In an area in south Chicago you can see the remnants of a steel industry that has had better days – silent smokestacks looming on the horizon, empty parking lots, and for sale signs in front yards. The Calumet region was once a haven for big industry… and because of that it is also home to a list of seemingly endless environmental problems. Many people thought the problems were too great to overcome, but as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush reports… that attitude is changing:
In an area in south Chicago you can see the remnants of a steel industry that has had better days – silent smokestacks looming on the horizon, empty parking lots, and for sale signs in front yards. The Calumet region was once a haven for big industry… and because of that it is also home to a list of seemingly endless environmental problems. Many people thought the problems were too great to overcome, but as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush reports…that attitude is changing:
If you’ve ever driven by Chicago’s south side, you’ve likely seen the smokestacks and factories that dot this old industrial area.
But when you get off the main highway and drive down the back roads of Calumet, you see something you wouldn’t expect – remnants of unique wetlands and prairies. It’s an area where thousands of migrating birds come each spring. Herons, egrets, and cranes carefully pluck their food from these marshes – marshes that are right next to chemical factories and toxic city dumps.
(Bring up sound of sparrows and outdoors)
The sun is setting in this part of the Calumet – some sparrows nearby are settling down for the night – and Marian Byrnes is showing me around the places she’s come to know from living and working here for more than 20 years.
“This land is mostly slag on the banks of Indian Creek, but it’s not considered hazardous.”
“How would the slag get here?”
“Oh, it was waste from Steel Mills – mostly Republic Steel which was north of here.”
(Fade her under + continue outdoor sound)
Marian Byrnes is a retired public school teacher. And at age 76, she volunteers her time as the executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. She repeatedly meets with businesses, community groups, and city and state advisory boards – patiently delivering her message that the Calumet region is worth protecting.
And over the years Marian, and others like her, have steadily worked against a city that didn’t seem to care about the natural areas in Calumet. For many of them, it began more than twenty years ago, when they got a note from the Chicago Transit Authority in their mailbox. The note outlined the Transit Authority’s plan to build a bus barn on their neighborhood’s prairie:
“It was like having our own little forest preserve right behind our houses. You can walk out there, and when you get out – maybe a block or so – you’re not aware that you’re in the city at all. I mean you can’t even see the houses, so it’s just a wonderful place to be in touch with nature.”
They convinced the transit authority to build the bus-barn elsewhere. And in the years that followed they fought off other proposals such as plans to build a toxic waste incinerator, and plans to re-open old city dumps.
But despite those successes, big environmental problems still persist. And the list of contamination is intimidating – heavy metals, PCBs, and leaking landfills. The problems are so overwhelming that when planners in Chicago were thinking about spreading miles and miles of concrete for a new airport, Calumet was thought of as an ideal location.
Kathy Dickhut works in the planning department for the city of Chicago:
“The area does have a lot of environmental problems. Ten years ago the thinking was it was all dirty, environmentally dirty, and that was sort of across the board, …so one way to deal with that is, you know to cover the whole thing up.”
But local environmental and community groups became united in their opposition to the plan. And instead of an airport, the local groups asked the National Park Service to designate the area as an ecological park.
And slowly but surely, the city began to look at the area in a new light:
“I think people didn’t realize just how much opposition there would be to paving over this area. I mean the airport proposal was quite dramatic, and because it was quite dramatic, there was quite dramatic outcry about it – so once that played out – we had to look at it again in a different way. And what we’ve done is really look at the resources that we do have here, which are substantial, and how we can improve those.”
Today, the city appears to have a completely different attitude about the Calumet area. Chicago lawmakers recently passed a land use plan that calls for the best of both worlds. They want to protect and clean up the natural prairies and wetlands – while at the same time – attract new businesses to build on old industrial sites.
City planners hope to balance what may be seen as competing goals (attracting new industries AND cleaning up the environment) by prioritizing where to build and where to preserve. And when they do build – planners are encouraging green building practices. Practices that complement the surrounding natural areas rather than cover them.
Those involved with the project paint a pretty nice picture of what’s to come.
Lynn Westphal is a researcher for the U.S. Forest Service, and works closely with the city of Chicago on the Calumet project: “Imagine an industrial area with the buildings roofs are green. Where instead of turf around – you have native grasses and because of that you have more birds and butterflies… you’ve got bicycle access, people fishing on their lunch breaks…. And it’s not far from becoming a reality. This is all very doable. So it’s not totally hypothetical.”
And in fact, movement toward that new vision is already underway. The Ford Motor Company is building a new industrial park for its suppliers. And many of the green building practices Westphal describes will be used. And the Corps of Engineers is spending more than 6 million dollars to clean up an area known as Indian Ridge Marsh.
But those involved with the transition of this area say that leadership from the community will be the key to its eventual success.
Meanwhile, the Southeast Environmental Task Force will have a new executive director by this summer…
“…and that’ll be someone who’ll learn to do what I’ve been doing for past 20 years, cause I can’t keep on doing it indefinitely.”
“Do you have any advice for them?”
“Have a lot of patience…”
The same patience Marian Byrnes has used when riding a city bus to meeting after meeting, listening to the community, and working with city officials – all in an effort to create what she believes will be a better future for the people in Calumet.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.