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Chicago’s Block Clubs

How Neighbors Shape the City

What do you do if your alley is strewn with garbage after the sanitation truck comes through? Or if you’re tired of the rowdy teenagers next door keeping you up all night? Is there a vacant lot on your block accumulating weeds, needles, and litter? For a century, Chicagoans have joined block clubs to address problems like these that make daily life in the city a nuisance. When neighbors work together in block clubs, playgrounds get built, local crime is monitored, streets are cleaned up, and every summer is marked by the festivities of day-long block parties.
            In Chicago’s Block Clubs, Amanda I. Seligman uncovers the history of the block club in Chicago—from its origins in the Urban League in the early 1900s through to the Chicago Police Department’s twenty-first-century community policing program. Recognizing that many neighborhood problems are too big for one resident to handle—but too small for the city to keep up with—city residents have for more than a century created clubs to establish and maintain their neighborhood’s particular social dynamics, quality of life, and appearance. Omnipresent yet evanescent, block clubs are sometimes the major outlets for community organizing in the city—especially in neighborhoods otherwise lacking in political strength and clout. Drawing on the stories of hundreds of these groups from across the city, Seligman vividly illustrates what neighbors can—and cannot—accomplish when they work together.

312 pages | 19 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Historical Studies of Urban America

Chicago and Illinois

History: Urban History

Political Science: Urban Politics

Sociology: Individual, State and Society


“Meticulously researched and highly instructive. . .Boldly venturing into a shadowy domain of urban life that has left scant and scattered documentation, Seligman picks needles from haystacks to gather data on hundreds of clubs whose varied histories, taken together, enable her to illuminate the larger stories of how residents related to municipal government and how they organized and acted collectively to manage their environs. . . .Seligman delivers on her promises, providing fresh and important insights into the politics of everyday life in the American city.”

Journal of American History

“Insistently local in its focus. . .Offers microlevel detail and archival documentation that makes it almost like primary source material. . .The book’s strength is in meticulously documenting the “persistent efforts of residents to control their environment” and their resolve to do so with others.”

Journal of Urban Affairs

“Through Seligman’s pioneering use of documents and archival materials she uncovers, for example, the role of the National Urban League in furnishing the encouragement and template for many block clubs in Chicago. More than that, her research reveals the ways in which block clubs pulled together disparate neighbors and formed them into clubs to pursue a variety of goals: beautification; parties and gatherings; neighborhood protection; and a way for integrating strangers into the life of the city. She puts flesh on the bones of social networks, showing how and why they form, and how they have come to constitute the essential social foundations of organized life in the city.”

Anthony Orum, University of Illinois at Chicago

Chicago’s Block Clubs is a one-of-a-kind study of a mostly overlooked yet almost ubiquitous feature of American urban life. These little groups of neighbors are everywhere, filling in where governments—or the people next door—fall short when it comes to keeping up appearances. Until now their very nature shielded them from the eyes of historians and social scientists. Block clubs are small. They come and go. They are hyper-local in their concerns, and they are almost completely absent from grand policy debates and partisan political jousting. Instead, they regulate everyday life. They defend their neighborhood when it is up, and spring into action when it is down. They encourage neat lawns, fresh coats of paint, and respectable public behavior. By filling the gap between private priorities at home and the public responsibilities of government they are an important component of the ‘civil society’ which lubricates the joints of democracy, keeping it creaking along. Small, it turns out, can frequently be beautiful.”

Wesley G. Skogan, Northwestern University

“Most scholars ignore the lowly block club. Seligman remedies that oversight in her magisterial account of their history and importance in Chicago. . . . She proves that Chicago and urban history more generally need to be rewritten to include these clubs that ‘make strangers into neighbors.’ Like community organizations and political movements, they should not be overlooked by scholars, city planners, or community organizers.”

Dick W. Simpson, University of Illinois at Chicago

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

1 Protect
2 Organize
3 Connect
4 Beautify
5 Cleanse
6 Regulate
Conclusion: Consider Neighboring

Appendix 1: Researching Block Clubs
Appendix 2: Block Club Rules and Regulations

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