1999Criticism

Reinventing the Lakefront (4)

Forging the Post-Industrial Future
By: 
Blair Kamin
Tribune Architecture Critic
November 2, 1998,
Part 4

previous | index | next

A Landmark of Labor
(A critical assessment of the problems and promise of Chicago's shoreline.)


Once it was a cathedral of Smokestack America, turning the night sky orange as molten ore was poured from huge ladles and, by day, making the air brown with smoke and dirt. That was fine with the men who worked there. Clean air meant layoffs.

Now, six years after the Pittsburgh-based USX Corp. shut down the massive South Works steel mill, the sprawling lakefront property has been cleared of everything but a working power plant, some little-used railroad lines and massive, half-mile-long walls that loom along a vast slip like the ruins of Stonehenge.

This is the ultimate post-industrial landscape; at 567 acres, the South Works site is bigger in area than the Loop. It presents a unique chance to accomplish two goals at once. Not only is it a vast canvas on which to paint a masterly vision of public space, but it also could power the recovery of Chicago's battered Southeast Side.

Unfortunately, the brushstrokes of city planners, who have sketched out some tepid possibilities for South Works, are hardly worthy of the Art Institute.

After months of meetings with community leaders, they have produced a solid but unremarkable plan that calls for an industrial park, a housing development and a strip of parkland along the lake. A first-year graduate student in urban planning could come up with something more scintillating than that.

Around the world, enlightened leaders are coming to recognize that there is another way to retool the Rust Belt: The new economic engine of cities is culture.

In the industrial Spanish city of Bilbao, the ship-shaped art museum designed for New York City's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum by California architect Frank Gehry is the emblematic image of this idea, which holds that cities can create wealth by importing tourists as well as exporting widgets. The museum has drawn nearly 1.4 million visitors since opening in October 1997 -- three times as many as expected.

At South Works, though, there's no need to fly in crates of Kandinskys and Picassos, as the Guggenheim did to lure the world to its futuristic outpost in Bilbao.

Etched in the slag piles that cover the site is a heroic tale of men like Frank Stanley, men who built the steel that undergirds the Loop's skyscraper behemoths, the rocket assembly structures at Cape Canaveral, Iowa's farm plows and the railroads that crisscross a continent.

"Why were the foremen big and burly?" Stanley asks rhetorically of preunion days, when workers didn't have many rights. "To keep you in line. They'd tell you to do something. If you didn't, you got punched."

The South Works story speaks, literally and figuratively, to the great American myth of the melting pot.

As the journalist John Maclean put it in a 1992 Tribune Magazine article about the closing of South Works, the plant's roaring melting pots turned iron ore, limestone and coke into prime steel, and Scots, Irish, Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Mexicans, blacks and others into generations of Americans.

Could Hollywood come up with a better plot line than that?

So why not mine the raw material of South Works for all it's worth and extend the lakefront's great string of museums a little farther south?

Susan Vega and her father

A new museum could tell the story of people who lived in the shadow of South Works, like Susan Vega and her father, Teodulo, a plant employee for 32 years.

A museum that would focus on the story of the steelworkers -- work, leisure, unions, strikes, camaraderie, community -- while exploring the grander theme of work in America is a natural for the City That Works.

True, the prospective location, 10 miles south of the Loop between 79th and 91st streets may seem remote.

But consider that the proposed museum would be just four miles south of the Museum of Science and Industry, which attracted almost 1.7 million visitors last year -- and that city planners are talking about extending South Lake Shore Drive through the western edge of the South Works site.

And think how the museum would jog our memories.

"We're suffering from national Alzheimer's disease," says Studs Terkel, Chicago's poet of the common man. "Much of what (organized) labor has accomplished has been forgotten." He cites such revolutionary innovations spawned by the union movement as Social Security and the eight-hour day.

A museum based on the story of the steelworkers could be the gateway to a new National Heritage Area that would sweep around the curve of Lake Michigan, reaching all the way to the towering sand dunes of northern Indiana. It's the brainchild of U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), whose district includes Chicago's Southeast Side.

Assuming he's re-elected Tuesday, Weller early next year will introduce legislation to create the Heritage Area, a series of related sites including South Works, the model industrial town of Pullman and Lake Calumet, where, amid working steel mills, one finds prized wetlands.

The Heritage Area would capitalize on a new trend in leisure time, as Americans make pilgrimages to shrines of everyday history, like the banks of the 150-year-old Illinois and Michigan Canal that transformed Chicago into one of the world's great cities.

Yet in a classic instance of one hand not knowing what the other is doing, there is not a word about Weller's proposed Heritage Area in the city's plan for South Works.

A value beyond tourism

That's too bad, and not just because it ignores the prospect of all those Hoosiers, Iowans, Michiganders and the like coming to the Heritage Area -- and dropping thousands of dollars into Chicago's coffers.

Seemingly ordinary urban landscapes -- union halls, produce markets, textile mills, steel mills -- have a value beyond tourism.

They have the power "to nurture citizens' public memory, to encompass shared time in the form of shared territory," as Dolores Hayden, professor of American studies at Yale University, writes in her 1995 book, "The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History."

So, to dig up the riches that lie hidden like buried treasure at South Works, we have to adjust our sights -- upward.

South Works former steel mill

The massive, cleared site of South Works, the former U.S. Steel mill on Chicago's Far Southeast Side, is dominated by a still-functioning power plant. The mill made the steel that undergirds much of the Loop skyline, visible in the distance. The walls behind the power plant held iron ore unloaded from ships.

First, the city should go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan for South Works that lays out the case for devoting prime lakefront land not to luxury high-rises, which developers must be salivating to build, but instead to parkland and cultural facilities open to everyone.

Second, we need to take a leap of mind comparable to the one Daniel Burnham made in the first decade of this century, when, in the Plan of Chicago, he envisioned that the lakefront, then mostly lined with railroads and freight cars, could instead be devoted to beaches, parks and museums. Yet today, rather than banishing industry from the lakefront, the task is to enfold it, at least in our memories, so it can tell the story of working Americans.

"There's been an ever-expanding definition of what is history," says Perry Duis, a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's moved beyond presidents and national events to a broader appreciation of everyday life experience."

To North Siders and maybe even to some South Siders -- certainly to many who live in the suburbs - Chicago's Far Southeast Side needs an introduction.

It's not unlike a foreign country, cut off from the rest of the city by its location far south of the Loop, a lack of good road connections and a way of life alternately described as villagelike or insular.

Driving across the Chicago Skyway, the toll road that slices across the Far Southeast Side and connects the Dan Ryan Expressway with the Indiana Toll Road, you see a skyline dotted by church steeples and steel plants, some operating, some closed. It's a place that the rest of the world tends to drive over rather than stop at to do business.

Even Lynne Cunningham, president of the Southeast Chicago Development Commission, a non-profit community development group, refers to it as "the land under the Skyway."

When USX shuttered South Works in 1992, the impact reverberated far beyond the mill.

Suppliers, like those that provided alloys that went into the steelmaking process, shut down. So did industries that served the plant, like those that repaired ladles. Dry cleaners, grocers, department stores -- all went out of business or saw the ink on their profit statements go from black to red.

The number of crimes and other social problems rose as churches and other institutions had less money to deal with them. Property values stagnated. Today, neighbors say, you can buy a single-family home in the area just across the street from the mill for as little as $50,000, far below the Chicago median price of $122,500.

All the while, people like Susan Vega, 43, an organizer for the Illinois Campaign for Better Health Care, didn't pull up stakes and leave. They kept the backbones of their neighborhoods from breaking.

Walking toward the plant one warm June morning from her green two-flat in the 8400 block of South Mackinaw Ave., a block west of South Works, Vega remembers the constant hum emanating from the mill, the trains running over its narrow-gauge railroad tracks, and how her father, Teodulo Vega, a crane operator at the mill, would cooperate with others on his shift to make sure no one got killed.

She looks through a chain-link fence at those long walls along the slip, where the three essential materials for steelmaking (iron ore, limestone and coal) were stored before making their way into the blast furnaces and refining mills. But instead of seeing an eyesore, she sees a landmark.

"It's a constant reminder of what used to be here. Where 10,000 jobs used to be," she says. "It was part of the fabric of our lives, part of who we were."

Seen strictly as a real estate development, South Works is at once dazzling and daunting.

"Its biggest advantage is its location and its size. And its biggest disadvantage is its location and its size," acknowledges Thomas R. Ferrall, director of public affairs for the U.S. Steel Group.

There are other disadvantages to the parcel, which USX wants to sell -- to a single developer, it hopes -- for $85 million.

For example, the foundations of more than 100 South Works buildings remain embedded in the pile of slag on the site.

Part of the foundations must be removed if water mains, sewer lines and other utilities are to be built, according to Eileen Figel, Mayor Richard M. Daley's South Works project manager.

Buried chemical agents

And while the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has approved the site for residential construction and city consultants downplay the chance of pollution-related problems, some environmental engineers say that buried heavy metals and chemical agents could mean polluted ground water -- as well as contamination at nearby beaches and the lake.

"There are some very real constraints to development," agrees Peter Skosey, the urban development director of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Still, if these obstacles can be overcome, Chicago can seize upon an incredible chance.

In 1909, when Burnham unveiled his Chicago Plan, South Works had been in business for 29 years and wasn't about to move. So Burnham simply left a big gap at the site in his proposed chain of shoreline parks.

As recently as 1972, when Chicago published its last lakefront plan, South Works was spewing pollution into Lake Michigan. Park District employees still remember the lake water on the Far South Side turning red.

Yet now that the plant is history, the city can instantly add two miles of parkland to its 24 existing miles of publicly accessible lakefront.

But what kind of public space does Chicago want to create here? How will it relate to the rest of the lakefront? How will it link up with Weller's proposed National Heritage Area, which is expected to win congressional approval? Why would somebody who doesn't live on the Far Southeast Side want to come here?

The city's South Works plan, prepared by the Chicago architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and released in September, does little to address these questions. Nor does it explore in depth the idea of a steel museum, which Southeast Side residents had suggested in early planning sessions. However, it deals thoughtfully with other issues:

- To help reduce the area's isolation, the plan calls for rebuilding four existing Metra stations to the west of South Works, between 79th and 92nd Streets.

- To prevent new housing from turning South Works into enclaves of cul-de-sacs, it recommends continuing major east-west city streets through the site.

- To keep a southward extension of Lake Shore Drive from walling off the lakefront, it foresees extending Lake Shore Drive through the western edge of South Works, not as an expressway, but as a boulevard.

- To create a continuous strip of parkland running from Rainbow Park (7500 to 7900 South) to Calumet Park (9500 to 10200 South), it suggests new shoreline parkland at the South Works site and raises the prospect of adding landfill to state-owned land across the mouth of the Calumet River from the former plant.

Granted, there's a public vision percolating here, one that offers a solid base on which to build a community. But the plan fails to soar.

An injection of culture would enliven its prosaic mix of uses. And planners need to ponder the future of South Works not just from a bird's eye perspective, but from on the ground, where the people will be, so new parkland doesn't turn out to be an anemic, unexciting strip like the one in Burnham Park.

How about an outdoor concert stage that would provide an air of festivity? Or a small maritime museum, which would be appropriate because a lot of big ships pass by, going to and from the Port of Chicago? Maybe even a remote site of the Adler Planetarium, which would take advantage of the fact that South Works is so far from the bright lights of the Loop?

Whatever goes at South Works, the inherent toughness of the site should be allowed to speak.

You can hear its grit in the voices of men like Stanley, a 77-year-old former steelworker who now is the co-curator of the Southeast Historical Society museum.

It's a tiny operation, located in the field house at Calumet Park and open just two days a week. But it has a rich collection of photographs and objects, such as a 20-foot-long, glassed-in model of what Commercial Avenue, the South East Side's commercial hub, looked like in 1940.

model of Commerical Avenue

Commercial Avenue once was the thriving, vibrant hub of Chicago's Southeast Side, as demonstrated by this 20-foot-long model housed at the Southeast Historical Society. Viewing it are the society's president, Alex Savastano, and co-curators Frank Stanley and Ora Coon.

Back then, Commercial had major department stores, clothing stores, ice cream parlors, movie houses and bakeries rather than the dollar stores it has now. The mill ran 24 hours a day, and when shifts changed, steelworkers would hit the bars and other places along Commercial.

"You could go to Commercial at 2 a.m. and it would be like noon," says Stanley. Stanley offers a different version of the slogan coined by U.S. Steel - "Safety First" -- which remains written on the massive walls at South Works. While over the years, safety features at the plant improved, he says, in the early part of the century "Safety First" was a hoax.

"People were crushed by trains," he says. "They fell into molten metal. People's hands got maimed."

It's a tale that ought to be heard by a broader public.

A feel for heavy lifting

Think of how one could go to a museum and, as part of a broader series of exhibits about work in America, watch a video of the steelworkers recounting their experiences, hear about pivotal strikes, see historic footage of the plant, learn about its contributions to the nation, and touch massive objects -- melting pots, for example -- that would give one a sense of what heavy lifting really is.

On emerging from the museum, one could gaze north across the lake to the skyline, where South Works steel holds up Sears Tower, McCormick Place, the Amoco Building, the John Hancock Center and the Wrigley Building.

One might see the skyline with new eyes -- not just as a parade of skyscrapers, but as a symbol of the dignity of work.

Such a museum could be endowed by private philanthropy and by labor unions, as well as by a donation of land from the Park District.

Yet rather than being narrowly conceived as a "labor museum," it could have the broader mandate of documenting and vividly conveying the ongoing importance of work to Chicago and the nation.

The museum also could grow from the idea that South Works once was a virtual city within a city, with its own hospital, restaurants, stores, railroads, police and firefighters, even circuses.

If the institution were to be located along the great boat slip where ore ships once docked, it could form the centerpiece of the new South Works, gathering a range of smaller buildings -- shops, restaurants, beer gardens -- around it like a cathedral. They would lend a human scale to this vast waterfront site, turning it into an inviting city street like the one at Navy Pier.

While at first glance, the idea of commemorating a hulking steel mill along a lakefront chiefly noted for its green meadows and sandy beaches may seem implausible, the lakefront itself shows that industry and ecology aren't incompatible.

In the area around the mill, industry already has stamped its presence on parkland, and the parkland seems no worse for it.

At the northern edge of Calumet Park, next to South Works, there is a street called "Foreman Drive," an allusion to the men who ran the work gangs. Along the Chicago Skyway, there is Bessemer Park, named for the Bessemer furnaces used in the steelmaking process.

That industrial flavor doesn't have to stop at South Works.

It can extend through the National Heritage Area that Weller wants to create, emulating the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, which stretches 100 miles from Chicago to LaSalle-Peru. The corridor was designated the country's first National Heritage Area in 1984.

When the Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed in 1848, it helped turn Chicago from a frontier settlement into the metropolis of the Midwest by creating what historian Duis calls "the golden funnel," an enormously profitable connection, via the Great Lakes, between the commodity-based economy of the Midwest and the voracious markets of the East.

Yet 40 years ago, driven to irrelevance by railroads and interstate highways, the canal was decrepit and almost forgotten. Many of the cities and towns that grew up along it were dying.

Today, because of the cooperation that the National Heritage Corridor has spurred among different bodies of government, the canal is once again a spine of economic prosperity.

Paths from which mules used to tow canal boats are now bike trails. Picturesque towns along the canal, such as southwest suburban Lockport, have recovered, their handsome Joliet limestone buildings sparkling. In Joliet, a former steel plant site, with ruins of blast furnaces and other industrial buildings, now has a mile-long trail with interpretive signs.

There were an estimated 1.5 million visits to former industrial sites in the canal corridor in 1997, according to Ana B. Koval, the executive director of the Canal Corridor Association.

The broader import of the corridor couldn't be clearer: The industrial past is a cornerstone on which to build the post-industrial future.

Just as at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, where Gehry inverted the conventional way of making museums with a flight of stairs that leads down rather than up to the main entrance, this new way of looking at public space turns conventional thinking on its head, seeing beauty in what seems ugly, and extraordinary meaning in what appears merely ordinary.

There's no reason we shouldn't apply it to the lakefront, using a range of mechanisms like the tax-increment financing district, or TIF, which earmarks increases in property taxes generated by rising property values to pay for public works.

Means aside, the ultimate issue is our creativity and how we use it to seize upon the biggest chance in years to expand and enhance the lakefront.

Kayakers at South Works

Kayakers are dwarfed by the huge slip that runs through South Works. Once a docking site for ore boats that delivered raw materials to the plant, the slip could be flanked by rows of shops, restaurants and amuseum that might celebrate th history of steel works and the American labor force.

As the industrial era is supplanted by the Information Age, as smokestacks give way to microprocessors, we can transform the story of South Works into a new kind of lakefront story -- one that celebrates industry as well as nature, the heroism of the common man as well as the general on horseback.

That's the way to manufacture the revival of South Works.

Criticism 1999