Researcher Maps “The Radical City”

Graduate student Esther Isaac ’19 on May 2 shared the results of her dissertation research into the relationship between urban spaces and revolutionary class movements. The talk, held in Pruyne Lecture Hall, referred to Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Riot as a frequent example.

On May 2, Esther Isaac ’19, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, delivered a talk in Pruyne Lecture Hall on her dissertation, titled, “The Right to the Radical City: Public Space, Public History, and Prefigurative Politics in Chicago and Paris, 1870s-1940s.” The talk was sponsored by the history and French departments.

Isaac’s talk centered on the ways in which urban spaces, specifically public ones, nurture and are in turn nurtured by revolutionary class movements, and it focused on the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago as a prime example of this.

Isaac majored in French and history as a student at the college. Her current research focuses on anarchism, urban space, radical memory, and culture in France and the United States.

The presentation began with a recap of events leading up to the establishment of International Workers Day, which takes place on May 1 and is often referred to as May Day.

According to Isaac, on May 1, 1886, 30,000 to 40,000 workers in Chicago (among others elsewhere) went on strike, demanding better pay and working conditions. At one particular rally outside McCormick Reaper Works, police fired on several protesters. This led to a successive protest on May 4 in Haymarket Square in downtown Chicago which devolved into a riot.

The protest was characterized by the then mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, as peaceful and warranting no concern. However, as Isaac would go one to recount, at some point later in the evening, an unknown individual tossed a bomb into the crowd, killing several police officers and protesters in the chaos that ensued.

The aftermath of this event would lead to what we now know as International Workers Day, and Isaac posits that it is because of the urban layout of cities like Chicago that such events in history can take place, by providing revolutionaries with a forum in which to organize and operate from. Spaces like Washington Park have, both in the past and the present, provided an area for collective revolt, such as the 2015 hunger strike by parents and teachers to resist school closures, or the Washington Park Open Forum in the mid-1900s.

“I tentatively posit that these reputations are the result of self conscious organizing efforts by radical political, social and artistic movements to carve out particular city spaces in which both to enact a particular politics of commemoration and to engage in more day-to-day organizing,” Isaac said.

Isaac also spoke in length about how such spaces become a place for leftist movement members to preserve the histories of revolutionary acts, free from the trappings of narratives pushed by their oppressors. Such spaces like the Forest Home Cemetery in Chicago, where the Haymarket martyrs (those killed in the Haymarket Riots) are buried, become a space for people to recollect events and find community in that remembrance.

“They recall and celebrate past struggles that took place in those sites, they engage in day-to-day emancipatory work in their own lives, and they enshrine those spaces and the cultures of resistance associated with them for future movements yet to come,” Isaac said.

When asked about the ways in which public spaces influence the gathering of revolutionaries, specifically the role of parks, Isaac responded that access to such spaces was pivotal for the gathering and organizing of revolutionary movements.

“The importance of having natural space is also [in] contradistinction to the pain of oppressive, dirty, unsanitary, unhealthy, urban life that they engage in,” Isaac said. “These were escapes from the worst parts of urban life.”

Isaac is set to finish her dissertation proposal soon, with her research and writing on this subject set to begin within the next few years.