South Chicago: Finding new life after steel

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South Chicago

Illustration by Andrew Skwish

South Chicago

After decades as a steelmaking hub, South Chicago has begun to write its next chapter. Home to the USX South Works mill, which once employed more than 20,000 workers earning substantial union wages, the far Southeast Side neighborhood began to decline when USX began to shed jobs in the 1970s. USX shut down completely in 1992.

South Chicago, initially a Native American settlement that became a blue-collar enclave around the turn of the 20th Century, faced a bleak future of boarded-up homes, shuttered storefronts and environmental devastation.

“When the steel industry came to a halt in the ’70s and ’80s, for all practical purposes, the area should have died,” says Neil Bosanko, executive director of the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce and a longtime activist and expert on local history who sits on the local school council at Bowen High.

South Chicago survived the steel shutdown, in part, because white former steelworkers fled to the southern suburbs, at first in search of more modern housing and later to avoid the influx of Mexican immigrants and African Americans, says Bosanko. The newcomers typically took jobs in the service sector, diversifying the jobs base and keeping the neighborhood somewhat economically viable as the steel mills shut down.

“If they [the steelworkers] all did live here, maybe the bottom would have fallen out, and we would have become a ghost town,” says Bosanko.

Now, the community’s first priority is jobs. As for the USX site, a private developer is in negotiations to purchase it for mixed-income housing, retail, and new parkland along the lakefront between 79th and 92nd streets. Still, the site will take “years to develop,” Bosanko adds.

Community developers are already working to create affordable housing and bolster the business sector, says Lynne Cunningham, president and CEO of the Southeast Chicago Development Commission. “There’s a strong interest from both outsiders and people here to invest in the neighborhood,” she says.

The commission is the lead agency for South Chicago’s New Communities Program. Funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and administered by the Local Initiatives Support Corp., the program is aimed at comprehensive community development including traditional bricks-and-mortar projects like housing and retail development as well as strategies to improve education, health care and public safety. Residents are also concerned with racial divisions, gang activity, boarded-up housing and other ills.

Education is “a pretty prominent piece” of the New Communities effort in South Chicago, Cunningham says. The focus is on elementary schools, particularly Sullivan Elementary, located in an area where new affordable housing has been built over the past five years.

Education activists are continually working to impress upon young people the ever-increasing importance of staying in school, Bosanko says. “I realized the kids needed to break that cycle of, ‘I don’t need to finish high school, my old man can get me a job at the mill,'” he says. The shutdown of the mills “challenged our young people to have more aspirations and to explore life a little.”