An accidental curator

Harvey Choldin, AB’60, AM’63, PhD’65, finds himself plumbing the archives for an exhibition on the Chicago school of sociology.


A few years ago I was at an opening of one of the Special Collections Research Center’s fascinating exhibitions with my wife, Marianna Tax Choldin, LAB’59, AB’62, AM’67, PhD’79, when it struck me: why not have an exhibit on the Chicago school of sociology? I’m a Chicagoan, an urban sociologist, and a UChicago alumnus, so my fascination with the Chicago school comes naturally. When I mentioned the idea to the director of Special Collections, Dan Meyer, AM’75, PhD’94, that evening, he thought others would be fascinated too.

A couple of weeks later Dan and I met to discuss the idea further. After a lifetime in academia, I expected Dan to appoint a faculty committee of sociologists, including me if I was lucky. Instead he said, to my surprise, that I would be curating the exhibit.

What was the Chicago school? Over three decades teaching urban sociology I was always aware of the work of University of Chicago scholars in the pre–World War II era. An influential 1915 essay by one of the school’s founders, Robert E. Park, conveys the nature of their contributions. In “The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the City Environment,” Park argued that sociologists had to get out of the library and conduct empirical research, studying the city firsthand. The city, he wrote, should be their laboratory. We planned the exhibition to celebrate the centennial of Park’s essay.

Ernest Burgess, whose concentric zone model of urban space had lasting influence, used maps extensively in his sociological work. (University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center)

Ernest Burgess, PhD 1913, also held this view. His landmark 1925 publication, “The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project,” introduced his concentric zones model of urban growth. Diagrammed in a sort of bull’s-eye pattern, the model was reprinted for decades in book after book about cities.

I was particularly inspired by Louis Wirth’s (PhB’19, AM’25, PhD’26) paper “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1938. Wirth joined the faculty after earning his doctorate. His ambitious paper attempts to define the city and explain why city life is as it is. The essay was broad in scope and fearlessly bold. I always started my urban courses and seminars with it and emphasized it in the urban sociology textbook I wrote.

Park and Burgess sent hundreds of students—two of whom became my professors, Everett Hughes, PhD’28, and Philip Hauser, PhB’29, AM’33, PhD’38—into the city to do research. Using the city as their laboratory, they one by one completed theses and dissertations that became classics of sociology. The titles were evocative: “The Taxi-Dance Hall,” “The Ghetto,” “The Hobo,” “The Gang.” The University of Chicago Press established a series in sociology and published these along with many other dissertations.

My unexpected task now was to delve into the archives and see what remained from this seminal time and place in sociology. There were disappointments. Park’s archive had very little, and Wirth’s retained items mostly from later in his life, after the number of students dwindled at the advent of World War II and the Chicago school drew to a close.

But there were delightful discoveries too. Harvey Zorbaugh’s project The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929), for example, had a file at the University of Chicago Press. In it were black-and-white snapshots taken in the “slum” of the book’s title, Little Sicily on the Near North Side, during his fieldwork. Another press file, for The Gang (1927) by Frederic M. Thrasher, AM 1918, PhD’26, held a sociologist’s or historian’s treasure: a large map of “Chicago’s gangland” with hundreds of red dots and triangles showing the locations of the city’s boy gangs. Some of the larger ones were the Dukies, Shielders, and West Siders.

A wonderful little archive was that of James Carey, PhD’58, who in the 1970s wrote a book on the Chicago school, tracking down its living members, men and women who had been students then or their surviving spouses. Carey got them talking candidly and informally about their peers and professors and the texture of life during the Chicago school, and later donated transcripts of his interviews to the archive.

Ruth Shonle Cavan, PhB’21, AM’23, PhD’26, the author of Suicide, recalled that “we didn’t have any money to have any paid commercial recreation. So most of our free time was either spent in the library or little groups discussing everything under the sun. … It came as near to a community of scholars as I have ever experienced.” Norman Hayner, AM’21, PhD’23, said that Burgess “worked the tail off us. All of us graduate students knew that we had to work when we got into a course with Burgess, but you learned something.” None of them had any sense of being in a “school”—the name would come years later. They were just doing exciting research.

Burgess’s archives proved to be the mother lode. I saw similarities between Burgess and my late father-in-law, anthropologist Sol Tax, PhD’35. Each man had spent his entire academic life vigorously engaged in social science at the University—and they both accumulated lots of paper that became important scholarly archives. Burgess’s take up 261 linear feet and are filled with treasures. I spent months with them: research proposals, penciled-in questionnaires, tally sheets of answers, drafts, published reports, and things less expected.

When you open a file, you don’t know what you’re going to find. In Burgess’s archive I might stumble on an umpteenth survey of boys in playgrounds or one more neighborhood study report. My challenge was to find items that would be legible and interesting to look at in a display case. One of the most memorable things I found was a field report written by Hauser when he was a student.

A world-famous demographer, Hauser was known for bringing a rigorously scientific approach to sociology. This report, written in 1929, was about his visits to the homes of three men who were killed in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. In one case the deceased was so poor and solitary that his friends recruited Phil to serve as a pallbearer.

At moments working in Burgess’s archive I felt my own place in the lineage that followed him. One day I found a demographic graph of a neighborhood, dated 1934, by Alex Edidin, PhB’34, who was an old friend of my family. Twenty-five years after Edidin, I had completed the same assignment for my teacher and his fellow student Philip Hauser. I photocopied Edidin’s graph and sent it to his son and my lifelong friend Michael Edidin, SB’60. He was delighted to see it.

In the months I spent in Burgess’s papers, I saw the full range of his involvement with urban issues: crime and delinquency, parks and playgrounds, mental illness, divorce, and more. He corresponded with the Union League Club, the Metropolitan YMCA, and other civic organizations and agencies. Perhaps his major efforts were directed toward solving the problems of the Depression. He directed a census of the city of Chicago in 1934, focused on housing and unemployment. My mother, Hannah Werth Choldin, PhB’30, a young schoolteacher, was an enumerator on that census.

When Hauser and Hughes taught me in the College, Hughes was near retirement and Hauser was department chair. I thought of them as eminent sociologists to be respected for their scholarly accomplishments and to be feared, of course, as professors. In the archives they came to life as young graduate students—getting assignments from their professors and launching new research projects with no notion their work would be remembered for decades to come. In all the years that I’d learned from them, remembered them, and been inspired by them as a scholar, I’d never thought of them like that before.


Harvey Choldin, AB’60, AM’63, PhD’65, is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The exhibit he curated, Mapping the Young Metropolis: The Chicago School of Sociology, 1915–1940, runs through September 11, 2015, at the Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery.

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