[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #1 in August 2005]
“49th” because we meet in the Blackstone Public Library on the corner of 49th St. and Lake Park. “Underground” because we meet in the library’s basement. But also because we want to offer a mysterious hint at a world to come, which we hope to help build, now, underground, while moving ever nearer to the surface.
The 49th St. Underground began last December (2004) with a handful of people living, working, or studying in Chicago’s Hyde Park. We had different reasons and different backgrounds, but we shared a feeling that Chicago might do well to find a new radical group in its midst: a group broadly defined as anticapitalist and broadly committed to the interplay of discussion, agitation, and activism.
We had and have no intention of replacing existing groups. Most of us are already activists; many of us belong to long-standing organizations of resistance, autonomy, and revolution. We have been anxious to work together with other progressive groups, as many as are willing and as far as our capacity allows. We hope this will encourage more cooperation and mutual aid among radical social movements in Chicago–united in common struggles, without hiding our differences. These very differences can be the most valuable beginnings of discussion.
So they have been for us.
Our principal activity has been to organize discussions and public forums, where people from various critical perspectives can discuss the state of global capital and the pressing issues of life in Chicago and beyond. Beyond this, we have tried to disseminate and act on the ideas that arise from these discussions.
Our focus on discussion arose in the course of our collective activity and our many disagreements. The people who came together to found the 49th St. Underground had many different ideas for action. But we shared the feeling that we could benefit from discussing these differences. We thought that activists’ discussions too often remain confined to particular activist groups, and that revolutionary organizations too rarely engage one another in serious debate. We thought, further, that we could benefit from critical reflection on our activity. And we hoped that our discussions would interest new people who may not already be radicals.
Since February, we have held two series of discussions on the general themes of labor and the city. After a brief summer vacation–filled by games and educational-agitational excursions– the latter series will continue in late August with a discussion of education and urban schooling. The series will conclude with a larger public forum tying together various themes of our smaller discussions.
Most of our discussions have revolved around a particular topic–for example, labor and technology, or entertainment, amenities, and the city. Usually, the discussions are loosely structured and open, but occasionally we have taken turns leading discussions. We invited well-informed speakers to begin our larger public forums, like one held in April on the SEIU and the state of the AFL-CIO. We do not conclude our discussions with general consensus; there are no “winners” of our debates. But we have clarified, changed, strengthened, and questioned our views.
Recently, we have started small reading groups, discussing together texts that we would otherwise have read alone.
Alongside the discussions we hold face to face, we maintain an online list that has seen many a lively debate in recent months.
To spread our ideas beyond our underground walls, at the end of our first discussion series we began to put our pens to paper and our paper to the wind. We wrote brief pamphlets on topics that rose out of our debates. These pamphlets do not present a “majority view” of the group; nor are they purely individual creations. They reflect our heterogeneity, which we hope only continues to grow. Copies of these will soon be available on our website, currently under construction: , http://www.49underground.org. In the meantime, they are available directly from us.
All this is no substitute for direct action and all-out organizing. There are some of us who hope to expand our group activities into activism; and some of us have collaborated, for example, in protesting Chicago Transit Authority job cuts and service cuts . Others of us have schedules already full of action, and they use the group primarily to discuss and reflect. Our future direction will depend on the needs of participants, and of course on our own ability to organize and plan.
Many struggles lie ahead. For better or for worse, we are in Chicago. We are ruled over by a dirty sky, a powerful economy, a rusty grid of streets, and an iron-fisted political machine. We are surrounded by sprawling suburbs, making ever dimmer the prospect of escape. But we are surrounded by many comrades and much activity, and we push ahead.