I ventured out of the National Main Streets Conference hotel and joined a field session that took me to a part of Chicago few visitors—or even residents—even see, according to Rod Sellers, my tour guide. We traveled south of downtown Chicago approximately 30 minutes to South Chicago—still within city limits—a stretch of the city that clings to the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan near the Indiana border.
The “Southeast Chicago Heritage Tour” brought us far from the Burnham skyscrapers and Beaux-Arts bridges to a landscape dominated by smoke stacks, landfills and the Calumet River—Chicago’s other river (and no, its flow has not been reversed—it still flows naturally like most self-respecting rivers).
The Calumet Region is where railroads and the river itself brought coal, coke, and iron ore to the hulking steel mills at the mouth of the Calumet and along both banks of the river. These mills churned out nails, rails and beams to build the John Hancock Building, the Sears Tower and countless other Chicago landmarks. Unfortunately, very little of this industrial legacy remains visible. We did stop at the sprawling 500+ acre U.S. Steel South Works steel mill site that lines the lakeshore. Though it’s impossible to imagine it now, it employed 20,000 workers at the height of its operations. Shift work kept the plant humming round the clock and waves of immigrants moved to the area for plentiful and well-paying work. Taverns, restaurants, grocery stores and ice cream parlors were abundant. Our tour guide described hard-working and hard-drinking men and his school boy memory of being told to keep his horsing around quiet to avoid disturbing his neighbor s resting up for the 11 p.m. - 7 a.m. night shift.
The South Works mill closed in 1992 and was completely dismantled save three massive ore walls that were built to store the ore when the lake was impassible due to ice. The scale of these concrete structures is hard to convey. Their presence and the enormous task of removing them has impeded redevelopment ideas for the site. There are plans to bring residential, commercial and industrial uses to the property after earlier plans to build an airport—or the Olympics—were shot down by neighbors. Thanks to a citizen-led campaign, this land will not sprout high-rise luxury condos but more affordable, sustainable housing. Just when that might happen remains to be seen. The groundbreaking keeps getting pushed back. With the economy in the shape it is currently, the 2010 start date is likely to be pushed back again.
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