Some say Arnold R. Hirsch wrote the book on Chicago.
Mr. Hirsch, 69, who died March 19 at his Oak Park home, dissected the city’s segregation in “Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960.”
Hugely influential among urban historians and sociologists, his book didn’t spare anyone. It examined the push from government policies and politicians for public housing that warehoused many African-Americans; the working-class white homeowners who greeted their new black neighbors from the Great Migration with rioting and firebombs, and urban-renewal decisions by some of the city’s most elite institutions, including the University of Chicago. Critics like James Baldwin said America’s push for “urban renewal” really meant “Negro removal.”
In print since 1983, it’s a groundbreaking volume that tells not just the story of Chicago but “really, America itself,” said Ben Austen, author of “High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing.” When Austen started working on it in 2010, he said Mr. Hirsch’s book “was the very first thing I read. . . .It’s [about] our constant struggle with poverty, our uneasiness with it, with race. It’s how cities are formed and reformed, time and time again. It’s the story of inner-city America.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates said Mr. Hirsch’s “deeply transformational, tremendous, tremendous book” laid out how “that perfect storm of racism, redlining and public policies” formed Chicago and other American cities.
“If you want to understand what came after the 1960s, you have to understand what came before the 1940s and post-war,” said Coates, a best-selling author and national correspondent for The Atlantic. “We’re still dealing with the same issues he talked about. It hasn’t changed.”
Coates once wrote in The Atlantic: “Every time I hear someone speak about ‘black on black crime’ in Chicago, I want [to] hurl a hardcover of ‘Making the Second Ghetto’ at them.’’
“I would rank it among a handful of the most important books on 20th-Century American history in the last 40 years,” said Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor at New York University.
Mr. Hirsch, a native Chicagoan who became a revered history professor at the University of New Orleans, had struggled with Parkinson’s, complicated by Lewy body disease, said Rosanne, his wife of 46 years. They returned to the Chicago area in 2013 after he retired, she said.
Young Arnold grew up in Rogers Park. After his father died when he was 13, his mother went to work at Devon Bank at Devon and Western. He graduated from Sullivan High School in 1966. He received three degrees in history — a bachelor’s, master’s and a doctorate in 1978 — at UIC, his wife said. After a semester teaching at the University of Michigan, he was offered a job at the University of New Orleans in 1979. In the late 1980s, he was a visiting professor at Harvard University.
When Mr. Hirsch began his career, “many historians shied away from the history of the recent past, lest they be accused of the sins of presentism (writing about history prematurely) or propagandism (distorting the past in service of a current political agenda),” Sugrue wrote in a National Book Review tribute. “He wrote with an eye toward contemporary concerns – especially the depth and persistence of racial segregation in American cities – but never sacrificed rigorous research and attentiveness to the messiness of the past in service of a partisan stance.”
In 2007, Mr. Hirsch was president of the Urban History Association, which created an Arnold Hirsch Award for scholarly articles.
His wife said she’s been humbled by the accolades coming in from urban scholars and fans of his work. Some said they felt gratitude and relief when they heard of Mr. Hirsch’s successful evacuation from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“I always thought he was smart, but it’s putting me in awe, what I’m reading,” said his wife. “To me, he was just Arnie – come home, take care of the laundry – a normal marriage.”
Though he adored New Orleans and the book-crammed home they had there, “he loved everything Chicago, from its cuisine to its teams,” she said. He followed the Cubs and enjoyed Italian beef sandwiches, hot dogs and deep-dish sausage pizza.
Mr. Hirsch is also survived by his sons Adam and Jordan and two grandchildren. Services were held Friday at Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion.