Two slum buildings, soon to be razed and replaced by vast housing project, bracket the Palmolive building a few blocks east in Chicago.
VIEW GALLERY | 38 PHOTOS
Caption from LIFE. "Two slum buildings, soon to be razed and replaced by vast housing project, bracket the Palmolive Building [later the Playboy Building] a few blocks east in Chicago."Fritz Goro—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Two slum buildings, soon to be razed and replaced by vast housing project, bracket the Palmolive building a few blocks east in Chicago.
Extremes in housing mark a Chicago landscape. A once-fine mansion ends as a slum hovel, while beyond rises New York Life's relatively high rent (from $74 to $133 a month) housing projects.
People walk past newly built housing projects, Chicago, 1954.
Street scene, Chicago, 1954.
Children play near tenements, Chicago, 1954.
Police investigate a report of a crime, Chicago, 1954.
Teenagers fighting in the streets, Chicago, 1954.
Police called to a crime scene, Chicago, 1954.
Members of the nonprofit, American Council to Improve Our Neighborhoods (ACTION), look at the inside of a gutted Chicago building they've been trying for a year to raze in order to make way for new housing, Chicago 1954.
Interior of a house in the Chicago slums, 1954.
Interior of a house in the Chicago slums, 1954.
Family living situation in Chicago slums, 1954.
Family living situation in Chicago slums, 1954.
Intern and nurses from Chicago Maternity Center deliver a child in a squalid home, 1954.
Intern and nurses from Chicago Maternity Center deliver a child in a squalid home, 1954.
Intern and nurses from Chicago Maternity Center deliver a child in a squalid home, 1954.
Family living situation in Chicago slums, 1954.
Family living situation in Chicago slums, 1954.
Family living situation in Chicago slums, 1954.
A girl plays jump rope in a Chicago tenement, 1954.
A man sleeps (or is passed out) in a Chicago alley, 1954.
A car passes through a Chicago neighborhood, trying to get residents to join a clean-up effort, 1954.
Women cleaning in front of a tenement house, Chicago, 1954.
Neighborhood clean-up campaign organized by Rev. Ray Day (left), Chicago, 1954.
A family ... moving into the new apartment buildings put up by Chicago Housing Authority to replace slums.
A family living in the new apartment buildings put up by Chicago Housing Authority to replace slums.
Child in a new apartment buildings put up by Chicago Housing Authority in hopes of replacing city's slums, 1954.
A Chicago family in its new apartment, built by the Chicago Housing Authority, 1954.
Family looks out of windows of new apartment, Chicago, 1954.
Chicago, 1954.
Caption from LIFE. "Two slum buildings, soon to be razed and replaced by vast housing project, bracket the Palmolive Building [later the Playboy Building] a few blocks east in Chic
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Fritz Goro—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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City at a Crossroads: Chicago Confronts Urban Blight, 1954

Apr 23, 2013

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.

[See all of TIME.com's coverage of Chicago.]

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.

[See all of TIME.com's coverage of poverty in America.]

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.

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