In 2010, real estate firm McCaffery Interests announced a plan, in cooperation with US Steel and architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, to transform the undeveloped former site of US Steel’s South Works plant into an environmentally sustainable mixed-use housing and business district named Chicago Lakeside Development. The Chicago Lakeside Master Plan intended to build thousands of units of housing and office space interspersed with parks and waterfront access; trains, buses, and bike lanes would connect the community with downtown thirteen miles away (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill).
The plan was ambitious and had its skeptics. Prior to 2013, Lake Shore Drive didn’t extend down to the site, and there are no nearby CTA train stops, so Lakeside would have required massive investments in the surrounding infrastructure to be accessible to the residents of its 13,000 new homes (Koziarz). It was also unclear where those thousands of new residents would be coming from. South Works is situated in South Chicago, a working class neighborhood that has struggled with disinvestment and population loss since the decline of the steel industry in the 1970s. The South Works plant closed in 1992, and economic development in the area has been scant in the intervening years (Kaplan). Whoever Lakeside was designed for, it didn’t appear to be its South Chicago neighbors. In 2016, McCaffery and US Steel split and the project died (Koziarz).
I began investigating the South Chicago community and environmental history of the South Works property for a previous class, and the Lakeside plan has always struck me as quite bizarre. I visited the site for the first time in April 2019, three years after McCaffery abandoned its plans. Signs advertising Lakeside still line the road, selling a ghost future that will never be realized.
But McCaffery isn’t the only group to imagine a future for the site. There have been many visions for South Works since it closed in 1992, most of them coming from outside of the South Chicago community. In 1999, Solo Cup announced plans—later abandoned—to build a paper cup factory on the property (Arndt). The Chicago Parks District modified the easternmost portion of the site into Steelworkers Park, a 16.5-acre recreational spot along the lake complete with walking trails and a seasonal climbing wall (Chicago Park District). Real estate developer Emerald Living picked up the site after McCaffery and planned a Lakeside-esque mixed-use development before abruptly pulling out in 2018 after the site’s residual contamination “presented significant challenges” (McClelland).
So many people have had plans for this area, but so few of them are formed in cooperation with South Chicago residents. These disparate visions for this site and community prompted me to question: how do we decide who gets to dictate a space’s past, present, and future? And what are the effects of those imaginings?
I was struck by David Buuck’s response to a similar question in his book Site Cite City. He writes, “New grids are being constructed by social beings with different social bearings. Action is choosing made material by different social bearings” (Buuck 13). Grids could represent any spatial organization, but they are especially salient here in Chicago, this explicitly gridded city. “Social beings” construct the environments through which we move, and those beings’ “social bearings”—age, race, social class, neighborhood, and so on—influence what they build. The grid dictates how we move through and conceive of the city. Thus, the people in charge of planning our city exercise enormous power over our lives.
The proposed Lakeside development represented a disconnect in the visions and needs of McCaffery Interests and South Chicago residents—two groups of social beings with very different social bearings. McCaffery captured the city’s imagination by expounding their vision for six years of a sustainable, connected, mixed-use, middle- and high-income community on the Southeast Side; they shaped how people within and outside of South Chicago viewed the neighborhood and its future. All of the prospective plans for South Works, none of which have been executed except for Steelworkers Park, represent different imagined futures for the site. In my atlas entries, I wanted to compare these imaginaries to examine what different stakeholders find valuable (or potentially valuable) about the site and to what extent these plans align with and value the visions of the South Chicago community.
The issue of representing projects that were never were and never will be initially troubled me. I returned to Buuck, who reminded me that “Maps simply cannot mirror reality; they can only aim to open up new avenues for traversing a site’s past, present, and possible futures, towards new vistas and horizons for counter-habitation” (59). To that end of constructing and exploring the present and imagined futures of South Works, I employed historical maps, ArcGIS mapping software, architectural plans, and my own reflections on the site. All of the outside sources that I employed, along with image citations, can be found in the bibliography.
This piece is not a polemic; I don’t aim simply to air my grievances with Lakeside as a failed architectural and community building project. I recognize that I, too, am an outsider creating my own representations in these maps of a community of which I am not a part. My purpose with this project is not to say which vision of the site is correct or to propose one of my own. Instead, my goal with these maps—the first of which situates the proposed Lakeside development in relation to the surrounding area and the second of which represents Steelworkers Park—is to investigate the stakes of storytelling and the built environment as forces with the power to shape our collective histories and imagined futures.
Imagining Landscape Transformations: Lakeside
With my first atlas entry illustrating the Chicago Lakeside Development, I want to highlight its proposed changes to the South Works landscape by juxtaposing the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Master Plan for the development with the existing site. To that end, I cut out the section of the plan that covers South Works and layered it on top of an aerial view of the property.
What is immediately striking is how Lakeside would grow the site vertically. High and mid-rise condominiums and office buildings would dominate the landscape next to the lake, both drawing attention towards the peninsula and obscuring any lake view from Lake Shore Drive. This highly visible space would carry a specific class character; in Lakeside, room is being made for middle- and high-income individuals in the midst of a working-class community experiencing population loss and struggling to fill high numbers of vacant properties (Koziarz). Chicago Lakeside represents the proposed infusion of capital and resources into a community experiencing divestment. On its face, it is an exciting project for that reason alone. The physically transformative nature of Lakeside is also not, on its own, a potential conflict, and it is possible that the infusion of wealth would uplift the entire area. However, the concentrated flood of money into the construction of a shiny new community blocks away from a struggling one could also lend itself to perpetuating inequality rather than building community wealth.
This tension is also salient, not just in Lakeside’s proposed development of new spaces, but within the redefinition of existing ones. The most obvious example of this shift is the use of the slip, the horizontal strip of water that cuts through the site. Boats bringing raw materials to South Works during the operating days of the mill would arrive in the slip. Today, it’s a popular fishing spot. The Master Plan transforms the slip into a marina where Lakeside residents could park their boats (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill). Whereas the physical construction of the Lakeside development implies a focus on attracting residents of a higher socioeconomic status than the average South Chicago resident, this proposal for the slip makes that intention more explicit.
What Lakeside imagines, therefore, is that the future of the site and the South Chicago neighborhood depends on attracting a new community of people. This new community’s wealth and the development’s amenities may be beneficial for the whole neighborhood. If the project were to spur the development of new transit networks, for example, the entire area would benefit from the increased connectivity to the rest of the city. The integration of the site with new and existing public transit is evident in the plan; the vertical blue line with white dots represents a current bus route. However, if the future of a space rests entirely on bringing in the new, McCaffery Interests or the stakeholder of the day needs to devote resources to marketing and attracting their preferred residents. An imagined future that both necessitates and “begins” with the arrival of a new population—particularly one that differs from the one that is there now and has been there for decades—holds the neighborhood hostage in perpetual waiting while the powers that be get their plans together.
A consequence of this long term and widespread marketing of the plan outside of the neighborhood in the hope of building buzz and attracting residents is that Lakeside became, not only the imagined future for the neighborhood or the Southeast Side, but many people’s conception of South Chicago as a place. This collective projection becomes clear as I discuss this project with friends and classmates. Many people, indeed more than I expected, have heard of Lakeside. In fact, some of them are excited to visit when it opens and disappointed when I tell them that the project was abandoned almost four years ago.
Such are the stakes of imagined futures. About thirty Chicago blocks lay in between the South Works site and the university library where I am writing this text, fewer than lay in between this same library and the Loop. But every student here has been to the Loop. Even if they are not keeping up with urban planning developments, people have an understanding of that area and other popular spots—Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, West Loop—more or less as they exist today. If anyone has any notion of South Chicago, it is only the one that a real estate developer and architecture firm dreamed up and that will never be a reality, even though we all live only a few miles from the site. Perhaps this gap further illustrates the lack of public transportation to and within the Southeast Side that made the idea of Lakeside slightly ludicrous barring infrastructural developments; it is difficult for anyone without a car to get to South Chicago, so it is difficult to have any personal understanding of it. But this disparity also elucidates the power of and the extent to which constructed imaginings capture our collective understanding of a site’s past, present, and future, sometimes filling in the gaps in our knowledge in ways that are inconsistent with reality. These proposed plans are so important, therefore, because they control our internal and collective narratives that we tell about places. A single story, particularly about a historically under resourced community, is so dangerous because it gives a single stakeholder the power to represent or omit an entire group of people.
Widening the Scope: Steelworkers Park
I’ve taken several walks around the loops of Steelworkers Park. I’ve taken walks there in the misting rain, snow, and the sun. One walk I took during a surprise April snowstorm when the wind was blowing off the lake so fast that it stripped the ice off the prairie grass and grounded the migrating geese. On that day, I was thankful for the old Chicago Lakeside Development signs; they sheltered me from the wind.
What becomes evident over the course of these walks is the extent to which Steelworkers Park actively engages its visitors in the history of steelmaking and, by extension, the history of South Chicago and the greater Southeast Side. Roman Villareal’s sculpture Tribute to the Past, situated at the start of the park’s walking trails, does so most directly (Rosenbaum). A former steel worker himself, Villareal honors not only the workers for which the park is named, but their entire families and the community that grew up around the mill. The steel worker clutches a lunch pail in one hand and wraps the other around his wife. Their children stand beneath them, symbols of hope for a future world that South Works steel helped to construct. On a plaque fixed beneath the family, Villareal’s dedicates the sculpture “To all the union men and women and their families who shared the steel dreams.” Rather than look inward to isolate the site and its industrial past, the sculpture points outward, implicitly encouraging visitors to turn west and see the church spires rise in the distance over the dogwood trees, visible reminders that the mill produced more than just steel; it created a community that outlived it.
The park’s other prominent landmarks include the immovable ore walls, a portion of which the Park District transformed into a climbing wall, and a grouping of former mill equipment that now sits as sculpture in the park’s natural areas (Hunter and Chicago Park District). Both of these features, like Tribute to the Past, honor the site’s steel making history while adapting South Works’s built environment for the present. I featured these landmarks in my atlas entry because they speak to the hyperlocal vision of this park as a celebration of the South Chicago community.
The aerial view in my atlas entry makes it clear just how small Steelworkers Park is in relation to the South Works property. This scale makes sense in the context of the Lakeside Master Plan; Steelworkers Park was going to be one of the many parks in the Chicago Lakeside Development. In contrast to the collected vision of the Master Plan, however, Steelworkers Park does not create a new skyline or alter the landscape extremely, beyond ecological restoration by the Environmental Protection Agency (Dakota et al). There is no physical infrastructure beyond the road into the park, paved walking trails, and some railing along the shoreline. This limited footprint in the park today, however, is in tension with the fact that the entire South Works complex sits on land created by human refuse. The site used to be an ecologically diverse marshland, and the South Works plant was originally slated to be 71.5 acres along the Lake Michigan shoreline, which originally began as far west as where Lake Shore Drive runs today. By 1900, however, twenty years after the original construction of the mill, the site had mysteriously grown to 327 acres, none of the extra of which had up until that time been assessed or taxed (Taft).
All of Chicago’s modern shoreline is “reclaimed” or constructed land (Taft). The South Works case is noteworthy because the extra land did not come from sand fill or detritus from the Great Chicago Fire, but from slag, a byproduct of the steelmaking process. The land on which Steelworkers Park is situated was quite literally made by steel; the entire site, from the top of the ore walls to down beneath the roots of the native plantings, is a physical manifestation of the labor of the steel workers that Villareal honors in his sculpture.
Walking around the site and knowing what I know about the land’s history, it would be easy to alienate myself as I think about the fact that there is very little “natural” about these “natural areas” that I’m traversing. The Park District signs that direct me through these landscapes represent their own imagining of the site. Labels for “native plantings” recall a return to wild past that never, at least on this cobbled-together piece of land, existed.
But the impression that I actually leave with is much closer to what I experience when viewing Tribute to the Past. Rather than focusing strictly on the land on which the park is situated, the native plantings and natural areas tie the site and all of its complicated history to a broader environmental past in the Calumet region. By constructing and landscaping the park in this way, the Chicago Parks District integrates South Works into a larger and longer history. The site itself dominates conversation with its imagined potential and high-profile stakeholders, as I investigated in my first map of the Lakeside Master Plan. Indeed, McCaffery Interests and the Lakeside Development are why I chose to write about South Works in the first place. However, while the mill is gone, the community it created is still there. The mill is gone, but the animals and plants native to the area were there before it and will be there long after. By pointing outwards from South Works, Steelworkers Park represents the past through and imagines the future in cooperation with the South Chicago community and local ecology, not in opposition to it.
Arndt, Michael. “SOLO CUP FACTORY SET FOR USX SITE.” Chicago Tribune, 10 June 1999, www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1999-06-10-9906100394-story.html.
Buuck, David. Site Cite City: Prose Works 1999-2012. Futurepoem Books, 2015.
Chicago Park District. “Steelworkers Park Climbing Wall.” Chicago Park District, Chicago Park District, www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/steelworkers-park.
Dakota Group, et al. “Southeast Chicago Area-Wide Plan (Draft).” Southeast Chicago Area-Wide Plan (Draft), 2017. southeastchicago2016.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/rpt-20170421-pre-final-draft-report.pdf.
Hunter, J. Wall Climbing at Steel Workers Park on 87th & Lake Michigan. Chicago, IL, 21 Aug. 2018.
Kaplan, Jacob. “South Works: Forgotten Chicago: History, Architecture, and Infrastructure.” Forgotten Chicago: History Architecture and Infrastructure RSS, 28 Dec. 2008, forgottenchicago.com/articles/south-works/.
Koziarz, Jay. “Chicago Lakeside Development Mega-Project Abandoned as Developer and US Steel Split.” Curbed Chicago, Curbed Chicago, 1 Mar. 2016, chicago.curbed.com/2016/3/1/11140996/chicago-lakeside-development-project-abandoned.
McClelland, Edward. “Another Real Estate Developer Backs out of Chicago’s South Works Site. What Now?” Belt Magazine, Belt Publishing, 28 June 2018, beltmag.com/what-to-do-with-south-works/.
Rosenbaum, Lew. “‘Tribute To The Past,’ a Sculpture by Roman Villarreal, Celebrates the Contributions of Steelworker Families to the Building of Chicago.” People’s Tribune, People’s Tribune, Chicago, IL, Sept. 2015, peoplestribune.org/pt-news/2015/09/under-the-bridge-a-culture-of-resistance/.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. “Chicago Lakeside Master Plan.” SOM, 2010, www.som.com/projects/chicago_lakeside_master_plan.
Taft, Chloe E. “Shifting Shorelines: Land Reclamation and Economic Blackmail in Industrial South Chicago.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, vol. 1, no. 1–2, Mar. 2018, pp. 186–205, doi:10.1177/2514848618765873.