Photo by Leo Hernandez

Because Hegewisch is the farthest neighborhood on the southeast side of the city, many don’t see it as part of Chicago—but rather Indiana. Or they simply don’t know it exists. It is probably one of the most unknown parts of the city, perhaps in part because it seems that Chicago forgot to add enough public transportation—it isn’t easy to get there via CTA or Metra—and it doesn’t help that Hegewisch is also closed off by railways, manufacturing, and “walls of industry [that] you can’t cross,” as a resident once told me. 

Historically, the neighborhood has housed a great deal of the city’s steel mills and manufacturing companies that have hurt the environment. It has since been targeted, according to residents, as the dumping ground for the city of Chicago. 

For Best of South Side last year, I wrote about how the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd inspired youth to raise consciousness about racism and environmental injustice in Hegewisch and its neighboring communities. For example, after years of fighting, residents, in particular the area’s youth, got city health officials to reject the final permit by General Iron to operate in Hegewisch. I also wrote about a joyful nutrition shop and community leaders looking for change and recognition in their neighborhood.

In this year’s Best of South Side I explore Hegewisch Marsh: over a hundred acres of native wetlands and over a mile of trails leading to more surprises. I speak to Tommy Don Talley Jr., a Hegewisch resident who last year started his own organization to normalize mental health in his community. He shares what the organization’s events are all about, as well as how anyone can participate. I also meet Celina Miramontes, owner at Empress Studio, who realized her dream of owning a beauty salon and boasts some of the best reviews online. 

Through political activism, entrepreneurship, leadership, and nature activities, new dreams bloom in Hegewisch. Over the past several years, through efforts that disrupt and inspire, area residents have been sending a strong message—we are here and have a lot to offer.

Neighborhood captain Alma Campos is the Weekly’s immigration editor. This is her second year editing the Hegewisch section for Best of the South Side. You can find her on Twitter at @alma_campos.

  • Best Community Health Leadership: Tommy Talks

    Using mental health pop-ups and unique health events that promote healing from trauma, the mission of Tommy Talks is to normalize discussion of mental health. The initiative was founded by Tommy Don Talley Jr., a longtime resident of Hegewisch. He said he felt the need to share his own story about childhood trauma, which then led him to start Tommy Talks in 2021 and help others in their mental health journeys. 

    At the organization’s mental health pop-ups and other events, community members engage in discussions about difficult but important topics such as suicide prevention, alcohol and drug use, healthy ways to cope with stress, and places to seek help. “The word ‘therapy’ has been so stigmatized that it scares people. So we don’t just talk [about] therapy,” Talley said. “It’s [about] showcasing different ways to help whether it’s meditation, yoga, peer support, through activities or creating writing.” 

    For example, during “Light the Night,” one Tommy Talks event, more than one hundred community members came together for a healing activity. Participants wrote down something painful, placed it inside a paper lantern, and released it into the sky as a way to let it go and move on. “Tommy Talks serves as an advocate, a breaker of generational curses, a partner, a community organization, a peer support group, a guide to resources, and so much more,” Talley said.

    Eventually, Talley said he wants to take his mental health approach to schools and even create a mental health center in the Southeast Side. And while a lot of the events have taken place in Hegewisch, Tommy Talks will be expanding to other nearby neighborhoods soon. Its next pop-up event will be about suicide prevention and will be held at St. Francis de Sales High School on September 29 from 5pm to 9pm; all interested are invited to attend.

    Tommy Talks, Instagram: @tommytalksnpo

  • Best “All Things Beauty” Salon: Empress Studio

    You can really have it all at Empress Studio, a beauty and hair salon located in the Hegewisch neighborhood. Nails, waxing, facials, lashes, and hair services for all are just some of the offerings under one roof. Initially, the salon only offered hair services, but its owner, Celina Miramontes, began offering more for her clients and moved to a bigger space last year in order to do so.

    The studio’s hair services are “the latest trends and techniques” and include all things hair such as haircuts, color, perms, hair extensions, and braids. Their color line is strictly Pulp Riot, which is a vegan line with quinoa—an ingredient that helps protect and repair hair. 

    Miramontes is an East Side native and said she always knew she wanted to do hair. “I used to actually sit out front and do people’s hair…on my stairs.” She eventually went on to cosmetology school and opened her business. She has a message for young women thinking about starting their own business: “As long as they have the passion…the sky’s the limit.”

    On Google, Empress Studio boasts 4.5/5 stars, with customers raving about the excellent customer service. Miramontes said helping her clients feel confident is the best part of her work. “The best part about what I do is watching all of our clients [who are] maybe not having a good day or not feeling confident, or even going through things in life, and you get to completely change their day. You get to make them feel beautiful, you get to make them feel better…And I feel like that’s the most rewarding part.”

    Empress Studio, 13308 S. Baltimore Ave. Monday, 9am–3pm; Tuesday, 10am–5pm; Wednesday, 9am–5pm; Thursday–Friday, 10am–7pm; Saturday, 9am–3pm. (773) 437-4693.

  • Best Natural Oasis: Hegewisch Marsh

    Bordering the Calumet River on 130th Street and Torrence Avenue, Hegewish Marsh offers a natural oasis to enjoy. According to the Chicago Park District, there are many habitats inside the marsh. The 129 acres of land includes native marsh, wetland, and wet prairie. Visitors will find trails to enjoy the site of meadows, cottontails, and cottonwood trees. The area was once the site of steel mills, and decades of efforts have gone into conserving the natural environment that still continue today. 

    The Chicago Ornithological Society, which works to advance and conserve birds throughout the Chicago region, organizes bird walks at Hegewisch Marsh throughout the year; the marsh attracts migrating songbirds, Moorhens, Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, and other wetland birds.

    The marsh is perfect for children, and they can join the Southeast Side Junior Explorers for fun activities that cultivate a love for nature. Booklets, activity packs, and information on how to join can be found at the Ford Calumet Environmental Center.

    If you have time left over after your trip to Hegewish Marsh, just a few miles north you’ll find Big Marsh Park in the South Deering neighborhood, where you can enjoy an environmental center and exhibit that opened in 2021. It features more paved trails, scenic views, and even a bike shop. Indian Ridge Marsh and Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve are also just a few miles away for hiking, camping and birdwatching. Also check out the Ford Calumet Environmental Center for more information about parks and activities around the Southeast Side of the city.

    Hegewisch Marsh, 13298 S. Torrence Ave. Daily, dawn to dusk.

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