Outcast Islands

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

For everyone who cares to go. Join the trip when you can and leave when you must.—from a Reconciliation Trip flyer, 1933

It’s the early 1930s. You’re a sociology student at the University of Chicago or Northwestern,desiring firsthand experience of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. What are you to do? You can wander by along West Madison Street, the Rialto of the homeless, or down South State Street with its saloons, burlesque shows, and flophouses, or, if you’re into art and politics, cross the river where around the Newberry Library bohemians and radicals soapbox and drink tea. But this search takes time, and you’ve got a term paper due. No worries. Simply reserve a spot on Saturday’s Reconciliation Trip.

The experience will be thorough if not grueling. If you were to have attended “Taking Stock of Radicalism: How Red is America?” on November 11, 1933, your day would have gone like this:


12:30 PM Lunch at Maxwell’s Vegetarian Restaurant, 35 East Van Buren Street.


1:45 PM Public Opinion in Field of Facts of the Trip (A true and false test) By Director.

2:00 PM “PACIFISM: IS IT SENTIMENTAL OR POLITICAL?” Dr. James S. Yard, sometime Foreign Missionary and Director of Religions, Northwestern University.

3:00 PM AN INTERIM CHRYSANTHEMUM SHOW at Garfield Park Conservatory. Fully 7500 potted plants of 675 varieties—75 varieties on a single plant—An English garden. Tour of this most wonderful collection under competent guides.

4:30 PM “WHY THE BLACK MAN IS BECOMING RED?” Mr. Claud Lightfoot, a leader of the colored people.

6:00 PM Supper. Coffee and—with out-of-work men (No reservation necessary). [1]

Perhaps after dinner you stop at the radical bookstore The Proletariat or see a performance at the Art Colony. Around midnight, you are rewarded with drinking and dancing and a stroll down “picturesque” Madison Avenue led by the “king of the hobos,” the famed “social pathologist” Ben Lewis Reitman.

All this for fifty cents, plus meals and carfare.

Started in New York in the early 1900s by theology student Clarence V. Howell, the Reconciliation Trips operated under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization committed to promoting pacifism and socialism. Howell started the Trips out of a concern that divinity students were “not obtaining the type of practical experience with life situations to properly fit them for their calling.” [2] Howell wanted this “experience” to be as broad as possible, which is recognized in the range of tours listed at the top of the Trip’s official letterhead: “Group visits to Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Italians, Russians, Syrians, Jews, Spanish Americans, Negroes in NYC. Contact studies of mystic, psychic, economic, social, political, industrial, and labor groups.” [3] What besides a broad experience of marginalization connects these people and communities? By the time the Trips started in Chicago in the 1920s, the evangelical impulse had given way to the pursuit of sociological knowledge and, stranger still, to the pleasures of slumming.


Zone in Transition

Sociology students at the University of Chicago had also been charged with seeking out “practical experience.” In 1925, Robert Park and E.W. Burgess published The City, which contained Burgess’s model of urban growth, imagined as a series of concentric rings. [4] Burgess’s chart reduced Chicago to a representative city by ignoring its particularities. [5] Investigating these particularities in order to complicate Burgess’s urban growth theory became the task of his students, who produced such case studies as Nels Anderson’s The Hobo (1923) and Harvey W. Zorbaugh’sThe Gold Coast and the Slum (1929). These case studies focused on the Zone in Transition, the same area visited on the Reconciliation Trips.

Burgess favored tours like the Reconciliation Trips. They allowed his students to immerse themselves in the study of what he called “human ecology.” Burgess defines “human ecology” in his personal notes as distinct from anthropology and geography in its desire to understand “how the physical framework of the city determines human behavior and social organization.” [6] But determines is not his first choice in verbs; he has crossed out influences. The distance between these terms separates his vision of the city from that of his sometime collaborator and informant, the anarchist physician, frequent guide, and brief director of the Reconciliation Trips, Ben Reitman.


Outcast Islands

Fifteen years before Burgess drew his circles, Reitman produced a different model of the city, one based on his personal experiences as a physician to the poor and characterized by fragmentation and stagnation rather than unity and flow. His city consists of the Land of Respectability separated by the Sea of Isolation from Criminal IslandRace Prejudice Isle, a chain of Poverty Islands, and lastly, where he placed himself: Radical Island. [7]

As the itinerary for “Taking Stock of Radicalism” makes clear, the Reconciliation Trips blended Burgess’s and Reitman’s visions while preserving the latter’s sense of play, evident in the Outcast Island map. What does a collection of chrysanthemums have to do with American radicalism? The itinerary doesn’t offer an answer, and, my guess is, neither did Reitman. The Trips mixed discourses, with academic and civic figures participating but also ordinary people, the “out-of-work-men,” or, in some cases, paroled criminals. Sharing a meal is an intimate experience, and, in a sense, the tours bridged the Outcast Islands and the Land of Respectability. Despite this aim, a trace of sensationalism and exploitation remains in the itinerary. On the Trips and in such venues as the Dill Pickle Club and the Hobo College, Reitman used spectacle to promote social justice, a method that put him at odds with more serious-minded activists.

In a way, Reitman was mirroring the ambivalence of the tours’ participants. In a series of letters with Verrain Dilley, the wife of a musical instrument salesman in Gary, Indiana, the conflicting desires behind these tours become clear. Dilley wants Reitman to lead a private walk because her reform-minded women’s club is “interested in seeing the worst in order that they may work harder for the best.” But her group also wants to visit “some of the Bohemian places and also some of the really ‘slummy’ places.” Dilley has been on one of Reitman’s tours, finding it both “instructive and entertaining,” and wonders if he can arrange a dinner at a particular Chinese restaurant. Reitman is more than “happy to take a group of Gary women on a sociological tour through HobolandPovertyville, and Crooktown“—the Outcast Islands are now stops along the way to fortune cookies and sesame chicken.[8] Reitman seems capable of reconciling education and entertainment—there is pleasure in the pain to which he exposes tour participants. Perhaps he believes an area as dynamic as the Zone in Transition offers genuine joy?

The Reconciliation Trips ended in the late 1930s, but their spirit lives on in everything from the Chicago Cultural Center’s Neighborhood Tours to Weird Chicago’s Sex Tour. With the possible exception of the late Beauty Turner’s Ghetto Bus Tour, contemporary trips avoid using the tour as a form of social intervention or critique. Contemporary tours often play a part in civic promotion and are directed toward tourists. I’d like to make two proposals, one serious and one playful, in order to rehabilitate the tour as a tool for bridging social distances and generating temporary communities. One is to recreate an actual Reitman tour to restore texture and history to areas of the city long gentrified, having become, in their lack of differences, like Burgess’s representative city. Two is to lead trips into contemporary “slum” and “bohemian” areas, not only to draw attention to spaces of marginalization but also as an act of self-critique. Reitman knew his trips weren’t just about middle class Gary women seeing radicals and bohemians but also radicals and bohemians encountering Gary women—that is, everyone can benefit from occasional trips off their respective isles. ◊

1. “Taking Stock of Radicalism: How Red is America?” 11 November 1933. Ben Lewis Reitman Papers, Richard J. Daley Library Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago.

2. H. Edward Ballis to Ben L. Reitman, 24 May 1939, Ben L. Reitman Papers.

3. H. Edward Ballis, 24 May 1939.

4. Specifically, Burgess imagined the city as expanding from its center with the Loop as Zone 1, succeeded by the Zone in Transition (skid row), the Zone of Workingmen’s Homes, the Residential Zone, and a vast and unbounded Commuters Zone. Robert Park and Ernest W. Burgess, The City(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925), 51. [See Diagram opposite page.]

5. Ernest W. Burgess Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

6. Ernest W. Burgess Papers.

7. A reproduction of Reitman’s map can be found in Tim Cresswell, The Tramp in America (London: Reaktion, 2001) 73.

8. Verrain Dilley to Reitman, 03/23/1940; Dilley to Reitman, 03/11/1940; Reitman to Dilley, 03/12/1940. Ben Reitman Papers. For more on slumming, see Chad Heap, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

A Walk through Towertown and Hobohemia

The places to which Reitman took visitors were not the kind to receive brass plaques or end up on historical registers but were regarded as being as disposable as the people who inhabited them. I’ve listed their location and, when relevant, what stands on the site today.

North (Towertown)

Art Colony, 121⁄2 Delaware Pl. (condominiums)

Phalanstra Restaurant, where artists and intellectuals dined, 915 Rush St. (Urban Outfitters)

Gretnzebach’s Radical Bookstore, 33 E. Oak St. (Barney’s of New York)

Ann Jenn’s Restaurant, 16 E. Huron St. (Whole Foods)

Dill Pickle Club, 18 Tooker Alley (apartments and private residences)

Bughouse Square, south of the Newberry Library, which now “sponsors” annual soapbox debates (Washington Square Park)

West (Hobohemia)

Maxwell’s Vegetarian Restaurant, 2nd location, Madison St. Bridge (Corner Bakery)

Hogan’s Flop, 16 S. Desplaines St. (parking lot)

The Ideal, 509 W. Madison, oldest cheap lodging house in Chicago (AT&T building)

Municipal Lodging House, 162 N. Union St. (highway)

Salvation Army Hotel, corner of Madison and Halsted Sts.

Rufus Dawes House, named for the son of Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, 14 S. Peoria St. (condominiums)

Helping Hand Mission, 850 W. Madison St (KJI Hydro)

Jefferson Park and “Bum Hill,” favorite hangout of hobos and transients, Throop St. between Adams and Jackson (Skinner Park surrounded by condos and plagued by rats)

IWW Hall and Hobo College, 1118 W. Madison St. (Crossroads Bar & Grill)

The Proletariat, radical bookstore and hobo “post office,” 1237 W. Madison St. (Ici Dulux Paint)


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