No one would expect to see nature thriving in one of Chicago’s most heavily industrialized areas. But that is exactly what has happened at the former South Works Steel Mill (USX) site on the shores of Lake Michigan, just ten miles south of downtown Chicago. Native habitat and wildlife are making a comeback, with some assistance by the Chicago Park District (CPD).
Dominated by noise, fumes and steel production since 1880, the USX site was decommissioned in 1992. All buildings used by the plant were demolished and the site is now the largest vacant property in Chicago at 573 acres. The property extends along Lake Michigan from Rainbow Beach to the Calumet River, or roughly from 79th Street to 92nd Street.
What remains are layers of hardened slag (a steel processing byproduct) and fields of wildflowers and trees taking root. Years ago, USX used slag as lakefill to create much of the site that is there today. The shoreline is steep and shaped by rocky heaps of concrete and slag. Invasive native and non-native plant species are visible over most of the site. While these plants do not provide high quality habitat or food for wildlife, they are “pioneers” and are important in helping to prepare the soil for more diverse plant life later on.
While the site is strangely quiet, it will not remain vacant for long. The area is currently fenced off to prevent neighbors or even former workers from accessing the property and its shoreline. In 1999, the City of Chicago, USX and citizen groups worked together to create a framework plan to encourage a mix of residential, commercial and industrial development as a way to help revitalize this economically depressed area of the city. A critical element of the plan calls for a 300-foot wide park along the site’s entire one and one-half mile stretch of lakefront. The CPD will be a key player in bringing this park to life.
The CPD is helping to facilitate the process of habitat restoration on the site by promoting a park with diverse plant life. The CPD planted four demonstration gardens this past July using soil mixtures and a variety of native plants to determine what can grow on top of the slag. Part of the soil will be formed with clean, recycled “biosolids” (the solid remaining after wastewater treatment), which is free from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. In this way, the CPD hopes to reintroduce a high quality landscape where none has existed for almost 100 years.
According to the CPD, the future park is likely to be most suitable for bird and wildlife habitat, and bicycle and hiking trails, but not for more active recreational activities. The proposed park will likely be too narrow for ball fields with its shoreline being too steep for beaches.
An opportunity exists today to create a high quality park environment for both wildlife and people. This natural resource would be an asset to a neighborhood working towards economic development after recently losing its primary source of economic stability, the South Works Steel Mill.