Perhaps the most visible remnant of the rise and fall of industry on Chicago’s southeast side during its years as part of the Port of Chicago is the 442-acre Lake Calumet. The very shape of the lake has been altered by industry, and years of industrial abuse have had detrimental effects on water, soil, and air. In recent decades, most of the lake has been fenced off and inaccessible to area residents who once traveled there for recreation.
Tom Shepherd, an environmental activist with the Lake Calumet Vision Committee, is a longtime resident of the southeast side who remembers when people could walk around parts of the lake.
“It was mysterious, and it was fun and you could just walk the property around the lake at the time. You can throw a fishing rod in the water and catch fish, or you can hike some people were hunting,” Shepherd said. “It was really wild out there and having that right in the middle of the city of Chicago, in the middle of the south side, that might be a lot more of an asset than a deterrent. ‘to have fenced off and closed to the public.’
“So many people don’t even know there’s a lake there. If you’re driving on the freeway, which tens of thousands of cars do every day, there’s a big berm there. You can’t see there,” Shepherd continued. “You can’t say that there are natural spaces in the city of Chicago and you will certainly never be able to enjoy them unless you play a round of golf on the two golf courses that they have created there. ”
Shepherd cited an example of industrial abuse in the area.
“Just across the highway from Lake Calumet are hundreds of acres that the Sherwin Williams plant once occupied. And rather than remediate it, it was going to be so expensive to completely remediate it, they just covered it with asphalt. I don’t know how many acres, dozens and dozens or hundreds, but things like that happen,” he said. “We’re hoping federal funding will come in and help the Harbor District board and the management there to do the cleanup and get people on the property.”
But there are harbingers of change on the horizon with the recently designated Pullman National Monument attracting tourists and new leadership to Illinois’ International Port District. And earlier this year, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning released its master plan for Lake Calumet, which it says creates a place where industry, nature and recreation can coexist.
Dustin Calliari, senior planner at the Chicago Metropolitan for Agency for Planning, managed the Port District Master Plan Project beginning in 2017.
“IIPD (Illinois International Port District) actually came to us for planning assistance and helped us envision the future of the Port District, take a step back and create a master vision of where it is. can go,” Calliari said.
Although Calliari said the plan does not determine the degree of environmental remediation needed, it does make recommendations for studies.
“Particularly as we look to the future of creating more wildlife habitat in the square marsh, addressing wetlands in Calumet Lake and future business opportunities around the lake, this environmental cleanup will be a critical first step,” said he declared.
Calliari said the plan included the IIPD’s new leadership. Erik Varela, IIPD’s new Executive Director, was appointed in September 2021.
“We actually put the project on hold at the end of 2020 when the Executive Director position was vacant to make sure that when the plan got to that point where we finalized things, we would have buy-in from the community. new leadership of the board and everyone. going in the same direction,” Calliari said.
The CMAP Master Plan is in draft form and available for public comment before finalization on June 17.
“This is where we start looking at implementation,” Calliari said. “How do we turn this into reality? And that’s where the real fun begins.
“We can make it a destination point and provide recreation for people in all kinds of areas, from kayaking to fishing to bird watching to hiking and biking and all the different things that could be do there,” Shepherd said. “They have 2,200 acres and with only about 100 acres set aside for the public, we could do so much.”