The strip of land that tapers to a point at 93rd Street, bounded by the slow-moving Calumet River to the west and north, and by the Indiana border to the east, is known as the East Side, though it was once called The Island. It is the East Side because it is on the east bank of the Calumet. Regionally, with the neighborhood of Hegewisch two miles farther south, it is also the East Side inasmuch as it is not quite part of the South Side: the only train stop east of the river, the Hegewisch South Shore station, is operated not by Metra or the CTA but by northern Indiana’s commuter rail agency, the NICTD. The wetlands and connected waterways that made the area The Island have largely receded or been destroyed, and they would have vanished entirely had Mayor Daley’s proposal to build an airport in Hegewisch gone through in the nineties. But Hegewisch and the East Side—as well as South Deering, Altgeld Gardens, and Pullman, on the opposite side of the river—are (with few exceptions) as isolated as that name, The Island, suggests.
Tying these neighborhoods together into a loosely defined region called the Far Southeast Side is the river itself. The Calumet has been straightened and dredged, at greater and greater depths, since the late nineteenth century. Even before it passes Lake Calumet and becomes the Cal-Sag Channel, carrying boats south to the Mississippi River, it has the feel of an industrial waterway, course determined by compass rather than contour. Over seven miles it forms a fishhook in the land, catching Lake Calumet at its tip. Along the banks are a pouch and tube packing manufacturer, a scrap metal recycling yard, a yacht yard, a natural gas plant, a marine supplier, and a barge renter, as well as three separate open-air storage facilities for petcoke, a byproduct of the crude oil refineries just across the border. There is a cement factory and food warehouse and truck parts supplier, another salvage yard, and a rail yard that loads and stores salt, coal, stone, and more petcoke. There is a zinc plant and a cement plant and a salt plant and a chemical plant and a Ford assembly plant, which manufactured Model Ts when it opened ninety years ago. Past the banks and the wetlands are single-family homes and green lawns, turn-of-the-century mansions in Pullman, and two of the oldest public housing projects in Chicago, Altgeld Gardens and Trumbull Park Homes. The only trailer park in the city, Harbour Point Estates, occupies an isthmus in eastern Hegewisch, a low-lying area between Wolf and Powder Horn Lakes. It was marshland, some years ago, but as elsewhere on The Island the land has been reclaimed and may someday—will certainly, someday, just as certainly as the old Wisconsin glaciers and the marshlands and the steel mills came and went—be claimed again, for better or worse.
BEST BIKE THROUGH THE WOODS
Greenways—those strips of land, often elevated, set aside for bikers and walkers—are often a bad idea. They create dead space in what could be an otherwise dense area, and are often less trafficked than the streets and sidewalks they’re supposed to replace. (Not that this is surprising. Why walk down a greenway that faces backhouses when you can walk down a street that faces homes, offices, and shops—a street that faces people?) The Burnham Greenway, which starts at 104th Street, on the East Side, and runs south parallel to Avenue E, is much like this for its first mile. It’s used by walkers, often with dogs, and, though it’s surrounded by grass and brightened by occasional plantings, it’s largely a glorified berm. Further south, however, it becomes a gateway to the Far Southeast Side’s vast green spaces: Eggers Grove, a Forest Preserve park with picnic benches and a few hiking trails, and the William W. Powers State Recreation Area, at Wolf Lake. Without a car, the trail is the best way to reach the lake, which is split by the Indiana state line and features birding, fishing, and a defunct Nike Ajax missile, a memorial to the lake’s role as a missile defense site during the Cold War. Pack a lunch and spend the day. (Harrison Smith)
BEST UNION OF OLD AND NEW
Outside of the ArcelorMittal strip mill in Riverdale, there are no steel mills in Chicago. There are, however, steel unions, among them the South Chicago chapter of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, or SOAR. The chapter, a branch of United Steelworkers—which represents almost all steelworkers during their working lives—meets once a month at 117th and Avenue O, in the main hall of a United Methodist church. The building was formerly Memorial Hall Local 1033, permanent home of the local USW chapter. It’s still commonly known as Memorial Hall, though the union lost it due to funding issues. Thirty-odd retirees attend a recent meeting, most of it devoted to discussion of labor issues—“plutocrats” is a common word, the Koch brothers a common enemy. Scott Marshall, the union’s president, brings up the organizing effort underway at Walmart. It’s similar, he says, to “what happened across the street, when people got shot. Hopefully it won’t be like that, but….” Across the street is the site of Republic Steel (closed since 2002) and of the Memorial Day Massacre. In 1937, striking steelworkers marched on the gates of Republic to gain recognition of their right to unionize; ten were killed by police gunfire, and dozens were injured. A memorial stands next to Memorial Hall. At the meeting, Scott talks about “the need to revive the labor movement in this country.” Another retiree is concerned about the high price of prescription drugs. Others voice their concerns (pollution from the petcoke facilities to the north, a Republican forecast for this November’s election), and many are angry. Some are nervous. Leaving the meeting, though, one shrugs and says, in a tone that expresses more than an observation, “We’re steelworkers.” (Harrison Smith)
BEST GHOST PLANT
Thismia americana and Opuntia humifusa (tie)
Over a hundred years ago, a graduate student at the University of Chicago discovered a small flowering plant in a low, wet prairie in South Deering, not far from where the Calumet Bike Park will open next year. The plant, Thismia americana, is invisible for most of the year; in midsummer, three white petals push through the soil, and for just a few months it appears as a white button on the prairie. This is what’s supposed to happen, at least. Despite a few recent efforts to locate the plant, Thismia hasn’t been seen since 1916. The prairie wetland where it was discovered has since been developed as landfill. On the other side of the river, at Powder Horn Lake in Hegewisch, is a more well-known ghost plant: Opuntia humifusa, eastern prickly pear, the only native cactus in Chicago. As in South Deering, much of the land here is wetland, or former wetland. (According to the Sierra Club, 22,000 acres of wetland used to cover the area around Lake Calumet; only 500 of those acres remain.) Though the cactus is common at the Indiana Dunes across the border, officials at the Audubon Society and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, which maintains Power Horn Lake, say the prickly pear can be found near the ridges and swales just north of the lake and its parking lot. They may be correct, but Opuntia—like Thismia—is still elusive: a survey of the parkland by the Weekly came up empty. To see the only native cactus in Chicago, your best bet may be to leave Chicago: eastern prickly pear is on display at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, a short drive south of Hegewisch. (Harrison Smith)
BEST PLACE TO GET YOUR GOAT
The best goat tacos in Chicago may be two blocks west of the Indiana state line. Like all of Chicago’s great birrierias (goat vendors) and taquerías—and there are many of these in Pilsen and Little Village, even a few others farther west on 106th, the same street as Ocotlan—this place is no-frills. Nowhere, however, is the meat as good, certainly nowhere is it as tender, as here. The corn tortillas come right off the stove, two per taco, and you’ll need both to hold the meat, chopped onions, and cilantro in place, as well as to soak up the salsa verde and lime you’ll be drizzling on top. The cabeza (goat head) taco is the best, though you’ll need to watch out for gristle and bone. But, off the menu the ribs, with meat that falls right off the bone, and can be eaten without tortillas or fixin’s, are a serious contender. Spanish skills recommended but not required. Birrieria Ocotlan, 4007 E. 106th St. (773)374-0384 (Harrison Smith)