Chicago Recreation Centers

12 Sep

It’s been a pretty crazy couple of weeks what with school starting and work piling up.  One moment of clarity though: I’m going with my gut (and with a whole of year of accumulated research) and focusing on early twentieth century Chicago recreation centers for my graduate thesis.

So what, you ask, are recreation centers?

Today, we have our own kinds of recreation centers – roller and ice rinks, gyms, video arcades, bowling alleys, all places where as adults we can get together and, well, play.  What with the dominance of television and home-installed video games, and with the expanding waistlines that’s come with America’s general lethargy, these are locations most of us only visit on occasion – many times the young visit them to have a “retro” experience, to enjoy an old kind of entertainment that today is no longer relevant.  We don’t really see these kind of public play and exercise spots as the important social centers they once were.

A1902 view of Mussey's alleys; Mussey's and Bensinger's Allleys were the two most popular recreation centers in Chicago's Loop in the first decades of the twentieth century (Source: Photographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933, Chicago History Museum)

On the other hand, recreation centers were integral to urban life in early twentieth century Chicago.  Along with the growing pasttime of moviegoing, visiting a local bowling alley/pool hall was a fun and inexpensive way of getting out of the house, blowing off some steam, and having a great time with coworkers and neighbors.  One could play the indoor sports or just watch.  Sometimes, just watching the good time being had before you was entertainment in itself.  From about 1910 until about mid-century, visiting the neighborhood recreation center was a weekly and even nightly way for families and whole communities to get together, experience a release from the pressures of work, construct important community and work relationships, and during the winter, get some much needed exercise.

What was really fascinating about recreation centers during this period was that they were the settings of some incredible transformations.  Bowling and billiards, for example, were changing in the minds of the public from barroom diversions played by drunks and hustlers to respected sports in their own right.  With the nationwide prohibition of alcohol starting in 1919, many tavern owners were faced with going out of business or in many cases, opening of legitimate bowling and billiard halls.  With the country going dry, indoor sports took on a new air of respectability and eventually of downright wholesomeness.  Recreation centers from this period reflect those changes in how the sports were seen and played.

Chicago”s urban population was transforming too, from dominant Anglo-American stock to a community with far more eastern European and Jewish immigrants.  Recreation centers were where immigrants and their families could go to see and learn about what it meant to be “American.”  And recreation centers provided the bowling and billiard leagues formed by the industrial employers of these new Americans with venues where workers of different classes and nationalities could converse and compete on equal ground.

And that’s just the beginning of the story of urban recreation centers.  More to come later, including some great examples of  Chicago historic recreation center architecture!

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