For a lot of us — even this member of the Chicago Newspaper Guild — Labor Day usually means little more than a long weekend near the end of summer.
Some of you will zip along the Chicago Skyway en route to the other side of Lake Michigan, barely glancing down from the toll bridge at the city’s sooty and rarely explored southeastern corner.
This year, though, political and union leaders from gritty neighborhoods such as Hegewisch, South Chicago, the East Side and The Bush hope to focus more minds on the reason for the holiday.
Marshaled by first-term Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, unions will lead the 10th Ward Labor Day Parade on Saturday, reviving a long-dormant tradition.
“Especially with the climate as it is right now, it’s important we push forward and celebrate labor,” said Garza, a public-school counselor elected last year with support from the Chicago Teachers Union.
“Nobody does a parade. This whole thing is going to give the labor movement a shot in the arm and let people know we are here to stay.”
The alderman and union leaders also are organizing the first-ever “Friends of Labor Festival” at Steelworkers Park this weekend. The 16.5-acre park was christened in 2014 on the site of the old U.S. Steel mill known as South Works.
“At its peak, South Works had more than 20,000 employees,” according to the Chicago Park District’s website. “It covered an area of 600 acres, much of which was composed of landfill made of molten slag. After South Works began downsizing in the 1970s, the mill closed down in 1992.”
Sediment from Peoria Lake was brought by barge to cover the slag and create the park. But at the northern edge of the park, the plant’s old “ore walls” still tower along the edge of a slip. Ships used to maneuver around a breakwater, dock in the slip and deposit ore and other raw material for the plant along the walls.
Some like to say, “At least Chicago didn’t end up like Detroit or Cleveland.” Well, this part of the city is, in many ways, the classic picture of Rust Belt desolation.
Grandiose re-development plans for the old South Works site fell through this year, despite the extension of U.S. 41 for what was supposed to be a new lakefront community.
Sometimes it seems the only people from other parts of town who are using the broad, smooth road are intrepid bicyclists, who like to stop at the highly acclaimed Calumet Fisheries.
When the mills and other factories closed, many from the Southeast Side found local government jobs. As a reporter, I frequently visited the area a decade ago, during the federal corruption probe of the Hispanic Democratic Organization – a patronage army devised in the early 1990s for then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Now, I highly recommend checking out Steelworkers Park, at East 87th Street and the lakefront.
During the festival, which runs from Friday through Sunday, there will be music, food, a beer garden, fireworks and a tent where you can learn about job opportunities in the building trades.
The parade starts at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at 104th Street and South Ewing Avenue and will end at 112th Street and Eggers Grove.
“A lot of people take Labor Day as a time to barbecue, which is good, but we want to remember what labor has given this community and others,” said Moises Zavala of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881. “This is where we come from.”
“We want to see this area rise again,” said Rose Zivat, who produces The Hegewisch Times newspaper. “It’s declined economically, but it’s still a good community.”
Regardless of your political leanings, the festival and the parade are a good chance to sample a colorful, little-known part of Chicago and to remember the meaning of Labor Day.