“An Encroaching Menace: Slum Growth, Which Imperils Many Cities, is most Dramatic in Chicago,” Life magazine
Fritz Goro (1955)
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Context: Life magazine was one of the most popular magazine in the US in the 1950s. This was a photo essay in the magazine. Students are encouraged to click on the URL above to see the photos attached to this essay.
The slums of Chicago each year have pushed closer to the heart of the city. Some of the worst came only six blocks from the glittering skyscrapers. There a newly aroused and desperate city stopped them. But elsewhere in the metropolis, every month, new slums are being born.
Slums are a problem or a threat in many cities, but those of Chicago—23 festering, proliferating square miles aswarm with 800,000 human beings—are the nation’s most dramatic case of municipal decay. As in all cities, they are a paradox amid the world’s most prosperous economy. How they are created varies little from place to place. Migrant families, lured or driven from farm to city, generate relentless pressure for cheap housing. Middle-income city families, facing this invasion, flee to unthreatened areas, leaving the neighborhoods to become blighted areas of overcrowded dwellings, sleazy stores and soaring crime and disease rates.
To help break the vicious sequence of flight and decay, a new national organization called ACTION has been formed. It can teach the lesson Chicago has learned by long and painful experience: that the menace to American cities must be fought on two fronts. First, the formation of additional slums must be stopped and then ways found to eradicate old ones.
A Teeming and Infested World
The slums of Chicago are a sorry world of rotting wooden tenements and crumbling brownstone mansions set among rat-strewn alleys and teeming, refuse-littered streets. Here the population reaches 50,000 to the square mile –against a city-wide average of 17,000. Still the slums are never large enough to hold all who are forced to live within them.
Every day as the city seeks ways to cope with its slum problem, that problem grows. Fifteen hundred migrants reach Chicago each month with no place to go but into the overcrowded slum belt. Inexorably, the slums expand. On the city’s North Side alone, three new blocks are touched by blight each month.
How much new housing the city needs, the city cannot be sure. The 1950 census found 200,000 families inadequately housed. In spite of the boom in home building, that fatigue may have increased. For most of the families, private housing, even if in economic reach, was denied them on racial grounds.
Chicago’s slum problem is largely, though not entirely, a Negro problem. Its Negro population leaped by 200,000 from 1940 to 1950 and now stands at 650,000. Each day this figure grows by 60 new births and new migrants from the South.
Against this growing slum crisis, the city of Chicago has been able to erect 26 housing developments with 12,705 family units. For that many families, a new day is at hand. For others, the slum crisis is only intensified. Each project, thoughtfully landscaped with spacious lawns and play areas, can accommodate fewer families than the airless tenements it replaces.
One Family’s Escape from a Dark Hovel
“In the slums,” Arthur Garrett says, “people with children is glad to get any kinda place rather than be outdoors.” Sixteen months ago Garrett, his wife Mornice, who are both 29, and their seven children occupied two dank, dark basement rooms in the heart of Chicago’s black belt. They shared a kitchen and a bathroom with the four other families who also lived in the eight-room basement. There were rats and vermin and in wet weather clogged drains flooded the apartment, adding misery to misery.
On Thanksgiving, Presbyterian Minister Raymond Day, out delivering charity baskets, found the family in critical shape. Mornice was hospitalized with pneumonia; Arthur, who had been drafted, was home on emergency furlough; the children were hungry and cold. Day, deeply moved by this, immediately undertook to get the family into public housing.
The struggle lasted seven months because the Garretts lacked any kind of priority on the endless waiting lists. Finally last June an apartment became available in a Chicago Housing Authority project and he Garretts moved in. Their rent, $53 a month, is about what they paid for their basement hovel, but they now have their own kitchen and bath and four bedrooms. Their economic worries are far from ended, but the world no longer seems a stubborn conspiracy against them and they now feel that they have a fighting chance to help themselves. But meanwhile another family has already taken the basement rooms from which they escaped.
Struggles with the Problem
Within the slums of Chicago—or any other city—the incidence of dope addiction and peddling and almost all other crimes is highest. No other areas are as costly and difficult for the city to police, or provide it with less tax revenue.
Into the areas threatened by blight come community planners to reshape and preserve regions. In the areas devastated by blight come idealists like Rev. Raymond Day to reshape lives. An angular, sad-eyed Negro, Day’s mission field covers just 20 blocks. Here lives 30,000 Negros, where 15 years ago there were only 15,000, and here misery flourishes.
For Ray Day the hope of his slum areas lies in its children. Previous slum minorities—white-skinned Irish, Italians, and Slavs—were assimilated by their cities in three generations. Hopeful sociologists think the Negro may do it in four. So Day focuses on the children, who may yet “learn how to live.” He heads a struggling community center, where kids can get off the streets. He finds clothes and even furniture for them. His efforts are often rebuffed by those he is trying to help, but they are a start. “I’m not easily discouraged,” says Ray Day.
Transcribed to Word by Prof. Seth Offenbach