Chicago Nears End Of Era in Stockyards

At the holding pen for Chicago's Chiappetti Lamb and Veal, a worker rounds up lambs to take them to the slaughterhouse.
At the holding pen for Chicago's Chiappetti Lamb and Veal, a worker rounds up lambs to take them to the slaughterhouse. (By David A. Witter For The Washington Post)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2005

CHICAGO -- This city once boasted the world's largest meatpacking district, a 475-acre virtual city within a city that drew thousands of European immigrants to work on its killing floors. It was so intertwined with the city's identity that it became the stuff of literature in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" and was immortalized by poet Carl Sandburg, who called Chicago the "hog butcher for the world."

Today, there is only one slaughterhouse left in Chicago.

Chiappetti Lamb and Veal, a fourth-generation, family-run business, is in Bridgeport, where Mayor Richard M. Daley grew up. Once a hardscrabble, working-class white community, the neighborhood is becoming heavily gentrified. And the Chiappetti slaughterhouse, which once nestled between producers of glue, leather, violin strings and other secondary industries spawned by the killing of livestock, is surrounded by half-million-dollar condos.

With property taxes and insurance costs rising and the neighborhood changing around them, the family members who run Chiappetti Lamb and Veal have decided to move off Halsted Street, the area's main drag, into an industrial zone about a mile away. Their new facility will open in about two years and will be larger than the current one.

Franco Chiappetti, the great-grandson of the Italian immigrant butcher who founded the business in the 1920s, hopes they can avoid the fate of the rest of the city's meatpacking industry.

"We saw the meatpacking district on Fulton Market change almost overnight," he said, referring to a strip just west of downtown. "They were bought up by high-rise condos, coffee shops, five-star restaurants and martini bars. So we knew what to expect."

This won't be the first challenge for Chiappetti Lamb and Veal, which is still plugging along 35 years after the closing of the massive Chicago Union Stock Yards, which were just west of Chiappetti's.

The stockyards, which opened in 1865, developed in tandem with the railroads, which would take freshly slaughtered meat all over the country. The hogs, cows and sheep set to be slaughtered were kept in vast pens in the complex. "It was like the Wild West in the middle of an urban center, with cowboys and everything," said Olivia Mahoney, chief curator at the Chicago Historical Society.

The Chicago stockyards are widely credited with providing the inspiration for industrial assembly lines. The slaughter process was known as a "disassembly line." It is said that Henry Ford observed it and reversed the process to put cars together, instead of taking cows apart. In the early days, the Chicago meatpacking operations used a gravity process in which animals were killed on the top floor and inedible parts were disposed of down chutes. Now the process is more mechanized, including extensive processing, packaging and shrink-wrapping, and it is usually carried out on a single level.

Chicago's meatpacking hub declined in the middle of the century as the industry became decentralized. The development of refrigerated trucks meant plants didn't need to be near the railroads, so companies moved their slaughterhouses into rural areas, which offered cheaper land and labor.

Chiappetti says it was his company's smaller size and focus on personal relationships with buyers that ultimately helped the family company survive into the 21st century.

"As local needs grew, we grew with them by offering unique niche products," he said. "We made contact early with the families that ran Dominick's and Jewel [grocery stores]. We focused on kosher, and as the Muslim community grew, we offered halal slaughter."

The animals destined for kosher delis have their throats slit by Rabbi Abraham Siegel, 80. A Muslim kills the livestock meant for halal.

"I like to say this is a good sign for world peace," Chiappetti said. "We have Christians, Muslims and Jews all working side by side with knives, and nobody's stabbing each other."

During the period immortalized in "The Jungle," stockyard workers were almost all European immigrants. During World War I and again during World War II, African Americans came up from the South to fill the jobs vacated by soldiers. This sparked tension when the white workers returned, even contributing to the city's infamous 1919 race riots. Today the majority of workers at Chiappetti Lamb and Veal, as in rural slaughterhouses throughout the Midwest, are Latino immigrants.

"When we need to replace someone, we usually hire Spanish people," said Pedro Angulo, a supervisor who came to Chicago from Guadalajara, Mexico, 24 years ago. "It doesn't pay a lot, but it's year-round work that helps us support our families and pay the bills. That's what we're looking for."

Chiappetti Lamb and Veal employs 150 people in Chicago and slaughters about 1,200 lambs a day and 300 veal calves a week. The lamb skins are still removed by hand and sold to tanneries after being dried and salted in the pungent-smelling hide cellar.

During the old days, the workers at industry giants such as Swift and Armour mocked smaller operations such as Chiappetti. "They'd call the little people like us just trying to make a living 'alley rats,' " said Art Chiappetti, 74, the son of founder Fioremonte Chiappetti. "But now they're gone, and we're still here. The city is changing, the neighborhood is changing, but we'll change with it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company