Chicago's butchers and cattle are gone, but its stockyard area is rebounding

March 22, 1992|By Patrick T. Reardon | Patrick T. Reardon,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- There was the smell, of course. It was the aroma of rotting meat, of burning hides, of manure-filled pens. Novelist Upton Sinclair called it "an elemental odor, raw and crude; it was rich, almost rancid, sensual, and strong."

It was one of the hallmarks of the Chicago stockyards. And there was the sound.

"It suggested endless activity," Sinclair wrote, "the rumblings of a world in motion. It was the distant lowing of ten thousand cattle, the distant grunting of ten thousand swine."

There was another sound, too, the babble of the languages of 40,000 workers from 26 nations. Immigrants and sons of immigrants. It was brutal work for low pay -- and an opening to the American dream.

But the dream for many of those workers and their children soured when the packinghouses left. By 1971, the vibrant stockyards had become an urban wasteland, a desolate square mile covered with tall weeds and broken bricks.

Today, another transformation is under way. The stockyards area is becoming a new center of commerce and employment through the grit and savvy of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, the nation's oldest organized community group.

This time, there are gleaming new plants producing everything from ice cream flavorings to industrial furniture. The streets are clean and wide.

"The first thing people say when they come here is that this looks like a suburban industrial park," said Patrick Salmon, executive director of the neighborhood council.

City officials proposed an industrial park for the stockyards three decades ago when it became clear that the hog and cattle business was moving elsewhere. But it took the Back of the Yards council to make it a success.

In creating the Stockyards Industrial Park, the council -- a group of union leaders, neighborhood residents and local parish priests -- has advanced a blueprint for urban revival that is being studied by neighborhood groups around the world.

Taking advantage of a fistful of state and federal development programs, the council has attracted $475 million in private investment and 15,000 new jobs to the former packinghouse area, bounded by Pershing Road, Halsted Street, 47th Street and Ashland Avenue.

The industrial park has 94 companies. Unemployment in the community is down to 12 percent. At 47th Street and Ashland Avenue, the commercial heart of the neighborhood, there are no vacant stores.

Ten years ago, the story was much different: only 12 companies in the industrial park, local unemployment at 34 percent, and 83 stores vacant at 47th and Ashland.

The council has been "one of the most aggressive groups in seeking out new government programs and figuring out how to adjust them to their own individual area," said Patricia Casler, Chicago's deputy commissioner for industrial development.

In developing the old stockyards, the council has used innovative approaches, such as the establishment of a unique taxing district to raise money for the industrial park.

The stockyards had been an important fixture on the landscape of the city since 1864 and a complex ingredient of the city's early identity.

In 1905, Sinclair called the stockyards "The Jungle." That was the title of his novel exposing the horrid working conditions and abuse of slaughterhouse workers there.

Nine years later, Carl Sandburg used the stockyards as a metaphor for Chicago in his poem about the "Hog Butcher for the World."

That was still true in the early 1950s, when Mr. Salmon began working at the stockyards at age 12.

"You couldn't walk from Ashland to Halsted through the stockyards without getting hired," he said. "I was a loin cutter. I would take the tenderloin, and I would cut it into individual portions. They were filet mignons."

Filet mignon was not the normal menu for the working-class families of the neighborhood, Mr. Salmon said -- except every now and then.

"We used to steal horses from the Exchange Building," he recalled. "We'd ride into the pens and turn the cattle loose. When the cattle would run loose, they'd run right through the neighborhood. In the back of every house, there was a shed. We called them shanties. And everyone was a butcher.

"So, all of a sudden, everyone on a block would eat pretty well for a day or so."

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