The Southeast Side is ripe for return to a day when there were no ‘ghost ships’

The 10th Ward is primed for recreational opportunities, especially if connected to the U.S. Steel property at 87th Street. But the community must have a seat at the planning table.

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Chicago’s Ghost Ship, the C.T.C. 1 — a 620-foot freighter — has sat alongside grain silos since 1982.

Chicago’s Ghost Ship, the C.T.C. 1 — a 620-foot freighter — has sat alongside grain silos since 1982.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Long ago, when strangers met at unmarked crossroads, they often greeted each other with a cautious yet courteous, “What parts do you hail from?” The replies would, invariably, be touched with the names of mountains, rivers, and lakes.

In the 1960s and early ‘70s, Chicagoans were known to each other, I would argue, by their ward more so than by their neighborhood. I was born and raised in the 10th Ward on the far Southeast Side, where the mountains were made of steel and had names like Republic, Interlake, and Wisconsin, and the river is named the Calumet, as is the lake the river flows into.

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Opinion

Starting in the late 1970s, I traveled out of the Ward to attend college and to work. Inevitably, the people I met, mostly from the North and Northwest Sides and the adjoining suburbs, would ask me what parts I hailed from, but not in a folksy way. Most were dismissive, derisive, or just plain dim.

When I tried to explain to them where I was from, I described the 10th Ward by its steelmaking heritage. Looking back on it all, I could have tacked a different course, as the ward also had a maritime nature to it as well. From Calumet Beach, one could watch the iron ore boats and freighters out on Lake Michigan ponderously moving in from the horizon line, waiting for a tug to guide them up the Calumet River to one of the mills or to the Port of Chicago at the southern tip of Lake Calumet.

My attachment to the ward, the river and the lake runs a century deep: I lived down there for 56 years and my father was born in South Chicago in 1921. During the Great Depression, he grew up in a house just off Torrence Avenue near Lake Calumet. During the ‘60s to early ‘70s, we fished from that lake’s eastern shore as he had in his youth, bringing home buckets of perch (dull green above, creamy white below, with orange-tipped fins beneath), sunburns and stories to tell.

To the south, where the Calumet River meets the lake, I could see various ships docked at the then very active Port of Chicago. There were no ghost ships then. The ships with their precious cargoes represented economic activity for the nation, the region, and for the surrounding wards and suburbs, including the 10th Ward.

Time past, time present.

At the end of last December, this paper published a two-part editorial concerning the Port of Chicago, describing its start in 1951 and its decline in the 1980s as the local steel industry sank. The editorial pointed out that with new funding (especially from the federal government) and with new management now in place, the Port could be revitalized, providing much needed economic activity for the city and the region.

Soon after the Sun-Times published the editorial, the paper ran two letters in response, one from Michael K. Forde, one-time chairman of the Illinois International Port District Board, and the other from Erin Aleman of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. While Forde noted how the Port is now in better financial shape than in years past, Aleman assured us that CMAP and the Port District are developing a master plan for the Port, and named various participants in the process, such as the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Cook County and the City of Chicago.

Aleman also stated something that is, to me, of the utmost importance: that there will be “recreational, community and environmental strategies” included in the planning process. Let’s hope so.

First, the area is ripe for recreational opportunities, especially if it is connected to the long abandoned U.S. Steel property along Lake Michigan at 87th Street. Next, the community must have a seat at the planning table, as the residents there often have not had a voice in regards to what happens in their ward. And no other place in Chicago has been used as an environmental dumping ground like the 10th Ward. Economic development must take into account the health of the ward, its citizens and its waterways.

So to all concerned, proceed with your planning. Just make sure that your plans are achievable.

Don’t make plans that sound like promises, because the people of the Far Southeast Side have heard promises before, and after awhile unfulfilled promises sound like lies. And then they become lies.

And keep your plans as “green” as possible, in the hope that some day fathers and sons can once again fish from the shores of Lake Calumet.

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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