Photo by Amanda Diaz

In the twentieth century, the U.S. Steel South Works manufacturing plant was the heart of economic activity on the Southeast Side, employing more than 15,000 people and creating commercial corridors with businesses to meet the needs of the active neighborhood.

The South Works site was closed in 1992. Today, the pillars that used to store steel ore remain as anchors of its vigorous past. The site, Steelworkers Park, reclaimed from the brownfield that once restricted its access, is now a green space for visitors and residents. While the mills have closed, the legacy of these families of immigrants and migrants has not been forgotten. Ornamented with native prairie plants, original blast furnaces, and local artist Roman Villarreal’s “Tribute to the Past” sculpture, the park pays homage to the area’s history and the families of the steelworkers whose combined strengths built Chicago’s skyscrapers. 

But although the steel mills and industry have played an important part in the identity of the Southeast Side, record of this past has been replayed over and over in discussions of the neighborhoods. The past should longer overshadow the talent, diversity, and strength of the Southeast Side; there’s so much to the area that even the most unfamiliar may be inspired by! 

Community is the Southeast Side’s greatest strength. From Eastern European immigrants to Mexican roots that were established in the 1920s; from its history of African-American migration to its newer Caribbean heritage, a diverse multitude of residents have been welded together to create the Southeast Side identity. The area’s resilience and strengths continue to grow through leaders like those profiled here, who are leaving their impact on generations to come. Local leaders, business owners, artists, and neighbors alike have contributed to the nature of community in the area, and continue to make their names on the Southeast Side through their advocacy, community organization, and art.

Neighborhood captain Aisaiah Pellecer is a South Chicago local and student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

  • Best Youth Arts Program: SkyART

    The building that houses SkyART has come a long way to become what it is now. The people who grew up in the neighborhood knew it as Ellis Cleaners, a dry cleaning business. We remember the man in a green jumpsuit leaning on a giant needle on the sign mounted outside, and the funny chemical smell that emanated from its front doors whenever we would pass by it to go into La Jerezana corner store next door to buy Flaming Hot Cheetos  on our way to or from the library across the street. The building became vacant, and many thought that it would go the way of the countless small businesses that disappeared at the beginning of the millennium.

    A decade later, SkyART is now a thriving pillar in the community with a board that includes Theaster Gates Jr. and representatives from organizations like Heartland Alliance and Airbnb.

    SkyART offers various programs that employ art as a way to help children and young adults cope with trauma and mental health challenges. According to director of programs, Devon VanHouten-Maldonado, SkyART relies on licensed professionals to help formerly incarcerated youths cope with trauma in a non-verbal way.

    In addition to a gardening program, SkyART offers online video tutorials on cooking, painting, and dancing and paid internships for teens and college students.

    Coming soon is the exhibition “Can You See Me?”, which will run from October 14-December 17 at three locations: Weinberg/Newton Gallery in River West, Gates’s Arts + Public Life in Washington Park, and the SkyART space in South Chicago. It will feature the work of currently and formerly incarcerated youth and include panels discussing young people who have been swept up in the criminal justice system.

    SkyART, 3026 E. 91st St. (773) 731-9287.

  • Best Art Installation: Urban Trees by South Worx Arte Group

    When I first moved to South Chicago, I had little knowledge of the area’s history and its residents. I spent the first couple of months walking around, trying to get a feel of the area’s cultural background and activity (as any flâneur would). At times I thought about Sandra Cisneros and Gwendolyn Brooks, in their ability to capture the essence of life in their neighborhoods. Cisneros wrote about her personal experience in Humboldt Park and Brooks wrote about urban life in Bronzeville. As I walked around the streets of South Chicago, I asked myself: “Who’s writing about all of this?” There was so much happening that needed to be captured. 

    Throughout the neighborhood I found familiar faces in the friendly business owners and my neighbors. But, what remained a mystery to me were the plaques and art structures that graced South Commercial Avenue and East 93rd Street. I saw a mix of pop art and cubism that entertained my wandering eyes. Playful street installations, for children to duck and hide, and ornamentations on houses made reference to urban life and my personal interpretation of Latinx and African figures. The more I fixated on the designs, I began to realize that they were narrating life here.

    Over time, my interest in the public art in the area grew. But, the artist remained unnamed. It wasn’t until I read about the “Who Tells Your Story” project coming to South Chicago, that I was then able to identify the mysterious artist whose presence was established throughout the area as Derric Clemmons of South Worx Arte Group.

    Over the past years Clemmons has worked in South Chicago with youth from surrounding schools and the nonprofit organization Sky Art, and empowered them to reclaim public spaces with their art. His recent collaborative Urban Trees project down Commercial Avenue, an additional part of the “Who Tells Your Story” Alfresco project, has enhanced the pedestrian nature of the street. The installation, on the 8900 block of Commercial., orchestrates joy and pride in the area, with art that feels true to the nature of the neighborhood, like the flags of Humboldt Park’s Paseo Boricua and the Little Village Arch. 

    “Steel is a grounding point for what the neighborhood stood for,” said Clemmons,

    Walking down the Commercial Avenue business corridor, the colors of the Alfresco project floated off the ground and the brightly painted steel trees guided my eyes. My ritual visits to La Fruteriafor Caribbean delights were an opportunity to gaze upon new details of the Urban Trees and their link to artists from different parts of the city; each tree features a rotating selection of art by other artists branching out from the structures. With this project Clemmons has merged industry and nature, and created a new context for which South Chicagoans can occupy public space, lounge upon the benches, observe art freely, and experience its inspiration. 

    Right now, Clemmons is in the process of installing his latest project, the Talking Tree, which aims to activate the space between South Chicago and South Deering underneath the Indiana Skyway. When I asked about future plans, he mentioned a potential art project to activate at Bessemer Park and of course, the help of neighborhood youth.

    South Worx Arte Group is on Instagram @swag_worx  and at Any local artists and youth are invited to reach out to join South Worx Arte Group as apprentices. 

  • Best Community Podcast: South by SouthEast (SxSE)

    Close your eyes. Think of what the South Side looks like. Take a moment to reflect on your own experiences and biases.

    Now think of what the South Side sounds like. Give it a second. 

    Hear the joy, hear the enthusiasm; what you hear is South by SouthEast (SxSE).

    Launched in 2019, SxSE is a local audio and video podcast created by wife and husband Christa and Mike Alvarez. They have hope, and they carry the dream of all that the Southeast Side can be in their work. 

    The couple have lived on the Southeast Side all their lives. Christa has a background in journalism while Mike has a background in audio engineering. So, what do you get when a journalist and sound engineer get married? A kick ass podcast. 

    Food reviews, community interviews, local businesses, and the positivity happening is what you’ll be introduced to. Their podcast highlights the gems in our backyard, and shows why it’s important to remind the community of what we have. They support mom and pop shops, show off the talent in the community, and tell you why  you should listen to the stories of the community. The dynamic duo partners locally to support community events, music fests, and have some of my favorite community merchandise. They put their heart into the Southeast Side and it shows.

    Tune in to the South by SouthEast podcast on all major streaming platforms.

  • Best Burger: Chi Burgerbabi

    I’m willing to bet $10 that you haven’t had the best burger on the Southeast Side. Chi Burgerbabi gives you a unique experience.

    “I want to give my community the world, through my food,” says owner and founder Immar Ayala. 

    Ayala grew up on the Southeast Side, but his story begins in El Salvador. 

    His mother came to the states to escape that country’s civil war, and brought her oldest son and daughter so they wouldn’t be recruited. Ayala was left behind, to be raised by his grandmother and supporting relatives. And while separated from his mother and older siblings his grandmother taught him to cook. 

    As a child, Ayala was curious.  While his grandmother cooked, he often  asked her questions.. The popular expression “the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach” goes even further with him. “I’ve worked with some of the greatest chefs, and I will always miss my grandmother’s food. I miss her baking, nothing can compare to the bread she’s made.”

    Once he was able to come to the states, he attended both elementary and high school in South Chicago. Then at the age of seventeen Ayala started his career in the food industry. From waiting tables, to lying about being a cook, to becoming a cook, then sous chef, his experience is one full of grit and heart. He has cooked in some of the best restaurants in Chicago, New York, and Singapore, and was even offered a job in Abu Dhabi, but he wanted to come back to the community to give everything he’s learned. This is what he means when he says “I want to give my community the world.” With a menu that includes specialty fries like truffle-Parmesan, eight-hour smoked Cubanos, and an array of fresh tender burgers, he’s delivering. Consider trying the best burger from the Southeast Side; you won’t regret it.

    Chi Burgerbabi, 10148 S. Ewing Ave. Tuesday–Friday, 11:30am–8pm, Saturday 12:30pm–8:30pm, Sunday 3pm–8:30pm. (773) 964-1314

  • Best Donut Shop: Chico’s Oven

    Located in the Bush, the northeast section of South Chicago, on 83rd and Houston, takeout-only Chico’s Oven offers sweet treats that are bound to improve any visit to Russell Square Park, an afternoon walk, or commute to the Metra Electric 83rd St. Station. Walking up to the takeout window at Chico’s is always a joy, especially on weekend trips to the park with my nieces. In addition to the fluffiest donuts in South Chicago, they feature bolillo sandwiches on housebaked rolls and pizza, which comes very close to New York-style pizza (noteworthy if you’re a fan like me).

    The business holds a family history that reflects the legacy of South Chicago’s steelworkers. Jorge Perez  Sr. worked swing shifts at the mill, and owned the family grocery store and bakery for twenty-eight years, until his son bought it from him in the mid-90s. Today Jorge “Chico” Perez Jr.—who also works in economic development—serves up recipes his father learned as a baker in Mexico to honor him. As a Chicago Community Development Grant May 2022 finalist, Chico’s Oven is looking forward to improvements that will renovate and expand the family-owned bakery, opening up to the possibility of an expanded menu and increased customer base.

    Chico’s Oven, 3023 E. 83rd St.  Saturday–Sunday, 11am–5 pm. 773-756-2328,

Join the Conversation


  1. Great to read about the old neighborhood I grew up inSouth Chicago was a great place to raise your children good schools and jobs . Bessemer Park and Calumet Park were great places your kids could join and learn sports. I really miss them days .

  2. I love the community! I live inn South Shore but often visit Commercial Avenue. Immaculate Conception is an oasis in the community and has a great history contributing to the peace in the city. Dulce Cafe across from IC is a special coffee shop. People bond with one another in South Chicago.

  3. I lived at 8312 Greenbay across the Street from US Steel . Surrounded by Employee Parking Lots believe me I still have Nightmares of living there. With a Constant Light Orange Dust failing on Us from The Mill . That stuff killed many people including my Mom . It was not Plesant to look at that Mill 24 7 I can tell you stories about living there that are not very Delightful

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