Chicago is one of the world’s great cities — and most of the clichés that have long stuck to the Windy City (a nickname with origins that even Chicagoans argue about) remain anchored in truth today. It’s a sprawling, tough place; neither East nor West, but proudly anchored between; filled with people passionate about sports, food and the sometimes ugly, always entertaining rough-and-tumble of politics. The range and depth of its cultural life, meanwhile — the stellar Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Goodman Theater, the Field Museum, the Joffrey Ballet, its unmatched live comedy and on and on — are world-class.
Over the past few years, however, Chicago has seen its share of trouble. In 2012, for example, 506 Chicagoans were murdered — the majority of the victims, and their killers, from its poorest neighborhoods. New York City, by contrast, saw just over 400 murders in 2012 — a four-decade low for a city roughly three times the size of Chicago. Other large cities, like Los Angeles, have also seen their homicide rates drop, in some cases dramatically, in recent years.
(Note: Thus far in 2013, Chicago’s murder rate has dropped to far below that of 2012.)
Here, in recognition of the Second City’s hard times — and with confidence that it will, as it has in the past, pull itself out of this grim downward spiral — LIFE.com points to a series of photographs made in Chicago in 1954, focusing on what the magazine called the “encroaching menace” of the city’s slums. While the language used in the article might sound, for lack of a better term, rather un-P.C. today (describing Chicago’s slums, for example, as “23 festering, proliferating square miles aswarm with 800,000 human beings …”), the focus of the piece was, in fact, the question of how a great, growing American city can transform itself into a liveable place for all of its citizens: a question that cities everywhere have always faced — and likely always will.
The photographs in this gallery, meanwhile — many of which never ran in LIFE — are remarkable not only for the intensity and the intimacy found in so many of the images, but because they were made by a German-born photographer named Fritz Goro who was widely regarded as one of the most accomplished science photographers who ever lived. That a man so comfortable capturing the wonders of 20th-century science and technology could also convey the deeply human, immediate problems of urban poverty and despair speaks volumes not only about Goro’s talent, but about LIFE magazine’s often risky choices when assigning photographers to stories.