I'm a Chicago transplant, but I've come to know the city intimately while working for nonprofit organizations and the city government over the last decade. I’ve tried to explore the city’s many corners, including places far off the beaten tourist path. Combining my passion for Chicago and my career trajectory, I was excited to join MPC last month as its Development Manager. While I don’t have a planning background like many of my new colleagues, I share their passion for this city, its natural assets and its future. I view the successful redevelopment of the Southeast communities lining the Calumet as one of the most important endeavors of the 21st century. I also hold a deep personal attachment to the region—a place that I think deserves to flourish.
Steelworkers Park is likely my favorite place in Chicago. Hugging the shore of Lake Michigan, and surrounded by industrial ruin and prairie, it seems a million miles from anywhere. Nothing matches the melancholy solitude and bygone desolation elsewhere throughout the city. The busyness of city life is generally inescapable, but not here. However, the beautiful and accessible Steelworkers Park remains a seldom seen gem. I’ve had the entire park to myself, watching steel grey waves break into eternity. I’ve descended the sunken gardens of scraggy trees trapped by hulking concrete of former heavy industry. I’ve seen the waning sun illuminate thick rings of rust lining the “north slip” canal, contrasting sharply with aquamarine water. I’ve perched in stunted trees poking through acres of pre-Chicago, reclaimed prairie. It's 45 minutes away from my house and 30 minutes from my job, but I still take the trip often.
The Far Southeast Side of Chicago exudes a warped charm. The ruins of heavy industry pockmark the land, while remaining industry silvers the sky in smoke. Squat, workers’ cottages hug curved roads repeatedly broken by murky rivers and canals. Chicago’s first Latino enclave was here on the East Side—home to Spanish-speaking parishes and roadside restaurants. Hegewisch consists of blue collar bars on Torrance that await factory workers. Wild sounding, shallow Wolf Lake edges into Arizona, a trailer park abutting Indiana. South Chicago and Deering (for now) follow broader South Side trends—red Xs tagging abandoned buildings.
Despite this depiction, there is plenty of life and beauty here. St. Simeon’s meticulously manicured gardens interrupt middle-class homes along the lettered avenues. The massive Calumet Park looks south to Hammond and Gary in their fiery industrial splendor. The 95th Street Bridge shelters the incomparable Calumet Fisheries. Harborside Golf Course is an oasis of green above a pancake flat city. Southeast Chicago is not the easiest of quadrants to love, but is loved fiercely by those who’ve stayed. As Chicago’s rivers, the engines of past industrial might give way to recreation, a sense of rebirth is palpable.
Twenty-five long years have passed since U.S. Steel ripped the beating heart out of Chicago's Southeast Side. This blighted, 600-acre parcel is steadfast against the whims of developers, defeating each proposal thrown its way. A Mariano’s sign still stands, as if mocking neighbors living across the LSD extension. A Solo Cup factory proposal couldn’t hold water (sorry) either, and went down the drain. So did a $4 billion redevelopment plan between U.S. Steel and developer McCaffery for millions of square feet of office and residential. In place of acres of brownfield, 13,000 homes and 1,500 boats would’ve created a new neighborhood. The so-called “South Works” has defeated them all.
Today’s challenger is Barcelona Housing Systems. On 430 acres, the Spanish developer wants 12,000 homes. Eco-friendly and cost-effective buildings will ring a concentric development core, with communal park space (think an interior courtyard). Community services, schools and a main street of shops will augment the newly populated site. This is prime land between 79th and 91st Streets, immediately east of the wide boulevards of Lake Shore Drive. It's close to Hyde Park and the University of Chicago. It's the natural extension of the densely populated neighborhoods that line the Lake. Its reinvention has the catalytic potential to remake the entire Calumet region, restoring prosperity.
I love my Steelworkers Park. I’m mentally and physically transported to another place as I recharge my batteries on the Southeast side. But I cannot remain selfish, alone in this park. For the good (and love) of the city, this quarter century curse needs to be broken. Whether it will remains to be seen.