Concrete trammels the Calumet river for all of its serpentine course. It is crossed by steel girder bridges, including the soaring Indiana Skyway, whose massive pylons lift the bulky structure far above the surrounding neighborhoods. This land was once the center of Chicago’s industrial might, though the collapse of American industry has left large areas blighted. However, the flight of industry has also allowed large patches to revert to the wetlands which made this area the primary hunting reserve for Chicago’s rich in the 1800s.
The neighborhoods in this area reflect the history of labor relations. Pullman was built as a company town for the Pullman Palace Car Company. The experiment failed after the company drastically cut pay without reducing rents following the Panic of 1893. The beautifully constructed public buildings of the town, however, have made this an attractive neighborhood for homebuyers. Hegewisch, east of the Calumet River, was also founded as a company town, though much of its housing stock consists of newer bungalows and ranches. Ranches also typify the architecture further north, in South Deering and Jeffery Manor, built quickly to satisfy housing demand after WWII. Altgeld Gardens, nestled in a bend of the Calumet, is a housing project in which President Obama began as a community organizer.
Residents of all these areas have struggled with the pollution caused by industry, with groups like People for Community Recovery and the South East Environmental Task Force struggling to hold companies accountable. The city has made some concessions in this regard, but many residents still suffer from chronic health problems. One recent project intended to aid the area’s recovery is the Millennium Reserve, which will unite currently disconnected wetlands and nature preserves, allowing hikers, bikers and birders to range freely between them. Tucked in between the rail yards and refineries, are small pockets of land which give a picture of what Chicago looked like before the coming of industry, their beauty heightened by the stark contrast to the industrial wastes which fence them in.
Best Sight of the Old New World
Indian Head Marsh
The great prairies which once covered almost the whole of the Midwest may have been cleared by homesteaders, transformed into corn farms, but the grass and flowers left their seeds deep in the earth, and they lie there still, dormant, waiting for a chance to spring forth in profusion. Located at the corner of Torrence Ave. and 122nd Street, Indian Head Marsh sits among the high Prairie grass which has reclaimed the forsaken land. The Marsh plays host to a wide variety of wildlife, in a short time there I was able to see a number of cranes and herons, as well as a fox. The vista of the built world around it is also fascinating: the high mound which rises in the distance would have been familiar to the Mississippian peoples who ranged in this area between 800 and 1500 CE. A gently sloping pyramid with two terraces, it is practically identical to the mounds that can be seen at Cahokia in Southern Illinois. The people who built those pyramids settled in great cities along rivers, growing maize, turning their eyes to the heavens, and building great earthwork mounds on which they located their houses and temples. However the purpose of the mound near Indian Head Marsh, though identical in appearance, is quite different in its component elements: many years of Chicago’s refuse. This landfill, and its many identical compatriots, are so detrimental to the residents of the area and to wildlife that the State House recently passed a bill banning any further landfills in Cook County. And yet it is oddly beautiful, covered in bright green grass and framing the city skyline, which is just visible at the horizon. Indian Ridge Marsh, 12200 S Torrence Ave. (Sean Maher)
Best Place to Encounter One’s Fate
The Hammond Horseshoe Casino
To evoke the experience of a casino, movie directors often resort to showing a multitude of flashing lights and the cacophonous clamor of coins being fed into slot machines. This is why I’m surprised by how quiet this casino seems, where the chattering slots and video poker machines quickly fade to a background murmur. The smell of stale cigarette smoke lingers in the corridors. The decorations are not garishly over the top, but rather in lukewarm poor taste. The predominate colors are beige and various shades of brown, the mock crystal chandeliers looking like a cubic zirconia pendant pinned to a UPS uniform. During an extended poker game in which I am handily outclassed, I watch my pile grow and shrink in a series of ebbs and flows. I cash out and switch to slots, where I watch investment dwindle without emotion, merely numbers on a succession of printed slips. I transmute my money into roulette chips and bet it all at the wheel, breaking even for a few rounds before losing everything. I see this as a fitting metaphor, and take my leave. Upstairs, a cafeteria offers a variety of options, one of which is titled simply “Asian,” in a script more often seen in aging Chinese restaurants. The offerings seem offensively bad, comped though they are for long term players–one is inclined to understand better the actions of “the coward” Jack McCall, who, after being bested by Wild Bill Hickok in a poker game and offered a breakfast token as a sign of good will, left seething before returning to shoot him in the back. The food is typical of the whole casino experience, a vague simulacrum of various notions and sensations, hiding, with various degrees of efficacy, the transaction which lies at the heart of the business: namely, the gambler losing money. The decorative elements of the casino, however evolved they may be in Vegas and Macau, obscure the fact that the essential form of gambling is seen just as well with four men seated at a dark and dingy table in a salon at the edge of civilization. It is an attempt to constrain the fates through rules and symbols, and to gain advantage over them, to seize order from chaos. Hammond’s rustic lack of airs actually enhances the gaming, shows the enterprise for what it is, allowing one to take a short jaunt into the world of chance and return mostly unscathed. Horseshoe Hammond Casino, 777 Casino Center Drive, Hammond, IN. Open 24 hours. (219) 473-7000. horseshoehammond.com (Sean Maher)