Families Against the City
by Richard Sennett
Harvard, 258 pp., $8.50
The Uses of Disorder
by Richard Sennett
Knopf, 198 pp., $5.95
There are certain classical patterns of scholarship which are still both useful and beautiful to watch; and which few scholars any longer trouble to carry through completely. The failure to do so results in bitty and irrelevant research of the most familiar kind. The rare exception is both satisfying in its craftsmanship and exciting as a source of important and original ideas. These two books constitute such a classic model. In the first, Professor Sennett reports the findings of an odd and seemingly arcane documentary investigation of the composition and characteristics of the households of a declining middle-class neighborhood of Chicago during the years 1872-1890, using the city directories of those years to follow the fortunes of persons more completely reported in the Census of 1880, and he draws some startling conclusions. In the second, more speculative, work, he develops the theory that he tested in the research reported in the first; and the perceptions that led him to select this commonplace tract of nearly a century ago for intensive study become the source of insights that are radically relevant to the current urban crisis.
Located about two miles due west of what came to be the Chicago Loop, the forty-block area Sennett defines as Union Park had a population of some 12,000 in 1880. The area had declined in status as it grew in population. In 1860 it sustained six or eight hundred souls in a spacious urban life which Edith Wharton would have found quite pleasing, to judge from the memoirs of A. C. Chatfield-Taylor and Carter Harrison II—two well-to-do and socially prominent former residents of Union Park whom Sennett cites. But the ensuing years were a time of unusual economic and demographic stress as well as growth for Chicago. The great fire of 1871 destroyed most of the city east of the Chicago river, and the depression of the Seventies impeded normal rebuilding. Union Park, though well west of the devastated area, found that the axis of growth of the city had changed from east-west to north-south as the city was rebuilt; and was itself cut off by an increasingly ugly and unpleasant warehouse and industrial belt. The well-to-do moved to the new gold coast along Lake Michigan, and Union Park became middle-class with a tendency to sag into lower-middle.
But it was still thoroughly, if increasingly defensively, respectable. The proportion of its residents rated as professional or managerial by occupation was nearly twice that for the city as a whole, while clerks were proportionately twenty times as numerous. Manual semiskilled and unskilled laborers were greatly underrepresented, while domestic servants were twice as numerous proportionately as in the rest of the city. Union Park had no mini-ghettos in it; one-fourth of the population was foreign born, but over 90 percent of it was anglophone, and only a 1 percent trace had ancestry other than northern European. Sennett calls it “ethnically integrated,” but there wasn’t much to integrate.
Union Park, in 1880, was already, then …