DePaul University students Burton Cann, Bristol Cave, Kristen Gayer, Hannah Woodford, and Elise Zerega researched an unusual map from 1910 for this entry in the Museum’s People and Places blog series. They were students of the Museum’s archivist, Peter T. Alter, as part of DePaul’s public history program.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, community leaders in major cities sought to resolve many social, political, and economic problems associated with urban living. Their efforts came to be known as the Progressive Movement. Some Progressive reformers addressed social justice issues by settling in struggling urban areas and establishing social settlement houses in those neighborhoods, as Jane Addams did with Hull-House on Chicago’s Near West Side. From these community centers, the reformers worked with their neighbors to address unemployment, poor public education, poor sanitation, domestic violence, and many other issues.
Graham Taylor, a colleague and friend of Addams, founded the Chicago Commons settlement house in 1894, about a mile northwest of the Loop. Taylor and the Chicago Commons staff worked with the people of this industrial and immigrant neighborhood, now known as the River West and Noble Square neighborhoods. To understand a neighborhood and its needs, reformers like Taylor strove to learn their surroundings, which often led to mapping a lot of districts. In 1910, the Commons staff crafted a unique map of wood, small nails, and paper. This cartographic creation has survived over a century and is part of the Chicago Commons Association Records in the Museum’s archival collection.
Chicago Commons nail map, 1910. All photographs by DePaul University students.
The settlement workers wanted to take an inventory of the neighborhood’s assets, so the map includes public and private schools, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, public parks, and other local institutions. The mapmakers also included aspects of the neighborhood that they wanted to reform, so they mapped certain local businesses, such as saloons and billiard parlors. Unfortunately, some of the information regarding the map’s content has been lost over the years. By closely studying the map, though, we can imagine that the numerous nails represented various clients of the Commons and immigrant groups in the neighborhood. Through this map, Taylor and his staff gained a clear understanding of the community to gauge its progress and identify problem areas.
Over the past one hundred years, the area represented by the map has changed dramatically. The city has renamed streets called Austin and Centre to Hubbard and Racine, respectively. The construction of the Kennedy Expressway in the 1950s cut directly through the community, forcing many residents to relocate and drastically reshaping its geography. Despite citywide changes, Chicago Commons still exists as an organization and continues to carry out its mission of working with its neighbors.
Former site of Chicago Commons, near Northwest Side, 2012.
North Carpenter Street near the former site of Chicago Commons, 2012.
Dan Valliere, executive director of Chicago Commons, explained to us that strategic relocations have helped Chicago Commons stay true to Taylor’s goals—to serve where help is most needed. The Commons now has locations throughout the city, including the West, South, and Northwest Sides. “[Celebrating] our history,” Valliere said, “…remind[s] us of our original mission and keeping that mission alive even as we change and evolve.” Archivist Peter T. Alter often brings out this map for public and members’ events, as it is probably his favorite piece from the Museum’s over 20,000 linear feet of archival material.
In his Author! Author! blog series, Museum president Gary T. Johnson highlights works that draw on our collection.
John Gruber, editor. Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography. Madison, Wisconsin: Center for Railroad Photography & Art (2014).
The exhibition of the same title was prepared by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art and the Chicago History Museum. Under Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, the Office of War Information commissioned the original photographs to shine a light on a very vital home front industry during World War II. The project focused on the community of railroad workers from different parts of the Chicago, as documented by photographer Jack Delano. Seventy years later, the Center took the project a step further and carefully examined the biographies of the people in the photographs—and even their descendants. Yes, the book is the catalogue of the exhibition, but really it is far more than that because it takes a much deeper dive into those lives than was possible in the exhibition.