Dispatch from South Chicago: A River Runs Through It

Posted on: March 4th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

 

Very little remains of the South Works steel mill in South Chicago. These ore walls serve as a stark suggestion of the mill that used to occupy 500 acres along Lake Michigan.

Very little remains of the South Works steel mill in South Chicago. These ore walls serve as a stark suggestion of the mill that used to occupy 500 acres along Lake Michigan.

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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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Playing with the Future

Posted on: March 4th, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

Using Legos to plan regional growth.

I work in the Triangle region of North Carolina, one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country, where the dividing lines between Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and the surrounding communities are beginning to fade. The terms smart growth, mixed-use, and transit-oriented development are buzzing in our ears. But, how do we integrate these planning strategies with our plans for the region’s heritage resources? And what does a box of Legos have to do with it?

I and a colleague from Preservation North Carolina (PNC) participated in the Urban Land Institute’s Reality Check, regional planning exercise. As PNC's Partner in the Field focusing on urban preservation issues in Raleigh, the exercise was a unique opportunity for me to look at the Triangle area regionally and see how regional issues affect preservation on the ground in Raleigh.

The event divided the 300 participants into teams of 10, each gathered around a map of the 15-county region. We had a box of Legos representing the new residents and jobs coming our way. Our region is expected to grow to over 3.2 million residents by 2030. We had 90 minutes to put them all somewhere on the map. Our team, like all of them, was pretty diverse, with people from each of the large cities and several of the smaller communities, and we each had our own perspective on growth issues.

Everyone immediately agreed on the need for more transportation options, including mass transit. Turns out that 80% of the teams focused on mass transit. We also wanted to concentrate jobs near residential centers – the creation of mixed-use centers was the second most common theme among the teams. We wound up putting increased residential density in the existing downtowns of most of the region's cities and towns, focusing the most intensity on the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill core.

It became abundantly clear that smart growth, mixed-use, and transit-oriented development are necessary ingredients to planning the future of the Triangle region. But these strategies pose obvious challenges for the preservation community. An extra million people are going to put even more development pressure on our already threatened rural historic sites – we need to work with them now to protect them. While downtown density can be a good thing – we need to design carefully to integrate the new with the existing urban fabric and near-downtown historic neighborhoods.

I am more convinced than ever that the historic buildings in our downtowns represent wonderful opportunities for adaptive use and that the preservation community can play an active role in smart and equitable growth. This is going to be exciting work!

-- Elizabeth Sappenfield

Elizabeth Sappenfield is the director of urban issues at Preservation North Carolina.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

If it's Quirky, it's Good

Posted on: March 4th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments

 

Watertown, Wisc. is just one of the many Main Street communities in my state that have effectively utilized murals to generate interest in their downtown.

Watertown, Wisc. is just one of the many Main Street communities in my state that have effectively utilized murals to generate interest in their downtown.

Most everyone can recall taking a walking tour in the past. But can you remember where? Could it have been anywhere? Did it display authenticity? Did it encourage you to shop after the tour, have a bite to eat or visit a museum? Anthony Rubano with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency demonstrated how the walking tour has evolved in “Foot Traffic: A Fresh Look at Walking Tours”, a session at the National Main Streets Conference going on now in Chicago.

Probably the most fascinating piece of Anthony’s presentation was the explanation of building styles and the importance of connecting them to our shared history and heritage. When creating tours, yes, identify a style, such as Richardsonian Romanesque, but connect that style to the larger context—in this case, the Holy Roman Empire. You can do this with nearly every architectural style on your Main Street. Another example: if you have a prism glass design in one of your buildings downtown, it may be a Frank Lloyd Wright creation. Find out and if it is, you’ve just greatly increased interest in your itinerary.

Walking tour New Holstein style. This rural Wisconsin community knows where its appeal lies.

Walking tour New Holstein style. This rural Wisconsin community knows where its appeal lies.

And it’s not just your downtown commercial buildings you should be highlighting. Waters towers, gas stations, grain elevators, or a two story outhouse (no kidding) that are sites of interest. “If it is quirky, it is good and should be added to your walking tour.” Even those advertising slogans and murals of decades past that are still clinging to the sides of today’s buildings, called “ghost signs”, also have a nostalgic appeal to residents and visitors alike.

Anthony’s presentation was on his leading walking tours in Springfield, Illinois and a majority of his images were from Illinois communities. But the ideas and program can be used by a Main Street community anywhere. People seek authenticity; you do not find walking tours of big-box stores or a new suburban shopping strip. Those that already have this interest in your downtown and its history will learn more with a successful walking tour, and more importantly will spend more time and money in your downtown.

-- Trent Margrif

Trent Margrif is the director of the Wisconsin Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Stay tuned here and on their official blog as staff attending the 2009 National Main Streets Conference -- which is taking place this week in Chicago -- share what they're learning.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

The State of Main Street

Posted on: March 3rd, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Yesterday morning the downtown revitalization world was rocked with a dose of infectious enthusiasm and energy. Could you feel the energy emanating from Chicago?

Gregarious state delegations fill the annual opening plenary with enthusiasm and energy.

Gregarious state delegations fill the annual opening plenary with enthusiasm and energy. Photo: Linda Glisson

The 2009 National Main Streets Conference, “Becoming Main Street 2.0,” kicked off yesterday with a rousing Opening Plenary. The Palmer House Hilton’s glorious ballroom was filled with groups representing their states – clusters that are marked with delegation-style state signs. It began with Main Street Center’s Director Doug Loescher delivering some good news that despite tough economic challenges, historic commercial districts in America are holding on or even thriving. This was met with thunderous applause and much “wooting.” (Our conference is special in that when you get a bunch of Main Streeters together – people who are passionate about reviving the heart of their historic communities – it is hardly a somber or low-key event.)

Doug shared news from a survey taken by the Main Street Center that as many as 27% of Main Street districts  - communities with preservation-based economic development programs in place - are not reporting severe negative effects from the challenging national economy. In fact, in many communities tell us that business openings seem to be out-pacing closings 2 to 1.

And while the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reports 2008 holiday sales for independent businesses dropped an average of 5% from 2007, that’s nothing compared to what many national chains suffered: sales drops by as much as 25%. Even better news is coming out of Main Street communities that organized “Shop Local” campaigns: those participating businesses saw declines of just over two percent—a good testament to how coordinated strategies like Main Street can really make a difference.

Main Street is also at the center of several key cultural and economic trends right now. Our nation’s economic recession, our vast carbon footprint, and Wall Street collapse dominate our daily headlines. With its philosophy of investing in local assets, including rehabbing older and historic buildings, bolstering businesses and building public and private partnerships, Main Street is a living, working text book on economic and environmental sustainability.

David Brown, the Executive Vice President of the National Trust, drove the point home—that sustainability and historic preservation go hand in hand – with a sustainability success story that takes place in Dubuque, Iowa. He started with the sobering statistic that demolishing a 15,000-square foot building creates 1,200 tons of waste and rebuilding a new structure of that size releases as much carbon into our air as driving a car 840,000 miles. But we see a refreshing alternative in Dubuque’s plan to revitalize a 17-block warehouse district through rehabbing 28 mostly vacant structures. The project will create 1 million square feet of housing and commercial space while making maximizing energy efficiency and minimizing water waste. And by providing on-site job training for high school students to help rehab the buildings, the project is also building the skills and preservation ethic of local youth.

Clearly the dramatic reshaping of the business landscape represents big change. But the Main Street movement grew out of the urban renewal rubble of the 1970s and it is a time-tested approach that helps communities and economies adapt to new market realities. In the words of Terry Lynn Smith from Hammond, Louisiana:

“Tough economic times should be used as a lesson to all Americans. We are not lazy, we just get too comfortable…this should sharpen the stone, so to speak. Our Main Street program will learn from today’s economy. Rising up from what could be a disaster will be better and more enduring programs. I firmly believe we will get the job done.”

-- Andrea Dono

Andrea Dono is the associate editor for the National Trust Main Street Center. Stay tuned here and on their official blog as Andrea and her colleagues share posts live from the 2009 National Main Streets Conference, which is taking place this week in Chicago.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Teaching Preservation: Notes from an Undercover History Lover

Posted on: March 3rd, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

To be totally honest, when I first walked into Paul “Lash” LaRue’s Research History class, I didn’t know quite what to expect. With the sound of recorded transcripts floating into the hallway and a seemingly bottomless supply of snacks, it always seemed like the students from years prior were having such a good time. This is ultimately why I added the class for my schedule. Who doesn’t love food?!

Something

Historic railroad remnants in Washington Court House, Ohio.

Luckily, it didn’t take Lash long to get me jazzed about our class projects. On my first day, I remember being beyond intrigued by him explaining how Thomas A. Edison might have lived and worked as a telegrapher for the local railroad in our town, Washington Court House, Ohio.

See, I have always been fascinated by big questions like this. I can just imagine myself in a long trench coat with a dark hat pulled low over my eyes as I storm into Research History flashing my research historian badge.

In working on the project, one of the first biographies I read was A Life of Invention by Paul Israel, the director and editor of The Thomas A. Edison Papers. This man has access to millions of documents and patents of Edison, many of which Edison wrote himself. We exchanged a few e-mails, as he was also interested in the mystery of Edison being in Washington Court House at some point during his life. It was amazing to talk to a person as knowledgeable as Mr. Israel. I felt like I was a student working beside a famous doctor. It was such an honor.

As I read more – including Wizard of Menlo Park and Edison – I was disappointed to find no mention of Edison even passing through our town. I discovered, though, that even when a door was closed on my research, a window opened. The big discovery? Five articles mentioning Edison that were printed in our local paper.

Jackpot!

Although my research ultimately proved that Edison did not, in fact, live and work in Washington Court House, I did find some other fascinating (and probably related) stories along the way. For instance, there was an African-American inventor, Grandville Woods, who was nicknamed the “Black Edison” who is well documented as having lived and worked here. Most likely, he is who the author of the newspaper articles mixed Edison up with.

Overall, Research History has been an enriching experience for me because it has taught me exactly how much information is out there that it is just waiting to be discovered. Badge (and snacks) in hand, I look forward to following more clues, exploring more hidden alleys and solving more cases in the future.

-Shannon M.

Shannon M. is a senior at Washington High School in Washington Court House, Ohio. This semester, she’ll be working with his Research History classmates to document and preserve Good Hope Cemetery. Stay tuned as they share their experiences here on our blog and on their Flickr photostream.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.