Christopher Good

When you reduce 11599 S. Stony Island to its individual components, it’s simple enough: wood, mulch, concrete, clods of dirt. But the Bike Park at Big Marsh, like any good bike park, is more than the sum of its parts. Since its opening last November, the park’s stairs, ramps, curves, and jumps have become a two-wheeled proving ground—and the only space of its kind on Chicago’s South Side.

In the six months it’s been in existence, the bike park has made exciting moves to follow through on a vision of “eco-recreation,” from a short track race series to an upcoming “Soundwalks” event hosted by the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology. But as the training wheels come off, a question sets in: whose park is Big Marsh?

Long before South Deering attracted bicyclists, it was the home turf of birdwatchers and hikers. In 2002, Big Marsh was designated as a reserve under the Calumet Area Land Use Plan—and fifteen years later, it remains the sort of Chicago space that doesn’t feel like Chicago, as visitors love to point out. The bike park’s wooden ramps and red shipping containers are flanked by a thicket of eastern cottonwoods, the familiar city skyline reduced to a smudge on the horizon. There are the deer, the squirrels—and as of late, the yellow-headed blackbirds, returning to the marsh for the first time in decades. 

10th Ward Alderwoman Sue Garza, an early supporter of the bike park, put it in her own words: “they really cleaned that place and made it a hidden gem.”

The fact that Big Marsh feels so natural is even more impressive when you consider that it’s surrounded by the residue of heavy industry. To the east sits the former Acme Steel Coke Plant; to the west, the Pullman Historic District. To the south is an even more striking monument: Paxton Landfill, a 170-foot tall hill dubbed “Mount Trashmore” by locals. By most accounts, it’s the tallest nonstructural point in Chicago—and it’s earned both the attention of mountain bikers keen on a downhill path and the concern of EPA officials. Thanks to fears of a “garbalanche,” Trashmore is currently closed to the public—though Jay Readey, development advisor for Friends of Big Marsh, says that there are hopes to open it in the future.

While most of the factories bordering Big Marsh were shuttered decades back, the area’s industrial legacy provided the basis for the bike park’s location. The ramps and jumps are built upon on a “slag field”: land where vegetation can’t grow after decades of steel industry dumping. The reasoning goes: if land can’t be restored to nature, it might as well be biked on.

Once it entered the design stage in 2014, the bike park at Big Marsh came into existence at light speed by Park District standards. Within months, there was the foundation of Friends of Big Marsh, funding from SRAM (a bicycle parts company), support from Rahm Emanuel, and a million-dollar challenge grant from an anonymous donor. Then, the Parks District donated a “cap” to cover the slag field: what Readey estimates as a thousand truckloads of clean silt dirt. In November 2016, the park was open.

The bike park has remained in near-constant maintenance since the well-attended and well-publicized ribbon-cutting: there are hydrologic improvements, the removal of invasive species, prescribed burns, and yet more dirt dumping, as Zvezdana Kubat, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District, related in an emailed statement.

While it’s hard to argue with the upkeep of the park itself, questions of accessibility continue to be raised around Big Marsh. As a John Greenfield pointed out on Streetsblog Chicago, Big Marsh remains difficult to reach from the 95th Red Line stop due to a lack of bike paths—though bike lanes are planned for Cottage Grove, Stony Island, and Torrence Avenues within the next few years.

According to Readey, the primary challenge to new bike paths is the fact that Lake Calumet is barred from public access—the shipments which pass through the port are protected by homeland security. Even so, Alderwoman Garza noted that the Active Transportation Alliance and Department of Planning are in talks to develop new plans: one idea proposes a floating bridge across Lake Calumet to the west; another, a bike path to the north of Hegewisch Marsh. Readey also mentioned “a couple of different design proposals [for a] bike path across the northern side of Lake Calumet,” a change which he says would cut the distance between Big Marsh and nearby neighborhoods from seven miles to two.

Bill Gaston, the club captain of Major Taylor Cycling Club Chicago, spoke fondly of Big Marsh: as he recalls another member saying at the park’s opening, “There’s no way there was going to be a bicycling club in our backyard [without] our support.”

“Big Marsh is starting to get a name for itself,” Gaston said, “[but] I don’t know if they’re publicizing a lot of the information.” Brenda Dixon, who lives about a mile from Big Marsh, shared similar excitement and her reservations. As the membership and events manager for Major Taylor, she is currently working to plan more events at Big Marsh—but for the time being, she wants to see the park connected to other bike trails in South Deering.

For some, the merits of a bike park itself have been called into question. The Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF), an activist group based out of Hegewisch, was one of several community organizations to contribute to the Calumet Area Land Use Plan in 2002—but did not officially endorse the construction of the bike park at Big Marsh.

Peggy Salazar, a longtime Slag Valley resident and current director of SETF, expressed disappointment at the prioritization of the bike park over Big Marsh at large. At the first planning meeting, she felt “outnumbered by enthusiasts—there were bike clubs who I know for a fact who do not live in this area. I knew that we, as a community, didn’t stand a chance at that point.”

Garza noted that “there are people from all over coming to visit” Big Marsh—it has “put the 10th Ward back on the map.” For critics like Salazar, this dynamic is grounds for concern: if the park is utilized primarily by BMX cyclists who drive down from the North Side, then accessibility and outreach concerns risk being neglected.

Salazar makes no secret of the fact that her own vision of “eco-recreation” is “camping, hiking, and trail bicycling,” but her primary concern is the park’s lack of visibility. “The heavy community outreach has not happened,” she says. Nonetheless, she intends for SETF to promote Big Marsh at local schools. “We’re about connecting community with environment,” she said.

For some, the connections are already happening. Henry Dumas, a volunteer at Blackstone Bikes who attended the bike park’s opening, told me that he used to have to leave Chicago to ride downhill. “I was happy as hell any time I got to a hill. The passion was always there.” Now, he rides at Big Marsh several times a week.

“You hear people in the neighborhood and at local restaurants talking about how they went to the space growing up, and getting really excited about the fact that such a momentous investment is being made in the space,” Readey says. “To have this kind of attention and these kinds of resources has been really exciting to people who have a historical relationship with the land.”

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