Chicago’s Heartland

A tall man from Mississippi stands in the doorway to his little house near 95th and Colfax. Across the tracks from Lake Calumet and a couple miles from the Indiana-Illinois border, he invites our 44-person group in with an enthusiastic wave.

The man’s name is Travis, and he is a visual artist, musician, Vietnam veteran, and resident of the Jeffery Manor neighborhood. He offers us chicken gumbo, collard greens, and cornbread. Then he tells us about the young people who moved into the neighborhood after the Robert Taylor Homes closed and about the old women who keep them in line.

This is the last stop on the Heartland South Study Day, a tour of the far South Side presented last Saturday by AREA Chicago and the Smart Museum of Art. “The exhibit started from road trips,” said Stephanie Smith, co-curator of the museum’s newest exhibit, “Heartland.” So we got on the road ourselves.

We traveled to South Chicago and discussed plans for redeveloping the expansive, fenced-off former U.S. Steel site along the lakefront. At Rainbow Beach, we remembered the clash between white and black swimmers that caused the 1961 wade-in there. We stopped at a concrete wall with a faded mural that used to be the picket fence border of the mill that made the steel for the area’s railroads, the U.S. Army, and the Sears and Hancock Towers. Our guide told us of the immigrant worker communities that once sprang up around each gate in the fence, each with its own character. These were the oldest, dirtiest, and least desirable neighborhoods in the city.

Everywhere there were markers of change, past and future. One bridge near Pullman reads, “Training the community on tourism.” We hear about a man who has started keeping bees on the old U.S. Steel land, while the surrounding community waits to hear new development proposals that may take twenty to forty years to execute. At an exhibit on the Great Migration at the formerly whites-only Hotel Florence in Pullman, the curator says she imagines saying to George Pullman, “You never thought I would be able to come in the front door, did you?”