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In South Chicago, however, the Rust Belt era never really ended. The outside world hasn’t seen this neighborhood of abandoned steel mills since the Bluesmobile jumped the 95th Street Bridge in The Blues Brothers. Now even South Chicago sees its future in attracting the professional class.
U.S. Steel South Works was finished in 1992, when the structural mill and the last electrical furnaces shut down. South Works had been built in 1880, on 73 acres of lakefront property.
Gradually, the mill expanded atop its own excretions, piling slag into the shallows of Lake Michigan, until, like Holland reclaiming the sea, it had created a 573-acre peninsula of limestone, dolomite, and phosphorous.
Once U.S. Steel departed, this promontory of slag became the largest undeveloped plot of lakefront property in Chicago. Unlike other Great Lakes industrial cities, Chicago had preserved its shoreline; Daniel Burnham, the 19th-century architect, declared that the lakefront should be “forever free and clear.”
But the parks, marinas, and bathing beaches had ended at the gates of U.S. Steel, 10 miles south of the Loop. Dismantling South Works meant Chicago could extend its green belt to the Calumet River. It also meant South Chicago had a chance to revive itself with the element that had provided its original prosperity: water. In the late 19th century, water had been essential for floating in iron ore and floating out finished steel. By the late 20th century, as Burnham had foreseen, water had become a lifestyle amenity. Those downtown Chicago condos came with lake views—something Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, or Gary could not provide.
However, no one wants to live on slag, no matter how close to the water. Children can’t play on slag. Grass won’t grow in slag. To cover the Plutonian surface, the city floated in 168 barges full of muck from the bottom of Peoria Lake, a wide spot in the Illinois River, 150 miles southwest of Chicago. Arriving in Lake Michigan via a network of tributaries, locks, and canals, the barges docked in South Works’ old North Slip, the nautical chute that once received the thousand-foot-long Edwin H. Gott, the Queen Mary of the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Fleet. Dump trucks spread topsoil over several acres north and south of the slip—enough to build a park, but not enough to cover the entire site.
In 2009, the developer Daniel McCaffery received approval from City Hall to build apartments and a shopping center atop South Works’ slag. McCaffery had donated a lot of money to Mayor Daley. A decade earlier, the Hispanic Democratic Organization had broken every other law in the Illinois electoral code to elect Daley’s man to the City Council, because the mayor wanted to decide what would replace the mill and who would build it. The Daley family’s campaign to bring South Chicago under its political control had resulted in a lucrative concession for a well-connected Irish builder. Even in global Chicago, that’s how things work.
When built out over 30 years, Chicago Lakeside will be the site of 13,575 homes and 17.5 million square feet of stores and offices. The North Slip will become a sailboat marina; the rocky verge of the peninsula, a bathing beach.
I visited Chicago Lakeside’s marketing center in the old company credit union, the only one of South Works’ 160 buildings that hadn’t been rubbled. In the middle of the showroom floor, surrounded by Plexiglas panels, was a diorama of a quayside urban village. Model-railroad trees, in rows laid out by a Platonic arborist, followed the curve of a lengthened Lake Shore Drive. Two-inch-tall towers faced the water. I watched a four-minute promotional video narrated by the TV newsman Bill Kurtis. The only greenery was indoors. Outdoors, South Works was the most khaki landscape east of the 100th meridian.
Since U.S. Steel had let nature take its course on this unnatural peninsula, a few trees had risen out of the topsoil, but they were skinny, shapeless teenagers. Mostly, the brown dust grew brittle, coppery weeds that bent stiffly in the unbroken lake winds. Far off, a coal-burning plant on the Illinois-Indiana line, a soon-to-be-demolished remnant of smoggy industry, cast a locomotive cloud into the wind. Beyond, the blue silhouettes of the Indiana steel mills were piled atop the horizon-shaped curve of Lake Michigan.
Nasutsa Mabwa, the development’s project manager, took me for a ride around the site, her black SUV rumbling over roadbeds laid out in expectation of asphalt. Her mission, she said, was to restore the middle class to South Chicago by persuading people who could afford to live anywhere to move down to this poor, forgotten neighborhood. It was only a 20-minute drive from downtown.
“It’s going to uplift the entire South Side of Chicago,” Mabwa predicted. “No one else has the access to the water. There’s no land like this left. We’re kind of reinventing an image that has been tarnished, and you have the media fixated on shootings and crimes. There’s shootings all over Chicago. Of course we’re in it because it’s an opportunity for revenue. We’re not going to do it for free. But after you do all of your economics, you realize that, Wow, this is kind of a social transformation project. This is socioeconomic change. It was good, solid middle-class families, and now it’s just in big disrepair.” [For more plans to revive the South Side, see “Theaster Gates: The Rise of an Unconventional Art Star.”]
A daughter of Kenyan immigrants, Mabwa had even bigger plans for Lakeside than her bosses: She wanted to bring Barack Obama’s presidential library there. The University of Chicago, where Obama taught law, is only three miles away. It has an academic claim, but Lakeside has a historic claim, since Obama came to Chicago to work in neighborhoods impoverished by the steel mill closings. If the mills hadn’t failed, Obama would not have become president.
We drove past a desert-colored wall that paralleled the North Slip. The ore wall, where taconite and limestone were piled to await the furnaces, was like the Great Pyramid, an artifact that had outlived its makers. And like the smokestacks at the Waterfront, a mall in Homestead, Pennsylvania, the ore wall would be preserved as an industrial memento. It was also too big to tear down.
Excerpted from Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland (Bloomsbury Press, $26).