Friday, May 2, 2014

Elaine Lewinnek's "The Working Man's Reward"

Elaine Lewinnek is Associate Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Working Man's Reward: Chicago's Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl, and reported the following:
Frankly, I hope readers do not judge my book by page 99 alone. Page 99 [inset left. click to enlarge] of The Working Man’s Reward discusses the microlending institutions known as building and loan societies in which America’s nineteenth-century immigrants each paid fifty cents a month into a pot, then bid for the right to use the whole pot of money to buy a house. It is an important topic: it helps reveal the importance of access to credit for class mobility, the creative ways that various Americans achieved homeownership, the fact that it was nineteenth-century immigrants who designed the American dream of homeownership, the neglected source of banking auditor’s reports for understanding urban history, and also the high rate of foreclosures in turn-of-the-century Chicago. On page 99, I use the Illinois state auditor’s records of building and loan societies to calculate that Illinois’ foreclosure rate in the 1890s was, at a minimum, 20%, and perhaps as high as 50%. Although it was risky, it was a route to upward mobility for some nineteenth-century immigrants. On later pages, I explain that most of Chicago’s African-Americans arrived after banking rules changed, so that blacks did not have access to this microlending tradition for homeownership, adding to another way that spatial politics eventually reinforced economic and racial politics.

It is important – but, frankly, the days I spent poring over the Illinois state auditor’s reports were some of my least exciting days of research. I had more fun looking at social realist novels, boosters’ boasts, social workers’ exposes, early sociology dissertations, old guidebooks, subdividers’ advertisements, tourists’ memoirs, and Chicago journalism in English as well as German and Lithuanian and Czech. Some of Chicago’s prolific foreign-language press was translated in the 1930s as part of a New Deal project; for others, I had to hire a translator, because I really wanted to know why so many of Chicago’s newcomers made risky investments in working-class suburban homeownership. My project is an interdisciplinary project. I hope readers will look beyond page 99 to see these intriguing sources and what they reveal about Chicago’s diverse early suburban sprawl.
Learn more about The Working Man's Reward at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue