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.
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.