"Chicago Refers to Itself as the 'Paris on the Prairie.' Paris was a revolutionary city. So was Chicago:" An Interview with Historian Dominic Pacyga

Photo by  Alan Thomas

Photo by Alan Thomas

Chicago is less than 200 years old. Incorporated as a city in 1837, Chicago is young even by American standards — Boston, for example, is almost 400 years old — and compared to European cities, Chicago is an infant. But in the 181 years since the city was established, millions of people have immigrated or moved here, lived and died here, and events large and small have occurred here. Chicago’s history runs deep.

Dominic Pacyga is a Chicago historian and professor emeritus at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of eight books about the city, each one examining a different aspect of the past, and most with a focus on the city’s history with Polish immigrants. Here, he speaks about his writing, his research, and how he came to love Chicago’s history.


Tell me about your background. When did you know you want to be a historian? And what drew you to Chicago's history so deeply?

I grew up in the Back of the Yards on the south side of Chicago. I decided I wanted to be a history teacher when I was in high school, and I thought I would teach high school. But as I went to college, I got interested in going to graduate school and then I was sort of directed in a certain way, and my interests were always around Chicago.

All my life I've been involved in looking at neighborhoods [and how] people live, just thinking about how they live, where they live, why they live where they are. One of the earliest questions I asked myself was “Why was I not living in the North Shore? Why was I living at 47th and Ashland?” Then the idea of social class and ethnicity and race all became part of that investigation.

And over time I've written eight books, all of them about Chicago. They've sort of looked at various aspects of the city's development. The last one I published was called Slaughterhouse and it was about the Union Stockyards. As a young man I worked in the Stock Yards as a livestock handler and later I was a security guard. That's how I worked my way through college and the last couple of years of college at UIC. I did everything at UIC. I did my BA, my MA, and my PhD. All of my education has been in the city of Chicago.

Since I grew up in the Back of the Yards and I worked in the Stock Yards I became interested in the Stock Yards and the meat packing industry and of course the Polish community. My grandparents came to Chicago just before World War One and everybody worked in the meatpacking industry at that time, so I became very interested in both kinds of topics [which resulted in] my dissertation and my first [book], Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago. [It] was about Polish workers in meatpacking and steel. One of my advisers… suggested that I look at at least two neighborhoods. So he sort of steered me towards south Chicago. And that was very important later on for my career because I ended up being the associate director of the Southeast Chicago Historical Project for Columbia College and that led to a faculty position at Columbia College which I just retired from last year.

You've written eight books, as you said, and each one is kind of a different look at the City of Chicago. Are you working on any upcoming projects and if so, what's your next project on?

Next fall I have a book coming out called American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago. So it's a look at the general history of Polish Chicago from the 1850s until today. It'll be coming up by the University of Chicago Press next fall. Most of my books have focused on slices [of history]. For instance, my Polish immigrants book covered 1880 to 1920 in the steel and meat packing industries. Other books have looked at religion or looked at institutional development, things like that. But this book is a wider history of the Polish community in the city. I'm also doing I do a weekly podcast on Polish Chicago for WPNA radio and I have a weekly column in the Polish newspaper on the history of Polonia.

Has anything about Chicago's history ever really stumped you? Have you ever taken a look at something and just left completely stumped?

All kinds of stuff. It's really kind of hard to pick any one thing out. But you find out the more you dig into history, especially in urban history and local history, the more interesting things you find. I've looked at a lot of labor strikes, and I had no idea when I first began this journey, 30 or 35 years ago, the violence of strikes in Chicago. Chicago was really the center of the labor movement. And while we often refer to ourselves as sort of “Paris on the prairie,” remember that Paris was a revolutionary city, too. So Chicago was also. In the 1877 railroad strike, in 1884 the Haymarket riot, the 1894 Pullman strikes, and on and on and on including the race riot of 1919.

When I was first doing my dissertation, one of the things that really jumped out at me was these old newspapers, and the people being arrested were people I knew! They were being arrested in labor conflicts in the 1920s. They were people I grew up with, and it's like, “oh my God, who would have known this little old lady was so violent!”

I did stuff on gangs and silent racial conflict in the city. And that also brought me back to my neighborhood. There's all kinds of things that are surprising about the city. I think that it's sort of a never, never ending kind of mind. One can constantly work.

Is there something about Chicago's past that you wish more people knew about or were exposed to?

We talk forever about race and ethnicity and gender, but we don't talk about social class and how social class has played such an important role in the city's history. And by social class I mean demonstrations and a yearning for some sort of sense of equality. It has informed our political movements. It informed our social relationships. Class was manipulated and that manipulation, to an extent, caused all the racial animosity in the city of Chicago.

I think we need to really explore the sort of social class issues of the city as well as all those other kinds of things which are all affected by economic relationships. I tried to do that as much as I can in my reading and my writing but sometimes it gets blurred. For instance people love to talk about gangsters, right? Chicago is the sort of “gang land/violence of gangs.” Or political corruption, right? They like to talk about political corruption and the relationship between gangsters and politics.

But the underlying reality is that much of this is the result of an economic system that is not always fair and that has not always helped people maintain their place in the city. Even racial relations are often shaped by policy decisions that are made in Washington or made in City Hall. Many of them are informed really by by economic factors that sometimes hurt neighborhoods rather than helping.

Have you ever researched or read about an old Chicago tradition that isn't celebrated anymore that you'd like to see make a comeback in the city?

There's all kinds of things I'd like to see make a comeback but I'm not sure if they’re all traditions. I don't know if you saw the news a few weeks ago talk about the witch burning. There were parades where witches were burned — not real, witches, of course, not real people — but you know, sort of straw dummies, [burned] in Chicago parks. I don't think I would really want to see that brought back! But it was certainly one of those things that surprised me because it would happen in Back the Yards and all over the city. And I never knew about it [and] I’m almost 70 years old.

There's one meat slaughterhouse left in the city on 41st and Ashland and when that closes — maybe sometime soon, maybe not — a tradition of slaughtering and preparing meat products in the city of Chicago will disappear for the first time since about 1818. That is something that I think we've lost. The industrial might of the city has changed tremendously.

Thumbnail image by Jason Creps

Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the city’s last slaughterhouse is located on 48th and Ashland. It is located on 41st and Ashland. The article has been updated.