In the 1850s and 1860s Chicago streets consisted of garbage, manure, and dirt. Horse-drawn omnibuses–our first form of mass transit–traveled down State Street on wooden planks as far south as 12th Street. The trip was risky in wet weather. According to transit historian David Young, if an omnibus slipped off the planks, it could take workers days to dig it out of the mud. Roving gangs of youths moved faster. “When they were not brawling or vandalizing public property or stealing from gardens,” writes historian Perry Duis, “they were pawning stolen goods or selling them to junk dealers.”

If anything, the Chicago River was worse than the streets. You could hardly row across it, according to one newspaper writer, because of its “exhalations,” among them “sulphurated hydrogen, the odor of decaying rodents, and the stench of rotting brassica.”

The City Council passed ordinances against these and other public nuisances, but they accomplished little. Individual Chicagoans were on their own when it came to coping with the city’s public realm. Not surprisingly, they avoided it when they could, but the opportunities were few. One early escape was the panorama: for 50 cents you could enter a rented hall and watch a realistic painting 400 feet long be unrolled across a stage and rolled up on the other side, accompanied by music and narrative. The panoramas included inspirational stories (“Pilgrim’s Progress”), travelogues (“The Upper and Lower Mississippi”), even breaking news (“Diorama of the Bombardment of Fort Sumter,” which reached the city five weeks after the 1861 battle). The audiences were paying for more than just education and entertainment–they were buying some distance and a brief respite from the uncouth streets.

Today many pop sociologists and do-gooders disapprove of escape on principle. They lament the rise of suburbia and the alleged decline of public spaces, bowling leagues, and ethnic neighborhoods. The more vociferous sprawl fighters would like people to abandon the suburbs for urban apartments (and then presumably show their public spirit by venturing out to attend meetings every night). Popular author James Howard Kunstler, among the least subtle of the bunch, claims that during the “crucial” 25 years between 1893 and 1918, Americans had a choice “between civilizing their cities through public works, and using the car to escape the demands of civility.” We chose the car, and he hates us for it.

It’s not clear exactly what Kunstler thinks the “demands of civility” are. But it is clear that Chicagoans were buying their way out of the distasteful parts of urban life long before the invention of cheap cars or home-mortgage-interest deductions. Duis, a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tells some of the relevant stories in his new book, Challenging Chicago: Coping With Everyday Life, 1837-1920, showing that time and again, when they had a choice, Chicagoans preferred not to embrace the city but to insulate themselves from it.

By the 1890s the city’s streets no longer depended on planks for solidity, but that didn’t make them clean. Tens of thousands of workhorses deposited about one million pounds of manure and 25,000 gallons of urine on the streets every year. As late as 1914 the city health department annually picked up more than 8,000 dead horses from the streets. And new perils were proliferating. Electric wires hung overhead. First cable cars, then streetcars traveled the neighborhoods with menacing speed. Foot and vehicle traffic downtown was congested beyond belief, and much of it consisted of unpredictable newcomers hawking goods and chatting in Italian, Polish, Yiddish.

Tens of thousands of Chicagoans began their climb up the economic ladder from the street, dealing in newspapers, meat, fresh water, kindling wood, razor strops, grease remover, small-appliance repairs, musical performances, patent medicines, and much more. Some went door-to-door, others occupied fixed posts and appealed to passersby–making the streets even noisier and more crowded than they already were. “The peddler was intrusive when those with more comfortable means wanted to shield themselves from the unpleasantness of urban life,” writes Duis. “The peddler was everything the city was, amidst people who wanted to make Chicago what it wasn’t: an uncomplicated, serene, and orderly place.”

Nineteenth-century gridlock was no joke either. Geography and technology had conspired to tie downtown Chicago in a knot. “The pattern of Chicago’s waterways… resulted in the overconcentration of development in an area bounded by the lake, the Chicago River, and its south branch,” writes David Young in Chicago Transit: An Illustrated History. “The arrival of the railroads and their extensive yards closed that box on the south side.” Within the box, elevators and electricity made tall buildings possible–which brought more people downtown. “By the 1890s, three decades before the automobile was a major contributor to congestion, downtown streets were suffering from gridlock.” If anything, Duis adds, public transit made conditions worse, by bringing even more people in. “Wagons, horses, carriages, streetcars, pushcarts, and pedestrians scrambled together into immobile knots of inefficiency that were all the more difficult to untangle because of the variety of vehicles involved…. Chicago was choking on its own prosperity.”

Chicago had no notable cathedrals or public buildings. Instead it had hotels, railroad stations, and department stores, places Duis calls the “anti-city.” Like the earlier panoramas, they were privately owned but semipublic–“self-selective retreats from the streets.” As the city grew, semipublic places became more numerous and more specialized. Anyone could be in the streets, but to attend the theater or to spend much time in a railroad depot, you had to buy a ticket. To enter a nice restaurant you had to dress well enough to pass the scrutiny of the maitre d’. To visit a department store or hotel you had to be unintimidated by the elevators, electric lights, and numerous options. The new stores included “restaurants, waiting rooms, beauty parlors, dentists’ offices, checkrooms, offices in which to purchase theater tickets or arrange travel plans, and even a day nursery where children could romp on real grass and sand.” Shoppers could “arrive downtown by commuter train, do their shopping, and never set foot on the public street.”

Those who could afford a horse and buggy were able to move throughout the city, cocooned in a portable semipublic space. Cars, when they came along, offered even greater mobility and more privacy. Far from being antithetical to the city, they fit right into the established pattern of buying one’s way out of the possibility of unpleasant or threatening encounters.

“Those with money coped with urban life by becoming part of Chicago yet being able to withdraw from it,” Duis concludes. “Lunch at the private club, a box at the opera, the carriage ride through crowded streets, a visit from the tailor for a fitting–all were part of the lifestyle of those who lived in the city but were in command of how and where they came in contact with fellow Chicagoans and the urban environment.” They could live in the city selectively, almost like suburbanites, or like the lover of winter sports who likes best of all coming indoors to a comfortable fire. “Each step down the social scale meant a greater loss of that control. The middle-class suburbanite could at least withdraw to his or her subdivision, but the homeless had very little choice of company or location.” Goose Island squatters, for instance, “lacked the resources to isolate themselves from the outside world. Some housing even lacked doors.”

In the 1990s we may think that selective withdrawal from urban life is perfectly normal, or perfectly deplorable, or a good idea that’s got out of hand. But we can’t claim that it’s something new. Those who don’t know the past are condemned to whine about the present.

People also distanced themselves from the city’s public realm by forming separate neighborhoods. Chicagoans began sorting themselves out earlier and more spontaneously than we might think. Duis traces it as far back as the 1850s. “In a quiet process that involved thousands of individual decisions made over the course of many years, city dwellers began to use the various kinds of city spaces in different and more specialized ways….The rich lived with the rich, the poor with the poor….The early jumble of land uses in pioneer Chicago–stores next to houses next to small factories–gradually settled out into retail, wholesale, and manufacturing districts.” And all of this happened well before zoning gave it legal form.

One reason Duis is a historian while the rest of us have other jobs is that the gradual division of the city into separate districts puts him in mind of–lunch. The farther the distance between work and home, the fewer Chicagoans who went home for a midday meal. Where and how to eat became a daily decision, but it didn’t necessarily lead to more interaction in the public realm. Here too Chicagoans bought themselves whatever insulation they could afford. Members of the elite networked at private clubs. Restaurants like the Berghoff and Henrici’s catered to reasonably well-off nonmembers. Women workers in the Loop began forming their own lunch clubs in the 1880s and 1890s. (The cafeteria was invented at one of them, the Ogontz Club, located in the Pontiac Building on Printers Row.) Farther down the social scale, nickel-and-dime lunch counters offered uncomfortable stools (to encourage fast turnover) and utensils chained to the counter. Mobile sandwich wagons on the street supplied those with even less money and time.

Not everyone could be rich, but everyone could be ethnic. Ethnic neighborhoods enabled almost all classes to choose their day-to-day company. But that lasted for only a generation or two. When inhabitants got the money to move farther afield to places that offered more options, they did. (Racism long denied prosperous African-Americans this opportunity, which shaped their communities differently.) Already in the late 1800s preelectric street railways enabled workers “to move out of the increasingly dense, congested, and more expensive downtown area to residential subdivisions sprouting up on the outskirts of town,” writes Young. In the late 1940s it was the same story, just a different prime mover. In their book Chicago’s Southeast Side: Images of America, Dominic Pacyga and Rod Sellers include a photograph of a large, jammed parking lot at U.S. Steel’s South Works. They remark that “the automobile made it possible for mill workers to live outside the neighborhood, even in the suburbs, and to commute to work.” For many the old neighborhood wasn’t an end in itself–it was a way station.

Commuting had begun as soon as businesses and factories began to inhabit their own districts. Whether by foot, rail, or carriage, it “tended to promote a view of the city and its region as a series of corridors,” writes Duis. “This linear thinking bordered on being anti-city because most urban functions became impediments to travel. The street, which had been a multifunctional place, was seen in increasingly narrow terms as a path for traffic to move with as few interruptions as possible.” Cars intensified this linear thinking, but they didn’t start it.

The street can never quite be reduced to a mere corridor, but tastemakers have long wanted it at least to be more like the semipublic spaces they prefer. Past and present campaigns against peddlers–not to mention the fencing off of Lower Wacker Drive–represent an effort to turn the entire city into a semipublic space no more threatening to upper-middle-class sensibilities than Marshall Field’s.

Downtown Chicago may have been “choking on its own prosperity” around the turn of the century, as Duis suggests, but the city fought off those who offered a timely Heimlich maneuver. “Outlying neighborhoods enjoyed more advanced technologies sooner than did the center of the city,” he writes. Political inertia and fear of technology often meant that new ideas had to sneak their way in. Meanwhile, the continued congestion encouraged more people to retreat to private and semipublic spaces.

The first concrete pavement in Chicago appeared not downtown, but between 111th and 113th Streets. The first electric trolleys in Chicago, in 1890, ran along a stretch of 93rd Street. They were kept out of downtown for years, evidently because city officials feared their speed and their electric lines. “The city allowed electrification of existing [horsecar or cable car] lines only gradually and with opposition at every step,” Young writes. In 1894 the city council authorized all lines to be electrified, except those downtown, creating “an absurd situation wherein street railways had to tow their electric streetcars through the downtown area behind horses or cable cars or make passengers switch to horsecars.”

The elevated rail loop, built between 1894 and 1897, was an anticongestion measure, in that it allowed trains to circulate smoothly above downtown. Arguably it was the single most important piece of transportation infrastructure in Chicago history, yet Charles Yerkes found it necessary to deceive property owners about what he was doing even as he constructed it. “The entire system had to be built over streets, and to comply with the Adams Law [requiring the consent of two-thirds of property owners] he was confronted with prohibitively expensive bribery,” writes Young. “Acquiring downtown buildings and demolishing them for a right-of-way was out of the question.” So Yerkes built each of its four sides under a different pretext. The north leg, for instance, was sold as a mere eastward extension of the Lake Street el. The freight tunnels–another attempt to alleviate congestion by adding an extra level to downtown–were constructed in secret for four years around the turn of the century before word got out.

At different times, both the City Press Association and the post office tried to bypass the downtown streets by laying miles of greased brass piping underneath them. Through these pipes “compressed air pushed capsules containing messages, letters, and packages…at speeds of as much as thirty miles per hour, far faster than anything moved on the surface,” writes Duis. Unfortunately the pipes had a tendency to shift where one length joined the next. When that happened, the capsules got stuck and piled up. Workers had to dig them out like the mired omnibuses of 50 years earlier.

The el loop, the freight tunnels, the brass tubes, and later the downtown subway all tried to use technology to solve what Duis calls “an economic-social-political problem, that is, the concentration of too many activities in too limited a space.” By delaying change, the city fathers made downtown less attractive than it could have been. But beyond a certain point, Chicago couldn’t build its way out of downtown congestion. The solution was to spread out–and we have.

Challenging Chicago: Coping With Everyday Life, 1837-1920 by Perry Duis, University of Illinois Press, $29.95

Chicago Transit: An Illustrated History by David Young, Northern Illinois University Press, $35

Chicago’s Southeast Side: Images of America by Rod Sellers and Dominic Pacyga, Arcadia, $18.99.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.