What Would Neighborhood-Centered Improvement Look Like on the Southeast Aspect? – South Aspect Weekly


For residents of Chicago’s Southeast Aspect, new developments have a tendency to come back with asterisks hooked up. 

A brand new small enterprise promoting sports activities uniforms and gear—that doesn’t have the shopper base to assist its greater costs. An apparently innovative coal-to-gas plant that was proposed in 2011—that couldn’t move emissions checks and confirm its clear standing. Or a brand new gasoline station—that must compete with ones with decrease taxes and costs simply blocks away throughout the Indiana border.

Extra just lately, Reserve Administration Group (RMG) closed its Normal Iron facility in Lincoln Park and tried to construct a steel recycling plant on the Southeast Aspect regardless of an extended historical past of environmentally damaging impacts. After a stress marketing campaign led by native residents to cease the proposal, which featured a month-long starvation strike, the Chicago Division of Public Well being denied the allow in February.

However as organizers of the marketing campaign have a good time their victory, East Aspect residents are already contending with a brand new growth proposal. Ozinga Ventures, the enterprise capital arm of Chicago’s concrete large, is financing the event The INVERT, which needs to construct a sub-surface delivery and logistics facility at 11118 S. Buffalo Avenue in East Aspect, instantly north of Normal Iron’s proposed lot. Amongst its efforts to win over the group, The INVERT claims it would carry inexperienced jobs and is soliciting native enter earlier than placing forth a proposal to Metropolis Council.

But some residents are skeptical—not solely of whether or not The INVERT growth will probably be good for his or her group, but when exterior builders could be trusted given the area’s patterns of disinvestment and environmental injustice.

For Olga Bautista, an East Aspect resident and Government Director of the Southeast Environmental Job Pressure, the main target of organizations and group members shouldn’t shift from one non-public firm to the subsequent—it ought to stay squarely on the Metropolis of Chicago and its regulatory insurance policies for industrial corridors.

“My issues will not be with these firms. My drawback is with the town, as a result of they’ve such a low bar relating to public well being in industrial areas, and since we reside in a world-class metropolis, you’ll assume that defending public well being, and insurance policies which can be rooted in fairness, could be simple to do,” she stated. “All the things that our mayors and our elected officers speak about, like fairness and all these flashy phrases, [like] sustainability, all these items. However I’m extra within the how. How will you try this, precisely?”

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A poster promoting the metal trade on the South Aspect, which stretched from South Shore right down to East Aspect and northwest Indiana. (Illinois Lithograph Firm, c. 1926 / Indiana State Library)[

East Side, a neighborhood tucked in the far Southeast part of Chicago between the Calumet River and the Indiana border, has been dealing with the impact of inadequate environmental policy for generations. With the area historically anchored economically by the steel industry, as steel crumbled across the Rust Belt and companies began shutting down their mills and processing plants in the 80s and 90s, East Side and neighboring South Deering and Hegewisch felt the brunt of the impact. 

Chicago’s Southeast Side, along with Northwest Indiana, had been a stronghold of the steel industry for decades. As plants began to close across the Midwest, the region’s population suffered as a result. (Graphic from the UIC Great Cities program.)

But the influence of the former plants is far from gone, and has lingered in the form of polluted soil, drifting particulate matter, and environmental issues. Respiratory issues like asthma and COPD are common, and the soil of parkland and front lawns typically yield higher than acceptable levels of cadmium, manganese, and nickel.

Prior to arriving at her post at the Southeast Environmental Task Force, Bautista worked with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, pulling together the Calumet Connect Databook—a compendium of research and development guides for planners and residents about the industrialized nature of the region. The research team, including Bautista, ran its own testing of temperature and air quality and stacked it against that of the city and other peer-reviewed journals, painting a portrait of the neighborhoods within the Southeast Side and what needs to be done moving forward. 

“What we discovered was that our neighborhood has the highest incidences of COPD, of heart disease. We’re a community that is medically underserved,” she said, adding that “the burden of proof is on the community members,” and that they’ve “stepped up to the challenge” by conducting their own research and data collection and training residents in citizen science.

Not every industrial corridor in Chicago shares this fate. Lincoln Park, on the city’s North Side, had one of the most dense concentrations of industrial and manufacturing properties along the North Branch of the Chicago River for a large part of the city’s history. But that neighborhood, which is whiter and more affluent, has flourished economically after years of remediation and redevelopment.

Lincoln Park residents are also healthier. In 2019, researchers with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute compared the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of these regions’ industrial legacies. In their report, the Calumet River Cities Planning Framework, they found that in addition to residents of the Southeast Side region having an average life expectancy of three years below the citywide average of seventy-seven, there were stark differences between the formerly industrialized and affluent Lincoln Park and their study region, which spanned East Side, South Chicago, and South Deering. Those differences included drastically different rates of health insurance coverage, in addition to higher concentrations of lead toxicity and asthma in the latter region.

Neighborhoods in the Calumet region on the city’s Southeast Side have higher rates of asthma and uninsured residents than the citywide average, in stark contrast to Lincoln Park. (UIC Great Cities Institute)

So not only are residents of the Southeast Side, who are largely low income and people of color, forced to learn about, vet, and in some cases combat the moves of multimillion-dollar polluters—they do so while navigating chronic illness and an impacted quality of life caused by industry.

Over the years, industrial companies based in Lincoln Park have moved out, some to the Southeast Side. In 2014, Finkl Steel moved from Lincoln Park’s Clybourn industrial corridor to a new spot in Burnside, at 93rd and Kenwood. RMG tried, unsuccessfully, to move its General Iron facility from Lincoln Park to the East Side. And while Ozinga hasn’t announced plans to move the Lincoln Park location of its concrete business, it is actively looking to develop in the Southeast Side, by buying up land and investing in The INVERT. 

An aerial view looking northeast at the mouth of the Calumet River in the Southeast Side, c. 1970. (Jet Lowe / Library of Congress)

The proposed INVERT development would be located on the site directly north of the General Iron/RMG site and directly south of the East Side Little League field. The site, which is largely grass and shrub, is a brownfield site, an under-utilized, industrialized lot with potential or actual contamination from hazardous materials. The INVERT’s team was drawn to the property because of its potential for reuse, according to public relations head Jim Sibley, and inspired by past projects like SubTropolis, a fifty-five million square foot abandoned mine-turned-storage site in Kansas City that is now host to one of the country’s largest shipping and logistics operations. 

In order to build on brownfield sites, developers typically have to remediate them⁠—clean them of pollution to a passable level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), so the construction process doesn’t further spread contaminants or create a hazardous environment for residents and builders alike. 

According to the INVERT, the land they want to build on is contaminated, but remediation isn’t necessary because the contaminants are “buried in gravel, slag and other crushed material,” up to thirty feet below ground. The developers’ construction approach—vertical shafts, to minimize the amount of surface-level disturbance—is “located away from the hotspots” that are monitored by the EPA, with the system for trucks to course in and out being located where contaminants aren’t, on the east side of the lot.

11118 S. Buffalo Avenue, the proposed location for INVERT, and its surrounding lots are currently listed as being owned by Whitehorse Properties, a company headed by Alan and Simon Beemsterboer, of Beemsterboer Slag Corporation, according to the Secretary of State’s office. In 2014, the company fled Chicago amid legal challenges and pressure from then-mayor Rahm Emanuel to cease storing and importing petroleum coke, or petcoke, on its property at 106th Street. Petcoke has been directly tied to worsening respiratory issues, and open storage of it—when the substance is stored openly in massive piles, often uncovered—is routinely fought by environmentalists and public health experts. The company has since removed its store of petcoke.

The proposed location for The INVERT, a sub-surface shipping and logistics facility that plans to break ground this year. The land, now a grassy, shrubby field, is classified as a brownfield site, an un- or under-used industrialized lot with contamination or potential contamination by a hazardous substance.

Another company, KCBX Terminals, was also wrapped up in the discussions about proper petcoke monitoring. Piles of petcoke, while monitored, still sit directly next to The INVERT’s proposed location and the houses beyond.

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The East Side’s fraught connection with industrial developments—and their effects on locals—means residents are careful when approaching potential developments. But the region’s history as an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse, and the roots of many families in that history, is hard to ignore as companies eye abandoned sites for redevelopment. 

“When I was a kid, coming up, that was kind of where we saw ourselves. We saw ourselves as the parents or other family members working in the mills, you know, one day I’m going to go up, and I’ll probably work in there,” lifelong resident Roberto Eckes said. “But once the stuff closed down, the economy, if you will, was devastated.”

“A lot of people and family members that I knew were hanging around. Always hanging around because they thought the jobs were going to come back.”

Around 2010, a redevelopment proposal was made to turn the shuttered US Steel South Works site in South Chicago into housing with a private-public partnership including almost 14,000 single-family units and a possible lakeshore events venue. Known as the McCaffery Development, Eckes said the response was incredibly mixed. Sure, housing was good, he remembers people saying at community meetings, but weren’t jobs better? And for people who already have homes here, why would they need a different one?

“People in our community need jobs, especially. Like, people are selling drugs or selling their bodies, you know, because they don’t have these opportunities. And this is what you’re not offering us,” Eckes said. 

Eckes, who is a member of the grassroots community organization R.I.S.E. South East Chicago, partnered with other organizations to try to put a stop to the development itself over fears of gentrification and a lack of investment in the community. The development was axed in 2016 after U.S. Steel and McCaffery “split,” according to a DNAinfo article. 

This idea—of investing in the future for people to potentially relocate to a community, instead of pouring resources into the present and the people who already live there—is something that former Southeast Environmental Task Force executive director Peggy Salazar is all too familiar with. As someone who has lived in the South Chicago and East Side communities for decades, who grew up across the street from steel mills and whose husband worked in them, Salazar’s commitment to seeing her neighborhood succeed runs deep. 

“One of the difficult things for communities like ours is that for decades, we are ignored and there’s no investment in them. Then when they do come to invest, they do things with the hopes that—and we know this to be a fact—the current residents who are here will not be able to stay and afford to live here once they do revitalize the area,” Salazar said. “So we know that’s the pattern. It’s a given. It’s a pattern…Where’s the balance? How do we balance that?”

The pattern of transitioning formerly industrialized areas into ones that can generate revenue for developers is a pattern that exists far outside of just Chicago. And for a city with a prominent manufacturing history, Chicago—and especially the North Side—hides it well, according to urban planner Nicholas Zettel. While conducting research at the University of Illinois Chicago, Zettel closely looked at how cities develop and redevelop our industrial zoning and corridors. According to him, emerging manufacturing corridors aren’t as visible within central business districts and more affluent parts of cityscapes as they used to be, especially as developers pivot to sleek, green builds.

“Manufacturing doesn’t mean that something with smokestacks is going to come into your neighborhood all the time anymore, so the toughest thing in a high land value market is trying to convince people that you could repurpose land for what the next thirty or forty or even fifty years look like for manufacturing resurgence,” said Zettel. “And this is going to be cleaner industries. It’s going to be smaller; they might change faster.”

According to Zettel, when it comes to redeveloping industrial land and imagining a future for manufacturing, developers “just don’t have a concept of how to use that type of zoning or how to focus on that type of land use, because in urban development the first, most important thing everyone looks at is to make sure you get ‘highest and best use’ out of every single parcel.” 

“That to me is like the biggest challenge right now, because a lot of developers and people who are in real estate…they just won’t hear it. They do that traditional 1980s-style development still, where as soon as manufacturing becomes obsolete, you shift over to high-end residential, and that’s how you make your money on your land,” he adds.

The almost utopic renderings of developer Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards project slated to fully break ground later this year. The project aims to turn the site, formerly owned and operated by Finkl Steel, into a multimillion-dollar, high-density commercial, single-family residential enclave on the North Branch of the Chicago River. (Courtesy of Sterling Bay)

It’s this kind of approach that leads to a shut-down steel mill to be redeveloped into a multimillion-dollar housing, entertainment, and retail project—and that’s not McCaffery. That’s what has happened to the abandoned site of Finkl Steel on the Chicago River in the city’s North Branch industrial corridor, now rebranded and redeveloped into Lincoln Yards, a sprawling riverfront megadevelopment slated to break ground later this year after years of tense dialogue between neighbors and business owners in the area.

According to The INVERT, in the first stage of its process, the developers project they will create 300 construction jobs, with “the potential to add over 250 permanent jobs” per year in addition to construction-related positions until the development is completed. 

“This could be the biggest job-creating project on the Far South Side in decades,” said Alberto Rincon, the head of The INVERT’s community impact efforts. Previously, Rincon was an environmental activist and director of the neighborhood’s Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke.

For Eckes, the idea of a brand-new megadevelopment with jobs that might be inaccessible or not permanent to the neighborhood it’s in isn’t a tenable solution. 

“The area itself has always kind of served as a gateway for immigrants and working class people looking to get their start, you know, and there’s still a lot of people like that in the area,” said Eckes. “We want to make sure that they are provided the opportunities and other people that want to come in and build themselves up have those same opportunities. Unfortunately, if the city is successful in what their vision apparently is, it’s not going to be that community. It’s going to be more of a Lincoln Park–style place for the wealthy on the north end and then, you know, the people on the south end being poorer, dirty, suffering more, smaller, with smokestacks.”

Eckes added that heavy reinvestment into the communities already calling a place home can allow them to reinvest in their own neighborhoods and establish a stronger tax base. “If we’re given jobs, if we’re given opportunities, we’re educated, and we have all this, we can be the ones to open up the businesses, or open up the shops, and do other things to help boost up the area, if you will.”

Zettel believes the city needs to be investing more in clean opportunities for the Southeast Side that marry the need for workable jobs with non-polluting industry.

“[We] have gotten to carry that cleaner stuff to the Southeast Aspect too. [We] shouldn’t preserve perpetuating the historical past of environmental racism the place you say, ‘Okay, so now the North Aspect’s getting these like clear, progressive, new waves of producing and the South Aspect will get, you already know, the scraps shredder.’ That’s not good for anyone,” Zettel stated. “So, you form of have to take a look at the entire area and say,, what does environmental justice appear to be? How can we finish environmental racism? And the way do you persuade those that these new modifications in manufacturing are viable?”

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Making new modifications viable is precisely what The INVERT is attempting to promote.

In keeping with Sibley, The INVERT received’t be tied to anyone firm or trade as a result of it will likely be an area for a lot of potential tenant firms. “We’re speaking about roughly six million sq. toes of area,” he stated. “If you concentrate on the Southeast Aspect, that group at one level was nearly fully depending on one trade, and when that went away, so did the financial curiosity of that group.”

For Eckes, the concept of this sort of innovation—an underground growth—is just too massive of a threat, each for his group and for the setting.

“I don’t see it. There’s no different rationalization I may consider for why they should construct underground,” Eckes stated. “I imply, we’ve NorthPoint [warehousing], you already know, they’re nicely above floor, proper? Why did he must construct beneath? It simply doesn’t make sense.” 

“They’re a startup. What’s it, like ninety p.c of startups or one thing like that fail? What you’re speaking about is you’re constructing this large underground excavated level the place you don’t have already got prospects lined up. There’s no assure that you simply’re going to achieve success,” he stated. “And should you’re not profitable, we’re caught with this large large gap.”

In keeping with the INVERT group, they’ve undertaken a deep engagement course of throughout the group to scale back hurt within the East Aspect space, which has been deeply scarred by the injustice of environmental racism and uncared for by the town and state. 

“It’s actually been an lively area,” Sibley stated, referring to the builders’ “Neighborhood Engagement Middle” at 10548 S. Ewing. “Simply to have frank and open dialogues in regards to the mission with individuals…and you already know that the response has been very constructive. The INVERT group could be very curious about listening to all these factors of view and gathering enter, making changes, and that has been extraordinarily useful.” 

“I believe generally you see in different developments the place an software is utilized for—there’s an software for growth with the Metropolis of Chicago, after which after that software is put in place, then generally builders go and have interaction the group. Right here, on this case, The INVERT did the alternative. Additionally they inverted that course of,” Sibley stated. 

Nevertheless it’s this overcommitment to the corporate’s thought of engagement that, satirically, leaves group members questioning the builders’ intentions, significantly when the mission is so financially profitable.

“That is the primary time {that a} facility has gone to this hassle to win. You realize, they throw out the primary pitch on the Little League sport. They’ve co-sponsored each Music Fest and neighborhood fest. Within the neighborhood, they’ve donated cash to the excessive faculties. They usually aren’t even right here but. I believe they need to make it actually troublesome and make it actually complicated for individuals to love, they need to dominate the narrative,” Bautista stated.

Sibley claims that, pending the outcomes of the influence research, which can assess the influence that development could have on the positioning and surrounding communities, in addition to suggestions they obtain from the group, the INVERT group expects to interrupt floor late this 12 months. The event, nonetheless very a lot within the planning part and never but introduced earlier than the town’s division of Planning and Improvement, hinges on that suggestions. 

“Individuals [would] ask us questions early on that we hadn’t had the reply for but,” Sibley stated. “As a result of it’s so unusual to truly sit down and have a dialog about an thought earlier than ever placing a shovel within the floor or making a proper software or something like that. So, when the group didn’t know the reply to the query, they had been very open about that. We don’t know. We’ve got to consider that.

Regardless, Bautista isn’t satisfied.

“Ozinga has at all times been a battle…their mission is to not defend the general public well being of the group. That’s my mission. Their mission? Their plans? To make cash.”

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Replace 5/26/22: Attribution and hyperlink added to the Nice Cities Institute’s report.

Cam Rodriguez is an information journalist at the moment working for training newsroom Chalkbeat, and likes reporting on points involving native historical past, infrastructure and communities. That is Cam’s first story for the Weekly.



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