Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky, by Nicholas von Hoffman, Nation Books, $26.95, 256 pp.
Back of the Yards is a district just south and west of the old Union Stock Yard in Chicago. A century ago, it was best known as the crowded, poverty-stricken setting of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking meatpacking novel The Jungle. Like most of the city, it was split into enclaves, generally along the lines of national origin. As Mike Royko would later put it, Chicago in those days was a confederation of ethnic neighborhood-states, a place where “you could always tell, even with your eyes closed, which state you were in by the odors of the food stores and the open kitchen windows, the sound of the foreign or familiar language, and by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock.”
When sociologists started studying such areas, they thought they were looking at human wastelands. In his 1986 book Back of the Yards, the historian Robert Slayton noted that such scholars were familiar with the sorts of social ties that were forged in small towns but were “blind to similar bonds of community among immigrant workers”; in 1929 one sociologist wrote bluntly that the slums were places where “local life breaks down.” Social workers and other outsiders often adopted similar attitudes, seeing the rich ecology of neighborhood institutions as something to be overcome, not strengthened. Social improvement would be provided by professionals with scientific training, not by a bunch of bohunks acting on their own behalf.
The founders of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, by contrast, appreciated all the self-directed activity taking place in the district. The group’s first meeting, held on July 14, 1939, featured 350 residents from 76 organizations: parish clubs, ethnic lodges, women’s groups, athletic clubs, unions, the chamber of commerce, a community newspaper. The council was a federation of those local groups rather than a mass organization of individuals; its structure, in Slayton’s words, was designed so as to “not challenge the private order of segmentation and nationalism, but instead create a public realm in which the individual pieces could join,” working together on areas of shared interest.
And work together they did. In the ’30s and ’40s, among many other activities, the council built a playground, established a credit union, did strike support work, acquired and lent out a portable bug exterminator, brought an infant health clinic to the neighborhood, helped young people find jobs, sprayed weedkiller in vacant lots, sold garbage cans to the community at a fraction of the market cost, and funded a softball league organized by some of the local gangs. Slayton notes that when “police or merchants apprehended a young lawbreaker, they would call the Back of the Yards Council instead of taking him to the station. The Council then arranged a conference with the child, the parents, the priest, educators, union officials, and police or probation officers — representatives of all the community’s resources.” The council acquired its funds in a number of ways: There were donations from a variety of civic groups and local businesses and, in a more clandestine realm, there were the profits from illicit gambling at a community fair. The group’s slogan: “We the People Will Work Out Our Own Destiny, We Can Do It Ourselves America.”
The activists did not consider themselves libertarians, and I don’t want to imply that they eschewed any assistance from the government. They were happy to inform the city authorities about housing violations, to accept a federal agency’s help in their job placement services, to use surplus food distributed by the feds in the council’s free lunch program. But in the days of the New Deal, a time when the American Left was increasingly centralist and statist, this was a different approach: social change driven by intermediary institutions at the most local level, not by experts erecting bureaucracies in Washington. In 1945, in a book called Reveille for Radicals, one of the council’s founders argued that such “People’s Organizations” could be the building blocks of a new, more participatory sort of citizenship.
The writer in question, a criminologist turned activist named Saul Alinsky, is the subject of a new book, Radical, by his former lieutenant Nicholas von Hoffman....