The Story of Back of the Yards
Settled by those who worked in the nearby Union Stock Yard between the 1860s and 1880s, Back of the Yards is a neighborhood of immigrants, industry, and social activism. The neighborhood is officially located in the New City community area of Chicago. It has served as the setting for the work of many activists, social scientists, and twentieth-century novelists, including Upton Sinclair in his novel The Jungle. The Union Stock Yard, once comprised the largest meatpacking center in the country. (Read more below)
Watch: Back of the Yards
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “the concentration of railroads in the mid-nineteenth century, the establishment of the Union Stock Yard in 1865, and the perfection of the refrigerated boxcar by 1880 led to a giant expansion of meatpacking in the neighborhood.” Lithuanian, Czech, Polish, Irish, and German immigrants all settled in the community in search of job opportunities afforded by the meatpacking industry.
But the dangerous, discriminatory, and unsanitary working conditions of the stockyards prompted major social movements political activism in the community, such as the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, which was a key player in the union movement that worked to increase wages and obtain workers’ rights. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, which was founded in 1939 by community organizers Joseph Meegan and Saul Alinsky, claims to be among the oldest not-for-profit community groups in the United States. The group also championed social causes, such as school lunch programs.
By the 1970s, the Union Stock Yards had closed due to the increased use of interstate trucking. The neighborhood, which by this point was predominantly Latinx, suffered economic decline.
Today, the neighborhood is the site of the Stockyards Industrial Park, a redevelopment effort that started in the 1990s and has turned the area into a busy industrial center. Recent data shows that the New City community area is 62 percent Latinx and 22 percent African American. The Red Line makes a stop nearby at 47th Street.
Neighborhood Spotlight: Union Stock Yards
On Christmas Day 1865, the Union Stock Yards opened for business near Exchange and Halsted. Seven stockyards and nine railroads consolidated operations to become the Union Stock Yard and Transit Co.––a square mile of livestock pens, slaughterhouses, and processing and packing plants. With proximity to the railroads, the meatpacking industry thrived, processing 18 million animals (mostly hogs and cattle) per year at its peak. Chicago had become “Hog Butcher for the World,” according to Carl Sandburg’s poem.
Three leaders in the meatpacking industry – Nelson Morris, Philip Armour, and Gustavus Swift – created a monopoly at the Union Stock Yards, owning their plants, the railroad cars that they leased to rail companies, and storage facilities throughout the country.
Amid their success came The Jungle, a novel by Upton Sinclair. Written in 1906, the novel (though fictional) was intended to demonstrate the appalling working conditions for immigrants – pollution, disease, and low wages – but instead spurred a national movement for food safety. Sinclair famously said, “I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
The workers of the stockyards, tired of enduring low wages, the horrible stench, overwhelming heat, and the gore of the slaughterhouses, began to organize. In addition to the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) and other labor groups became effective tools for obtaining workers’ rights until the New Deal brought labor protection laws to the nation. The BYNC became the inspiration for Saul Alinsky’s community organizing strategy.
On July 31, 1971, the Union Stock Yards closed, unable to compete with the interstate trucking industry and automation. Today, Chiappetti Meats is the only remnant of the stockyards, and the area is now primarily industrial.