This blog entry sets up Part I of the ongoing collaborative series Neighborhoods & Their Residents. As described in the introductory blog for this collaborative series, we will be working with participating urban youth and other collaborators to develop comic collaborations relating to urban neighborhoods which we will ultimately include in our ongoing Back of the Yards comic series, starting with Issue 3.
With our introductory blog for this collaboration series, we took a closer look at the history of the neighborhood we based our comic narrative on, the real Back of the Yards neighborhood. With this blog, we will explore one of the more notarious neighborhood events in early Chicago history.
But first we start with just a little personal reflection of one of my own favorite Chicago neighborhoods, Old Town …
Over the course of the years, I’ve lived in a number of Chicago neighborhoods. North Side, South Side, the Loop, West Loop, McKinley Park, Streeterville. The list goes on. But to this day, my favorite neighborhood continues to be a little Chicago tract called Old Town.
Old Town is a quaint little area just north of the Chicago city center. It’s home to many lively bars and restaurants, some of which have stood the test of time, while others are just beginning their time. And with that, the neighborhood has certainly changed even since the time I lived there. As neighborhoods do.
Nonetheless, I still hold many fond memories of Old Town. One of my favorite neighborhood restaurants still serves there, as successful as ever – Topo Gigio. I had many good times there (thanks for the drinks, camaraderie and good food, Rudy, Tony and Luca). As does one of my favorite little watering holes – a neighborhood bar called Wells on Wells. Just one of those neighborhood bars where you can go to have a drink without pretense, and are just as likely to see residents from the neighborhood as you are those passing through for the first time.
And sometimes as I would sit in Wells on Wells, or have a drink outside on their front patio, I’d wonder just how this little pocket of a neighborhood – a peaceful oasis tucked away from the bustle of the massive city that surrounds it – ever came to exist?
The city above is Chicago. Less than two decades old at the time. The year is 1840ish. And unlike the Old Town neighborhood of my time, nothing about Chicago of that time can be described as a peaceful oasis.
Cesspool maybe. Oasis, no.
In fact, much of what is now the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago today was still being converted from swampland at that time. Yes, literally, swampland. And the rats probably outnumbered the humans on any given street.
Yet it was also in this context that people were coming to Chicago in relative droves. Yes, coming, not leaving. And during that time many of those new residents were coming from two places in particular: Germany and Ireland.
Between 1850 and 1860, Chicago’s population grew from 28,000 to 109,000. Of that, the German population grew from 5,000 to 22,000, while the Irish went from 6,000 to 20,000. Thus, combined, people of German or Irish roots would grow to represent roughly 40% of the Chicago population at that time.
And apparently some people didn’t like that.
Indeed, as the Germans and the Irish starting populating Chicago neighborhoods, they were becoming increasingly noticed by the “native” Chicagoans at the time.
These native Chicagoans felt that both the Germans and Irish brought with them too many undesired customs from the old countries. Customs that included the occasional drink of alcohol and the expression of certain “high minded” ideas from Europe like, oh, slavery was bad and should be abolished, and that women should have the right to vote.
But try as they might, the native Chicagoans couldn’t discourage these new arrivals from Germany and Ireland from quickly influencing their newfound city and neighborhoods. And it was within one such neighborhood that the newly arrived Germans in particular would start to make their mark in previously uninhabitable marshland just north of the center business district. It was there that they converted swampland into cow pastures to grow cabbage, earning that neighborhood’s early moniker as the “Cabbage Patch,” before it took on the name it has today in Chicago …
It was there in Old Town that in 1853, Klugel’s Lager Beer Saloon opened at 1623 North Wells Street. Like many such drinking establishments of those days, Klugel’s would serve as a social club of sorts for the new arrivals from Germany, Ireland and elsewhere.
In many instances, these establishments provided foreign newspapers for the patrons who couldn’t yet read English. Indeed, many of the local residents, fresh from Germany, Ireland and other parts of the world, would visit these new drinking establishments to network with others and learn about job opportunities, thus essentially acting as de facto employment agencies.
But as more neighborhood establishments like Klugel’s Lager Beer Saloon began to emerge, Chicago’s native population would become even more increasingly concerned.
All of this happening during a period our country’s history marked by the Temperance Movement, a movement with the ultimate aim of prohibiting alcohol altogether. So, in that context, when these newly arrived ethnic groups from Germany and Ireland began opening their new neighborhood drinking establishments and breweries, and with that, started freely expressing their high ideals of women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery; well that just seemed to threaten the very core of what many “native” Chicagoans held true and dear at the time.
And one such Chicagoan was a guy by the name of Levi Day Boone.
Levi Day Boone. Grand-nephew of the legendary frontiersman, Danial Boone, old Levi was a medical doctor by trade who would go on to serve as a mayor of Chicago in 1855.
So where exactly to begin with Levi? Well, it’s probably first worth noting that Levi was pro-slavery to the core. Oh, and as you might have also guessed, Levi also didn’t particularly care for those new immigrants arriving in Chicago either. In Levi’s mind, they drank too much and had too many “radical” thoughts about equality and what have you.
To his credit, Levi himself wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He overcame poverty as a youth in Kentucky, and with hard work and an unwavering commitment to his own education, Levi would become a skilled doctor. So skilled, in fact, that he would ultimately become the head city doctor of Chicago. And in that capacity, many credit old Levi for his steady leadership during multiple bouts with cholera throughout the city. And by 1855, Levi had developed the reputation as a skilled doctor, devout Baptist, and respected lecturer.
It was from this reputation that Levi would eventually enter local politics as part of the “Know Nothing Party.”
I shit you not, that’s what they were called. The Know Nothing Party.
And Levi, as a political outsider who bemoaned the evils that the immigrants were bringing to his adopted city of Chicago, would go on to win the mayoral election of Chicago in 1855 with 53% of the vote.
So it was, with this backdrop that the “native” Chicagoan populace largely responsible for voting old Levi into office would beseech the fine doctor to do something about those newly arrived Germans and Irish. With their beer, saloons and perhaps worst of all, ideas.
In response, Levi and his political cohorts decided they would outlaw drinking on Sundays. And not only that, Levi would raise the liquor license fee six-fold, from $50 to $300, thus threatening the very existence of those informal neighborhood institutions like Klugel’s Lager Beer Saloon and setting the stage for what would come next.
April 21, 1855. Irate about the new liquor taxes, and the forced arrests for drinking on Sundays, the German and Irish immigrants marched up to the courthouse on the corner of Randolph and Clark Street, 500 strong, to protest with righteous indignation these new ordinances which were clearly meant to be nothing less than a direct attack on them.
And once they got there, they were confronted by the newly minted Chicago police. It was then that the powder keg had finally been lit. All of the built up hostility and tension between the “native” Chicagoans and the the newly arrived immigrants would finally explode that unfortunate afternoon, with the new police caught squarely in between.
Violence erupted. Punches thrown. Further threats exchanged. Blood spilled.
Amidst the chaos, a policeman was shot in the arm by a rioter, resulting in the death of that rioter when the police returned fire.
And as the threat of even more violence would emerge with the march of rioters getting closer to the city center, Old Levi ordered the city’s draw bridges be raised to cut off their access and avoid any further bloodshed. A harbinger of more tumultuous times in the young city’s future.
And with that (along with a pair of loaded cannons set up in front of city hall) the violence would eventually begin to quell. And by the following day, after 60 arrests, 19 injuries and 1 death, Chicago would grapple with the after-effects of the very first organized civil disturbance in its history. What would later become known as the “Lager Beer Riot” of 1855.
After the dust fully settled, Chicago would eventually, of course, reduce the liquor fees and ditch the Sunday bar closures. Disgusted with what had transpired, the city then voted for a new Mayor, Thomas Dyer, with German and Irish support. And all would move on, leaving old Levi and his Know Nothings behind.
And though this tale may be but a footnote in one city’s early history, it still highlights the power and influence that people can have, together with their life experiences and unique ancestral journeys; how all of that in the collective can manifest so strongly within our urban neighborhoods. So strongly, in fact, that others may perceive them as threats to their own comfortable worldview or false sense of superiority.
Yet even as city neighborhoods and comfortable worldviews may evolve over time, what remains is the lasting impact and influence of those early inhabitants, becoming an inexorable part of any urban neighborhood’s DNA.
Sort of like that old saloon that the newly arrived German immigrants opened in 1853, Klugel’s Lager Beer Saloon, which still stands as a bar today, only under a different name …
Wells on Wells.
That favorite watering hole of mine in Old Town, where you can go have a drink without pretense, and are just as likely to see residents from the neighborhood as you are those passing through for the first time.
Even on Sundays.
Written by Jimmy Briseno