Friday, December 3, 2010

Exploring Lake Calumet on two wheels

Lake Calumet viewed from above

By John Greenfield

[This article also appears in Time Out Chicago, www.timeoutchicago.com.]

Airplane passengers looking down at Chicago might notice Lake Calumet, a sculptural body of water that vaguely resembles Hüsker Dü’s classic circle-and-bars logo. Situated at the junction of the Calumet and Little Calumet rivers, it’s home to the city’s main commercial harbor and dozens of birds, including endangered species. But since the lake is ringed by landfills, many locals don’t know it exists. I spent a day exploring what this mysterious South Side lake has to offer from outside its razor-wire border.

After toting my bicycle onto the Red Line, I disembarked at 95th Street and pedaled a few miles southeast to the entrance of Port of Chicago’s Lake Calumet terminal, 130th and Stony Island Ave. The industrial network stretches several miles and is the Great Lakes’ largest general cargo port, handling “lakers,” Mississippi River barges and 1,000-foot oceangoing “salties.” Although it used to be a popular school field-trip destination, the harbor has been off-limits to the public since September 11.

I cycled north on Doty Avenue to Harborside International Golf Course, 11001 S Doty Ave. This treeless, links-style course, built atop mounds of construction debris on Lake Calumet’s northwest shore, boasts a huge Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired clubhouse with tranquil lake views.


I continued south on Stony Island Avenue along the eastern shore of the lake and noticed purple flowers, prairie grass and sunflowers by a small pond. The Southeast Side was once a receptacle for much of the city’s trash, and this ridge of the Paxton Landfill (122nd St and Stony Island Ave), formerly an industrial-waste dump, rises 170 feet high. By 1999, decomposition had made the mound unstable, and it was feared that 300,000 cubic yards of toxic sludge would slide onto Stony Island Avenue. When workers dug a trench east of the landfill to drain and stabilize it, poisonous fumes forced them to wear oxygen masks, and they nicknamed the trench the Valley of Death.

Sunflowers near Lake Calumet

I pedaled east on 122nd past the now-green ridge and south on Torrence Avenue, past the Ford Chicago Assembly Plant and into the Hegewisch neighborhood to eat at Tom’s Truck Stop, 2701 E 130th St, a favorite of port- and autoworkers. The shack contains only a handful of vinyl booths and counter stools. Sinatra crooned from a boom box. Three generations of Hegewisch women kibitzed while I munched a chopped-steak hoagie.

Tom's Truck Stop

Continuing south on Torrence, I rolled past Hegewisch Marsh, future site of the $13.5 million Ford Calumet Environmental Center, 13000 S Torrence Ave. This LEED-platinum structure will house exhibits on the natural, industrial and cultural history of the region. It will also serve as a headquarters for environmental cleanup efforts, tirelessly promoted by education non-profit the Southeast Environmental Task Force. The Studio Gang Architects’ design, called Best Nest, includes a porch wrapped by a basket-like mesh of locally salvaged steel, a place to observe animals and birds.

Hegewisch Marsh

Ready to check out a different kind of wildlife, I rolled west on 136th Street to Papi Chulo’s Bar & Grill, 13601 S Calhoun Ave. Loosely translated as sexy daddy’s, the bar is a Parrothead pub with a Spanish accent. Outside, umbrella-topped tables overlook boats, a sand volleyball court and a stage for live music and DJs. Inside, the decor includes a mermaid figurehead, bathrooms labeled “buoys” and “gulls,” and a life-size statue of a buxom lady buccaneer. As I biked back north, I looked forward to a greener future for the Lake Calumet area, but I hope it keeps its rough edges.


Papi Chulo's

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Jason Heath said...

Hi John,

Just wanted to let you know that I love the blog--I really dig your writing and your photo essays on the various major streets of Chicago. It's really fun following along with all of your journeys through town. I just picked up a copy of Bars Across America via Lulu (PDF version - reading it on my iPad), and I'm digging that as well. Looking forward to checking out what you've got coming out next in terms of walks!

Jason Heath
Doublebassblog.org