Prof. Dominic Pacyga is a historian and researcher who analyzes the city of Chicago not just as an urban conglomerate, but as the collective and diverse story of settlers, immigrants, and locals who built it through their flesh and turned it into the “most American city”.
Teaching for over 4 decades at Columbia College and the University of Chicago, his book—published by the University of Chicago Press and titled “Chicago: A Biography”—is a vivid portrait of the quintessential skyscraper jungle. His work as an author appeals both academics and individuals, with the exploration of the “city of neighborhoods”.
"People say 'How can you live there? It must be terrible! You must be afraid to walk'. I tell people: 'Come to the South Side, we won’t eat you. You might even find that you’ll be happy and friendly'".
— Dominic Pacyga
Dominic Pacyga, PhD (guest): I realized that, you know, something about Chicago was calling me back. And I remember getting kind of emotional about seeing a picture, “That’s home, I have to go back,” you know? I mean I think we get a bad rap in the media because of the shootings and also, you know, the gangster city and all that. You… you get this kind of stereotype of Chicago. Like most cities, has its issues, has its problems, you know? I mean, this is but and by no means heaven but it’s not hell either. But I think, you know, the ability to face issues and problems and to work them through has been real here. And, you know, people say, “How can you live there? How could you live there?” and, “It must be terrible! You must be afraid to walk,” right? I’m not afraid. I tell people, “Come to the South Side, we won’t eat you. You might even find that you’ll be happy and friendly.”
Simone Salis (host): I am Simone Salis and this is Hoomans with today’s guest, Dominic Pacyga.
S. Salis: Prof. Dominic Pacyga is a historian and researcher who analyzes the city of Chicago, not just as an urban conglomerate but as the collective and diverse story of settlers, immigrants and locals who built it through their flesh and turned it into the most American city. Teaching for over 4 decades at Columbia College and University of Chicago, his book published by the University of Chicago Press entitled ‘[amazon_textlink asin=’0226644286′ text=’Chicago: A Biography’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’hoomans-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’4f27e38d-2719-11e8-bf1b-09612a11f982′]’, is a vivid portrait of the quintessential skyscraper jungle. His work as an author appeals both academics and individuals with the exploration of the City of Neighborhoods. So, professor Pacyga, as we just said and also how one of your books is titled, Chicago has a nickname which is City of Neighborhoods.
D. Pacyga: Right, sure.
S. Salis: In which neighborhood did you grow up?
D. Pacyga: I was born in back of the yard. So I was born just close to the Union stockyards, just a few blocks away. We lived in Wolcott Street and Wood Street in that neighborhood. So I lived there in that neighborhood until 1968. And now I’m settled in Beverly on the south west side.
S. Salis: And what is peculiar about back of the yards?
D. Pacyga: Well it’s a working-class neighborhood. In… in that neighborhood there were 12 Catholic churches in about 2 and a half square miles. Each one had an ethnic identity. There were 3 polish churches, an Irish Church, a German Church, Bohemian Church, the Slovak Church, etc, Lithuanian, and then finally a Mexican Church at that time. Most of those are gone now because of ethnic and racial change was taking place. But it still remains a very working-class neighborhood. The Union stockyard and the packing houses are gone. The slaughter houses are gone. But there is still a good deal of industry in the stockyard area and in the Chicago industrial park; that Chicago stockyard industrial park that’s located there. And it still employs about 15,000 people. So it’s a… it’s a industrial working class community.
S. Salis: Were you… were you in a working… did you grow up in a working-class family?
D. Pacyga: Oh yes, very much working class. You know, my father and mother both had 8th grade education. My grandparents were graduated from, I think, the 5thgrade in Poland.
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pacyga: And I was the first one in my immediate family to go to high school and into college and I stayed. My father worked at Western Electric; he was a punch press operator. My mother worked in various jobs. Once she had children, mostly she stayed at home. But when she was a young girl from about the age of 14 on, she worked in a packing houses for about 12 years, and then she worked at an airplane plant during World War II.
S. Salis: And in the packing house you mean for meat packing?
D. Pacyga: Meat packing, yes.
S. Salis: There was a big industry here in Chicago, right, for…
D. Pacyga: Very big, yeah; very large. It… it drew… and by 1890, some writers have said it, about 1/4 of the Chicago’s population was dependent on the meatpacking industry.
S. Salis: So you say your family’s from Poland, but do you have a specific heritage?
D. Pacyga: Polish Mountaineer descent .Polish Mountaineers live on the border next to Slovakia; we live up in the… in the Tatra mountains. We’re… we’re what we call Polski Gorola or polish Mountaineers. And I’m the 3rd generation, so I’m the 2nd generation born in the United States.
S. Salis: Is that what drawn your attention to the city of Chicago…. how was it born? You were born here?
D. Pacyga: I was born here; yes I was.
S. Salis: And…. and at some point, the city of Chicago started to like get attention from you.
D. Pacyga: Yes.
S. Salis: And drew your attention.
D. Pacyga: Well I was always… you know, when I was small my father and I traveled quite a bit around the city, visiting places, doing things like that. And as I got older, especially in high school, then I began to travel a lot around the city once again. And…
S. Salis: Was there a specific reason or just for your own discovery?
D. Pacyga: Just interest, discovery. You know, I had some wild idea once when I was in high school that I was going to write a book of poems about Chicago; that never happened. But…
S. Salis: After college some people decide, “I want to change a city.” You were already interested as a kid in the city exploring the neighborhoods and everything, but there must have been a moment in which you told yourself… did you ever tell yourself, “I want to stay here, I to settle here, I want to create a life here.”?
D. Pacyga: I… I think, you know, for me, you know, back in the 60s and early 70s, everybody wanted to go to California. And it was a brief time where I thought, “Well, I’m just going to go to Los Angeles, I’m going to move east,” I moved west. And there were other times that I thought about moving to New York. But, you know, my opportunities always opened up here. You know, for me, College was a… it was a real learning experience in that it widened my perspective. I went to a Catholic High School on the South Side.
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pacyga: Christian Brothers, French Christian Brothers, at De la Salle High School. And it was really the sort of the Catholic High School for those neighborhoods around the stockyards. And I could not afford to go to a Catholic University; it was too expensive for me. And then at that point, UIC opened up; University of Illinois at Chicago. And at that time it was called Chicago Circle. And the Vietnam War was on and, you know, friends of mine were going to Vietnam but I went to university and I kept my 2S status; yes my… my…
S. Salis: Deferred?
D. Pacyga: … deferment. And when I was in college I met a really interesting professor named Edward Thaden, he was a Russian historian; did Russian history and he also encouraged people to do Polish history and East European history. So I… I got involved with him and he and I decided… he let me sit in on a graduate seminar in my senior year and I met some really interesting characters and… and we all became good friends. And I just decided to go to graduate school and stay in the… stay at UIC; I wanted to work with Thaden. Over the years I began to get more interested again, in… back into American history and immigration history rather than in Polish history and the history of Poland.
S. Salis: Mm-hmm, so you started to expand from there.
D. Pacyga: Yes and change… and I changed advisors, and eventually Leo Schelbert became my advisor. He’s an immigration historian, he’s Swiss; he’s from Switzerland. He became my doctoral dissertation adviser.
S. Salis: What’s your dissertation on?
D. Pacyga: It was on a Polish workers in meatpacking and in steel. And that was my… it was a book that came out in 1991 finally and it’s also at the University of Chicago Press. I now publish primarily with the University of Chicago Press. And, you know, I look back and I was writing a book about my grandparents. And… and so it was part of my own exploration of my own life. And that often happens whenever you write or you do history…
S. Salis: You reflect.
D. Pacyga: … you reflect on your own as well. And, you know, I mean I think historians always bring that to…
S. Salis: What did you want when you were in school? Were you consciously pursuing a goal?
D. Pacyga: I wanted to write.
S. Salis: You wanted to write?
D. Pacyga: Yeah, I wanted to write. I wasn’t sure how that writing was going to take place or what it was going to focus on but I wanted to write. I wanted to teach. It seemed my plan was to be a high school teacher.
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pacyga: And I planned to actually to go back to the high school I taught at in many ways, you know?
S. Salis: Sid you work when you were younger while you were studying or..?
D. Pacyga: Oh yes. I began working at the age of 14. I worked at a factory, a place called PoRay and they made television sets and they hired primarily Polish immigrants, and I had a bunch of Polish immigrant friends. I was 14 but we told them I was of age.
S. Salis: (Laughs) And what was the age of the ‘time of age’? Like 16?
D. Pacyga: You had to be at least 16.
S. Salis: 16?
D. Pacyga: Yeah. And actually we changed my… my baptismal record to say I was…
S. Salis: You did? How did you change that?
D. Pacyga: Well, I did it.
S. Salis: (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: They accepted it and I went to work for them. And then after that, I got hurt working there and I quit. I had an accident where I was carrying turpentine in cans and I fell and the turpentine splashed in my eyes and my face. And these 3 Polish women jumped on top of me right away, held me down in poured water in my eyes.
S. Salis: Okay, that was probably really helpful to know by the way. (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: Oh yeah. I got up and I left and that was it.
S. Salis: Mm-hmm. What did you work after that?
D. Pacyga: So I was a livestock handler and then a security guard for the Union Stockyard.
S. Salis: Which kind of livestock?
D. Pacyga: Oh, cattle, hogs and sheep.
S. Salis: Okay, all of them.
D. Pacyga: I don’t know how much you’ve been around livestock.
S. Salis: Not much. (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: Like when I worked… when I first began to work at the stockyards, they put me in in the hog house. So…
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pacyga: And this hog house, it was built… could hold probably 10 or 15 thousand hogs and it was a huge single story building and there were pens everywhere and truck docks. And we… we never got that many hogs; the stockyards were in decline at the time. We’d get 3 to 5 thousand hogs a night and, you know, you had to take them off… the truck driver would get them off the truck and into a pen and you had to move them into pens and lock them in.
S. Salis: And of course… so you worked a night?
D. Pacyga: Yes I worked from… yeah, like 5:30 till 2:30 in the morning; something like that.
S. Salis: Did everything always go well? Did you ever have…?
D. Pacyga: I don’t think so. It went badly actually.
S. Salis: (Laughs).
D. Pacyga: There was one point… you know, kids would sneak into the stockyards and let the cattle out.
S. Salis: What was more manageable, cattles or… cattle or hogs?
D. Pacyga: Oh well, hogs… hogs are very smart.
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pacyga: Hogs… cattle are very dumb.
S. Salis: (Laughs).
D. Pacyga: And sheep are just in the middle.
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pacyga: But hogs are very smart and they know what’s going on. I give you an example, we were driving… I was driving maybe 200 head of hogs down the alley; that’s the spaces between the Pens, 2, 3 yard of them in a… you know, in a pen at the end of the alley. And they always said you should close the gates and hook the gates behind you because hogs will go around you and try to run out. When I was a kid I didn’t… didn’t want to hook the gates and I was fast and I didn’t feel that any hog was going to get past me.
S. Salis: (Laughs). It’s just hogs.
D. Pacyga: Just hogs. And this hog is in front of me and he turns looks one way then he turns and looks the other way and I’m screaming at them to move, “Come on! Hiyah! Ya!,” you know? And suddenly he barrels and knocks me down and I fall down into the hog… fell on the floor, man.
S. Salis: Oh!
D. Pacyga: And I looked up and there’s 200 hogs coming at me and I’m on the ground.
S. Salis: Oh no!
D. Pacyga: And I jumped up and screamed. And behind me, all the gates were open.
S. Salis: Oh no!
D. Pacyga: So the Hogs were headed for the street. And I yelled and the guys came out and they closed the gate just before they got out.
S. Salis: Just in time before a horde of hogs…! (Laughs).
D. Pacyga: Yeah, 200 hogs would be out on the street.
S. Salis: (Laughs).
D. Pacyga: So they gave me so much trouble after that, you know, “Make sure you put the gate, close the gate, throw a gate,” you know? So I learned my lesson. There was a time when I was in the… in the cattle yard. There was this guy who I worked with his name was… his nickname was Flirbo. And Flirbo had a bizarre sense of humor and…
S. Salis: Why?
D. Pacyga: Well, Monday nights were the nights we got mostly bulls in. And so I was taking the lead on a bull, he said, “You take the lead and I’ll drive the bulls behind you and you set the gates up ahead. And so you… you go ahead and you set the gates up.” He took his cane, his cattle cane, and he hit this bull in a place you shouldn’t hit a bull. And all the bull saw was me and all he felt was pain.
S. Salis: Oh no!
D. Pacyga: And he charged at me. And, you know those running of the bulls in Spain?
S. Salis: Yeah! La Corrida!
D. Pacyga: Yeah. So that was sort of like that.
S. Salis: (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: I saw this… this 1500 pound animal just coming at me like… it seemed like a hundred miles an hour. I screamed, I jumped, I jumped over a fence. I grabbed the fence, pulled myself up and jumped over all right. And I locked myself in the cattle pen and his pull started hitting, you know, the gate trying to get it. And he was just angry as hell! I picked up a… the floors of the pens were paving… a granite paving street blocks; granite blocks. And I picked up… I pulled one out of the mud and I threw it at him and I hit him between the eyes and he just looked at me like, “Are you crazy?”
S. Salis: (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: “I’m going to kill you!”
S. Salis: He’s like, “Now it’s on!” (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: “Now it’s on!” So Firpo threw some gates and… and went around and got the bull to go into a pen.
S. Salis: Well that’s when you decided, “No, I’m actually going to be a historian; a professor.” (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: Well, you know, I was a high school teacher at the time.
S. Salis: (Laughs)
S. Salis: I am Simone Salis and this is Hoomans with today’s guests Dominic Pacygal, professor and historian focusing on the city of Chicago. So through your books, of course, you mentioned the incredible number of nicknames that the city of Chicago has. I have never heard of a city that has more nicknames than Chicago. We have ‘the Windy City’, ‘the City that Works’, ‘the Most American City’, ‘the City of the Big Shoulders’, ‘the Second City,’ ‘the Jungle’, ‘the Paris of the Midwest’, ‘City under make,’ well that’s Nelson, ‘Our City of Neighborhoods’, ‘City of churches’. Of all these nicknames, which is the one that you… you respect the most? You… if you believe it’s more… the most the most representative of the city?
D. Pacyga: Well, you know, I think… you know, I did a book called ‘City of Chicago; City of Neighborhoods’…
S. Salis: Right, yes.
D. Pacyga: … back in ’86. And I think that’s the one that strikes me the most or that touches my interest the most. But City of Neighborhoods, City of Churches, in a place like Chicago, those are 2 sort of…
S. Salis: Interchangeable?
D. Pacyga: Interchangeable, yeah, name. You know there were… at one point, if you just look at Catholic churches, there are over 400 Catholic churches in Chicago.
S. Salis: Not even in Rome! I’m form there and I think we… we have more. But, I mean…
D. Pacyga: You have more…
S. Salis: That’s a good…
D. Pacyga: … monumental churches.
S. Salis: Right!
D. Pacyga: Perhaps we do. Though actually, some of the neighbor… you know, our cathedral is rather simple. Many of the neighborhood churches outshine the Cathedral in many ways. And so those neighborhood churches are really… if you look at the stockyard, to get back to my… my birthplace there, And you put it in the middle, orbit around the stockyard church were 36 Catholic churches, just an orbit around this.
S. Salis: Just…
D. Pacyga: You know, 4 neighborhoods that touch the stockyards; back of the yards, McKinley Park, Bridgeport and Canaryville, there were 36 Catholic churches.
S. Salis: Well that’s also maybe the city evolved and started to exist in a moment that church is still man… and still do.
D. Pacyga: Sure.
S. Salis: But they were like a pillar community building and… and they were part probably also of the urban planning. Well there…
D. Pacyga: And there was no urban planning.
S. Salis: There was no urban…
D. Pacyga: No urban planning.
S. Salis: And… and although the city is a grid, isn’t it?
D. Pacyga: Well the city is a grid, it’s been laid out as a grid, and that has something to do with the way the Northwest Territory was laid out when it became part of the United States and then the surveyors laid it out in a grid. And then the grid was just superimposed on city streets so that every 8 miles basically, you have a busy street.
S. Salis: I was…
D. Pacyga: And every… yes, every 8 blocks…
S. Salis: Every 8 blocks and it corresponds… so I was incredibly… when I moved to Chicago, I looked at the grid system and that surprised me because it’s… it’s very mathematical. And if you… and if you learn it, eventually will help you it will help you determine how long does it take to get from point A…
D. Pacyga: It’s like for an entire map.
S. Salis: Exactly! It’s like playing battleship.
D. Pacyga: Right, exactly!
S. Salis: And I was surprised because it is… like you said, I found out it is a great… each… every 8 blocks, it is exactly a mile and every block resets the numbers using the hundreds. So for example if a block goes to from 123 and that’s the last building you will find on the block, the next one starts again with 200. And to a European that grew up in a city that has 2 or 3 thousand year old streets which heart as wide as a single person and people try to drive cars in it, that was really surprising to me.
D. Pacyga: Well, you know, I mean and… but… but think about this now. This was a city that grew up in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. It was very capitalist City. And if you’re a capitalist and you have a business, you want people…
S. Salis: To be found.
D. Pacyga: … to be found easily. And so it’s very much built on that idea that people will be able to find places easily. Every, you know… I mean, I’ve… I’ve actually lived in Paris for a little bit, my wife’s a French historian, and Paris is a confusing City in many ways, especially the old Paris, you know? The streets go one way, this way, that… you turn the corn… you turn, you walk a block and it’s a different street name, you know?
S. Salis: (Laughs) Yes.
D. Pacyga: In Rome you get the same. And, you know, the thing about Rome of course is when you’re driving in Rome. And I have unfortunately…
S. Salis: I am so sorry to hear that.
D. Pacyga: (Laughs)
S. Salis: People are… you can tell me. People here in Chicago complain about the traffic and about the way to drive. But can… every time I’m like, “This is amazing! This is actually very civilized.”
D. Pacyga: Right.
S. Salis: “And it’s reasonable…”
D. Pacyga: And they stop at stop signs.
S. Salis: People stop at stop signs!
D. Pacyga: Yes, right.
S. Salis: That’s always… never take that for granted in life.
D. Pacyga: I actually in… in Rome or any other place, you know, it’s… it’s quite amazing. I was in Saigon in… in Vietnam and trying to cross the street, my friend who was a officer in the South Vietnamese army, he has a restaurant in the Edgewater Beach Cafe and the Edgewater hot… apartments.
S. Salis: Oh! Okay.
D. Pacyga: The big pink one, they have a poster there.
S. Salis: I do, yes, the pink hotel.
D. Pacyga: And we were in Saigon together in Ho Chi Minh City. And he said, “Crossing the street is a Buddhist experience, just close your eyes and walk.”
S. Salis: (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: “And somehow, the fish will go around you.”
S. Salis: That is…
D. Pacyga: And it’s all the motorcycles just, I… because they don’t stop for the red light.
S. Salis: No.
D. Pacyga: I just crossed the street and… and they did. They went around me like fish, you know?
S. Salis: Yeah.
D. Pacyga: And he said this, “Now just close your eyes, walk across the street and…”
S. Salis: That’s the best way to describe it in America.
D. Pacyga: And it’s a buddhist experience (Laughs).
S. Salis: I still check when I cross the street and there is a bus here.
D. Pacyga: Oh, sure.
S. Salis: I still check to the side that a motorcycle is not coming to kill me.
D. Pacyga: Oh, yeah.
S. Salis: Because they literally come from around the bus at the speed of light.
D. Pacyga: Well, you know driving in Rome when you do the traffic circle like around the…
S. Salis: Right, the roundabout, oh…
D. Pacyga: You know…
S. Salis: Oh, in Piazza Venezia.
D. Pacyga: Yeah, right. And I mean, somebody is to your right and suddenly they’re making a left, and they don’t even look, they just go. And it’s like, “Oh my god!”
S. Salis: (Laughing).
D. Pacyga: I was driving on the Jordan up to Sicily oh one day and I think I’m doing… I’m doing the equivalent of 75 miles an hour.
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pacyga: And people are passing me by and swearing at me and beeping at me and they’re just going like 200 miles. And like, “Where am I?”
S. Salis: Yes! Yes sir! Yes, my good sir, you’re used to a place where people drive, quietly trying to survive, that’s another thing. And I really appreciate that Chicago is, you know, it’s much more regulated traffic. And also the grid system helps because if I need to find a place here I just go straight… I can go straight down 100 and then turn right…
D. Pacyga: Right.
S. Salis: … or 2 or get to know that. The only streets that are not part of grid are like a dirt… Chicago has streets which go… which go diagonally.
D. Pacyga: Milwaukee Avenue, Archer Avenue…
S. Salis: Lincoln and Clark. Why so?
D. Pacyga: Those… those follow the Indian paths.
S. Salis: Oh!
D. Pacyga: Okay, so they were a path stead as…as the Buffalo would make their way to the river, they would cut through the grass and… and the Indians would follow them and they eventually just became these kinds of paths.
S. Salis: Chicago is definitely a city that… whose architecture shines. If you go to the Loop, which is the centered, the downtown of the city, you can admire most of the international style. And not just that, even some of the first skyscrapers that were ever built, the ones are surviving around or high-rise buildings, this grid system ended up being functional maybe to developing these structures.
D. Pacyga: Sure. Well, you know, also the Loop… and you have to understand the Loop became, you know, it was a central business.
S. Salis: What… what is the Loop? Let’s take one side.
D. Pacyga: Well, the Loop was originally… the name the Loop came from the cable cars that sort of the looped to make their way back to the south side.
S. Salis: So not from the current an elevated system because I believe some people…
D. Pacyga: Most people…
S. Salis: Most people are remiss of that.
D. Pacyga: Yeah. But it was actually the cable car loop that looped around the downtown area and then went back south. Later on the elevated system comes in and it also creates a Loop to serve the outlying name.
S. Salis: So it overlaid that previous…
D. Pacyga: Right, yeah.
S. Salis: Okay.
S. Salis: Yeah. But… but what it meant was that it was very prestigious to live within the Loop because it was so well served by public transportation. So you started getting people trying to get into the center of the city as much as possible and that meant that you had to build upward. So in the 1880s, William LeBaron Jenny really builds the first… technically the first…
S. Salis: Elevated car?
D. Pacyga: … Iron framed building. So it was only 10 or 12 stories but that was the first skyscraper. So then you get things like the Monadnock building and… and others afterwards, some of which are still standing; the Rookery. But Chicago became a place for American architects to try out new ideas. People like Jenny, William LeBaron Jenny, or people like Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright. And then of course after the rise of Hitler and Germany and a whole bunch of German architects who created the international school who would come to…
S. Salis: Well…
D. Pacyga: … to America.
S. Salis: Mies van der Rohe…
D. Pacyga: Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
S. Salis: Gropius came here from the Bauhaus.
D. Pacyga: Right, mm-hmm, and created a new Bauhaus and… and Mies of course was the architect for the Illinois Institute of Technology. You know Chicago has had this… at least in the 19th century and probably still do today, this tendency to say, “We have the fastest, the biggest, most dangerous expressways,” that’s the Dan Ryan. All this kind of stuff, “We’re the biggest or the fastest or…” you know? And so there’s a great deal of boosterism in… in Chicago culture. And of course we had the, you know, the world’s tallest building for a while with the Sears Tower now called the Willis Tower.
S. Salis: The Willis Tower. About that, you said Chicago is a city that somehow expresses, especially for Chicagoans of some generations, some pride, some sense of civic pride strongly, right? Chicagoans are passionate about their neighborhoods which can be incredibly diverse. But also they tend to stay… to be attached to the names of…
D. Pacyga: Sure.
S. Salis: … and to the… you mentioned the Willis Tower. You… you cannot call it the Willis Tower, they will just correct you and call it Sears Tower, even though Sears is about… is fading very fast.
D. Pacyga: Well, you know, it’s even the target downtown and everybody still refers to as the Carson Pirie Scott building.
S. Salis: Mm-hmm, or Macy’s is actually Marshall…
D. Pacyga: Marshall Field’s, yeah. Yeah, so, you know? I mean, it’s part of habit, I think, you know, that changes… you know, one of the things that’s happened, we also had a very pronounced accent here and even a dialect where certain words were just Chicago words. That’s been breaking down and… and largely I think that breaks down because of the media. Chicagoans, you know, we call the spaces between buildings ‘gangways’.
S. Salis: I didn’t know that. They’re not alleys?
D. Pacyga: They’re not… well, there are alleys but that’s… an alley and a gangway are 2 different things.
S. Salis: How so?
D. Pacyga: The alley is a service alley behind a building where garbage cans are placed, things are set up, deliveries are made.
S. Salis: And the tiny intercept…
D. Pacyga: But the tiny little spaces, the sidewalks between buildings, those are called gangways.
S. Salis: Is that because Al Capone used to walk through them?
D. Pacyga: It comes from a German word in the 19th century; ‘gangde’ something. I don’t speak German but it comes from a German word and the Germans called it that and it became the… the Chicago term ‘gangway’. You know, and but I’ve seen that now break down. People are fewer… younger people are seem to be losing the use of that term ‘gangway’. We also… when I was a kid, my mother would say, “Go play on the Prairie.”
S. Salis: (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: And the Prairie was the open lot and in the middle of the block. There wasn’t… you know, not… “Don’t go to the park,” the park was too far away, “Go play on the Prairie.” So we’d go play on the Prairie.
S. Salis: And that’s what Frank Lloyd Wright did, right?
D. Pacyga: With his Prairie… right, Prairie School, yeah. So… and he built on the Prairie took away my little park. But yeah, so we would go play on the Prairie or we would go to the show instead of the movies; we went to the show.
S. Salis: To the show.
D. Pacyga: To the show, yeah.
S. Salis: Yeah. So if you want to… to be hated by a Chicagoan, you just need to ask for a Chicago-style hot dog, put some ketchup on it…
D. Pacyga: Don’t put ketchup on it!
S. Salis: (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: No ketchup on it.
S. Salis: (Laughs) Yes, just shower it would catch up and then go visit the Willis Tower. (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: There you are; there you are. You know, talking about the ketchup for a second, when we lived in Paris, there was a food store that had the Seccion American.
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pacyga: So I went there and it was all ketchup, that’s all it was.
S. Salis: That’s what I think about, yeah!
D. Pacyga: And it was the French… I thought was French for making fun of me at that point but I needed ketchup so I bought it. (Laughs)
S. Salis: Like, “Give me the ketchup!” (Laughs)
S. Salis: I am Simone Salis and this is Hoomans. You can listen again for this conversation on hoomans.org or on your favorite podcast tab. Today’s guest is Professor Dominic Pacyga, a Chicago historian with over 4 decades of experience, and author of books like ‘Chicago: A Biography’, 'Slaughterhouse’, and much more.
S. Salis: I saw this book by Richard Frieda, I think that’s how it’s pronounced, which is called, “Who is Your City?’. And, you know, I think that’s a very interesting question because cities are not just made of the urban structure, but they’re also… they attract a certain kind of people, right? And so they express a character; a city… city has a certain character in it. And my question is, who is your city? Who is your Chicago? Who is Chicago for you?
D. Pacyga: Well, you know, that… that’s actually… it is a very interesting question. I mean, I… like I said on various occasions I’ve lived outside of the city. This has always been my home but I’ve lived outside of the city. And I remember when I was just spending the year in Kraków, a city that I loved very much and then I identify what I know very well. I’ve been to Kraków maybe 15 or 20 times something like that so I know Kraków pretty well. But I realized that I had to get home, that, you know, something about Chicago calling me back. And I remember getting kind of emotional about seeing a picture of the river and the buildings on the river and saying, “That’s home. I have to go back,” you know? And of course I was coming back anyway and this is where my life is. But I think… I think there is a certain kind of Chicagoan. There is a… a cultural issue here, people are pretty straightforward, they tend to be fairly friendly. I mean, I think we get a bad rap in the media because of the shootings and also, you know, the gangster city and all that. First thing people ask about is Al Capone. Al Capone’s been gone a long time and he was only here for a little bit and he came from Brooklyn. So, you know, but this is… you get this kind of a stereotype of Chicago. But I think, you know, the ability to face issues and problems and to work them through has been real here. It’s… it’s a kind of… it kind of has a Midwestern kind of truthfulness to it. There is, you know… I mean, this is but and by no means heaven but it’s not hell either. It’s… it’s a city that sort of like most cities, has its issues, has its problems, certainly we’re facing various economic problems right now and… and violence problems, but has always been able to work through its issues and were true its problems. You know, I…
S. Salis: Studs Terkel said, “Chicago is not the most corrupt American city. It’s the most theatrically corrupt.” (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: Well, it is a theatrically corrupt city, yes. But… and I think… but what he means by that is, it’s this… this image sort of thing. But no, I mean, even in politics… I mean, you know, right now we’re getting a lot of heat from Washington DC about the violence and about the crime and from the Trump administration and…
S. Salis: Yes the carnage the inauguration speech.
D. Pacyga: Exactly.
S. Salis: He talked about a carnage, which is a very strong visual image to paint in any listeners.
D. Pacyga: Right. And people say, “How can you move there?” You know, I still live in the city. I live in the physical city.
S. Salis: Of course, and it’s South Side.
D. Pacyga: And people will say, “How could you live there? It must be terrible! You must be afraid to walk!” I am not afraid, I tell people, “Come to the South Side, we won’t eat you, it is okay. You might even find that your… you’ll be happy and friendly.” So yeah, now I… I think… but there is the sense in of the typical Chicago. I’ll give you an example. We… I was at a cocktail party. If you ever want to be at a boring cocktail party, go to a historians’ cocktail party.
S. Salis: (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: And there was a young woman there and she was with… she was the wife of some fellow who had gotten a job up here. And she was from New Orleans and she says, “Ugh, I hate Chicago! I just hate it! The people here walk so fast. There so… they never smile, they never say, ‘Hello’, they’re not pleasant. Down in Orleans, everybody smiles, everybody’s happy, ‘How y’all doing?’” And my wife says, “What are you talking about? I’m from New York these people are so goddamn friendly I can’t believe it!” you know?
S. Salis: (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: And she goes, “They’re slow! They’re walking down the street, they walk so slow! Why don’t they walk a little faster?” Just whoa! New York and New Orleans looking at Chicago totally different!
S. Salis: And you were in the middle. (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: And I was in the middle! And maybe that’s the nicest thing about Chicago; we’re in the middle. (Laughs)
S. Salis: It is, it is! I believe it offers both… to me, it offers both like the thrill of big city and the metropolis like the New York downtown. But at the same time, you take the train and in 10 minutes, you’re in a very residential area like we are.
D. Pacyga: Right, right.
S. Salis: And you can live your life, you know, in a more quiet way if you so wish.
D. Pacyga: And frankly, the forest reserve is around the corner. You can you can go out into the countryside pretty easily.
S. Salis: Yeah.
D. Pacyga: You know, the parks, the lakefront; all those things.
S. Salis: I believe the… yeah. So you… you… to me, Chicago seems like one of, you know, the most well kept secrets even among Americans.
D. Pacyga: So true.
S. Salis: Like it’s not just that… if you ask internationally like about a city that you that people think about in America, they will mention New York, they will mention LA, Boston eventually and California for sure, anything, Seattle, but Chicago rarely comes to mind.
D. Pacyga: Right.
S. Salis: And even Americans sometimes move here, young people, and they go like, “I did not know it was so enjoyable!”
D. Pacyga: Right, right!
S. Salis: “And so balance!” you know? You can find yourself and you can find whatever you like inside the city.
D. Pacyga: And, you know, we’ve got great art here.
S. Salis: Yes, there is… speaking of that, Chicago is a city that is permeated by public art. And it has been like that for a while.
D. Pacyga: Yes.
S. Salis: For example, William Whyte said, “The sculpture can have strong social effects,” right? Before and after studies of the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York showed that the installation of the Dubuffet for trees, had had a great impact on the activity for pedestrians. And people are drawn to sculptures and they’re drawn through the sculptures. And the same happens, they can touch it, they can talk, they can take a picture. And the same happens at the Federal Plaza in Chicago Calder’s Stabile, there is this big…
D. Pacyga: The Flamingo, right.
S. Salis: The Flamingo, there is this big sculpture back up there which is a vivid red and contrasts strongly with… with the black metal and seal of the Mies van der Rohe’s buildings in Federal Plaza. So Chicago is a city of public art. There is Picasso in multiple spots. There’s multiple Picasso’s in the street.
D. Pacyga: There’s a Chagall.
S. Salis: There is a Marc Chagall window in… is that the Chase, current Chase?
D. Pacyga: Yes, that’s the… the Four… the Four Seasons in the plaza.
S. Salis: There is the Four Seasons there in the plaza. And… and Chicago keeps going on with that even for the millennium. It’s a city that has an auditorium designed by Frank Gehry. There is the Crown Fontaine. There is the… The bean which is called the Cloud Gate.
D. Pacyga: Cloud Gate, right.
S. Salis: But that… so how do you think that actually the public art shapes the city for people that live here and for visitors?
D. Pacyga: Well, you know… I mean, in the 19th century, the feeling was that art would lift people up and would make them more American and would tie it into the larger culture. So places like the auditorium building which was, you know, now Roosevelt University, that building was really created with the idea of being a public space for public art and for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was a place to meet and it’s beautifully crafted on the inside; it’s a wonderful piece of architecture. So art and architecture was seen as uplifting, as bringing people… and remember you’re talking about people from all over the world coming to Chicago. And there’s riots, there’s strikes, there’s social clashes between various classes, right? There’s arguments about, “What is an American? Who is an American? If you’re from Italy, how can you be an American?” you know, etc, etc, “If you’re from Poland…” I mean, there’s the problem of the Irish and all these kinds of things. But the feeling was that if they could be brought into the Western Canon through art would be very important. So about 1903, a man named Benjamin Ferguson passed away and he left behind money called the Ferguson Fund. And the Ferguson Fund was to create public art. So most of the public art in Grant Park and in many of the major parts of the city of Chicago are paid for by the Ferguson Fund; which was operated by the Art Institute of Chicago. And the idea here was that art would bring people together, unite a very divided population; divided by class, by ethnicity, by race by, gender. But art would bring people together into the Democratic milieu. So this was very idealistic in the 90s… we don’t think about art in that manner anymore. But William… Lorado Taft… Lorado Taft, a great sculptor from Chicago, planned on both sides of the Midway Plaisance which is the sort of main street of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, to have monumental statues of Aristotle, of Socrates, all the great minds of Western civilization, so that people could walk along the Midway and think about the great ideas of mankind and be united in this idea of democracy. So art played a very important role and I think it still does. I think, you know, when you see kids going to look at the Picasso and wondering what it is and then, you know, using it as a slide… I don’t know if you’ve seen kids climb to the top of it in sliding down.
S. Salis: Yes, I have; I have. That’s…
D. Pacyga: And nobody chases them away.
S. Salis: I am very impressed that that’s… that’s a use that Picasso maybe didn’t think about… (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: I have no idea of that; I have no idea of that. Yeah, and across the… across the street is Miró’s Chicago. It is… and there’s another sculpture in front of the Thompson building by the artist you mentioned, I for… Dub… so there’s a lot of public art. And there’s a lot of also… and within… within the idea of architecture, you know, if you look at the Marquette building, the Marquette building has these… these wonderful freezes outside that explain the discovery of Chicago and by Father Marquette, the French Jesuit. And… and so there’s those on the sides of buildings, on the sides of the Chicago temple, which by the way, is the tallest Gothic tower in the world; it’s on top of a skyscraper.
S. Salis: Yes.
D. Pacyga: And… but on this side are stained glass windows which depict the settlement of the… of the Methodists in Chicago; of the Methodists are from… from New England in the city. So there’s all kinds of little… and in neighborhoods… and then every ethnic group has to have you know… I mean, the Italians have Garibaldi in Lincoln Park, okay? The Pols have Kosciuszko and Copernicus down by the Adler Planetarium. The Czechs have a Havlicek down by the Planet… at Adler Planetarium.
S. Salis: Chicago has an incredible amount of museums.
D. Pacyga: Oh yes! There are some 30 ethnic museums in the city. There are some neighborhood museums and of course now we’ll have a Presidential Library soon.
S. Salis: How do you… what do you think about that?
D. Pacyga: I think it’s put in the wrong place.
S. Salis: I agree!
D. Pacyga: I think it should have been Washington… across from Washington Park on 55th Street…
S. Salis: Why? Why do you think that?
D. Pacyga: Well because I think, one, it would have… it would have not have… it would not have been as controversial of an impact on an Olmstead Park as… as it is in Jackson Park. Even though Washington Park is also a Frederick Law Olmsted Park, but it would have mostly been across the street from the park. And the other thing is, of course it would be even better trans… transportation, the Green Line stops right there. And Washington Park is a neighborhood that’s emptying out and really needs a firm economic base, while Woodlawn where it’s being placed, as a neighborhood that’s already going through a great deal of gentrification and seeing some kind of investment going on because of the university and… and plans for Jackson Park. But it is where it is and I think it’s going to have an important impact on the South Side which needs development.
S. Salis: Of course. No, you can definitely notice just by walking in different neighborhoods from the North Side to the South Side that there is a clear difference in terms of investments. (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: oh, absolutely.
S. Salis: Particularly… that’s visible with the streets with the maintenance with the kind… there is a huge difference. But hopefully through the conversation and Chicago working out its own problems, like you said, throughout history.
D. Pacyga: It’s my home.
S. Salis: Do you feel any kind of spiritual roots here too?
D. Pacyga: Oh sure. You know, I mean, I…
S. Salis: How did you grow up?
D. Pacyga: I… I’m… I’m Catholic.
S. Salis: You’re Catholic?
D. Pacyga: I’m Catholic and I was raised Roman Catholic.
S. Salis: Roman Catholic, not Irish Catholic? (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: Not Irish Catholic; Polish and Roman Catholic. I was raised in a… in a very Polish parish and that has always been a big part of my… my upbringing. And I’ll tell you another story. I… during the Vietnam War I was not a good student; I was a very bad student and I was on the verge of being kicked out of the University. And I remember getting a letter from the Chancellor of the University saying, “If you don’t get off probation my next semester, you will be kicked out of the University and we will report you to the draft board.” And of course, you know, the Vietnam War was… this was just around the time of the Tet Offensive and the war was really hot. I had friends who were there and they were writing me letters saying, “Don’t come here. This is bad. Stay in school.” And I remember one night I… you know, when… when I was in school you could get a beer at a tavern for $0.35 so I had $10 you could…
S. Salis: (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: Okay. So I had a few beers and… and I… there was a convent of nuns not far from where I lived. They were Poor Clares and Poor Clares were a cloistered ordered and they didn’t speak to the public, you know? They took vows of silences and it was one nun a month who could open the door and talk to the public. So you went there if your mother was sick and you wanted to… or you had a brother or sister and grandmother who was ill and…
S. Salis: To ask for a prayer.
D. Pacyga: … you ask for prayers. So it was about 9 o’clock at night and I did about 10 beers I guess, right? I drove over there, knocked on the door, this little nun opened the door and she was full pre-vatican too, you know, dressed. You know, and… and she stared at me and says, “What do you want?” And it was raining and I had a beard, long hair. Either I looked like Jesus or like a bum; I’m probably more like a bum. And I said, “Sister, I might be going to Vietnam I’m, you know, flunking out of college, you know, having a rough time.” And I gave her $5 and I said, “Could you pray for me?” She took the $5 and she said, “Some people deserve to go to Vietnam!” And she just slammed the door!
S. Salis: (Laughs) Oh no!
D. Pacyga: (Laughs)
S. Salis: She used the only words she had available to speak. (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: That’s right, yeah, “Some people deserve to go to Vietnam!” and she slammed the door in my face. But she must have prayed her heart out because next semester I made straight A’s. (Laughs)
S. Salis: So you … so she just wanted you to believe. (Laughs)
D. Pacyga: That’s right. So her miracle… if she’s ever up for… I’ll allow vouch for her.
S. Salis: What’s the working title for the book that you’re writing right now?
D. Pacyga: The working title of the book is ‘Polish Chicago: From the Working Class to the Middle Class’.
S. Salis: Do you have any other projects going on?
D. Pacyga: Yes, I’m going to start a podcast of my own on WPA radio here in Chicago. And it’ll be discussing the history of Polish Chicago and we’re going to do that for… every month we’ll have a separate…
S. Salis: A single episode explaining…
D. Pacyga: Something like 5/6 minutes, something like that. We’re starting up with the immigration process, we’ll be talking about neighborhoods, gangsters, and all sorts of stuff.
S. Salis: Thank you Prof. Pacyga, one more thing before we say goodbye: Chicago Cubs or Chicago…
D. Pacyga: Chicago White Sox. Just the White Sox.
S. Salis: Thank you. Prof. Dominic Pacyga, today here at Hoomans.