Randolph and Des Plaines

Amidst the newly constructed condos of the West Loop, the requisite Starbucks, and high end restaurants serving haute cuisine, is the Randolph and Des Plaines intersection. Here, on a damp evening on 4 May 1886 at around 10:30 pm, a bomb exploded, thrown by an unidentified hand. This is the site of Haymarket. The bombing, considered by many to be the first instance of domestic terrorism in the United States, led to anti-immigrant fulminations in the media, executions of four labor leaders, and inspired efforts for workers’ rights around the globe. The controversies about this incident, its multiple interpretations, and continued importance, led AREA authors to draw upon the events of 1886 to inform discussions about today’s policing, security, and activism in the Haymarket 1886:2011 booklet.[i] The events at this intersection, and their aftermath, immediately roused labor activists the world over, leading to annual celebrations of May Day. They continue to inspire, and many make pilgrimages to the site when in Chicago. The statue erected at the intersection in 2004 displays plaques from the world’s labor organizations – from Colombia to Iraq, Japan and elsewhere. Yet, the intersection tells another story, one that is arguably less spectacular, but equally dramatic: that of the changing class and cultural landscapes of Chicago. The site of labor activists then, and of loft apartments now, the Randolph and Des Plaines intersection narrates the transformation of Chicago from a nineteenth century industrial metropolis, through the twentieth century’s related processes of deindustrialization and inner city social problems, to the global real estate market at the start of the twenty-first.

Described by the Chicago Federation of Labor as the site of “the birth of the American labor movement,” the Randolph and Des Plaines intersection has changed greatly since 1886. In the late-19th Century, Randolph Street widened just west of Des Plaines. In this area, known as the Haymarket, farmers sold their produce from carts. There were five such open-air markets in Chicago at the time, and Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, So Big (1924) captures the everyday scene at a gas-lit Haymarket where street peddlers sold chocolate and cigars, and men slept on carts amongst their produce, or played cards and dice while awaiting buyers at dawn:

The historic old Haymarket on west Randolph Street had become the stand for market gardeners for miles around Chicago. Here they stationed their wagons in preparation for the next day’s selling. The wagons stood, close packed, in triple rows, down both sides of the curb and in the middle of the street. The early comer got the advantageous stand. There was no regular allotment of space.

On May 4, 1886, however, the meaning of Haymarket changed. As Chicago policemen crossed Randolph, heading north on Des Plaines to disperse a crowd of no more than two hundred people, the remaining members of a larger meeting that had begun some three hours previously, a bomb was thrown into their ranks from the doorway of a building on the northeast corner of the intersection (see 1886 map, nos. 2 and 3). One officer died immediately and in the resulting chaos, police opened fire. Seven further policemen died, many, it seems, due to their colleagues’ bullets. It is not known how many other casualties there were. Eight men were subsequently tried and convicted for conspiring in the attack, although none threw the bomb and one was speaking at the time of its explosion. Four were executed on 11th November 1887. Together, these events redefined Haymarket.

The fateful meeting had been scheduled to begin at 7:30 pm between Des Plaines and Halsted in the wider Haymarket section of Randolph, but organizers moved the speakers and the crowd a little north onto Des Plaines to avoid potential police action to clear the Haymarket to allow traffic through. The police weren’t far away, their station was just south of the Randolph and Des Plaines intersection (see 1886 map, no.4). A small cart became a makeshift stage (see 1886 map, no.1) from which local labor leaders spoke in favor of an eight hour workday and union rights, and against police brutality and strike-breaking. It was raining and even Chicago’s Mayor Carter Harrison was present, leaving after observing a peaceful crowd and before the five minutes of bloody chaos that would forever change the intersection.

Nearly all of the buildings associated with that night have been demolished, but the vitality of the area is evident in the number and configuration of the buildings shown in the 1886 map. Most of these would have been two or three-stories, with commercial uses on the first floor and residential above. Indeed, Ferber describes the area’s cafes and boarding houses, where rooms cost 25 cents a night (the same price as a sack of potatoes!). Many of the lots had rear buildings with alley access that were typically coach houses or business premises. In the 1880s, alleys were an important aspect of a neighborhood like that at Randolph and Des Plaines where a mix of commercial, retail, industrial and public land uses swirled together. This was the industrial Chicago of the post-fire era. The wagon that Haymarket’s speakers stood on was of a type made in a small factory at the intersection, and those present that night would likely have been employed in myriad small workshops and larger industrial concerns such as the McCormick Reaper works on Western and 26th, where strikers had been killed by police bullets on 3 May 1886, prompting the Haymarket meeting.

By 1906 several of the smaller buildings had been demolished and replaced with larger structures taking up two or more lots. Many of the rear lot buildings had also been removed by this time. With these alterations, the scale of the neighborhood began to change. It became less residentially dense, a trend that continued. By 1950, as the post-war suburbs began to siphon Chicago’s residents away from its once-crowded streets, lots once congested with small, masonry buildings, were consolidated. Many structures were demolished but not replaced and the Haymarket itself fell on hard times as commerce moved away from the street and into large, increasingly standardized, grocery stores. Further damaging any sense of a coherent neighborhood and commercial district, just west of the boundaries of these maps, the I-90/94 interstate cut through the Haymarket between Des Plaines and Halsted in the 1950s. By the 1960s, little if any industry was left. Surface car parking consumed large swaths of land around the intersection. Often empty from 5pm to 8am, they gave Randolph and Des Plaines the feel of a ghost-town during the after-work hours. Many of the remaining residential buildings had been converted to single room occupancy hotels, the commercial spaces into dive bars, and the area’s reputation to one of inner-city blight.

Today, housing trends evident since the 1990s are transforming the intersection once more. Just a few yards north of the original police station on the intersection’s southwest corner, on a site which officers walked past moments before the bombing, stands the new “R+D659” 17-story condo building. Supplanting the 1950s wave of replacement buildings and dwarfing those that remain, the new condominium tower’s modernist design and glass, concrete and steel construction will, according to one website, “give residents that sought-after urban appeal,” in “the midst of a prosperous Chicago neighborhood that provides a fulfilling everyday lifestyle.”[ii] Many of the remaining nineteenth century light industrial buildings have now also been converted into condos. Other properties, such as the building on the intersection’s northeastern corner, nearest to the place from which the bomb was thrown, now offers “modern office suites” from 3300 sq.ft. to 6900 sq.ft. Surface parking remains a significant portion of the intersection’s land area, but the 1880s urban landscape, with its workshops, cheap rooming houses, cafes, and farmers’ wagons, has long gone, and with it the working class residents who once lived here. Instead, an affluent clientele, able to afford R+D659’s “sleek designer touches such as mosaic glass tile backsplashes and solid black granite countertops,” and enjoy its swimming pool, fitness center and dog run, now overlook the intersection at Randolph and Des Plaines. R+D659’s residents will likely take for granted their eight hour workday, weekends off, and safe working conditions, demands which were made at Haymarket and repeated elsewhere, often to be met with state-sponsored violence. As the intersection’s industrial landscapes are transformed into expensive residential neighborhoods, a trend seen throughout urban America, the everyday struggles of working people are further distanced from the urban center, both literally and figuratively. At Randolph and Des Plaines, the speeches, explosion, shouts, and gunshots that animated the intersection on a cold May night in 1886, and the people and issues that precipitated them, now feel very far away.

Article for supplemental information: http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/issue-2/memories-of-haymarket/


[i] Hague, Euan; Barnett, Sam and Durica, Paul, eds. (2011) Haymarket – 1886:2011, AREA-Chicago, Chicago.
[ii] R+D659, from http://www.chicagocondos-online.com/directory/659-west-randolph [accessed 7 May 2012].