On the grounds of an old steel mill, could Chicago create a piece of utopia?

An aerial view of U.S. Steel's old South Works site, near 85th Street and South Shore Drive. | Sun-Times file photo

What is a utopian city?

I’m slightly obsessed with that question as I ruminate on the possibilities for undeveloped lakefront land on Chicago’s South Side, land that once drove the economy for our city, the region and the country.

OPINION

Vacant since 1992, the former U.S. Steel site known as South Works has attracted a number of would-be developers over the years. They have swooped in with hefty billion-dollar ideas to transform the hundreds of acres into a livable place: Thousands of homes. Big retail. A bustling mixed-use community mirroring the vivacity of the Loop. Promises of economic stability in a depopulated, disinvested southeast corner of the city.

In 2013, to prep for redevelopment at South Works, the city extended Lake Shore Drive south by two miles. Meanwhile, a city park dedicated to steelworkers on 87th Street lies in the shadow of ore walls, a potent reminder of the decline of industry.

At its peak, South Works employed 20,000 black, Mexican and white ethnic workers. Upon returning from the Vietnam War in the 1960s, my father worked there for a few years. His job — everything from office clerk to ingot stripper to janitor — provided a financial bridge between war and college.

In summer, our family picnics in the steelworker park. It can feel like you’re not even in Chicago anymore, with its off-the-beaten-path tranquility.

But money and concerns about soil contamination have stalled or killed any and all venturous long-term development projects.

I try to picture this proposed mini-city on Chicago’s southern shore. My thoughts wander toward the possibilities of stamping out violence, equitable economic development, and emancipation from segregation. We know our issues. Poverty is a form of violence. Schools are unequal. Racial disparities permeate in the neighborhoods.

No one with blueprints has ever promised to transform South Works into Shangri-La. Yet what if this part of Chicago could start from scratch, with a fresh slate, and truly live up to the ideals of a world-class city? We are presented with a rare chance, with so much empty land, to reverse bad policies and dream up better ones.

Scandinavia is often the global go-to when we’re looking for better models of health care, prisons and parental leave. Other places around the world do things better, too. I am thinking about the green technology in South Korea, the buoyant public plazas in Latin America and the open-air markets in Kumasi, Ghana.

What elements of the built environment — streetscaping, roads, public space, public art, public libraries, public housing, affordable housing — could be designed in more innovative ways? I’m not brainstorming a sleek George Jetson future, but reflecting on how architecture and construction can foster community.

Be modern, with a nod to history, but without the elitist cosmopolitan milieu. Diversity sans segregation.

Chicago and the U.S. have created rigid infrastructures and institutions around race, capitalism, education and housing. It’s easier to say what we don’t want — no patronage or corruption — than to visualize how to create what we do want, with living wages and opportunity for all.

Maybe an egalitarian experiment on the former steel mill site should include just one public elementary and high school.

“What does utopia look like? Looks like outer space maybe? It’s something we’ve never seen,” mused Amanda Williams, who is an architect, visual artist and my sometimes collaborator. “Utopian Chicago is what might have happened if we’d never had redlining.”

Williams and I have created an installation, commissioned by the Smart Museum in Hyde Park, that examines redlining, a practice by banks and real estate firms that long denied black people homeownership in many neighborhoods.

The concept of utopia, for us, conjures up images of children who think sleeping under the stars is safe. For whom laughter is the prevailing noise.

Utopia is the tingling feeling you get when the weather breaks and it’s the first warm summer night in Chicago.

For her, Williams told me, utopia would be like living inside a Kerry James Marshall painting of a beauty salon, or inside a Donny Hathaway harmony.

How do we get there? You tell me. But I do know that absurd and fantastical notions can push us to think bigger and better.

In the real world.

Even on the gray and empty ground of an old steel mill.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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