The future of the Calumet/south Chicago region will have to contend with its infrastructure and layered history.

By Ava Tomasula y Garcia

The land I’m standing on is being “restored.” On the banks that join the Calumet River to Lake Michigan, a Midwestern prairie is slowly coming back to life. Red-winged blackbirds swoop between carefully-nurtured plants meant to eventually displace earth loaded with almost two hundred years worth of industrial contaminants. Crickets chirp, dragonflies whizz, and bees hum busily among milkweed and prairie clover—a welcome, if incongruous sight in the middle of Chicagoland’s industrial corridor. If you look just right, the scene almost seems “natural.” But it’s the product of herculean organizing and community advocacy efforts against a backdrop of relentless develop-crash-abandon capitalism.

It’s the end of summer, and I’m in Steelworkers Park in far south Chicago, standing on ground owned, gerrymander-style, by U.S. Steel, the Chicago Parks District, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s land that U.S. Steel “reclaimed”—that’s the preferred word—from Lake Michigan more than one hundred years ago. Which is to say that I’m standing not on dirt and stone, but on slag and other waste from steel production that the company dumped into the Lake, artificially expanding their industrial campus and evading property taxes for decades. The park is part of a huge swath of industrialized land, zoned for heavy industry, that stretches from Chicago to the south and east, across the border into the Calumet region of Indiana.

For U.S. Steel and its lawyers, arguing in 1900 courtrooms that the additional 327 acres had accreted out of the Lake naturally, “reclaimed land” sounded better than “manufactured land.” Reclaimed implies the righting of a wrong, a re-establishment of the natural order. But landscapes like these are decidedly created; there is little natural about them. Property, territory, real estate, brownfield, border…Dirt is never just “dirt.” And today, the landscape surrounding Steelworkers Park is as full of contention as it was one hundred years ago.

Fading signs put up throughout the park in 2015 by Spanish and Irish development companies that once dreamed of building on the remnants of the mill, tell a version of this story of struggle. “Envisioning the future,” announces one at the park entrance. The board is divided into sections labeled YESTERDAY, TODAY, and TOMORROW, each illustrated with a photo: YESTERDAY comes first, represented by an aerial photo of U.S. Steel’s South Works campus in full sooty swing at the turn of the century, complete with belching smokestacks and miles-wide railroad sprawl. TODAY has a photo of the colossal remains of the mill’s concrete holding walls, built to receive Lake Michigan barges transporting ore to blast furnaces. Each one is two thousand feet long and thirty feet tall.

TOMORROW is a shiny concept illustration produced by Emerald Living, the international developer who had bid to build twenty thousand homes on the site by 2017. “To prepare the South Works site for redevelopment, approximately 100 buildings were demolished by 1990, which created a unique opportunity for the city of Chicago, urban planners, designers and developers to begin imagining what the site could become.” The image is of a futuristic city paradise: a roller skater passes a vibrant park; kids play on eco-friendly playground equipment; and sleek, modular-style homes shimmer in the background. Now, the signs are all that are left of Emerald Living’s grand plan, their vision of TOMORROW as much a relic as the ore walls. Theirs was just the latest in a line of grandiose plans to redevelop the brownfield site, lured by access to premium Lakefront property.

The sign presents a neat encapsulation of a developer’s understanding of history: Starting with nineteenth-century industrialization, the land suddenly pops into view, legible only as industrial infrastructure is laid in place. (“Unused” land, after all, is wasted land—this is something that the early white colonizers of Chicago agreed on.) But one hundred years of pumping contamination into the air, water, and soil; of lives cut short by cancers; of threats to move the whole operation elsewhere should anyone make a fuss—all this leads to a new kind of decline. The land, wasted by overdevelopment, is left to molder as a brownfield.

Never fear, though: waste is a good market these days. As Emerald Living announces on a sign that remains present tense despite itself: “The dream of creating a vibrant economic engine to revitalize South Chicago is coming true. From its brownfield industrial past, Lakeside is being transformed into an area rich in community, innovation and vitality.”

But some forms of waste are harder to repackage. Emerald Living finally threw in the towel not because of overhead costs, but because of that waste. Soil contamination was an impediment to construction. This was the second time a multi-billion development plan for the area had failed. And so the land rests in development limbo—a community park that could be oh-so-much-more lucrative.

Years of pressure by local environmentalists, parents, and community organizations on the city have resulted in the present-day park, named in honor of the steelworkers that made and re-made the face of Chicago. Visitors can now walk right up to the old ore walls, climb their titanic sides during a free community event, or come to a summer movie projection. Normally, though, they are silent and foreboding as any ruin, and inspire the awe that all monuments to crumbled pasts do. Swifts, darting in and out of nests wedged into the concrete, complete the image.

Not thirty feet away, a very different vision of the past-restored-as-future is unfolding in the shadow of these foiled dreams. The park’s prairie flowers end abruptly at a chain link fence surrounding boulders, cranes, and the Chicago Area Confined Disposal Facility (CDF). The CDF is a low-lying precipice jutting out into Lake Michigan, designed to look as innocuous as a boardwalk. It was built in 1984 to hold the fifty thousand cubic yards of toxic sediment dredged annually from the Calumet River in an effort to keep it functioning as a federal waterway connecting shipping ports.

Thanks to ceaseless community pressure, by groups and organizations like Friends of the Park, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Southeast Environmental Task Force, and Calumet Connect, the Army Corps of Engineers dedicated itself to capping the dumping site in 2022 and handing the land over to the Parks district, easing the environmental burden on South Chicago residents. This past April, however, the Army Corps reneged. Not only will the dump’s life be extended for another twenty years, but the site will be expanded as well. It’s almost as if some backroom deal has been made: We tried livable redevelopment, that didn’t work. So let’s keep dumping. A coalition of community members and organizations continues to fight to prevent this from happening.

The CDF gives the lie to any characterization of this land as “postindustrial.” Businesses have transmuted but not ceased to exist, using the infrastructure of their previous incarnations to take on new life. Capitalism exerts a forever-downward pressure on wages, livelihoods, health, time, environment, and life—this is a pressure that leads to constant and cruel “innovation.”

U.S. Steel shuttered South Works in 1992, after years of layoffs and ruthless cuts to pay and benefits in exchange—or so promised the company—for job preservation in the face of a decline in steel production. These were empty promises that Union workers fought tooth and nail, but the heady, neoliberal economic shifts of the Eighties and Nineties rolled on. This was the “deindustrialization” that laid the infrastructure for the Rust Belt of today: the shifting of dirty industry farther and farther into the global South (geographically and politically), and the closing down of North American factories. Unionized, industrial jobs throughout the United States were replaced by the low-wage, temp, and unregulated positions that define South Chicago’s economy now. What to do with the resultant waste—the chemical, toxic excess of industry past and present—is more and more of a problem, and a business.

The steel industry is still a large presence in South Chicago, and the parts of it that have closed have left in their wake a host of new. Today, the HS Bell Company makes money storing manganese. Last year, the company settled with the EPA after failing to control toxic dust. Some twenty thousand predominantly Black and Latinx people live within a mile of the facility. Chicago’s store of industrial salt for wintertime use on sidewalks and highways sits uncovered, a mountain of electric blue and white slowly leeching into the Calumet, and later into Lake Michigan. The latest boom in Canadian tar sands oil has made Whiting’s BP refinery a new “re-industrialized” hub, and flare stacks blaze as methane and carbon dioxide belch into the air. The Chicago Area Waterway, a series of federal ports and channels linking Milwaukee, Chicago, and industrial harbors in Indiana, transports fifteen million tons of cargo through the Midwest annually: coal and coke, petroleum, grain, chemical, steel. Yet another CDF—this one holding PCB-contaminated soils dredged from the Indiana Harbor—sits just across the state line, as do two fully functional steel blast furnaces. It’s a classic story: A recent report found what reports have been finding for the past fifty years: More than half of the people who live within two miles of toxic waste facilities in the U.S. are people of color; water contamination is more likely in low-income communities; white communities have the lowest exposure index for most pollutants.

The surrounding landscape makes Emerald Living’s plans for the Lakeside development—and the Chicago politicians that pushed for it—show themselves as tone-deaf. Instead of community-controlled reinvestment, stronger workplace and environmental protections, grants for women- and POC-run cooperative businesses, increased public transportation, the City decided that “revitalization” was best served by developing a shiny, segregated pocket of the future.

And yet: Just a hop and a skip away from Steelworkers Park and developers’ disaster-opportunist dreams is Catatumbo Farm, an emerging immigrant, queer workers’ cooperative that is reclaiming land in its own way. Participants have spent the last year revitalizing dirt, and plan to launch a CSA program soon. Over in Bronzeville, Your Bountiful Harvest, a Black-run organization, sells seedlings to urban farmers throughout the south side. The Southeast Environmental Task Force runs “Toxic to Treasure” tours led by community members throughout the corridor, and keeps up the fight to recreate the land for justice and health. Recently, Southeast siders sat under a tent at a happening organized by the Hoodoisie Radio show and the Alliance for the Great Lakes, listening to organizers, political art-makers, and residents talk through the history of water issues in the neighborhoods, and present-day battles. People have never taken the City’s word as a final answer, and continue to organize on behalf of each other, their communities, and a better future.

Just as politics does not unfold solely in the world of government, lobbyists and laws; so “infrastructure” isn’t solely a city’s blueprints. Infrastructure is the architecture of our world, the traces of what used to be becoming what is. It’s the metal skeleton of Chicago, yes—the transportation routes that favor certain communities and drop off for others. It’s also the zoning laws that have made the Calumet region of Indiana a corporate manganese-and-petcoke haven for a century. Infrastructure is the blood spilled to make Fort Dearborn the future city’s birthplace, the lives ruined as “Chicaugou” became “Chicago” and the Potawatomi were “removed” from the Calumet region, clearing the land for development. Infrastructure is the racist redlining that split Chicago, and the suburbanization of poverty to the south. Infrastructure is chemical and metal excess, soil contaminants, lead in the air. It’s the material world emerging from behind social constructs like “blight” and “waste” and “revitalization.” It’s the mental framework behind one stakeholder’s comment about the Calumet CDF: “Well, what did you expect? A green paradise? The area’s zoned for industry anyway.”

Infrastructure is a two-way street, a constant back-and-forth between the material and ideological worlds. It may seem trapping. But it’s also what gives us the scaffolding to imagine the world we want: what plants should be growing here; what air we could breathe; who we could be if our geographic, political, and environmental arrangements were different.

One thing is true: whatever becomes of the region in the future will have to contend with its layered history. The Calumet region is an amazing conglomeration of classic industry (steel mills, both past and present), new “postindustrial” industry (toxic waste markets), and developers’ hopes for future industry. All of this lays the groundwork for two different kinds of dreams about the future: one, a truly radical transformation for survival and thriving out of a sacrifice zone; the other a disaster capitalist dream where “revitalization” looks very different. The question is: which will it be? ■



This project is part of a collaboration with the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. Read more about the project here.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia was born in Chicago and grew up in Indiana. After a year working at an environmental justice organization in Mexico City, she is currently a labor and immigration organizer at Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, a community workers center in the industrial corridor of Chicago.

Cover image: Steelworkers Park in Chicago. Photo by Lizzie Smith.

*Opinion and commentary columns are the work of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Belt Magazine or its parent organization, Belt Media Collaborative.

Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation or become a member starting at just $5 a month