Monday, August 08, 2016

(Photos) South Works site, 24 years of Chicago failure

In 1992, after over 100 years of operating, United States Steel's sprawling 589-acre factory on Lake Michigan, which it called South Works, in the South Chicago neighborhood of Chicago closed down. At its peak in the 1940s over 20,000 people were employed at South Works.

When South Works closed, development of the site in any other city besides Chicago should have been a no-brainer. A parcel of land larger than the city's Loop on the lakefront? The only open space on Chicago's Lake Michigan shoreline open for development? How could this project get botched?


Last month via a newsletter Chicago Alderman Greg Mitchell (7th) announced that the old proposal of developing nearly the entire site has been abandoned. US Steel, which still owns the land, hired a real estate firm who has divided the site into four pieces.The entire site spans from 79th Street to the Calumet River.

Sure old mill buildings had to be razed. And of course the land had to be cleaned of toxins, which US Steel did, spending millions in the 1990s.

But 24 years? Nothing?


Welcome to Chicago's Stonehenge. Oh, did I trespass? I walk into abandoned buildings in dangerous neighborhoods, why wouldn't I venture into this spot?

Yes, I did.
No one knows who they were or what they were doing,
But their legacy remains,
Hewn into the living rock...of Stonehenge.
Spinal Tap, "Stonehenge."

There was a "No Climbing"sign but I ignored it.

"Lakefront view plots are available! Buy now--tomorrow may be too late!"


Actually people do know what they were doing. That's one side of an ore wall. Iron ore was dumped there when South Works was operating.

So, why has this prime land sat idle for nearly a quarter-century. Despite its unofficial slogan, "the City That Works," Chicago works only for those with connections. Development and zoning is an especially rigged system. Chicago has ridiculously arcane zoning regulation and to get a variance approved, the alderman in the ward where the property sits needs to approve it, the rest of the City Council be damned. "Feudal lords" is what WIND Radio's Dan Proft calls them. Although that aldermanic prerogative is not written into law.

To get Chicago's medieval wheels moving, campaign contributions to that feudal lord help, as does a promise to use that alderman's preferred contractors, who are either campaign contributors themselves or a family member. Or sometimes both.

Bribes oil those medieval wheels too. Since 1972 thirty-one members of Chicago's City Council have been convicted of crimes, most of those crimes involved zoning cases.

And if a business doesn't play along?

Nothing happens.

Sandi Jackson, the wife of former US Rep Jesse Jackson, Jr., who spent time in prison, is currently serving her own prison sentence for crimes involving misuse of the campaign fund of "Junior." She once held the 7th Ward seat Mitchell now possesses.

Lake Shore Drive was even rerouted to benefit development at South Works.

Nothing happened.

There are 50 members of Chicago's City Council, which is at least 25 too many.


Here's a look at the ore pit.


Lake freighters would pull into this slip so the iron ore could be deposited over the ore walls.


"Work safely always in all ways." Working in a steel mill is hazardous.


A thin layer of dirt over concrete supports predictably minimal vegetation.

Five years ago the Dave Matthews Band and other acts performed at South Works.


Sumacs have a better go of it at this location. As sumac trees turn a brilliant red in the autumn, I plan to return for more photographs.

South Works redevelopment faces a bleak outlook. If you follow Chicago news or if you are a regular reader of this blog, Chicago's various pension plans are grossly-underfunded. To bail those plans out, Chicagoans have been hit with the largest property tax hike in the city's history. A higher water and sewer tax has been proposed. Chicago's population is at its lowest in nearly a century. High taxes with the likelihood they will get higher does not encourage real estate development.

The scuttled South Works plan included building 13,000 homes. That's 13,000 fewer tax-paying residences Chicago should have.

Those sumacs will get a lot taller, I suspect.


Earlier plans or South Works included keeping the ore wall and planting gardens around it, in a way reminiscent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Kinda cool, I think.

Related posts:

5 comments:

Kathy Kraus said...

So very intersting, John. Growing up in Roseland, this is the first I've heard of South Works. I am very familiar with Acme Steel where my Grandpa Basile worked. One of the many shockers that you bring to light in your story is 31 council members have been convicted of crime. Seriously, the "Not Italian " but nevertheless, "Mafia" still reigns! Sumac trees are a surprise to me. I remember weeping willow (my favorite). Nice of you to go back and take pictures of them in Autumn (my favorite time of year in ColoradoSprings). Hopefully, it will make an "ugly" eyesore just a little more pleasing to the eye. Thanks for that too!

OldSouth said...

Vote for Hillary! That way we can have this result nationwide!

Levois said...

I guess that Mariano's isn't coming to that site after all

John Ruberry said...

Thanks Kathy. Old South: Chicago is so bad the Obamas are staying in Washington in 2017. Levois: The Marianos deal--I like their supermarkets, by the way--fell apart in February. They were looking for some other retailers to join in.

chuck Giometti said...

This should have been the Site of Obama's Presidental Library. It would've helped the neighborhood and the voters that elected him. No payback for South Chicago .... Again.