Photo Credit: Julia Hunter

Best of East Side & Hegewisch 2020

Oscar Sanchez is a cofounder of the Southeast Youth Alliance

The Southeast Side is historic. It is a catalyst. It is a resistance. It is embracing. And it is changing.

The Southeast Side is a beautiful home where people can raise their families, where people can enjoy themselves and have a long life—but over time, we’ve been stripped of that, because of all the damage done through environmental racism and harmful development here. 

It’s a growing dynamic, and folks wanting to raise a family here are now saying, “We don’t necessarily need heavy industries here.” We need change. What really makes us so different, and why the community is a catalyst, is because all the things we’ve been dealt or handed in our life that have created a negative experience for us—for example, the pollution, or the violence, or being part of a low-income area—have allowed people to not only have a mentality to say they can change it, but to join others in collectives of people wanting to create change for the community.

Growing up in my house, there was this idea of, if we don’t take care of us, who will? My parents are from Mexico, and they didn’t trust the police or government, and they had a pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of mentality—but when they came to America, they kind of changed. They saw how a community can actually lift you, whether it’s friends or family members, and how at the end of the day, we have to keep ourselves safe.

At the end of the day, it has to do with love, unconditional love towards wanting to see your community brought up. Because during this pandemic, let’s be very candid—if we didn’t take care of our community during this pandemic and didn’t watch out for each other? I can’t even imagine how much harm would have been caused if we just stood by and let this catastrophe happen.

As a community, we have come together during these difficult times wanting to take care of one another because we deserve better. (As told to Maria Maynez)

Neighborhood Captain Maria Maynez is a freelance journalist and community organizer based on the Southeast Side.

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Best New Old Bar

East Side Tap

Once one of the sixty “tied houses,” or brewery-owned bars, for the Schlitz brewing company, the building this tap house occupies is an ode to East Side history. Built in 1907, the exterior is a remnant of a time when steelworkers would spend their afternoons at the bar socializing and relaxing. 

“We wanted to restore and preserve this tavern not only because it is a beautiful and architecturally interesting building, but also because it is a small part of a bigger history,” said owners Michael and Laura Medina in a statement.

Despite its changes, the bar has always been a place for the community. Shortly after Schlitz closed down, it was known in the forties and fifties as Club Selo, and in the seventies as the Bamboo Lounge. The Medinas, who bought the building in 2019, weren’t looking to give it a modern face, but instead have been working to renovate this prime jewel, which is set to open in 2021 as the East Side Tap. In October, the building was designated a Chicago landmark, making it the tenth former tied house in the city to be designated as such, and the fifth city landmark in the East Side.

“The East Side is a tight-knit community, and many neighbors have fond memories of the tavern, the people in it, and the times they had there. Those memories are meaningful,” said Medina. (Maria Maynez)

East Side Tap, 9401 S. Ewing. Hours TBD. facebook.com/eastsidetap

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Best Longtime Marsh Defender

Peggy Salazar

Peggy Salazar, the executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force (Best Environmental Activists, 2019 BoSS), has recently been battling against scrap metal shredder General Iron’s plans to relocate from the tony environs of Lincoln Park to the border of Hegewisch and South Deering on the Southeast Side.

It’s just the latest skirmish in her ongoing fight to save the Southeast Side from pollution and environmental degradation after the collapse of the steel mills that once cranked out metal there. Salazar has been working since first volunteering for the Southeast Environmental Task Force to reinvent the neighborhood in a greener way that would protect the environment and health of its longtime residents.

“I’m a lifelong resident who saw the steel mills disappear in the 1980s,” she said. “Some residents were extremely disappointed the community lost so many jobs. So was I at first. But I saw how it could be a new dawn for the neighborhood. We’ve been fighting pollution and these companies. I want to pass this community off to my children so they want to continue to live here with the same quality of life that’s beneficial and not detrimental to them.”

The steel mills giveth and the steel mills taketh away.

“We’ve been instrumental in conservation and preservation in the neighborhood,” Salazar said. “The steel mills were a double-edged sword that brought jobs and opportunity. They were economic drivers that were ultimately detrimental, resulting in shuttered businesses and jobs lost by the thousands. Over time, I realized we gained open space. It was not pristine because of the heavy industry, but it was priceless to have thousands of acres of green space in an urban environment like Chicago. We had assets to capitalize off of after we lost all the industry.”

She became executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, which was started in 1989, in 2010 after joining the board in 2005. 

Salazar’s first challenge was protesting an attempt to develop townhouses on a wetland.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that the Southeast Side is home to [some] of the only trailers in the city of Chicago,” she said, referring to the Harbor Point Estates just west of the state line with Indiana. “With the housing boom, they evicted [some] trailer residents to build high-end townhomes on [parts of] the property. Initially, it was getting them to agree to a conservation easement. But after the collapse, the townhomes on the wetland never got built, and now it’s a part of the Cook County Forest Preserve.”

The group then fought the city’s efforts to build an outdoor firing range for the Chicago Police Department across from the public park at Hegewisch Marsh.

“It didn’t make sense to have this firing range for municipal officers across from the park, where the purpose was to be able to escape urban living, enjoy natural respite, and take advantage of this kind of environment. It didn’t make any sense to have officers shooting from sunup to sundown,” Salazar said.

A pair of nesting bald eagles helped the cause of the neighborhood activists, who ultimately prevailed in dashing the city’s plans for the shooting range.

“There were safety and noise pollution issues,” she said. “It was happening across the river, and the river was not wide at that point. The scary thing was they wanted to have constant shooting in a neighborhood where you have issues with drive-bys and gang-related shootings. You want to have a nature park where guns are shot off in the distance in total disregard to residents?”

Next, the group fought a coal gasification plant and convinced the city that petroleum coke (petcoke) should be stored in enclosures instead of in piles that stood two to three stories high along the banks of the Calumet River.

“[The plant] would have brought more open storage of petcoke, more emissions that we didn’t want any more of, and only a handful of jobs,” she said. “The way we saw it, it was no win, no gain.”

The depth of the petcoke problem first sank in for Salazar when she was enjoying her first summer barbecue three blocks from the industry in the river.

“There was fine black dust floating in my soda that I never would have connected with the industry three blocks away,” she said. “I never realized how far that stuff traveled. What people don’t realize about the Southeast is that you have a residential neighborhood half a block away from the industry. I can’t imagine what they experienced by the industrial corridor if I had fine black dust in my glass of soda three blocks away.”

The Southeast Environmental Task Force has repeatedly sparred with the city over high levels of manganese, heavy metals, and emissions in the air, but has often found Chicago more interested in industry, jobs, and the tax base than residents’ well-being, Salazar said.

“We made progress on petcoke but are still concerned,” she said. “It’s being stored in open train cars headed to the BP Refinery. A resident expressed concern why it always operated at night. He felt it was so we couldn’t see the dust. When you’ve been living with open piles of coal and petcoke for so long, it’s hard to get residents to speak out. They feel disenfranchised and that there are no real solutions.”

Black soot from the petcoke pikes and horrible odors from local industry have permeated the whole neighborhood, Salazar said. 

The group has proposed guidelines for responsible development that the city has ignored. Instead, today it’s fighting the General Iron scrap metal yard it fears would bring more pollution.

“They want to do it without any input from the community,” Salazar said. “We’re already breathing in more than our fair share of pollution without any more polluters. They’re forcing an unwanted business out of the North Side and moving it to a less affluent area without expecting any pushback. The injustice of that should not be tolerated.”

The Southeast Environmental Task Force filed a civil complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over the prospect of more dirty industry in the neighborhood—which resulted in a letter from the federal government to Mayor Lori Lightfoot in opposition to the General Iron project—and is also staging rallies to combat the project.

“I believe we have brought awareness to the total disinvestment in communities like ours,” Salazar said. “If you live in the midst of something, you don’t often stop to think of what could be different or what needs to change. But the city of Chicago still wasn’t listening to the community about what they wanted.” (Joseph S. Pete) 

Find out more about the Southeast Environmental Task Force’s work at setaskforce.org

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Best Youth Movement

Southeast Youth Alliance

The Southeast Youth Alliance started up in August of 2018 to get young people—ranging from students at George Washington High School to fledgling adults in their early twenties—to change the narrative of the Southeast Side.

The group of activists is by the youth, for the youth.

“We gear our programming to young people from high school to post-grads,” said co-founder and environmental organizer Luis Cabrales. “We want to be part of the change in the neighborhood and not just sit back and complain. From the beginning, we wanted to be action-based on the ground and to be part of the solution.”

Though small and still recruiting, the group has quickly made a name for itself through its activism. The Southeast Youth Alliance has been involved in a number of rallies and marches, including organizing the first Black Lives Matter march on the Southeast Side.

“We’re doing a lot of programming on environmental justice,” Cabrales said. “But we haven’t been as active this year because of the stay-at-home orders and because we do not want a rise in COVID-19 positivity rates.”

Despite adjusting to the pandemic, the group’s work this year has been wide-ranging. It has solicited public feedback on the 100th Street Calumet River Access Plan, set up a Día de los Muertos community altar at St. Francis De Sales High School, hosted virtual movie watch parties via Netflix, encouraged people to get out and vote, and urged high school students to apply for scholarships and sign up for a college prep program at the University of Chicago. It gave away masks, toys, and school supplies to students at a youth rally in September. It hosted an art market for local artists and helped start a community mutual aid fund that helped those in need pay for rent, utilities, and groceries. It lobbied to remove the Chicago Police Department from George Washington High School, staged a Black Lives Matter march in Hegewisch, organized community cleanups, and promoted COVID-19 resources to the community.

The Southeast Youth Alliance also took part in the November 14 protest near Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s house to try to stop General Iron from moving into the neighborhood.

“We went up north to protest the permit,” Cabrales said. “It would be devastating to the neighborhood. Some people still sort of live in the heyday when we still had U.S. Steel and steel factories, but they left behind toxic soil, contaminated soil, and a contaminated Calumet River.”

The Southeast Youth Alliance offers an array of programming.

“We do environmental justice and food, raising awareness about being vegetarian,” he said. “We have a student volunteer series where we get people to come out to Big Marsh and take part in stewardship and restoration.”

Cabrales, whose background is in community conservation, said the group hoped to change perceptions about the entire Southeast Side, including the East Side, South Deering, and Hegewisch neighborhoods.

“We want to change the neighborhood, to tell young people that don’t have to leave, that they can live there and not be ashamed,” he said. “You can be proud of where you came from.”

The group envisions a future with more green space and a more vibrant bike culture on the Southeast Side.

“We plan to live here long-term and want to organize events and programming to cause change so we’re part of the solution and not just complaining,” he said. 

The Southeast Side has many bike trails but needs more bike lanes and improved access to natural areas like Big Marsh, Cabrales said. “A big problem is accessibility. If you go down a major street, you can barely avoid being hit by a semi-truck.”

“We’re like the Southeast Environmental Task Force tackling petcoke and manganese and lead in our soil,” he said. “We also have a passion for the big issues. We just want to give the young people a seat at the table.” (Joseph S. Pete)

Southeast Youth Alliance, facebook.com/southeastyouthalliance

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Best Symbol of Institutionalized Pollution That’s Been Neglected Too Long

Schroud Property’s coal hills

Photo Credit: Maria Maynez

The Coal Hills on the long-neglected Schroud Property have dated back to at least the 1970s. The landmark at the entrance of Hegewisch, at 126th Place and Avenue O, consists of slag, garbage, and construction materials piled high. ATV riders often rip across a post-apocalyptic man-made landscape that no one has moved to clean up after a half-century. The unsightly dump rises above desolate prairie grass splayed under power lines stretching off infinitely into the horizon. 

Over the years, the Coal Hills have raised concerns in the far South Side about black tar leaking into Indian Creek, basements, the Babe Ruth baseball field, and soil in the neighborhood, leading residents to question whether they can even safely plant gardens in their backyards. But kids have still flocked there to ride dirt bikes, play paintball, and sled on slag piles in the winter despite a quicksand-like suction. People have come to Coal Hills to walk their dogs, hunt ducks, hang out in tree houses, or swim or fish in Indian Creek and nearby Wolf Lake. 

The former wetlands site, once owned by the long-bygone Republic Steel, was supposed to be turned into a sports complex but was revealed to be contaminated with lead, chromium, and manganese, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The local landmark has long been an illegal site for dumping, including mattresses, refuse, and empty beer bottles, in addition to the waste that introduced the contaminants. Community residents have told the EPA they would like to see it eventually repurposed as a park, natural area, playground, or access point to Wolf Lake, according to a recent EPA Community Involvement Plan. (Joseph S. Pete)

Schroud Property, southwest intersection of E. 126th Pl. and S. Avenue O. For information on its status as a Superfund site and its potential cleanup, visit cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/csitinfo.cfm?id=0505540.

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Best Environmental Transformation

Big Marsh Park

Since its grand opening in 2016, Big Marsh Park has become a staple for the neighboring communities in the Southeast Side and Far South Side. Built in what had been a waste and slag dumping ground since the late 1800s, Big Marsh is more than an area to bird watch. Compared to more staid activities at other parks in the area, Big Marsh offers walking and biking trails, a pump track, BMX jump lines, and soon the Ford Calumet Environmental Center, which will allow the implementation of nature-based events and activities. 

Big Marsh offers plenty of opportunities for the public to spread out, discover, and reconnect with nature. Families can explore the park safely by riding their bikes through the dirt courses, bird watching along the marsh or taking a leisurely walk around the gravel loop that circles the southern half of the park,” said Joel Zavala, Big Marsh’s program and event facilitator.

Big Marsh is quite literally a hidden gem: it’s located in the Calumet Corridor, where there are only two roads that are used for access. It is a stark contrast against the nearby factories and industrial buildings. Big Marsh has caught the eye of many bike aficionados and offers kids and teenagers an opportunity to immerse themselves in nature and bike culture. 

“The importance of having equitable access to spaces like these in the Southeast side has only been highlighted by the ongoing pandemic. The Chicago Park District and its partners hope to continue serving the Southeast side by offering safe and free programming that help facilitate the connection between these natural spaces and the surrounding communities,” said Zavala. (Maria Maynez)

Big Marsh Park, 11555 S. Stony Island Ave. Weekdays, dawn to dusk; weekends, 8am–7pm. (312) 720-0940. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/big-marsh-park-park-no-564

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Best State Line Pizza

Route 66

Route 66 Pizza. Photo Credit: Maria Maynez

Owned by Alberto, a long time resident of the East Side who declined to provide his last name, Route 66 is a go-to favorite for many community members. As a staple of the community, it serves the East Side, Hegewisch, South Deering, and Whiting North Hammond in Indiana. It transcends Chicago and is a fan favorite across the state line with their famous jalapeño pizza. Throughout the years, Route 66 has been known to make generous donations and has always made an effort to reward students for their good work through free pizza slices.  

Things have not always been easy but despite the adversities, the owner is known to bounce back and continue to provide the same hospitality and service that frequent customers know him for. Just last year, the immigrant-friendly business was raided by ICE, leading to the arrest of five workers. This led to the pizzeria closing for more than three months. It was with the efforts of the community and organizations like Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, that the cherished business made its comeback. (Maria Maynez)

Route 66 Pizza, 10180 S. Indianapolis Ave. Monday–Thursday, 10am–10pm; Friday, 10am–11pm; Saturday, 1pm–11pm; Sunday, 1pm–10pm. (773) 734-2032. facebook.com/route66pizza

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