A view of the Chicago skyline from part of the old U.S. Steel South Works site near 85th and South Shore Drive in 2014.

A view of the Chicago skyline from part of the old U.S. Steel South Works site near 85th and South Shore Drive in 2014.

Al Podgorski / Sun-Times file

Quest for growth amid old U.S. Steel site on Southeast Side could seed Chicago’s rebirth as ‘Garden City’

On the Southeast Side, I discovered folks working to restore eco-preserves sprouting between shuttered mills. Here was a nascent template for the entire city and region.

When I was a young business/labor newspaper reporter in South Chicago more than 40 years ago for the now-defunct Daily Calumet, I was entranced by the steel mills abutting the Calumet River and Lake Michigan. The men and women who worked there were Promethean heroes to me, flexing the metallic sinews for a colossal nation.

The steel mills provided jobs — but also belched smoke and other pollutants into the environment. Soon, most of the mills would be swept away by the economic seiche of globalization, recession and under-investment, giving a partial respite to the air and water but bringing massive unemployment.

When I recently returned to the Southeast Side, I discovered folks working to restore eco-preserves sprouting between shuttered mills.

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Little did I know the natural areas within this tortured region were struggling to be reborn. A unique ecosystem could be revived.

Then, it struck me: Here was a nascent template for the city and region. With a focused comprehensive plan and political will focused on environmental justice, community development and restoration, Chicago could live up to its original Latin motto “Urbs in Horto,” a “City in a Garden.”

What would a new garden city look like?

There are plenty of precedents. We could start with revisiting the “Plan for Chicago,” whose authors Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett were informed by the Garden City movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The great landscape architects Jens Jensen’s and Frederick Law Olmsted’s park designs still inspire awe and provide a green canopy for many neighborhoods.

In that spirit, planners can work on expanding lakefront access and parks for every neighborhood.

One key parcel to revive would be the enormous footprint of the former U.S. Steel South Works plant from 79th Street to 95th Street. A trail along the lake could go through this property and link to the state line in Calumet Park. Such a link is proposed but is held up due to dumping issues at the mouth of the Calumet River.

Steel mills along the Calumet River in South Chicago in 1942, when around-the-clock shifts produced steel for the war effort.

Steel mills along the Calumet River in South Chicago in 1942, when around-the-clock shifts produced steel for the war effort.

Sun-Times file

While they are at it, city planners could recognize and illuminate the culture and history of indigenous Americans, whose trails and ancestral lands undergird the region. An excellent overview of this area is spotlighted in the Field Museum’s exhibition “Calumet Voices, National Stories,” on display through Oct. 21.

Though the U.S. Steel parcel — larger than the Loop — has been through numerous failed development plans, why not greenlight the city’s first walkable, public transit-oriented neighborhood with homes and buildings that are energy-efficient?

Living-wage housing could be built with lower-cost, energy-efficient modular construction and heat pumps. Every home would have solar panels and employ passive solar design to keep people warm during winters. The development could be a national urban model showcasing “net-zero” buildings that produce and potentially store their own electricity.

A crew from solar energy contractor Certasun installs solar panels on a Northwest Side home.

A crew from solar energy contractor Certasun installs solar panels on a Northwest Side home.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

Their operating costs — utility bills and maintenance — could be much lower than conventional housing. Built in factories in the city, these buildings could be energy-efficient and assembled on site.

Chicago has a Climate Action Plan and Sustainable Development Policy, updated in 2016. A broader plan could also integrate climate action, creating jobs building green, modular housing, incubating businesses and creating safe, verdant neighborhoods.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s transition team report “A Blueprint for Creating A More Just and Vibrant City for All,” released this month, touched on many of these themes, which need to be codified into policies and ordinances.

Keep in mind Chicago has long nourished the intellectual and labor capital to do big things.

It created a new transportation route from the East Coast and the Great Lakes through the Illinois and Michigan Canal to New Orleans, something a young Abraham Lincoln supported when he was starting in politics in the 1830s. And when the city was devastated by Great Chicago Fire of 1871, it rebuilt itself and invented the modern skyscraper.

As Burnham famously advised, Chicagoans should “make no little plans.” Indeed, many of the world’s greatest architects and engineers still work here.

When I toured the Calumet region recently, it was easy to be discouraged by empty mill lots and mounds of toxic waste. Yet I saw an organic renaissance unfolding where nature trails and parks could follow in the blast-furnace footprints.

The spirit of Chicago innovation was poking through the ground to create a 21st century city that could be a template for other cities and the region. This vision includes community gardens, which, more than plots for growing fruits and vegetables, also grow possibilities — and hope.

It’s time we started planting again in every neighborhood of the “City in a Garden.”

Chicago’s Next Voices guest columnist John F. Wasik is the author of 19 books, including “The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream.” He is also an environmentalist and vice president of the Lake County Forest Preserve District. He has contributed to The New York Times, Forbes, Next Avenue, Reuters and Bloomberg.

HEAR JOHN F. WASIK ON ‘RESET’

Click to listen to Chicago’s Next Voices guest columnist John F. Wasik on WBEZ’s “Reset with Sasha-Ann Simons.’

Click here to listen to Chicago’s Next Voices guest columnist John F. Wasik on WBEZ’s “Reset with Sasha-Ann Simons.’

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