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City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871-1919

Author(s):Garb, Margaret
Reviewer(s):Smith, Fred H.

Published by EH.NET (May 2006)

Margaret Garb, City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871-1919. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. xv + 261 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 0-226-28209-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Fred H. Smith, Department of Economics, Davidson College.

Home ownership rates in the United States have reached an all-time high during the first decade of the twenty-first century, and the record levels of home ownership have reached across lines of class, ethnicity, and race. Nearly fifty percent of African-American and Hispanic American households own their homes, which represents a dramatic increase in the ownership rate in just the past two decades. As the media report on homeownership trends in the United States, most Americans receive this news without giving any consideration to why we view ownership as an integral part of the American dream. Indeed, it is taken for granted that a necessary step in fulfilling the American dream is to own one’s home. In City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871-1919, Margaret Garb takes us back in time so that we may better understand the origins of the American obsession with home ownership.

City of American Dreams starts with an extended introduction, where Garb promises to examine the “changes in the ways Americans conceived of and assessed the economic and social value of residential property” (p. 2). The seven chapters that follow the introduction do an excellent job of carrying through on this promise. Chapter one introduces the reader to the urban (and socio-economic) landscape in 1872 Chicago. Devastated by the Great Fire in October of 1871, the residents of the city were forced to determine how they wanted to rebuild their city in the aftermath of the catastrophe. Garb uses a compelling description of a January 1872 demonstration by working class residents of Chicago at a Common Council meeting in order to introduce a principal theme of her book: Tension between different socio-economic and racial groups came about as these groups battled for control over property rights in residential housing markets. The controversy in January 1872 centered on how the boundaries of the “fire limits” building restrictions were to be drawn. The working class protestors viewed the building restrictions as an infringement on their ability to build homes and enjoy the benefits of home ownership. More specifically, the building restrictions were designed to limit the places within the city where one could construct a wood frame home. Fearing another catastrophic fire, the members of the economic elite and the members of the Common Council felt that restricting the construction of flammable housing units would serve the city’s long run interests. By preventing the construction of lower quality, highly flammable housing, the city would be more successful in its efforts to attract capital from the East as residents worked to rebuild the city.

Chapter one does an excellent job of setting the stage for the reader to understand the tensions that persisted between residents from different racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups; chapter two is equally effective in providing the reader with a foundation from which to understand the role of home ownership in the American dream. Garb expertly argues that home ownership in the 1870s was something sought by lower income residents of Chicago. The second chapter plays a particularly pivotal role in the book, for the remaining chapters show the reader how home ownership ultimately became difficult — if not impossible — for residents on the lower rungs of the socio-economic latter.

Chapters three through six take the reader on a journey that explains how owner-occupied housing was transformed from something that lower income households strove for in order to supplement their incomes to something that the economic elite used to insulate themselves from the “less desirable” segments of society. Chapter four is particularly effective in establishing the distinct differences that existed between neighborhoods. The residential neighborhoods of the lower income households were often separated from the services — water, sewer, and adequate police protection — that so profoundly impacted the quality of life. Indeed, Garb does an excellent job of discussing the role that the privatization of these services played in transforming them from “public services” to amenities that could be purchased only in select neighborhoods.

Chapter seven discusses Chicago’s experiences with integrating its ever expanding African-American population. Garb’s story is a familiar one: Declining property values in African-American neighborhoods due to landlords failing to maintain properties rented to African-Americans, widespread blockbusting, and restricted access to credit for African-American households that were fortunate enough to save enough money to make a down payment on a home. The conditions imposed on black residents of Chicago led to an increasingly fragile truce between whites and blacks. Tensions reached a climax before abruptly exploding in July 1919. In the race riot that erupted, nearly forty Chicagoans lost their lives, and 1,000 residents were left homeless in the wake of the five-day disturbance.

It is rare that one has the opportunity to read a book that isn’t in need of some substantive changes, but Garb’s City of American Dreams certainly falls into that category. Her book is expertly researched, it is written in a clear and very engaging style, and it does an outstanding job of fulfilling the promise that she makes to her reader in the introduction. City of American Dreams will make an excellent addition to the syllabus for a wide variety of courses. It would serve as a superb resource for a course in urban economic history, regardless of whether the course is taught at the undergraduate or graduate level. It would also be a nice addition to an urban economics course. A great deal of the empirical research in urban economics focuses on Chicago, and it does so because of the exceptional data collected by Hoyt and Olcott. Garb’s book would give an economist interested in working with these data an excellent introduction to the urban environment in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. I might make a few suggestions about stylistic issues in the book, but, frankly, the book is so well written that they would be mere suggestions. I found City of American Dreams to be a thoroughly engaging read, and I learned a great deal about Chicago from reading it. But, more importantly, Garb’s book left me feeling as though I now have a much better understanding of why owner occupied housing is such an import part of the American dream.

Fred Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Davidson College. His most recent paper (co-authored with Mark Foley) is “Consumer Discrimination in Professional Sports: New Evidence from Major League Baseball,” forthcoming in Applied Economics Letters.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII