The Calumet watershed flows low and loamy, a series of lakes, ponds, and swamps connected to the Calumet River and a lake of the same name. Here, bogs provide homes for birds, fens for foxes. Industrial smoke stacks soar into the sky, bright lights perching at their peaks to warn away wayward helicopters. Throughout the area, great pyramids rise up, built from accumulated decades of Chicago’s waste. PVC pipes drill deep into these mounds, venting miasmic gases that are captured and burned to produce power, Chicago’s garbage giving its last full measure for the city, an economy that would do Philip Armour proud.
Nestled among these patches of gray and brown, blue and green, are a diverse collection of neighborhoods. Directly to the west of Lake Calumet is Pullman. Here, at the end of the nineteenth century, George Pullman sought to build a paradise for the workers who constructed the sleeper cars bearing his name. Though this project failed, the neighborhood he built was preserved, one of the few continuous districts of Victorian houses in the city. The grace of these homes has made Pullman a desirable locale. To the west, Roseland, founded by Dutch settlers as an agrarian community called “the high island” for its lofty vantage, was submerged by a tide of industry. A massive Sherwin Williams plant anchored the neighborhood, turning out cans of paint bearing the image of a Dutch Boy, a refugee from an unknown homeland. This brand is perhaps more palatable than the original name of the company: “The National Lead Company”. However, any soil sample marks the second as a more accurate name. Pollution is all that is left of the former factory, and its departure has saddled Roseland with challenges familiar to many Rust Belt cities: unemployment, poverty, and crime.
Lake Calumet and its environs are a long way away from the rest of Chicago, and this has lead to a certain amount of neglect on the part of city services. That includes the police, and during Prohibition, the willingness of local authorities in West Hammond—now called Calumet City—to turn a blind eye to “blind tigers” (speakeasies) transformed the section of State Street running through the suburb into a nationally famous den of inequity called “The Strip.” But the general crackdown on organized crime in the 1960s hit the area hard, and by the 1980s most of these bars were replaced by the industrial parks that dot the area today. The tradition continues in other forms in Hammond today, where various establishments take advantage of laxer laws and lower taxes, providing access to commodities heavily taxed or prohibited in Chicago.
BEST RUINED PALACE: Pullman Historic District
George Pullman built palaces. His “Palace” sleeper cars streaked across the country, lush and luxurious, transforming the soot-black experience of train travel into one of brass and velvet and rich dark wood. George Pullman built palaces in the town bearing his name: a grand administrative building, with a tower reaching skyward; the plush and modern Hotel Florence. For his workers, he built houses stout and respectable, connected them to gaslines, water pipes, and sewers, allowed workers once privy to cold trips to dank outhouses to enjoy indoor baths in brightly lit rooms. But these creature comforts were little solace when the Panic of 1893 left the factory silent, and the coffers of many residents empty. Pullman died in 1897 and his town was annexed by Chicago. Today, this area is one of the best-preserved historic districts in Chicago. The Historic Pullman Foundation Visitor Center offers guided walking tours of the area on the first Sunday of every month, as well as a walking tour brochure for self-guided exploration. Historic Pullman Foundation Visitor Center, 11141 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-3pm. (773)785-9801. pullmanil.org
BEST ECOLOGICAL ARK: Cooperation Operation
At the western edge of Pullman, on the foundations of a demolished chemical processing facility, heirloom tomatoes are taking root on a former superfund site. They are nestled in raised wooden planters and repurposed speedboats, cared for by volunteers who receive a portion of the harvest in return. Justin Booz, the originator of the project, hopes this urban farm will eventually feed the entire neighborhood and become an oasis in the food desert of the Southeast Side. Construction is ongoing: a greenhouse will extend production into the winter, and a rainwater reservoir will provide a place to raise ducks. Once, Pullman had grand gardens à la mode de Paris, landscaped hedges and verdant greens. But these gardens bore no fruit, and the workers for whom it was built, feeling the pangs of hunger, left the town for greener pastures. Industries have come and gone in Calumet, washed away by the ineluctable torrents of change. If the Co-op Op and local farms like it succeed, high-density feedlots and monoculture might too go the way of the steel mills. Cooperation Operation, 11339 S. St. Lawrence Ave. (773)609-3389. coopop.org (Sean Maher)
BEST TASTE OF ANTIQUITY: Calumet Fisheries
As long as humanity has sought their dinner from the sea, they have smoked their catch to preserve it. Calumet Fisheries is well practiced in this ancient art, smoking nearly 300 pounds of fish every other day. Housed in a literal shack, the smokehouse offers impressive vistas in all directions from its two lone picnic tables. Occasionally, a boat passing by will bid the 95th Street bridge to raise, an impressive sight immortalized by John Landis in 1980 with a leap by the Bluesmobile. The fish is brined overnight before being smoked, and it’s consistently flavorful and moist. There’s a wide variety of offerings, from mainstays like salmon and trout to more unusual catches such as eel and chub, and the Cadillac of the menu: sable. For those willing to work for their supper, the meat gleaned from the heads and collars is particularly delicious. The fishery also offers a variety of fried seafood: shrimp, scallops, smelts, oysters, and frog legs, which reward the adventurous. All the offerings are kept fresh in a refrigerator and fried to order, meaning that they come out crisp and hot. Vegetarian options are theoretical, vegan dubious. Calumet Fisheries, 3259 E. 95th St. Sunday-Wednesday, 10am-9:45pm; Thursday, 9am-9:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-9:45pm. (773)933-9855. calumetfisheries.com (Sean Maher)
BEST RECOIL: Deb’s Gun Range
Being a rootless cosmopolitan, I had never held a gun before I discovered Deb’s. Located along a quaint street in Hammond, just outside the jurisdiction of the City of Chicago’s strict rules on firearms, Deb’s Gun Range advertises a basement pistol range. I am surprised to find it located in an ordinary storefront, guns and accessories arranged in ordinary glass cases. The range is downstairs, painted in blacks and lit with fluorescence. On the wall, a golden lab chews on boots, oblivious to the constant gunfire and the thick gunsmoke grime. Television has prepared me thoroughly for this moment. I begin with a Glock chambered in .22, the smallest caliber generally sold, which it shares with children’s rifles advertised in the yellowing pages of Sears Wish Books from Christmases long long ago. I’m therefore surprised by the strength of the recoil, the way it jars my skeleton, the way the muted sound still impacts my chest like dubstep bass. I pocket the shell and fire off the rest of the clip in rapid succession. A word to the wise: Illinois residents require a Firearm Owner Identification card to rent, though not to shoot. Others should check the gun laws of the state which issued their ID. Many, Indiana included, require no special identification. Deb’s Gun Range, 6819 Kennedy Ave., Hammond, IN. Tuesday-Wednesday, 10am-5pm; Thursday-Saturday, 10am-7pm; Sunday, noon-4pm. (219)845-8880. debsgunrange.com (Sean Maher)