City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871-1919.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Lewinnek, Elaine
Pub Date: 06/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2009 Source Volume: 42 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871-1919 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Garb, Margaret
Accession Number: 202479964
Full Text: City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871-1919. By Margaret Garb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. xv plus 261 pp. $40).

How did suburban-style home-ownership come to be seen as an American dream, Margaret Garb asks in this thoughtful, well-written, and important study of Chicagoans' ideas about housing at the turn of the twentieth century. Americans did not always value property-ownership as an investment, she asserts. Between 1871 and 1919, Garb traces an important shift from viewing homes as a productive space that might be rented just as well as owned, to the modern view of: homes as a source of property values. Maintaining "property values" came to mean preserving single-class, single-race, and single-use areas, thus creating segmented American metropolises. Garb argues that ideas about "property values" helped to segment the working classes, separating home-owners from renters in a way that often split skilled workers from unskilled, unionized from non-unionized, and white from black.

At times, these important larger points can get lost in the depth of details in Garb's chapters, which begin with Chicago's 1872 working-class riots against an early form of zoning and end with Chicago's 1919 race riots. In between, Garb explores workers' home financing, surprisingly interesting debates over sewer lines and property values, and several leading Chicagoans who helped create modern views of home-ownership: health department commissioner Oscar De Wolf, mass builder Samuel E. Gross, and settlement-house leader Mary McDowell. Garb expands what urban historians have called the "growth machine"--those interested in promoting suburban-style home ownership--to include Progressive-Era health activists, housing reformers, and sewage corporations.

Modern ideas about property values are so deeply ensconced now, that one wishes for a deeper exploration of the time before segregated suburban-style home-ownership became a main version of the American dream. Students may miss Garb's point because they will have trouble understanding that Americans have not always "conceived of their property rights as the right to a return on their investment," not have they always judged that investment as being dependent on a neighborhood's racial profile, residential status, or ownership rates (202). Alternative views of housing have been so overshadowed that they require historical recovery.

Garb could have investigated the Chicago real-estate professionals who literally wrote the early-twentieth century textbooks about appraising property values--although that would mean extending the end of her study past 1919, into the 1920s and 30s. There could also be further exploration of the worker's perspective as well as the reformers' views--although Garb does attempt this, especially in impressive close work with property-tract records. These quibbles are less of a criticism than they are an indication that Garb's work is intriguing, important, and deserves further investigation.

Elaine Lewinnek

California State University, Fullerton
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.