Situated in a heavily industrialized location, populated by successive generations of immigrant people, and animated by some of the most dramatic social conflicts of modern times, Back of the Yards focused the attention of novelists, activists, and social scientists alike for most of the twentieth century. Located in the community area of New City, the neighborhood extends from 39th to 55th Streets between Halsted and the railroad tracks along Leavitt Street, just south and west of the former Union Stock Yard and adjacent packing plants, a giant sprawl that was until the 1950s the largest livestock yards and meatpacking center in the country.
The concentration of railroads in the mid-nineteenth century, the establishment of the Union Stock Yard in 1865, and the perfection of the refrigerated boxcar by 1880 led to a giant expansion of meatpacking in the neighborhood. Part of the town of Lake until annexation by Chicago in 1889, Back of the Yards was settled by skilled Irish and German butchers, joined in the 1870s and 1880s by Czechs. Here in 1889, developer Samuel Gross built one of his earliest subdivisions of cheap workingmen’s cottages. By the turn of the century, the area was transformed into a series of Slavic enclaves dominated by Poles, Lithuanians, Slovaks, and Czechs, with most communities organized around ethnic parishes serving as social and cultural as well as spiritual focal points for residents’ lives. Small numbers of Mexican immigrants entered Back of the Yards and neighboring Bridgeport as early as World War I and the 1920s, but the community retained its Slavic character until the 1970s when it gradually became a largely Chicano community with a minority of African Americans.Immortalized for its pollution, squalor, and poverty in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle(1906), government reports, and University of Chicago sociology studies, Back of the Yards was, in fact, characterized by particularly vibrant and cohesive working-class communities over time. The sprawling stockyards and adjacent plants with their unique combination of pollution, erratic work schedules, occupational diseases, and low wages exacted a heavy toll on the community in the years up to the Great Depression, but workers and their families organized a series of struggles in and outside the plants to improve and protect their communities.
In the Depression and World War II years residents created two key social movements: the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (later the United Packinghouse Workers of America, or UPWA-CIO) and Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC). The UPWA-CIO, a particularly effective industrial union movement, became a progressive mainstay of the labor movement. The BYNC, a coalition of dozens of neighborhood and parish groups, became Saul Alinsky’s model for community organizing throughout the country. While the UPWA-CIO raised wages, stabilized employment, and fought for civil rights in the plants, the BYNC galvanized a broader community identity among the diverse ethnic groups and addressed an array of community problems.With the end of Chicago’s meatpacking industry by the 1960s, Back of the Yards once again faced serious problems of economic decline and physical deterioration. At the end of the twentieth century, as the city worked to develop a new manufacturing district on the site of the old Union Stock Yard, the newer residents resumed the old struggle to maintain a strong community.James R. Barrett
BibliographyBarrett, James R. Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers, 1894–1922. 1987.Jablonsky, Thomas J. Pride in the Jungle: Community and Everyday Life in Back of the Yards Chicago. 1993.Slayton, Robert A. Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy. 1986.