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'Chicago's Block Clubs': An In-Depth Look at Urbanite Relationships and Self-Governance

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Daniel X. O'Neil
/
Flickr

Many cities have different versions of a block club, but in Chicago, they're generally a group of neighbors who get together to solve small issues affecting the neighborhood, like garbage pickup or loud neighbors.

When researching for her book Block by Block, Amanda Seligman kept coming across these block clubs. As someone living in the Chicago-area at the time, she was very familiar with the community organizations. 

"The way we as urbanites relate to each other as neighbors really matters to how the city looks, and to how we treat each other. And that's a completely unexplored idea in urban history."

"I just wrote about them as if everybody knew about them," says Seligman. "And then a couple years into that project, as I was finishing it up, I was like, 'Maybe I should put some scholarly legitimacy behind my comments about block clubs.' And so I went to do some research and I realized nobody else had really written about them." 

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The search inspired her to write her latest book, Chicago's Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City

"[Block clubs are] fascinating to me because they're really sort of local efforts at self-governance in Chicago, that Chicagoans are really familiar with, but people in other parts of the country don't really know what they are," says Seligman. 

She says that, for the most part, block clubs aren't too exciting, and unlike some other community organizations, they tend to focus on small, hyperlocal issues. This is part of why their histories are largely undocumented.

"Through a century of history the people who have developed Chicago's block clubs have really figured out a bunch of mechanisms by which they can work together to get things done."

History tends to focus on extraordinary people doing amazing things, but seems less concerned with a group of neighbors quibbling over housing code violations. 

But Seligman contends these kinds of interactions are incredibly important to understanding a city's history. "The way we as urbanites relate to each other as neighbors really matters to how the city looks, and to how we treat each other. And that's a completely unexplored idea in urban history." 

"There's lots of things that people who live together can do and through a century of history the people who have developed Chicago's block clubs have really figured out a bunch of mechanisms by which they can work together to get things done," she says.

"If you and your neighbor who don't really get along, are concerned about some third thing, you can work through the block club to try to solve that pot hole."

Block clubs were smart about choosing their battles, and avoided taking on issues that weren't within their reach. They would organize letter writing campaigns or picket lines to put pressure on officials to help them achieve their goals. As a result, there were able to get things done as a group that would have been much more difficult as an individual. It was also a way for neighbors to connect in a way that wasn't quite social, but helped improve the area. 

"If you and your neighbor who don't really get along, are concerned about some third thing, you can work through the block club to try to solve that pot hole or whatever that third party, annoying neighbor down the street is doing with their building, without necessarily having to have parties with them or tell them the intimate secrets of your life," she says.

Amanda Seligman is the author of Chicago's Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City. She is also a professor and chair of the history department at UW-Milwaukee. 

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.