Continental Chicago

now in its one-hundred-and-eightieth year

It’s In Our Back Yard

Steel mill by Lake Michigan (Credit: Susan Barsy)

South of Chicago lies one of the ugliest industrial areas around.  From the time I first laid eyes on it, its sheer ugliness has fascinated and disturbed me.  One of my oldest political fantasies has been that this fallen landscape might be reclaimed and redeemed.

Mixed use (Credit: Susan Barsy)

Mixed use 2 (Credit: Susan Barsy)

The concentration of industrial development at the southern tip of Lake Michigan is at once ironic and tragic.  The irony is that this land might have looked quite different had it been spared development until a later period.  Much of it was sold and granted to railways, utilities, steel-makers, and other speculators in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, long before Americans had embraced the idea of zoning or environmental protection.  The great area stretching from the south side of Chicago through the Indiana towns of Hammond and Gary to the Indiana Dunes was consequently developed in a profligate manner that would be less likely today.

Northern Indiana (Credit: Susan Barsy)

The tragedy is that beneath this development lies one of the most precious and distinctive natural environments in the central US, an extensive complex of wetlands and waterways essential to the survival of many plants and animals and home to rare species even today.  This habitat struggles to endure in the face of human encroachment and despoliation.

Wolf Lake (Credit: Susan Barsy)

Even now, as the industrial base of this area decays, the natural beauty and vitality of the area are apparent.  In the fall, one sees all manner of waterfowl and wading birds migrating through Wolf Lake, which remains a destination for fishermen despite its proximity to steel mills and refineries.  Marshes and streams still meander beside Walmarts and heaps of industrial waste.

There are compelling environmental, social, and economic reasons for rethinking and redeveloping the rust belt that connects Indiana and Illinois.  For decades, this area has been in the grip of economic stagnation.  Despite its proximity to one of the nation’s great economic powerhouses, the area is bereft of progressive development and has failed to benefit from the growth of the Chicago region.  As more and more of the population embraces the ethos of environmentalism and clean living, the more anachronistic and intolerable the condition of this decrepit region will become.

America’s young people aren’t going into manufacturing because they rightly perceive it as dangerous and dirty.  Decades of reluctance on the part of industry to clean up its act and hew to higher standards of environmental responsibility will take an ever larger toll on the environment, aesthetics, and economy of this southern region.  Instead, let’s make it a proving ground for new ideas about the right relation of industry to society and nature.  Even incremental changes could significantly improve an area that’s been a cradle of Midwestern wildlife since ancient times.

Meandering (Credit: Susan Barsy)

4 comments on “It’s In Our Back Yard

  1. Peggy Sanders
    December 30, 2012

    Thanks for talking about this. Our environment is enormously precious, and we need people to demand higher standards for the air we breathe and the water we drink.

    • Susan Barsy
      December 31, 2012

      I agree. And perhaps many of the land resources around the old mills and railroad right-of-ways could be reclaimed by open-lands groups or nature conservancies. Even the piece-meal repurchase of distressed land could eventually help restore and transform the region.

      Thanks for writing in, and Happy New Year, Peggy!

  2. Sam Dune
    December 28, 2012

    I often drive through that area, too—have been doing so since the mid-1960’s. Back then the air quality was just seriously awful! Gary, Indiana, had some of the highest rates of lung cancer and other carcinogenic diseases in the whole country! As I would drive the Indiana tollway the smog was so heavy it was like driving through a cloud! It stunk and smelled awful! It went on for miles! . . . Your article is well written and true—the area used to be—and pockets of it still are—just small pockets—quite beautiful.

    • Susan Barsy
      December 31, 2012

      I believe some still refer to it as “the armpit of the nation.” Interestingly, though, the same combination of heavy industry and vulnerable wetlands is found around many of the nation’s principal cities (San Francisco, for example, where the region around the bay looks surprisingly like what you see off the Chicago Skyway and Indiana Tollway).

      I posted a few pictures of the approach to San Francisco in this gallery


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