I’m going to settle an old Chicago debate, one that usually begins when someone quotes the first line of the song “The Night Chicago Died,” by Paper Lace: “My daddy was a cop on the east side of Chicago.”
It came up again on Reddit, a year ago, when a Redditor wrote, “TIL the song ‘The Night Chicago Died’ by Paper Lace references an east side of Chicago, which does not exist. There are North, South, and West Downtown Chicago, but the east is occupied by Lake Michigan. Songwriters Peter Callander and Mitch Murray had never been to Chicago.”
Callander and Murray, who hail from Nottingham, England, may have known as much about Chicago’s geography as Steve Perry did about Detroit’s, but they weren’t wrong. Chicago does, in fact, have an East Side. It’s one of our 77 community areas. Located in the far southeastern corner of the city, the East Side is bounded by the Calumet River on the north and west, Lake Michigan on the east and Egger’s Grove on the south. That Redditor may not have heard of the East Side because it’s one of Chicago’s most remote neighborhoods: the ‘L’ doesn’t go to the East Side, the Skyway carries cars hundreds of feet overhead, and driving there requires crossing a lift bridge. (When the Bluesmobile jumped the 95th Street Bridge, it took off from South Chicago and landed on the East Side.)
East Side native Robert Stanley, a former Wisconsin Steel worker, began his self-published memoir Once Upon a Time in South Chicago with a photo of a half-raised bridge and the legend, “Oh shit! The bridge is up. (Quote from) anyone that ever went to the (East Side).”
Here’s what Stanley had to say about his neighborhood:
When ever people asked me where I was from I’d proudly say “The East Side.” They’d say where’s that? I’d say you know, down where all the steel mills are, the area where the big cloud of smoke is, look down off the Skyway Toll Road, that’s us underneath.
Growing up on the East Side you always felt isolated from the rest of the city, not just by the bridges over the Calumet River or Lake Michigan to the east but because nobody from the north side of down town wanted anything to do with coming down to the end of the south side, the Dan Ryan expressway, the Robert Taylor Homes projects, the steel mills and oil refineries that made the air have a red tint that smelled.
The one thing that we had on the East Side was Cal[umet] Park, two miles of lake front, a beach and the “rocks,” a place where it was a no swimming area so everybody swam there. That was the place in the summer where everybody that was anybody was there, checking out the chicks, drinking quarts of beer in paper bags so the police didn’t see it and diving off top rock to impress the girls.
Chicago stowed its industry on the East Side, so the wealthier neighborhoods wouldn’t have to smell the smoke. When the steel mills were still burning coal and melting ore, the nights glowed red with slag dumps and the mornings sparkled with a metallic confetti of steel shavings and graphite. In the afternoons, the soot was so heavy that housewives hung their wash in basements. Chicago’s deadliest labor conflict, the Memorial Day Massacre, took place on the East Side. On May 30, 1937, Chicago police gunned down 10 Republic Steel workers participating in the “Little Steel” strike. Like the rest of the East Side’s industry, Republic Steel went cold in the 1990s, but there’s a monument to the fallen at Avenue O and 117th Street, outside the old home of United Steelworkers Local 1033. Shaped like a ten-horned menorah, it bears the names of the dead, as polyglot as a platoon in a World War II movie: Anderson, Causey, Francisco, Popovich, Handley, Jones, Reed, Tagliori, Tisdale, Rothmund.
Former 10th Ward Ald. Edward Vrodlyak, leader of the white ethnic opposition to Mayor Harold Washington, lives on the East Side, at least when he’s not doing time for tax evasion. The current alderperson, Susan Sadlowski-Garza, is the daughter of East Side legend “Oil Can Eddie” Sadlowski, who ran for international president of the United Steelworkers of America in the 1970s.
In the ’70s, when University of Chicago sociologist William Kornblum studied the neighborhood for his book Blue Collar Community, the East Side was mostly Italian and Slavic. Today, it’s 80 percent Latino. Mexicans have been living on the East Side since the 1920s, when they arrived to work in the steel mills. Our Lady of Guadalupe on 91st Street in South Chicago — OLG — is the city’s oldest Mexican parish.
In the days when the Southeast Side was nicknamed “the Ruhr of America,” the Calumet River was busy with freighters delivering taconite from Minnesota’s Iron Range or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Now, it’s cheaper to import steel to Chicago than make it here. The Iroquois Landing Lakefront Terminus is located on the East Side, just up the shore from Calumet Park. It’s often the destination for foreign ships, or “salties,” delivering steel plate. Sit on the beach in Cal Park long enough, and you might see a freighter: 700 feet long — ludicrously out of proportion on Lake Michigan — dark, angular, so Teutonically modernistic it looks like a rusting sculpture on a public square.
(The actual East Side is not to be confused with the New East Side, a real estate name invented to sell expensive condos north of Millennium Park.)
Perhaps the best reason to visit the East Side is that you can use it to evade the $5.80 toll on the Skyway. Drive South on DuSable Lake Shore Drive, follow the signs for U.S. 41 until it turns into Ewing Avenue (crossing the river at 93rd Street), turn left on 106th Street, and jump on Interstate 90 just before it crosses into Indiana. You can use the savings to buy a Polish and fries at Skyway Doghouse, just across the street from Cal Park.