The media is buzzing with memorials to the late Studs Terkel who passed away yesterday, October 31, 2008, in his Chicago home. Many of those radio retrospectives, recollections of long-time friends, and immediate elegies strike common themes -- Terkel liked people, he paid attention to people we do not generally put in the spotlight, he had friends, he “knew the real America,” he made grit beautiful. The flood of sorrow and celebration now pouring out of media outlets around the country and throughout the world (Google news turns up articles from India, the UK, and Canada, among others) capture the humanity, humor, and unforgiving politics of man who, seven days before he died, said of the Republican nominee for vice president, Sarah Palin, "She's Joe McCarthy in drag!" There are people in a much better position than this writer to measure why Studs might have been the greatest Chicagoan. But I have a feeling he would have been interested in what we (me and you) think about Terkel’s Chicago, the city he brought to light by listening to everyday people.
It is fitting that Studs Terkel, one of the greatest chroniclers of American working people’s lives, moved to Chicago from New York City. In doing so, he reversed the path taken by so many writers, artists, and media stars who stop in Chicago on their way to New York or L.A. No, Studs followed the route of the everyday working person to the Midwest, where glamour is rare but a grittier kind of opportunity abounds.
In Chicago, Terkel found a home friendly to a radio star blacklisted for his Leftist ideas. Terkel found a city divided between the leaders of one of the world’s great industrial and financial powerhouses and the workers who kept that powerhouse running. In Chicago, he found an immigrant city continually renewing itself. He found a place where the tensions between the rich and the poor, between black and white, between newcomers and old-timers remained close to the surface. In Division Street America, Terkel found Chicagoans who would not let the city’s traditions of resistance, hard work, and struggle die. In the face of what Terkel called the United States’ national Alzheimer's disease, he found Chicagoans proud of their city’s special place in the making of a specifically American form of radicalism. Chicagoans wise to this story of American freedom and struggle fed Terkel’s curiosity, and, in turn, they fed off his unique ability to capture their own feelings about work, the Depression, race, war, politics, neighborhoods, and hope in the face of death.
Chicago was the perfect city for someone like Terkel, interested in the possibilities of working-class radicalism and the potential for political and personal transformation. Chicago was founded by Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, a French-speaking, mixed-race Haitian immigrant fur-trapper and entrepreneur; it was a Midwest abolitionist city, a haven for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad; it is the city where Carl Sandburg so wonderfully embellished the myth of Abraham Lincoln as a workingman’s hero. In Chicago, Eugene V. Debs, Albert and Lucy Parsons, Mother Jones, Clarence Darrow, Bessie Abromowitz, Sidney Hillman, and A. Philip Randolph (to name just a few) fought alongside workers in monumental battles against the combined forces of the American industrial octopus.
You might know Chicago through other lenses. Perhaps you know Hyde Park in the “Devil in the White City;” Daley’s machine city; the city wracked by police riots and race riots in the 1960s; or maybe the city of flowerpots and boulevards seeking to host the 2016 summer Olympics. Maybe you know Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie city, the Sears Tower or John Hancock Building, the Republican Chicago Tribune, or even the city where Donald Trump sent his apprentice to build his newest high-rise office and condo building. Maybe you know Chicago in Barack Obama’s image -- equal parts community organizer and clean-government advocate, equally influenced by the struggle against deindustrialization and University of Chicago free market economics, equally committed to small “d” democracy and embedded in big “D” Democratic power networks.
All of those Chicagos are real, but they were created by the people Terkel spotlighted. The downtown’s high-rises are glittering symbols of the wealth forged by workers burning in steel furnaces along the Calumet River. The prairie suburbs are now home to the children and grandchildren who grasped their chance to get a house, a back yard, and good schools for their children by breaking their backs in the “city of big shoulders.” Obama’s power is dependent upon the millions of union members, churchgoers, precinct captains, neighborhood activists, and parents who vote their local interests.
Terkel’s power was the power of revelation, not voyeurism. Let me illustrate with one example. After a long fight in the 1960s to save a largely Italian neighborhood on Chicago’s Near West Side, community activist Florence Scala told Terkel about her profound frustration with city leaders who continually promised urban renewal that would benefit everyday people all while placing the burdens -- the loss of housing, the loss of communities, the loss of churches, bars, friends -- on the poorest and least powerful people in the city. Scala told Terkel about her friend and mentor Eri Hulbert, former Hull-House resident and grandnephew of Hull-House founder Jane Addams. Hulbert, Scala said, “told me of a dream he had. The Near West Side, our area, could become the kind of place people would want to live in, close to the city. He introduced me to the idea of city planning. He felt the only hope for big cities, in these communities that were in danger of being bulldozed, was to sit down and look and say we have a responsibility here. He convinced me that you could have a tree on the West Side, see?” Tragically, however, “Hulbert committed suicide before our plan was accepted by the city. His death, more than anything else, opened a door which I never dreamed could open.”[i]
We should pause here for a second because (although I’ve only read the interview, I’ve never heard it) I think Scala paused. I think Scala took a moment, sitting across from Terkel, to reconsider the suicide of her good friend and fellow activist. Terkel had helped her find a moment to articulate what she had learned through persistent activism about the fundamental nature of a vision of urban politics in which some people’s communities must be destroyed in order to save the whole city. I think Scala looked up from the table she was sitting at and found a kind of clarity she perhaps had not had before that moment.
“You know, there’s a real kind of ugliness among nice people,” Scala told Terkel. “You know, the dirty stuff that you think only hoodlums pull off. They can really destroy you, the nice people. I think this is what happened to Eri, the way he was deserted by his own. I think it really broke his heart.” Scala, too, grew angry when she saw bulldozers tear through the Near West Side to build the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s an evil thing the liberal community does,” she concluded, “it wants to see the slums cleared but doesn’t fight to see housing for lower-income groups built first. It reinforces all the terrible things we’re talking about in the big cities. Segregates the poor people, particularly the Negro people, and this goes on and on.”[ii]
Terkel’s role was not to inform us of the downsides of things like urban renewal and slum clearance or to reveal racial and class inequalities. His role was to facilitate moments of revelation -- this is why so many of his friends and admirers say his interviews had the improvisational genius of jazz. His role was to make us remember in a way that also forced us to imagine how we might act differently.
In a recent biography of Mother Jones, the Chicago dressmaker who remade herself into “the most dangerous woman in America,” historian Elliott Gorn describes what I have been referring to as Terkel’s Chicago. “There, a constant surge of ideas -- foreign and domestic versions of trade and industrial unionism, anarchism, socialism, populism -- was a part of daily working life. The radical ideas, the mix of peoples from so many lands, the city’s mythology of rebuilding itself out of the ashes, all made it remarkable. But much more than that, Chicago was where people came to transform themselves…What brought so many to Chicago was ambition, and the mutability of cityscape and self fed their desires. The reinvention of identity in a city that constantly re-created itself was all part of the protean quality that Americans ... identified with urban life.”[iii] Terkel came to Chicago and reinvented himself as the griot of the city of big shoulders, he reinvented himself in a way that helps us all remember that we, too, can recreate ourselves by remembering and acting on alternatives to the status quo.
[i] Terkel, Division Street, pp. 3-4 and 8.
[ii] Terkel, Division Street, pp. 3-4 and 8.
[iii] Elliott J. Gorn, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), p. 54