The Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood is one of the original communities of the American Industrial Revolution. This was the site of radical social change that moved the country forward with progress in labor relations and how society views laborers. The slaughterhouses and harsh working conditions attracted both reformers and authors who acted as advocates for the everyman. Now the neighborhood is an intriguing place to explore, with a plethora of parks and a strong, diversified community that is expanding on its industrial base. Classic Chicago bungalows are joined by other single-family homes and some condominium conversions to give homeowners a wide range of real estate to choose from. Specialty grocery stores and an international selection of restaurants round out the backdrop of Chicago's Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood.
Back-of-the-Yards is part of a slightly larger neighborhood designated by the city of Chicago as New City. The community was formed around the Union Stock Yards, which were founded in 1865 to take advantage of the numerous railroad yards in the vicinity. After the refrigerated boxcar was perfected in 1880, there was an explosion of growth in the area. Not only were laborers needed to man the rail yards and slaughterhouses, but butchers also joined the fold of Industrial Age workers making their way in the new city, working in the meatpacking business.
But what makes this south side Chicago neighborhood interesting is that some of the most dramatic social conflicts in the newly industrialized era played out against the backdrop of the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood. Novelists such as Upton Sinclair and Nelson Algren wrote definitive portraits of struggling characters that made their living in the hardscrabble area, while activists marched for workers’ rights, and social scientists studied the impact of industry and its inherent pollution on the human condition.
The stockyards were never an easy place to work. The air was filled with pollutants, the hours were long and hard, and the workers were not paid well for their back-breaking efforts. This led to the formation of some of America’s first effective organized labor organizations designed to protect workers from exploitation and improve working conditions. During the Depression and through the years following World War II, residents and workers continued to battle for labor rights, and many of the labor-related laws we have today owe their origin to the gruesome slaughterhouses of Chicago’s south side.
The Union Stockyards remained the nation’s meatpacking center well into the middle of the 20th century. The neighborhood was as active as any, and with full employment and occupancy, area businesses thrived. The good times couldn’t last forever though. By the early 1960s the meatpacking industry had packed up and left, leaving a vacuum in the community it once served. Without industry and jobs to support the local economy, many of the area’s businesses were forced to close and Back-of-the-Yards entered a period of decline. A new, smaller industrial park was created on the old stockyard land, restoring some jobs to the economy in the following decades.
Back-of-the-Yards has seen renewed growth in the past 15 years, as people have discovered that the strong tax base provided by the industrial park reduces property taxes in addition to providing employment to thousands of area residents. Additionally, the parks that were created during the tumultuous, hard-fought labor struggles in the early 20th century now provide a beautiful backdrop for a neighborhood on the make, offering residents open green spaces and a retreat from the daily routine of city living.
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