For just over 100 years, there was the smell. Writer Upton Sinclair called it “an elemental odor, raw and crude,” in The Jungle, his 1906 novel revealing the conditions of Chicago’s Union Stock Yards. “It was rich, almost rancid, sensual, and strong,” he wrote. “There were some who drank it in as if it were an intoxicant; there were others who put their handkerchiefs to their faces.”
The Union Stock Yards anchored Chicago’s contribution to America’s food trade from 1865 until their closing in August of 1971. According to the University of Chicago Press’s Encyclopedia of Chicago, more meat was processed in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century than in any other place in the world. The streets surrounding the stock yards proper (Halsted, 47th, Ashland) swarmed with ranchers bringing cattle and hogs to market. The surrounding neighborhood occasionally received surprise visits from livestock on the run. And the stench of meat permeated for blocks around.
Despite the stranglehold that the Union Stock Yards had on early industrial Chicago, the business faded along with the coming of the postindustrial age: advances in transportation and distribution made it not as necessary for Chicago to be the hog butcher for the world, or even just for the state of Illinois. And by 1971, the yards were closed with a whimper, the major plants like Swift and Armour being gone already for a few decades.
Later that year, the Reader joined the ranks of upstart publications looking to capture the Chicago spirit, which was then midshift into a new cultural revolution: Chicagoans stayed single for longer, more people worked white-collar jobs, conservative social mores were being questioned, and our early readers were part of that great investigation into what Chicago’s new role might be in the grand scheme.
While the cattle are gone, the industrial park still lives on, but the new inhabitants at the Stock Yards Industrial Park now include a produce distributor that built its building with wind turbines, and a small-batch beer brewery nestled into one of the old manufacturing buildings, now with a green roof. None of us knows what the next 50 years will bring, but the sweet smell of renewal has visited us in 2021.