Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

The Gold Coast and the Slum

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, University of Chicago sociologist Harvey Warren Zorbaugh popularized the term Gold Coast for the neighborhood of wealthy residences along Lake Michigan on the near north side of Chicago. He made this contribution in his book The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago's Near North Side, first published in 1929. Due to its clarity, historical value, and inherent interest, it is still in print.

In the 1920s, 90,000 people lived on the Near North Side; the area as defined by Zorbaugh is several square miles bordered by Lake Michigan on the east, the Chicago River on the south and west, and Division Street on the north. Virtually all of Chicago's "Social Register" aristocracy lived within a few blocks along the lake, on the Gold Coast.

West of the Gold Coast was a neighborhood of rooming houses, whose inhabitants worked in the Loop or were part of the social flotsam of con artists, petty criminals, and "charity cases." Clark Street was lined with pawn shops, diners, dance halls, and nightclubs, including nightclubs that catered to the criminal element and slumming socialites--a milieu familiar from movies of the early 1930s.

Nearby, across from the Newberry Library, was Bug House Square, the park where socialists and others made impromptu speeches; and Towertown, an artists' bohemia surrounding the historic water tower that still stands at North Michigan and East Chicago Avenues. East of the rooming houses and nightclubs was Little Sicily, an immigrant neighborhood that had replaced the previous Irish and Swedish slums. Smaller ethnic areas were Assyrian, Greek, African-American, German, and Swedish.

Most entertaining are the first-person accounts that explain customs and slang across all levels of 1920s urban society. Little Sicily, with its Sicilian mores and immigrant gangs, also known as Little Hell, with its Death Corner (Oak and Cambridge), site of gangland slayings. The now-disappeared world of rooming houses. Petty con artists or "squawkers": "Everybody on Clark Street has his squawk." All within easy walking distance of the wealthiest families of Chicago.

There is also an interesting description of reform movements: charities run by society ladies; community centers; and attempts to bring "town hall" self-government to urban neighborhoods. Zorbaugh notes the failure of charities to change the "personal disorganization" of clients and the failure of reform movements to change the "community disorganization" of urban areas. The reform movements he describes sound familiar--they all have analogs today--making his observations still relevant. He also concludes that "personal mobility" creates urban neighborhoods that are nothing like American small towns or European villages. Written at a time of social change, the book sheds perspective on the progression of social change in America.

Copyright © 2007 by Heidi Boudro