Katie Hill

Bones of the City

A Chicago archaeologist makes the case for digging up the past

If we can learn something valuable about people by looking at the “mundane, everyday objects” of their daily lives, as Rebecca Graff suggests, the assortment of items littered around her office tells us the obvious—that she is an urban archaeologist. Lanyards from academic conferences are pinned to the bulletin board in a messy gaggle, stray surveying equipment sits in the corner, and her shelves are full of glass bottles with worn-off labels, artifacts saved from digs. Even apparent signs of hobbies, like the half-shelf full of beer cans, lead back to her discipline: the cans are gifts from her students, finds from antique shows across the world.

Graff, a professor of sociology and anthropology at north suburban Lake Forest College, has done digs across Chicago, including several on the South Side. Her first was in Bronzeville where, as a grad student at the University of Chicago, she participated in an excavation of the neighborhood’s Phyllis Wheatley Home for Girls: a house for young women who moved to Chicago by themselves during the Great Migration. Her thesis work was in Jackson Park; she dug at one of the sites of the 1893 World’s Fair. Graff’s great-grandfather actually worked at the exposition as a ditch-digger—it was one of the first jobs he could get after emigrating from Russia to Englewood. (Graff’s grandfather and father were both born in Hyde Park, though she’s from California.) Now, 125 years later, Graff is finishing up a book about transformations at the time of the World’s Fair while also excavating the Charnley-Persky House, a Gold Coast building designed by two of Chicago’s most famous architects, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

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I needed a dissertation project. We were at Ida Noyes on the balcony looking out—we were all drinking wine—and one of my professors said, “A hundred years ago this was the center of the world.” I found out no one had excavated Jackson Park before, which seemed very strange to me. I did two years of work. We settled on a particular part of the park that seemed to be interesting for archaeology, but also logistically easy for students. We were right by the Museum of Science and Industry, and I was interested in that part of Jackson Park because it had been that shape for a long time. A lot of the World’s Fair narratives suggest that it was sort of wild nature, but the northern part of the park was developed and being used by people.

Toward the very end, as is the rule, we found something important. We found the World’s Fair building that wasn’t supposed to be there: the Ohio Building. The New York Times said it had been thrown into Lake Michigan at the conclusion of the fair. Maybe some of it had gone to Lake Michigan, but there was a significant amount in the ground still. Using historic photographs and stratigraphy we were able to say yes, conclusively, this is the remains of the Ohio Building. And besides the building it had artifacts: pieces of plate, pieces of dining stuff, buttons from people’s clothes, collar studs.

While I was doing my excavation, they were constructing the Smart Home at the MSI. And the construction workers would come by and be like, what are you doing? They gave us stuff to take home. [Graff gestures toward her shelf.] These bottles are from Jackson Park. [She takes several down, places them on the desk between us.] This is Leicestershire sauce—not Worcestershire, but Leicestershire sauce. Then these are all Bowman dairy bottles, because Bowman was the monopoly. They bought up all the dairy companies in the area.

I had tried to get in again to do archaeology around 2011 or 2012 when the MSI put in their new parking lot on Cornell. Archaeologists usually like parking lots because they protect something. This one was gonna have drainage and go down, and it was actually gonna get the rest of the Ohio Building that I didn’t get out. So I was asking the state to see if I could get in, and the particular archaeologist at that time who was in a position of power said that there was no reason to do the archaeology there because we had the documentary record. But my whole discipline is historical archaeology, and we’re always using everything together, because the written record isn’t more truthy than the material record. They talk to each other in the way they should be critically assessed.

And then when I found out they were gonna put the Obama Center in Jackson Park, I was shocked. I mean, both parks [Jackson and Washington] are Frederick Law Olmsted landscapes that are highly used by people. In my opinion, it’s not the best place to put something: put something where there aren’t people using it so it can develop as a site. But I’m not the former president.

Archaeologists are always interested in garbage: the things that people leave behind often give you really weird insights into consumption habits. One of the conceits of the fair was that they were showing what a city was going to look like in the future, and part of that was having a sanitary infrastructure that was very different than people’s lived experiences. Every single day there would be people picking the garbage up at the fair and it would be trucked to the southeastern corner where they had a garbage cremator. [So the state archaeologists] found the refuse. And a lot of the artifacts that they had were very identifiable too. They would have the company that made all of the china for the fair, and it would have their name on it. You get a little bit more into what people were actually eating by having the bones and the shells and the leftovers. If an animal died at the fair, you would just burn them. They found bones, and not just regular pigs and cows and chickens. They had camels and all different types of wild non-native animals.

They had an ostrich farm on the Midway. So they had an ostrich farm, and you could order an ostrich egg omelette—but it was not really an ostrich egg omelette, it was a giant chicken egg omelette. But they had the ostriches. It was part of the racist underpinnings, too, where you’re equating people who are non-white, non-European as close to animals. So when you show them in their native land, you have to populate it with the fauna.

The top layers [of Jackson Park] are interesting too because it’s how people are using the park now. I have plastic hair clips from little girls, I have toys, I have firecrackers, I have crack bags. And then I even have other things as you go down a little bit that are older things that you would have lost: jewelry, buttons, collar studs. Everyone’s been using that park for a long time, and people are messy, and it’s all there in the soil.

The arrival of the Obama Presidential Center has also brought renewed attention to archaeology in Jackson Park. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, land that receives federal funding has to undergo a review process that, in part, determines whether there’s anything at the site that warrants further archaeological work. An Illinois state report found that wasn’t the case in Jackson Park; the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit, has challenged that finding, citing Graff in their appeal to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

I didn’t realize I hadn’t looked at criterion (A) [of section 106], which is that if it’s an event that’s important to American history, it would demand that there be further archaeology done. I’m like, “Yeah, it’s kind of an event that’s important to American history.” With the delay of the groundbreaking, that means there’s also space to thoroughly obey federal law. If you just have a really cool historic place but it wasn’t on federal land and there wasn’t federal money going on the project, and there wasn’t state land or state money, you wouldn’t have to do archaeology, there would be no mandate for it. So you don’t have to do it on private land, which is why we don’t do a lot in Chicago. We should. I’m hoping that now that the delay is happening, and there’s a sort of public looking at the report, that there’ll be a decision to do some more work.

It’s just interesting to think that we didn’t immediately want to go and preserve the World’s Fair site, right? Because we know how important the World’s Fair was to Chicago as a city. This is a center, this is a chance to put these two narratives together. It seems like a no-brainer. We see the tendrils of the Fair woven in all the different stories of Chicago, and it continues to be something we evoke for different reasons.

We walk upstairs to her lab where folding tables are pushed up to the walls, neatly covered in cardboard boxes and plastic bags full of what appears, at first glance, to be nothing more than earthy rubble. Closer examination reveals more interesting detail: shards of earthenware, nails covered in three layers of rust, cans of vintage Coke.

Graff walks over to a pair of boxes. They’re from the Mecca, a famous apartment building demolished by the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1952, likely as part of a program of urban renewal to eradicate “blight” from the area surrounding campus. (During its last few decades, most of the Mecca’s tenants were Black.) This summer, maintenance workers uncovered some ruins of the building while digging up a pipe. The school called up Graff, who went down with some students and spent part of a day digging up artifacts to take back north.

I only have two boxes because I was only there for a few hours. Here’s a Bennington marble. It could be from the African-American tenants, but it was made a longer time ago. The dating is usually a manufacture date, or patent dates, which is different than use, and it’s different than deposition. So you put them all together and you can get something. Here’s my favorite poster: “Telling Time in the Second Half of the 19th Century.” Here are the materials, and it’s giving you patent and introduction dates. I always talk about the crown bottle cap. Patent dates can be different than introduction dates. The zipper is patented in 1892, but not really manufactured until the twenties. So you kind of have to look at each thing and look at it critically and kind of then assess.

We have stuff of the people’s lives here. So with the analysis we’ll get a little bit more. I’ll show you one thing they didn’t see [at the panel] because it was too fragile. I have to do analysis of it. [Pulls out a small pharmaceutical bottle.] This has pills in it still. I’m going to take them to the chemistry folks here and have them help me. I think they’re aspirin, frankly, just from the look of this bottle. I was cleaning it, and I was like, I’m gonna dump it in a tray before I wash it. And then I was like, oh no. There were little tiny pills.

I’m not an expert on the Mecca, but I have excavated on the South Side, I have excavated in Jackson Park and Bronzeville before. So I’m aware of the erasure of different communities that tends to happen. It’s interesting how often it’s universities. One of the things with the Mecca, there’s such a wound in that community about how this erasure happened. You can see it when you walk through the space. And so now you have this way of connecting to it. I was talking to Tim Samuelson, [Chicago’s cultural historian], and I was like, we should put some glass panels there, so you just walk in and you can see it. It really reminds you of place and the layers of experiences. Because when you just raze something, you quickly forget what was there before.

Under all of Chicago there’s stuff like that. There are all these Louis Sullivan houses that were on the South Side, and when they demoed them they just filled the basement up with stuff. And so Tim Samuelson is always telling me, “Let’s go to these sites.” If you dug down you would have the intact basement with all the demo from the building. There’s all these bits and pieces under and different stories.

There’s something about the lasting materiality of something. When you knock down a building you silence a lot of people. That’s why the Mecca Flats is so interesting to think about. We didn’t know that the basement was so fancy. And we didn’t know the beautiful tile work that was in the other floors—that we can see in the photographs—are in the basement too. We didn’t know the colors! Now we know the colors.

I think archaeology is always about now, because we’re always doing it now. We’re not time traveling. I think you want to find discoverable things and understand and interpret things, but you’re always doing it through right now, and all this baggage at your own particular moment in your society. We’re really saying, “Hey, this is about contemporary contestations of things, and we should be aware.” We have a way to look at the past but it’s always about the present.

For Jackson Park, at least for the Obama library, it’s sort of another narrative about the importance of this space, and how we fit these two stories together. Think of the failures of the World’s Fair for inclusivity across races, the way that Ida B. Wells writes her famous pamphlet “The Reason Why The Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” Versus Obama having his presidential center at this site that had pushed people out.

For the Mecca, it’s about this area of Bronzeville that had a lively social life that then became stigmatized at a certain point. Is it really that terrible, or is it a useful narrative to say it’s terrible to get what you want? Or did the university spend ten years trying to undermine this community until it deteriorated to this point so they could erase it? That’s why I think these things are about now as well.

Rebecca Graff will present on her research and digs at the 1893 World’s Fair site in Jackson Park at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St., on October 4 from 6pm-7pm. Free with registration.

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Christian Belanger is a senior editor at the Weekly. Last week, he interviewed 5th Ward aldermanic candidate Gabriel Piemonte and wrote about the controversy around artifacts dug up from the Mecca Flats on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville.

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