Back Of The Yards Association Narrative (Chicago, IL - New City Neighborhood)

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Date:    Tue, 6 Aug 1996 05:49:22 CDT

Sender:  H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing

         & Community-Based Development

From:    Wendy Plotkin

Subject: Alinsky & Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council

 Posted by Wendy Plotkin

 In light of the discussion of Alinsky (including Bob Slayton's review of Horwitt's LET THEM CALL ME REBEL and the presentation of Randy Stoecker's and Susan Stall's paper on Alinskyite and feminist styles of organizing) I thought it would be useful to bridge the past and upcoming discussions of Alinsky, the IAF, and contemporary organizing styles with a brief "biography" of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), Alinsky's first community organization.  Both Bob Slayton in his BACK OF THE YARDS: THE MAKING OF A LOCAL DEMOCRACY (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) and Sanford Horwitt in LET THEM CALL ME REBEL:  SAUL ALINSKY -- HIS LIFE AND LEGACY (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) offer similar accounts of the creation of the BYNC.

According to Slayton, the 1930s Depression in the U.S. itself was a catalyst for the BYNC.  The loss of employment it engendered in this working class neighborhood overwhelmed the resources of the traditional "welfare" institutions, such as the churches, ethnic societies, and charity organizations.    Although the New Deal led to federal assistance for the neighborhood, it also was inadequate in dealing with the deprivation of insufficient food, fuel, and funds for housing maintenance.  Also, with New Deal resources distributed across the nation, it was largely up to local leaders to demand and/or negotiate for as much of the federal largesse as possible.  Thus, the stage was set for an effort by local leaders and residents to establish new local institutions to express their interests to existing political and corporate institutions.


The corporate institutions that dominated the Back of the Yards were the packinghouses described in Upton Sinclair's 1906 THE JUNGLE. Protective of their own interests during the Depression, their policies extended the earlier, pre-Depression policies of low pay, poor working conditions, and little or no job security.  With the economy of the neighborhood so dependent on these employers, they were among the most important neighborhood institutions, at a time when neighborhood and employment were intertwined to a greater degree than was to be true in the commuting world of the post-war period.  

Thus, it is not surprising that prior to the BYNC, the attempts to organize the neighborhood were led by labor and the fledgling Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  The CIO was the liberal union affilation that emerged in 1935 as an alternative to the trade-based and conservative American Federation of Labor.  The CIO assisted in 1936 in the establishment of the local Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC), and took aim immediately at Armour Company, one of the most important industries in the neighborhood.  According to Slayton, the PWOC brought a unity to the neighborhood that overrode some of the previously divisive ethnic and religious rivalries - in spite of a tremendous amount of red-baiting based in part on the important involvement of Communists in the CIO.[1]

Another antecedent to the BYNC was a "council of [neighborhood] clubs" organized in 1937 by Aaron Hurwitz, the publisher of the neighborhood newspaper that eventually became the official organ of the BYNC.  BYNC itself was a cooperative effort between Alinsky and Joseph Meegan, the manager of the Chicago Park District's Davis Square Park, that culminated in a first meeting of the new organization in July, 1939.  According to both authors, Alinsky and Meegan shared a distaste for traditional social workers and settlement houses, including the University of Chicago Settlement House located in the stockyards district.  They believed in identifying and involving neighborhood residents as leaders.[2] Alinsky had been sent to the Stockyards neighborhood by the Chicago Area Project (an anti-delinquency project) to assist the neighborhood with its delinquency problem, applying the Project's approach that the causes of delinquency were deeply embedded in the overall problems of the neighborhood.  Alinsky was a Jewish outsider who saw Meegan as the most promising local leader to organize the neighborhood.  Meegan was tied to the Catholic hierarchy and as a layman was, according to Alinsky, a better choice as an organizer than any of the local clergymen due to the competition and conflicts that existed among the local churches.  As the manager of the neighborhood's Davis Square Park, Meegan had also moved beyond mere administration of the park to obtain significant social and welfare services, including the provision of a government-subsidized lunch program - thus displaying a lack of concern for bureaucratic boundaries that was essential to Alinsky's critique of officialdom.


In creating the BYNC, Alinsky and Meegan saw this new community organization as one that would cooperate and extend the efforts of the PWOC and labor organizing into all aspects of community life, outside of employment.  The community and the union thus formed an alliance --the union addressed community-wide issues outside of the salaries and security of the workers, and the BYNC took on the cause of the PWOC as its most important initial endeavour.  The early days of the BYNC were very much devoted to the PWOC, which continued to aim its forces against Armour and its defiance of the landmark New Deal legislation (the 1935 Wagner Act) allowing the formation of labor unions and requiring them where workers voted for them.  The day before the first meeting of the BYNC (July 14, 1939), Herb March, the head of the PWOC, was shot at, and three days later, a mass meeting in support of the PWOC included on the stage John L. Lewis, the controversial national CIO founder, and Bishop Sheil, the Chicago clergyman who faced criticism by the church hierarchy for his support of the CIO-Led Labor Movement.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

In addition to this community-labor alliance, the BYNC was aided by the rise of a new breed of priests in the neighborhood, at a time when the priesthood was a popular career for many male Catholic Chicagoans. These younger assistants tended to shy away from the ethnic enclave mentality of the older Polish, Lithuanian, Irish, and Italian priests. They were influenced greatly by Bishop Sheil, the founder of the Catholic Youth Organization in Chicago and an activist in favor of workers' rights and against racial intolerance.  Like Sheil, they supported labor organizing in spite of the conservative clergy's disapproval.

Aside from its support of local labor actions, early BYNC activities included expansion of the free lunch program.  According to Slayton, this was the first time that a federal program to distribute surplus food was used by a nonpublic organization and it was the prime example of the Council's ability to obtain from outside agencies the kind of assistance that the community so badly needed. (Slayton, 212)  The Council also convinced other institutions such as public and parochial schools to establish their own free lunch programs, and assisted them in their efforts to obtain federal financing for these.  According to Slayton, the Council was a major source of support for continuing this federal effort when opponents attempted to end it in 1943 -- they organized a letter-writing Campaign that resulted in over 23,000 Chicago children sending letters to their federal Congressmen.  The Council also advocated for children by identifying sources of cheaper milk than was made available by the public schools (who faced the constraint of acquiring milk from Politically connected dairies). The Council also engaged itself in anti-delinquency/ anti-gang programs, development of playgrounds and in-door recreation centers, youth employment, nutritional education, dental services, and housing. Its housing activities included a survey (via the schoolchildren) of Housing violations that were reported to the appropriate city agencies.  In addition, it sponsored neighborhood clean-up through the distribution of garbage cans and the free loan of exterminating equipment.                        

The Council sponsored health awareness and education for adults, including support for the local cancer society. It was successful in improving the services in the neighborhood, including a new post office and a new library.   It established an office in which neighborhood residents could come to register complaints about a variety of problems, such as broken street lights or gang violence.[3]  It also established a credit union.

The Council achieved a wide base of support, but also its share of opponents, including the local political machine.  The Democratic political machine had used the provision of services as a means of ensuring votes.  It was thus threatened by the Council's own efforts to provide these services, and it attacked the Council in the 1940s, requiring its removal from the offices of the Davis Square Park district and tranferring Joe Meegan out of the district. The Council found alternate headquarters, and thus survived the attack.  Slayton asserts that "[t]he larger successes of the Council were achieved in the 1950s and 1960s.  During these decades, the community organization stabilized the neighborhood and helped it grow and prosper." (227)  During these years, the Council increased its work in improving the area's housing, developing home rehabilitation programs and obtaining the support of local financial institutions for these.   Local vacant storefronts were converted to housing, and new homes were built in the neighborhood in spite of a mass exodus of industry and many urban dwellers to the suburbs.  Slayton argues that these activities broke the backs of the block-busting efforts of local real estate developers, although he does not describe the complex issue of race and racial politics as they played themselves out in the Back of the Yards these years.  The issue of race is described in greater detail by Horwitt in his biography of Alinsky, both in its effects on the Back of the Yards and in Alinsky's other efforts.  I'll describe these in a separate posting, at a later date.

The significance of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, other than the improvements it brought to this Chicago neighborhood and the sense of empowerment it brought to the neighborhood residents, was its influence in obtaining acclaim for Alinsky, and serving as the main showpiece in his establishment of the Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF.

I am interested in receiving any additional information, suggestions for sources or articles, and alternative views on the history of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council.  Was the Council unique in the approach it took in involving local residents in improving their own situations?  Were similar, less heralded schemes unfolding elsewhere in the U.S., and, in fact, the rest of the world?  If so, what were the unique elements in the Council?  [If you are interested in obtaining the review of Alinsky's biography and the Stoecker/Stall paper, send e-mail to with the message: GET ALINSKY PACKAGE]

Wendy Plotkin


[1]See Lizabeth Cohen, MAKING A NEW DEAL (New York: Cambridge U. Press, 1990) for a description of the effect of the Depression on Chicago's ethnic, working class communities and a close examination of the dual roles of the newly diverse Democratic Party and the labor movement, especially the CIO and PWOC in Chicago, in bridging divisions among ethnic and religious groups.

[2]See Noel A. Cazenave, "Chicago Influences on the War on Poverty," in Martin V. Melosi, URBAN PUBLIC POLICY: HISTORICAL MODES AND METHODS (Pennsylvania State U., 1993) for a more detailed discussion of Alinsky's conflicts with the Chicago Area Project, his initial sponsor in the Back of the Yards, and with the social work establishment.

[3]Thus, in spite of the antipathy of the "founders" of community organizing for the settlement houses, many of their programs were similar to those offered by the settlement houses -- with the important difference, they'd most likely argue, that they were organized and controlled by community members and not outside social work professionals.

Prior and parallel to the development of community organizing as a technique by Alinsky, there existed an interest inside of the social work establishment for "community organization."  See Stanley Wenocur & Michael Reisch, FROM CHARITY TO ENTERPRISE: THE DEVELOPMENT OF AMERICAN SOCIAL WORK IN A MARKET ECONOMY (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1989) for the emergence of community organization as a "distinctive method of social work akin to casework and group work" in the 1930s and 1940s.  They observe that Community organization originated less as a specific method within social work than as a means by which social service providers could develop programs within a given community and mobilize the resources needed to support and sustain them. (233)

In the same year that the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council was established (1939), the National Conference of Social Work (NCSW) issued the Lane report on community organizing drawn from discussions in six U.S. cities.  The NCSW's definition of community organizing was much more tied to the social work establishment and social work methods than was Alinsky's and his followers, as the report identified community organization as a process of social work whose aim is `to bring about and maintain a progessively more effective adjustment between social welfare resources and social welfare needs'(Lane, 1939: 499)     (Wenocur and Reisch, 236)


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