I just started what is so far an excellent book by Elaine Lewinnek, an associate professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. The book is called “The Working Man’s Reward,” and I wanted to plug it here. It grabbed me from the introduction, which proclaims that “Chicago’s first product was real estate.” She promises to examine how the dream of homeownership—heavily shaped in many ways by people and events in Chicago—has affected the urban and suburban landscape throughout America.
Lewinnek nicely summarizes some of her ideas at the end of the book’s introduction:
[R]eal estate is a particularly interesting product, offering to produce further profits while providing shelter, class status, community, access to jobs, and investment equity. Real estate decisions can affect health, educational opportunities, physical mobility, and ultimately class mobility. Real estate matters, so much so that riots erupted over it. [See Lewinnek’s blog post about Chicago’s 1919 race riots tied to property values.] As Chicagoans sorted out what a modern city would look like—through land speculation, boosterism, two riots, and many barely conscious, often-constrained choices—they developed a city form that affects the sprawling and often racially divided spaces that all Americans have inherited.
I’m eager to dig into many parts of this book, but one that stands out at the outset is its study of how innovative local initiatives often quickly spread to other municipalities—an idea I’ve written about before. Whet Moser, interviewing Lewinnek for Chicago Magazine, paraphrased her thesis as being about how Chicago “invented” the suburbs. In that interview, she describes how some of the first zoning laws were “fire limits” that came out of the great Chicago fire. The new building rules forbade wooden houses in the city, and that forced workers to live further from their places of work. Usefully, she “reject[s] monocausal explanations” for why the Chicago model spread, arguing that it was a complex combination of different social and political forces at work at the time. She also sees lessons for the future from her study, as summarized in this part of her interview with Moser:
At the end of the book, you argue that learning from this past is a way of preparing for the future. What did you learn in researching the book that you think we should learn from?
The things that people developed on their own—the real struggles to own humble, small houses, were things that they clung to. With the institutionalization of public housing, the small houses were bulldozed and people were put into huge towers that didn’t end up being good places to live. Now we’re going back to public housing that looks more suburban, more dispersed. Part of what working-class Chicagoans invented in the late 19th century and the early 20th century is some of what we might be coming full circle to.
And some of those possibilities, too, of living in diverse spaces; being conscious of the whole range of suburbs. To me those are kind of exciting possibilities.
Lewinnek blogs at Elaine’s Blog.