Lizzie Smith

Best of the Far Southeast Side 2019

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Best Urban Ruins
U.S. Steel South Works Iron Ore Walls at Steelworkers Park

Lizzie Smith

In the same way that the Colosseum and Roman aqueducts are remnants of the ancient world, the former U.S. Steel South Works iron ore walls are hulking vestiges of the city’s industrial past.

The manufacturing sector still employs a few hundred thousand people in the city, but heavy industry is no longer the job provider it once was when South Works, Republic Steel, and other mills forged metal for a burgeoning nation on the city’s Southeast Side.   

Today, the steel mills are all gone—victims of cheap imports, automation, consolidation, and the callousness and naked self-interest of faraway shareholders who would gladly drown a kitten for a few more pennies.

Four half-mile-long ore walls run parallel on the shores of Lake Michigan where the long-gone mill used to receive raw materials from lake freighters at the mouth of the Calumet River. The thirty- to forty-foot-high walls once fed the world’s largest blast furnace but are now all that remains, like an industrial version of Ozymandias’s pedestal.

Now open wide to the sky and 200 bird species at 87th Street and the lake, the towering ore walls stand as a testament to the Southeast Side’s past producing steel and raising high skyscrapers. More than 20,000 steelworkers once toiled at the largest integrated steel mill in the city of Chicago, which got its start as the North Chicago Rolling Mill Company in 1882. The factory began to suffer downsizing in the 1970s during a period of upheaval in the American steel industry, and closed for good in 1992. 

For now, the colossal concrete ruins of the late nineteenth century can be observed at Steelworkers Park, where the Chicago Park District installed a climbing wall last year (read more about that in the South Chicago section of this issue). Development plans could jeopardize the serenity of what’s now one of the more isolated spots on the lakeshore. Solo Cup Co. wanted to build a plant there. There was long a sign promising a Mariano’s as part of a $4 billion McCaffery Interests mega-development project on what was billed as one of the largest available waterfront properties in any major city in the country. Then an international partnership between the Irish developer Emerald Living and Spain’s Barcelona Housing Systems wanted to build 20,000 modular homes and commercial retail spaces there. Now the rapper Common, a native of nearby Calumet Heights, is involved in a mixed-used redevelopment that would include movie production studios with fifteen to twenty sound stages, as well as entertainment venues, retail, hotels, housing, a climbing wall, a  skate park, and a golf practice facility affiliated with Greg “The Shark” Norman.

Whether any of it ever comes to fruition remains to be seen.

As they stand on the empty, forlorn field, the ore walls provide a quiet, contemplative, meditative space where one can imagine the hard back-breaking work of their forebears, or just reflect on the fleeting transience of all things. (Joseph S. Pete) 

Steelworkers Park, 3100 E. 87th St. 6am–11pm daily. (312) 747-6651. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/steelworkers-park

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Best Late Labor Leader
Edward “Oil Can” Sadlowski

The father of Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza and the son of a member of the United Steelworkers “red local” 1010 in Gary, Edward “Oil Can” Sadlowski rose as a national labor leader during the Steelworkers Fightback movement in which the rank-and-file rose up against the leadership of the then-more hierarchical Pittsburgh-based union. The New York Times branded him as a “fiery steelworkers insurgent” when he died at the age of seventy-nine last summer.

Sadlowski started as a machine oiler at U.S. Steel’s South Works mill on the Southeast Side in 1956. He rose through the ranks to become, at the age of just twenty-six, the director of United Steelworkers Local 65, the largest USW district at the time, spanning steel mills from Chicago to Gary. In Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, author Edward McClelland wrote that Sadlowski was a “steelworker without a mill, a sloganeering, hymn-singing, street-marching, banner-waving, boss-hating labor captain without a union” and a “beer drinker, pool shooter…the kind of guy who needed a nickname for the loud greetings he heard whenever he walked into a tavern or a union hall.” In 1977, Sadlowski ran on a reform platform for the national presidency of the union that represented 1.4 million workers nationwide, and earned support from prominent liberal figures outside the union like Ralph Nader and Pete Seeger. He considered the labor movement akin to a “holy crusade” and attacked the union leadership for losing touch with workers, ceding the right to strike, and empowering union local presidents to ratify contracts. He sought to liberate workers from the endless grind, asking “how many Mozarts are working in steel mills?” The campaign was so hard-fought that a volunteer was shot while handing out leaflets in Houston.

Sadlowski ended up losing the election by 79,000 votes, but his impact was lasting and far-reaching.

“Ed Sadlowski never retired even after he retired from steel,” retired labor educator Ruth Needleman wrote. “He continued union organizing and representation, working with AFSCME and other unions. Eddie always made himself available to anyone who wanted to talk, get advice, meet with him, or learn from him. ‘Oil Can Eddie’ had mythical stature. Eddie Sadlowski was one of the best unionists the labor movement ever had.”

Southeast Elementary School was even renamed in his honor as Edward E. Sadlowski Elementary in March.

“My father Edward E. Sadlowski was an icon in this community, a champion for working class people, and man who fought tooth and nail to bring democratic reform to labor unions in Chicago and across the nation,” Garza posted on Facebook upon the renaming. “My father’s legacy will live on forever.” (Joseph S. Pete)

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Best Environmental Activists
Southeast Environmental Task Force

When clouds of petcoke choked the Southeast Side in 2013, one group stood up to Beemsterboer Slag, Koch Industries, and the other companies that stored the oil refinery byproduct on the banks of the Calumet River. The Southeast Environmental Task Force took the fight to the deep-pocketed companies and got them to stop stockpiling the powder, which physicians say can exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma, out in the open.

Tom Shepherd, who has served on the SETF board for twenty years (and written for the Weekly), said the group was responsible for the city’s landfill moratorium and the eventual legislation banning such waste piles in Cook County. The Southeast Environmental Task Force saved thirty-three serene acres along the Calumet River by 134th and Torrence from being turned into a police firing range after nesting bald eagles were discovered there.

The SETF has organized to preserve hundreds of acres of marshes and wetland that are now protected in Chicago Park District preserves like the Hegewisch Marsh, Big Marsh, Marian R. Byrnes Park (previously known as Van Vlissingen Prairie), and Indian Ridge Marsh.

“We fought alongside Sierra Club for years in the ‘Beyond Coal Campaign’ to rid the Southeast Side of vast coal storage yards,” Shepherd said in an exchange with the Weekly. “We were partners with other environmental groups in closing coal-fired power plants in Chicago and Northwest Indiana. In a major achievement, we got regulations enacted to force petcoke storage and distribution to invest millions of dollars to change their method of delivery, loading and distribution, forcing the companies and other bulk storage facilities on the Calumet River to cover their product so not to cause it blowing into the air and on people, houses, schools and playgrounds throughout the Southeast Side.”

The SETF raised awareness about manganese being stored in the open air, causing illness across the Calumet River. The group is still working with the Environmental Protection Agency on measuring particulate matter in the air and removing manganese offenders.

“We participated in the planning and development of trails, paths, biking, et cetera, throughout the Southeast Side and near-south suburbs,” said Shepherd in messages with the Weekly. “We’re still working on identifying offensive odors and monitoring errant environmental polluters. We’re currently resisting expansion of locating giant scrapping operations of which we already have too many. We’re still involved of getting land at Lake Calumet that the Illinois International Port District property that’s open to the public for recreational use tracking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as it plans to dump dredgings into Lake Michigan. We’re tracking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which plans to dump dredging from the Calumet River near the neighborhoods and lakefront.” (Joseph S. Pete)

Southeast Environmental Task Force, 13300 S. Baltimore Ave. (773) 646-0436. setaskforce.org

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Best Tribute to Slain Steelworkers

United Steelworkers Union Annual 1937 Memorial Day Massacre Commemoration

The photo is iconic. Just last month, Splinter published a piece about labor strife that featured the black-and-white shot of Chicago police officers clubbing picketing workers on an open prairie on the city’s Southeast Side.

That image of the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre has grown to be freighted with symbolism and significance. The slaughter of steelworkers outside the long bygone Republic Steel was a galvanizing moment in the American labor movement.

Ten striking steelworkers died on the prairie that day: Sam Popovich, Earl Handley, Lee Tisdale, Leo Francisco, Kenneth Reed, Otis Jones, Joseph Rothmund, Alfred Causey, Anthony Tagliori, and Hilding Anderson.

Every May, the United Steelworkers union commemorates their memory with an observance at the former USW Local 1033 Hall at 11731 S. Avenue O on the East Side. Steelworkers march toward the bygone gates of the Republic Steel mill that closed in the early 2000s, as their forebears did before them. 

The police confrontation left ten dead and ninety injured during what was known as the Little Steel Strike. It was “one of the most violent in the history of U.S. labor organization,” according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. The violence got grisly. John F. Hogan wrote in his book The 1937 Chicago Steel Strike: Blood on the Prairie that one police officer pierced through a worker’s skull with a club that had a meat hook at the end.

The USW said the attack was completely unprovoked against a peaceful bid for union recognition, but a coroner’s jury eventually deemed it to be a “justifiable homicide.”

“It was a rallying cry. They were martyrs,” retired steelworker and labor historian Mike Olszanski said. “Old-timers would come in and tell the story. It was more like a picnic than a demonstration. People brought their kids. They were parading around the plant gates. Then for no reason the cops started beating people up and shot ten workers. It was filmed with newsreel cameras. You can see the clips of them beating people up, beating people over the head with billy clubs.”

A plaque by the union hall honors the fallen by name. Just before the holiday, dozens of steelworkers turn out from across the area to ensure they will not be forgotten. (Joseph S. Pete)

United Steelworkers union annual 1937 Memorial Day Massacre Commemoration, 11731 S. Avenue O. Every May at the Former USW Local 1033 Hall, now the United Auto Workers Local 3212 Hall.

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Best Local Black History
Jan and Aagje Ton Farm Underground Railroad Site

The Jan and Aagje Ton Farm was recently listed on the National Park Service’s “Network to Freedom” registry of Underground Railroad sites. At 134th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue along the north bank of the Calumet River, just south of where Altgeld Gardens now stands, the farm was a safe house for many freedom seekers headed to Canada after escaping slavery in the South. 

The Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project has been offering tours of the site. In the long term, they hope to install a memorial at the site and bring tour groups of school kids there, an opportunity for students to learn about the Underground Railroad in their own backyard.

Southeast Side community activist Tom Shepherd said the farm joins the Crete Congregational Church and adjoining cemetery as another Southland site officially recognized as an Underground Railroad site on the “Network to Freedom” registry. Professor Larry McClellan researched and submitted applications for both sites as part of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project. The I&M Canal Headquarters in Lockport has also been recognized by the federal government for its role in helping former slaves make their way to freedom.

“We are very excited about this important designation, and are developing tours, educational programs, and events that will showcase these sites that are now part of the National Park Service system,” Shepherd said. (Joseph S. Pete)

Jan and Aagje Ton Farm, E. 134th St. & S. St. Lawrence Ave. Join the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project Facebook page at bit.ly/UndergroundRailroadSites

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