
- Carl Smith, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 74, 90-91.
- Addams, “Effort Towards Social Democracy,” 226.
- Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1910), 116.
- For an excellent account of the relationship between John Dewey’s theories on social psychology, pragmatism, and progressive social politics, see James Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).
- Perkins and Taylor, “Functions and Plan-Types,” 290.
- Kloppenberg, 329.
- Ibid., 347.
- Ibid., 352.
- Perkins was intimately involved with the creation of the Cook County Forest Preserve, spending years lobbying politicians and drafting legislation. See Jennifer Gray, “An Everyday Wilderness: Dwight Perkins and the Cook County Forest Preserve,” Future Anterior 10.1 (Summer 2013); and Rebecca Retzlaff, “The Illinois Forest Preserve District Act of 1913 and the emergence of metropolitan park planning in the USA,” Planning Perspectives 25, no. 4 (October 2010): 433-455.
- Perkins and Taylor, “Functions and Plan-Types,” 290.
- Jeremy Deller, quoted in Nato Thompson, ed., Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Creative Time Books and MIT Press, 2011), 17.
- 1908 Annual Report of the Lincoln Park Commissioners, 10; Official Proceedings of the Lincoln Park Commissioners, v. 7, August 1907-December 1910, 94 and 114.