CHICAGO | Environmental activists based on the Southeast Side went out of the way to present the ugly underside of their home communities caused by more than a century of industrial pollution.
The neighborhoods — from South Chicago through South Deering and the East Side to Hegewisch — have lengthy stories that involve being the place where residential communities were squeezed in the space between steel mills and other factories that took advantage of the Calumet River’s proximity for business purposes.
That led the Hegewisch-based Southeast Environmental Task Force to organize a bus tour Saturday through the Southeast Side — from the site of the former U.S. Steel South Works plant to the remains of the Pullman Palace Railcar Co. — with guides pointing out the many mounds of petroleum coke, salt and other substances that industry leaves piled out in the open.
Cynthia Ogorek — a public historian who has written books about the Calumet River, the Lincoln Highway near Chicago and the Chicago/South Bend & South Shore Railroad – led the tour. She made sure to point out several sites — including the South Works plant and Calumet Park on the East Side — where lakeshore land is manmade from slag in order to create more land for use by factories.
It even extends to the local community between the South Shore and South Chicago neighborhoods known as the Bush, which Ogorek said got its name because the site was once right on Lake Michigan and was filled with wild bushes that had to be cleared away before anything could be developed there.
Ogorek also finds significant the six-block stretch of Torrence Avenue south of 106th Street – where the long-shuttered Wisconsin Steel plant was one of several steel mills in the South Deering neighborhood – which in the 19th Century was known as Irondale.
With those mills operating around the clock and thousands of workers constantly getting off-duty, task force head Tom Shepherd said there once were about 100 taverns in the area, although Ogorek said they were merely fulfilling the needs of those workers.
“That’s what we call the service industry,” she said.
Although Ogorek said there are several sites in the area where the accumulated pollution is so severe that people cannot safely set foot on the sites, while Shepherd said long-time residents refer to the strip as “Cancer Row.”
But it wasn’t all negative on Saturday.
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Ogorek pointed out former factory sites that are polluted, but where there are signs that Mother Nature is trying to resuscitate the land.
There was the former South Works steel mill where an area between concrete slips was once a storage spot for all kinds of substances needed to make steel. Now, that tainted ground has trees, brush and wild prairie grasses growing.
“See how nature makes a reclamation on its own,” Shepherd said. While Eric Gyllenhaal, a retired professor now with the Wonder Works Children’s Museum in Oak Park said he has been able to document 166 types of birds on the site.
There also is Indian Creek located near the Peco Pallet factory, 2924 E. 126th St., which Ogorek said used to be colored orange or violet depending on the chemicals dumped in the water from surrounding factories.
But on Saturday, assorted birds were feeding off fish and plants in the creek that enables Wolf Lake on the Illinois/Indiana border to flow into the Calumet River.
Ogorek said she enjoys providing such tours because she thinks many people do not comprehend the industrial neighborhoods of the Southeast Side. “They still think it is a cesspool stuck in the last half of the 20th Century,” she said.
There also was one point where the tour passed through the Slag Valley community, a sub-neighborhood around 100th Street and Commercial Avenue where homes exist in areas surrounded by piles of slag – and where at one point piles of pet coke could be seen Saturday about 200 feet away from homes with nothing separating them.
Shepherd had some fun with people taking the tour, some of whom came from Chicago’s North and Northwest Side neighborhoods.
“Up north, you have neighborhoods called Wicker Park and Lake View,” he said. “Down here, we get neighborhoods like Irondale and Slag Valley.”