It was a homecoming, really, for the old steelworkers and their families who came out Saturday.
For me, too, but more on that later.
The skies were gray, winds strong and temperatures a good 20 degrees lower than the summery day before. And every now and then, because Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor, a light rain would kick up.
But despite the uncooperative weather, the crowd of about 50 stayed and waited – maybe Mayor Emanuel, the tardy main speaker, couldn’t find his way to the Southeast Side, some joked – undeterred, because they’d been working on and waiting for this day a long time.
This was a grand opening of sorts, with the unveiling of a sculpture that now stands in the new Steelworkers Park, which sits on 16.5 acres of where the old U.S. Steel South Works was located for more than a century, the principal employer of the surrounding neighborhoods.
If you come from this area, there’s no way you weren’t associated with someone – grandparents, parents, spouse, siblings, other relatives, neighbors, you name it – who worked at South Works or the other nearby steel mills.
And once it was gone, so was the prosperity of the surrounding communities. With no big business, the little ones could not survive.
Before the ceremony, I drove as I often do around the neighboring streets and remembered the little store with the pink “champagne” frozen bars, the beauty shop, the gas station, the homes of relatives and friends – all gone now. My first home as a baby, with the rose bush my late grandfather planted out front, still sits on the barren block of Mackinaw Avenue at 87th Street, looking abandoned now.
Saturday was a day for a view forward, but it’s hard to see the site of this new park (87th and the new Lake Shore Drive) and not remember what was there. And many a one-time steelworker did: they’d rattle off the number of the mill they worked in and what years, or recall working side-by-side with someone’s relative. You’d see faces break out in huge grins when they recognized along-ago co-worker.
But mostly, Saturday was a day to commemorate the hard work done at this location and to look to the future.
The statue itself, created by Southeast Side artists Roman Villarreal and Roman De Lion, is lovely, a union worker and family (including the pet dog), for the whole point of toiling at the difficult jobs inside the steel mill always was to provide for family.
Speakers offered history and the hopes of what will come from this: a kickstart to economic development. A new Mariano’s is coming right outside this park — which has stunning views of the lake, something not visible when the mill was there — and that’s wonderful news. But let’s face facts: the store is expected to have some 400 full- and part-time jobs, a drop in the bucket to those 20,000 employed at one time on this same land.
Yet I must hope it is the start of more opportunities for the people on the Southeast Side.
The next day, I stopped at the nearby shrine of St. Jude – patron saint of what may seem like lost causes – lit a candle and offered a prayer that was the same as it often has been, with an add-on: please, let something good happen to South Chicago. Let this park bring it.