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Chicago’s South Side: Connections Between Urban Intellectual History and the History of Higher Education

October 18, 2006

I hadn’t seen this before today, but the University of Chicago Press published a book on Chicago’s South Side in 2004. Authored by Robin F. Bachin and titled Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago 1890-1919, the book approaches Chicago’s urban development as a spatial/metropolitan phenomenon – continuing a trend that began with Michael Ebner’s Creating Chicago’s North Shore: A Suburban History (1989). The assumption here is that Chicago is too massive and varied to be treated as a single urban entity in terms of its developmental history. Leslie Wilson of Montclair State University reviewed Bachin’s book for H-Net in August of this year.

I haven’t read Bachin’s book, but what interested me most about it, based on Wilson’s review, was the emphasis on the University of Chicago in Building the South Side. If I understand the book correctly, Bachin centers the story of the South Side’s development on the revival of the University of Chicago in 1892. Rather than focusing on the 1892 Columbian Exposition, Bachin makes the university an intellectual and spiritual core of the South Side’s turn-of-the-century development. The university’s Progressive Era figures, such as John Dewey and members of its famed sociology school, made manifest the spiritual aspect the area’s development by reaching out to the poor, taking control of social welfare, and generally applying the institution’s intellectual power to the era’s problems.

Recently I wrote an encyclopedia piece on urban universities. In that entry, I had a paragraph on Chicago but de-emphasized the University of Chicago in favor of talking about the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). To me, the University of Chicago seemed a kind of anomaly, a freakishly intellectual oddity plopped down – or imposed – on the city. Even though I knew it played a part in Chicago’s Progressive movement, I did not see it as an organic part of the city’s development, and not hence a truly urban higher education institution. I saw the University’s involvement in the Progressive Era as symptomatic of technocrat Progressives condescending to assert their Protestant, Social Gospel-inspired wills on the moral ills of the city. Of course I understand the Progressives included in a number of sincere human beings, truly concerned with their neighbors’ well-being, but I just did not see the University of Chicago version of that group as integrated into the urban scene.

After writing the urban higher education piece, I was plagued with intellectual guilt because of questions left unanswered. Seeing the holes in my preceding paragraph’s reflections has renewed that guilt. Namely, what exactly is an urban university? Is it simply a matter of geography – of place – or is it defined by an intellectual connection with its surroundings? What should that institution’s relationship be with its urban environs? Should the institution be celebrated or embraced by its city and surrounding neighborhood? What if it’s reviled by the anti-intellectual set in America’s history? Can an “ivory tower” truly exist as a disconnected entity in its urban setting? – TL

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