Subaltern Cultures of Nature in Industrial Chicago

By Colin Fisher, University of San Diego

U.S. environmental and cultural historians and American Studies scholars have long explored privileged Anglo Americans’ desire to come into contact with nature. We know that in response to the perceived ills of urban modernity, the affluent temporarily took refuge in English parks (such as Manhattan’s Central Park) and fled the city entirely for rural resorts and distant wilderness areas. We also know that prosperous Anglo-American tourists often used nature to culturally construct identity. Pastoral, sublime, frontier, and wilderness landscapes all served as primordial sacred places that middle- and upper-class Americans used to imagine hegemonic versions of American community.[1]


Map of Chicago urban green space from Daniel H. Burnham Jr. and Edward H. Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. The plan built on the city’s existing park system.

But what about the “other half” back in the city? Did new immigrants, racial minorities, and industrial workers also draw a line between city and country and seek to cross it during their leisure? Did they, too, use landscapes to forge community and articulate identity? This is the subject of my book, Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago

I argue that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, disadvantaged Chicagoans were just as eager as their better-off neighbors to escape the city and come into contact with nature. That said, Chicagoans on the margins had neither the time nor the money to travel to Niagara Falls, Yellowstone, Yosemite, or other distant places of rarefied natural beauty. So instead they sought out nature closer to home: in urban parks, vacant lots, beer gardens, ethnic cemeteries, commercial groves, and Cook Country Forest Preserve wilderness parks as well as along the Lake Michigan shore and at ethnic and working-class wilderness resorts on the urban fringe.

Some urban historians argue that while privileged Anglo Americans such as the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted viewed urban parks as islands of nature in the midst of the artificial city, workers and immigrants saw them as mere public or recreational spaces, as extensions of the city rather than its antithesis.[2] It is certainly true that nineteenth-century Chicagoans fought over park space, especially on Sunday, the one-day off from work for most of the city. On Sunday, large numbers of disadvantaged Chicagoans eagerly ventured to parks, where they picnicked on the grass, listened to loud music, danced, drank lager, and participated in ethnic athletics, such as German gymnastics and Irish hurling. This was to the great dismay of conservative Anglo Americans, who believed that the Christian Sabbath should be reserved for indoor church worship and quiet contemplation of God’s green creation.

But just because the masses rejected idiosyncratic Anglo-American outdoor recreational practices (such as quietly and often piously absorbing pastoral and sublime scenery) does not mean that the fight over Chicago parks pit nature-loving elites such as Olmsted against amusement- or sports-loving immigrants and workers. On the contrary, evidence from Chicago suggests that the marginalized often sought out spaces that were not just public or recreational but also green. Despite their scant leisure, they eagerly left urban environments that many viewed as unnatural, unhealthy, and alienating and retreated to parks and other green spaces where they could breathe fresh air, bask in sunshine, and enjoy trees, grass, and views of Lake Michigan. I argue that if there was one demographic in industrial Chicago that had a stunted and underdeveloped appreciation for nature, it was not the masses, but rather conservative Chicagoans of Puritan descent with narrow views of how one should enjoy a Sunday afternoon outdoors.

Foreign-born and working-class Chicagoans turned to green spaces in and around the city to temporarily escape the city and enjoy outdoor recreational activities. But they also used these landscapes to forge identity and build community. Unlike the privileged, marginalized Chicagoans did not use pastoral and wild parks to imagine themselves as citizens of a homogenous white America free of class divisions. Rather, they used urban green spaces to imagine themselves as German, Irish, Polish, and Mexican, as ethnic Americans, as Americans of African descent, as American industrial workers, and as members of a revolutionary international proletariat.

The foreign born made extensive use of urban and wilderness parks in and around Chicago, but these places did not naturalize immigrants to their new nation. Rather immigrant Chicagoans most often used green spaces to escape the smoke, noise, and ceaseless toil of the city, to remember distant pre-industrial rural homelands, and to gather as a village, region, or nation in exile. Meanwhile, much to the horror of both foreign-born parents and Anglo American Progressive Era reformers, the immigrants’ American-born children often used Chicago parks, vacant lots, commercial groves, and forest preserves to forge an “inorganic” American working-class youth culture.


Young Czech Men at Camp Sokol in New Buffalo, Michigan, in the 1920s. American Sokol Organization

African Americans were just as eager to temporarily escape the “artificial” city and come into contact with nature during their leisure. But their access to green space was often barred by park employees, police, and white street gangs. This racist exclusion from green space is crucial background for understanding the 1919 race riot, the city’s worst incident of civil unrest. When African-American teenager Eugene Williams and his friends drifted on their homemade raft across an invisible line in the water and toward a segregated Lake Michigan beach, they were pelted with rocks. One hit Williams, who slipped down into the watery depths of the cold lake and drowned. The incident sparked four days of violence that left 38 dead, 537 injured, and 1,000 homeless.

Despite continued racist restriction and violence, African Americans insisted on escaping the ghetto environment and enjoying nature in city parks, at Lake Michigan beaches, in the Cook Country Forest Preserve system, and at Idlewild, an African American resort set amid of the lakes and forests of western Michigan. Black Chicagoans used their green spaces to picnic, swim, play sports, hike, engage in nature study, and camp. But, like other Americans, they also used nature to look backward into the preindustrial past and imagine identity. Some used green space to remember the landscape of the rural South from which many Chicago blacks had recently migrated, but the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow made Southern nostalgia or pastoralism difficult to say the least. So instead, many black Chicagoans looked even further into the past and used Chicago parks to celebrate a shared African past and imagine themselves as a community of African descent.


African American Youth in an “Egyptian Pageant” in a Chicago Park. From Attwell, “Recreation for Colored Americans” (1926).

Trade unionists, socialists, anarchists, and communists also used Chicago commercial groves, urban parks, forest preserve wilderness, and union, socialist, and communist youth camps to build identity. But unlike ethnic leaders, those leading heterogeneous interethnic and interracial labor organizations could not forge unity by looking backward and nostalgically invoking a common homeland. Instead, they bridged difference and created community by looking to the future. Diverse groups of trade unionists gathered in parks to picnic with their families and called for a reformed future in which workers would have more time for leisure, including outdoor recreation. Socialists, meanwhile, imagined a future where their elected officials would help create a new America where the state controlled the means of production. Anarchists also picnicked in urban green spaces, where they blasted capitalists, judges, and religious leaders, waved the red and black flag (negating the flags of all nations), and called for global revolution and a world where every day would be like May Day.


Grand Picnic and Reunion of all the Radicals of the City of Chicago, 1918.

In sum, Chicago was home not to one hegemonic culture of nature but rather multiple cultures of nature. To understand these cultures of nature, we cannot turn for guidance to twentieth-century American Studies scholars and historians who argued that the United States was “nature’s nation,” that nature was “the American theme” and “the obsessive American drama,” or that “wilderness was the basic ingredient of American culture.”[3] The subaltern cultures of nature in Chicago were not derivative of American Transcendentalism, Henry David Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond, Victorian nature tourism, or white fascination with wilderness at the turn of the twentieth century. Romanticism did not simply trickle down from above. Rather desire for nature in Chicago was born of sudden immersion in the city’s harsh and seemingly artificial environment, subjugation to new “unnatural” industrial work regimes, and exposure to European, Mexican, and Asian variants of romantic nationalism.

Acknowledging and exploring nature romanticism “from the bottom up” can help environmental history move beyond the documentation of environmental victimization and injustice. We know that property owners and the state drove marginalized people from land long used for work and sustenance. We know that sometimes (as was the case with Manhattan’s Central Park and many national parks) the powerful transformed commons long used for production into landscapes of leisure for the privileged.[4] We also know that once in the city, the disadvantaged often found themselves disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, such as toxic waste, factory smoke, lead, rats, trash, and rising flood waters.[5]

But we cannot let the important focus on environmental victimization obscure the agency of the oppressed, including the creative ways those on the margins used landscapes to make meaning. To gloss the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, we need to focus not just on how immigrants, workers, and ethnic, racial, and religious minorities used nature to eat, but also on how they used nature to think.[6] Doing so will help environmental historians build new bridges to labor, ethnic, migration, social, and African American history, all fields that insist on foregrounding the historical agency of the marginalized and all fields deeply interested in the social construction of identity. At the same time, paying attention to subaltern cultures of nature will help shed greater light on the social history of urban parks, suburbanization, wilderness recreation, and post-war American environmentalism.

Colin Fisher holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine and is professor of history at the University of San Diego. His book Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2015. He is currently working on a project on changing African American views of the relationship between health and the environment.

[1] See for instance Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967); William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 69-90; Marguerite S. Shaffer, See America First: Tourism in the Nineteenth Century: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).

[2] See for instance Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992).

[3] For quotes on the American theme and drama, see Perry Miller, “Nature and the National Ego,” in Errand into the Wilderness, ed. Perry Miller (Cambridge Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1967), 205, 204. For quote on wilderness, see Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, xi.

[4] See for instance Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness”; Louis S. Warren, The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth Century America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press); Catherine McNeur, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).

[5] See for instance Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993); Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Sylvia Hood Washington, Packing Them In: An Archaeology of Environmental Racism in Chicago, 1865-1954 (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2005).

[6] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), 89.

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