Let the name be a clue—more than anything, this community, alternately known as New City, is and has always been defined by its proximity to what is perhaps Chicago’s most storied industry: the stockyards.The area was put on the map in 1865, when the Union Stockyard was established in what was then land outside city limits.
The community area was segregated along lines of class and ethnicity from the start. With no means of transportation, the poorest Irish and German laborers settled close to the southern and western borders of the stockyards, while immigrants who held cleaner clerical jobs within the industry formed their own residential district to the east.
Though the predominance of these ethnic groups in Back of the Yards faded, segregation along class lines did not. Lower-class Eastern European immigrants entered the neighborhood beginning in the 1880s, in a ploy by stockyard managers to break strikes. This spurred an exodus of earlier generations of immigrants from Back of the Yards, a pattern that only increased with the influx of African-American and Mexican populations beginning in the first decades of the twentieth century.
The neighborhood has seen reform efforts come in waves. In 1894, Mary McDowell, a participant in the settlement house movement and an affiliate of the UofC, founded a settlement house there. Under her leadership, the settlement house sought to improve living conditions through the founding of community organizations, the addition of a public park, and the improvement of city services, especially waste disposal, in the area.
In the 1930s, the settlement house re-established itself as the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, taking on issues of labor and housing rehabilitation under the leadership of organizers Saul Alinsky and Joseph Meegan. The BYNC still exists, one of the longest-standing organizations of its kind.
Today, a walk down Ashland, the neighborhood’s main artery, reveals the overwhelming dominance of its Mexican population. Spanish is the norm for speech and signage, and grocery stores do good business offering Mexican-imported products.
There are, as well, new institutions with the potential to change the look and feel of Back of the Yards. The Plant, a sustainable-food business incubator that occupies a former meatpacking facility, is increasing its presence in the neighborhood with volunteer and educational opportunities. Their public programs, such as an annual summer food truck rally, engage with other South Side businesses in nearby Bridgeport and Pilsen to provide pasties, locally brewed beer, and other products to visitors. The new organization’s energy is exciting—still, it remains to be seen just what shape this and other new developments will take.
So you think you want to be a farmer. Or maybe check out a new part of town. Perhaps you just need a change of pace. Whatever your incentive, The Plant can be a great place to spend some time—if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty. Situated in a former meatpacking facility, The Plant is in the process of being converted into a food-business incubator that will have net-zero energy expenditures. The huge brick building—still emblazoned with the old “Peer Foods” logo, alongside a new, delightfully bucolic mural—houses indoor demonstration farms, educational facilities, and sustainable food businesses. The Plant features an anaerobic digester and an aquaponics farm—a closed-loop growing system powered by a symbiotic relationship between plants and fish. The facility is ultimately expected to create 125 jobs in Back of the Yards, but for now, they’re looking for volunteers. The Plant is open Tuesdays and Saturdays to even the least experienced of aspiring farmers. The work isn’t easy; you may find yourself covered in sweat and soot from head to toe, shoveling debris and hauling cinderblocks and scrap metal from a cave-like room still reminiscent of its gory past. If you’re lucky, though, you can spend the morning plucking tender carrots from the ground and filling buckets with green and purple beans under a gentle sun and a refreshing breeze. Whatever the case, you’ll leave The Plant—either at 1pm, if you work a half-day, or at 5pm, if you opt for a full one (this option gets you a free lunch made from the garden’s produce!) feeling like your time has been well spent. The Plant, 1400 W. 46th St. Public tours on Saturdays, 2pm. (773)847-5523. plantchicago.com (Hannah O’Grady)
BEST FRUTOS DEL MAR
If you walk along Ashland, Back of the Yards’s main commercial strip, El Patio’s humble sign—“El Patio Inc., Mexican Restaurant”—might not call your attention. Inside, it’s a smallish, sparsely decorated restaurant with a tiny retro-style bar at the back, complete with orange vinyl chairs. The bilingual menu includes a full range of staples of Mexican cuisine—enchiladas, tortas, breakfast foods, and the like—but nearly half the menu is devoted to a diverse offering of seafood dishes. The camarón rebosado, actually a Spanish-inspired tempura-like dish popular in Filipino cuisine, is juicy and delicately fried, served with a tartar sauce and plenty of lime. The rice that comes with most dishes is on the bland side, but can be put to good use soaking up the delightfully mild, cinnamon-y mole sauce. El Patio, 4527 S. Ashland Ave. Monday-Sunday, 8:30am-8pm. (773)847-2595 (Rachel Schastok)
BEST PENNY PASTRY
Just to the right of El Patio is Central Bakery. Its unwritten rules are as follows: first, grab a tray and a pair of tongs at the door. Then wander through rows of sliding-door cases containing a huge assortment of traditional Mexican cookies, cakes, and pastries, most ranging between forty and fifty cents apiece. You’ll find that everything from the cuernos (“horns,” the croissant’s doughier cousin) to the conchas (“conch shells,” round rolls with a sugar topping that resembles a seashell) is fresh and tasty, but the standout item is the enormous glazed doughnut—so soft and doughy that it might even give Dat Donut a run for its money. When you’re ready, turn in your tray at the counter, where they’ll bag your lot for you, leaving you free to wonder whether you really needed four of everything. Central Bakery, 4523 S. Ashland Ave. (773)523-0293 (Rachel Schastok)
BEST GATEWAY TO VEGETARIANISM
Union Stockyards Gate
Try as you might, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the sheer scale and extent of Chicago’s Union Stockyards, which occupied a large of swath of the community that came to be known as the Back of the Yards. But the arched gate, designed in the 1870s by all-star architectural firm Burnham & Root, might help. The gate, which now looms over train yards and industrial buildings, was once the entrance to the sprawling acres of pens, slaughterhouses, and other facilities for meatpacking, one of the industries that put Chicago on the map—with equal parts fame and infamy—in the nineteenth century. The yards were known for their stench and their pollution of the South Branch of the Chicago River, giving it the unsavory nickname “Bubbly Creek,” as social reformer Upton Sinclair reported in his 1906 novel, The Jungle. The stockyards are also associated with the rising racial tensions that led to the Chicago Race Riots of 1919. When the Great Migration brought African-American laborers to the area, many white workers saw them as unwelcome competition, though the newcomers were relegated to the goriest and lowest-paid positions in the yards. Though the stockyards closed down for good in the 1970s, no visit to Back of the Yards is complete without a visit to the gate, the neighborhood’s namesake and a humble monument to a place that has done so much to shape Chicago’s industry and history. Union Stockyards Gate, 850 W. Exchange Ave. (Rachel Schastok)
BEST NON-REQUIRED READING
The stockyards have taken on near-mythical proportions for generations of poets, journalists, and historians, appearing in Chicago literature throughout their existence and even after their doors closed. Here are a few selections that show the stockyards and the Back of the Yards community’s strong presence in the city’s literary production. Whether to romanticize, investigate, or condemn, Chicago writers have often drawn on the city’s expansive killing floors. (Rachel Schastok)
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
A classic of muckraking journalism, Sinclair’s fictionalized account of a Lithuanian stockyard laborer’s experience was the product of several weeks of undercover investigation. Exposing the abusive treatment of laborers and unthinkably unsanitary production methods, the novel brought the realities of conditions in the stockyards to light, making them impossible for consumers and lawmakers to ignore. In fact, while President Theodore Roosevelt was initially skeptical of Sinclair’s claims due to his socialist leanings, further investigation confirmed his portrayal and led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.
Edna Ferber, “Blue Blood”
Ferber was a thoroughly Midwestern writer—though a native of Michigan, much of her adult career in journalism and literature took place in Chicago, and the city figures strongly in her early short stories and novels. A contemporary of other prominent Chicago author-journalists such as Ben Hecht and Carl Sandburg, her 1927 story “Blue Blood” deals most directly with the stockyards and the surrounding neighborhood.
Carl Sandburg, “Chicago”
Perhaps one of the best-known odes to the “City of the Big Shoulders,” Sandburg’s poem opens by bestowing upon Chicago the title of “Hog Butcher for the World.” In characterizing the city in the early twentieth century, he assembles a set of impressions that together form a cohesive yet dynamic image: Chicago was for him a proud city, but also a city rough around the edges, nothing without its seamy underbelly.
Rick Halpern, Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses
This work of labor history takes a close look at the interactions among the immigrant and migrant groups that coexisted in the area around the stockyards and the ways they alternately competed and colluded as employees. Halpern investigates the role meatpacking executives played in reinforcing racial and ethnic tensions, as well as the alternating triumphs and failures of organizers to unite workers across these lines during the era of industrial unionism. He pays special attention to the role of these dynamics in Chicago’s infamous 1919 race riots.
Rob Hill, Coming of Age in the Back of the Yards
Photographer Robb Hill’s work seeks to create a visual record of how people relate to the space they grow up in. This photojournalistic project focuses on a group of Latino teenagers in Back of the Yards—shot exclusively in black and white film, these portraits showcase teenage life against a backdrop of workers’ cottages and industrial spaces, leaving open questions about neighborhood change over time and the nature of the stockyards’ legacy.