EAST CHICAGO — Despite loss and hardship faced during the city’s lead crisis this past year, a sense of pride and joy rang out Saturday at the historic Riley Park, where generations of families gathered for the 23rd annual Calumet Day picnic.
During opening remarks, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland said he was blessed to be part of Calumet’s annual event.
“Through all what we’ve been through, the Calumet community, we’ve become stronger, we’ve become one, we’ve become dedicated to each other, saying that we will not watch each other fall in harm’s way,” Copeland said.
The event featured music, food, face painting, pony rides, crafts, braiding and on-site health screenings. Entertainment included the Jesse White Tumblers and the first-of-its-kind Calumet Day Choir, a coalition of singers from several area churches.
Community groups involved with the lead crisis passed out informational flyers about the USS Lead Superfund site and surveyed residents about their health, property value concerns and other issues.
The annual Calumet Day picnic is a great way to bring families together and to “keep the youth busy with positive, constructive games,” said Randall Artis, Concerned Calumet Citizens Committee president. A group of children nearby played a pickup game of basketball while parents watched their kids climb jungle gyms and slide down bounce houses.
The event is put on each year by the Concerned Calumet Citizens Committee, a nonprofit that formed in 1994 to promote unity across the West Calumet, Calumet and East Calumet neighborhoods.
Markedly fewer people were at the event this year, according to organizers, but that was likely due to the loss of about 1,200 neighbors, including 680 children, this past year who lived at the West Calumet Housing Complex. The complex was vacated in the last year after the discovery of high lead levels in the soil.
Committee members, with the city's permission, got their hands on the old West Calumet Complex sign to put on display at Saturday’s event, said East Chicago City Councilwoman Brenda Walker, D-3rd, a lifelong Calumet resident.
“It really is (bittersweet). Even though they’re gone, we got the sign for them,” Walker said.
Donning a shirt that read “Lead Baby,” Annette Upshaw, 65, said she has witnessed the neighborhood change drastically over the decades — with fewer children, homes and businesses.
She lived in West Calumet in the 1980s and now is in a lease-to-own program for her home in the 5000 block of Alexander, which is also in the contaminated EPA-designated Superfund site.
The complex is eyed for demolition and Copeland's office plans to engage the community in shaping redevelopment plans for the blighted area.
Upshaw is looking forward to the neighborhood’s future, she said. Copeland, she said, has focused much of the city's resources and efforts the last few years on redeveloping the Harbor section of the city.
“When he’s all finished there, he’ll work on Calumet. I back him 100 percent,” she said. “We’re Calumet. Calumet for life.”