Nurturing Nature on the Southeast Side
The Southeast Side, once an industrial capital, is home to a surprising number of beautiful natural preserves: wetlands, forest, and prairie. In order to protect these threatened habitats, there needs to be a shift to a green industrial corridor.
Written by James Henderson and Natalie Nielsen
Much of Chicago’s Southeast Side is covered in vacant lots that look like graveyards for the industries that once stood above them. These graveyards also provide a glimpse of a time before Chicago was settled. These vacant lots are a small sample of the ecosystems that once covered much of Illinois, in which falcons soared above prairie grasses and black bears foraged in the open woodlands of hickory and oak. The Southeast Side is still home to expansive wetlands, forest preserves, and incredible biodiversity. Nearby are a variety of waterways, including the three lakes. The wildflowers, copious amounts of vegetation, and trails near the Calumet River are truly beautiful.
The fact that this landscape still exists in one of the most industrial neighborhoods within one of the biggest cities in the world seems nothing short of miraculous. While many wetlands were filled in and replaced with landfills and buildings, wetlands are resilient ecosystems. If the water flow hasn’t been drastically changed, wetlands can survive despite being close to industry, highways, and can endure some types of pollution and, in the Southeast Side, they have.
Despite the beauty of these natural places, a legacy of industry haunts the Southeast Side. The abandoned site of a U.S. Steel manufacturing plant looms near the mouth of the Calumet River. Only one brick building and the remnants of a ship dock remain in the area. Many developers say the unused sites are too contaminated and costly to clean. In order for them to be safe for reuse, these sites must undergo extensive remediation. The only businesses that can operate on these hazardous sites are also dirty, such as warehouses for industrial materials. This contributes to a cycle of dirty corporations continuously being replaced by more polluters.
While many industrial companies have left the area, several still survive. S.H. Bell Company, a handling corporation, exists across the street for many residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side. They handle manganese, a neurotoxin known to cause developmental disabilities, that has the potential to lower the IQ of children when inhaled. Several community groups in the southeast side, such as the Southeast Environmental Task Force and the South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, are relentless in their fight to hold polluters accountable. They succeeded in getting one corporation, WATCO, to commit to stop handling manganese. They have also forced S.H. Bell to stop transporting manganese in open trucks, which allowed the neurotoxin to blow into yards and homes. Furthermore, several years ago, they managed to push out petroleum coke (petcoke) from their neighborhood, a substance which is toxic at even low levels.
Southeast Side residents are fighting for a vision of their community based around clean industry and renewable energy, rather than dangerous and dirty industry. Providing clean industry as a replacement for the polluters currently occupying the southeast side offers better jobs for workers, better community health, and a better environment for the natural ecosystems to thrive—a just transition.
The beauty of the Southeast Side is not lost on its residents, and it also shouldn’t be lost on other Chicagoans. Polluters see Chicago’s Southeast Side as a dumping ground, but that paints over the area’s natural beauty and neglects the need to preserve places like Big Marsh Park and Eggers Grove, large parts of Illinois’s natural history.
Prairies previously covered 61 percent of Illinois. Currently, they cover around 0.016 percent. Just one third of Illinois prairies are considered to have high levels of biodiversity. 90 percent of Illinois’s wetlands have vanished, along with 70 percent of Illinois's forests. Thousands of species are native to these habitats, including many endangered species, like the gorgeous Grass Pink Orchid and the Black Tern wetland bird. Each species has intrinsic beauty, and is part of a complicated interconnected web; if one species goes extinct, there could be consequences across the entire ecosystem.
As Illinois, along with the rest of the world, feels the direct effects of the climate crisis, it could become even more difficult for these ecosystems to remain in existence without significant conservation efforts. Conversely, wetlands and woodlands are critical to mitigating climate change. Wetlands absorb excess rain, which will be crucial as the world experiences increasingly violent storms. Forests and prairies serve as climate stabilizers, cooling their surroundings and increasing rainfall, while also absorbing copious amounts of CO2.
Transforming the southeast side into a hub for clean industry and carefully managed nature is an opportunity to change the entire perception of the Southeast Side from a region burdened with dirty industries, to a community that is on the cutting edge of climate action. This transformation will only occur if the City collaborates with community members to design restoration and preservation efforts centered around recreation opportunities and a green economic corridor.