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Connecting community to riverfront parks in South Chicago

The Chicago Community Trust is currently funding 11 community-led riverfront projects through their Our Great Rivers grant. This piece part of our 2019 series highlighting these projects.

Kite flying at Steelworker’s Park. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Parks.

Have you ever visited Steelworkers’ Park? This sprawling 16-acre park, located where the Calumet River and Lake Michigan meet, features beautiful lakefront views, a post-industrial climbing wall, natural area, and monuments commemorating the site’s history as part of the Steelworker industry. Despite these amenities, Steelworkers Park is still under-utilized, due to it still being relatively unknown and taking some patience to access, with raised bridges, railroads, and major roads to cross along the route.  

Robert Andrews via Google Maps

Grigol Makharadze via Google Maps

Friends of the Parks is working to raise community awareness of river- and lakefront parks like this in South Chicago, especially among South Chicago residents. Through the Chicago Community Trust’s Our Great Rivers grant received in 2018, Friends of the Parks has held a number of events designed to engage the local community in its riverfront parks, bringing culturally relevant programming and arts to the area’s parks.

In Fall 2018 and 2019, they led Day of the Dead events at Steelworkers’ Park with climbing, kite-flying, an ofrenda, and screening of Coco.  Friends of the Parks also led other activation events throughout the year, including a history event and movie screening, and a boat tour. Across all their events, about 350 people came out to experience the parks and Calumet River! For Friends of the Parks, building the community’s connection to these riverfront spaces will bolster the completion of the Last 4 Miles Plan to finish the lakefront park system at the far South and far North ends of the City.

Dia de los muertos ofrenda. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Parks                                                   

But, it isn’t always easy talking about park access and recreation. In South Chicago there remain significant environmental concerns related to the industrial past and present along the lakefront and riverfront. One of Friends of the Parks’ goals is to engage in honest conversation about how to balance environmental and recreational concerns.

One hotly debated topic in the surrounding neighborhoods is what to do with the Combined Disposal Facility located at the mouth of the River, just North of Steelworkers’ park. The location, controlled by the US Army Corps of Engineers, is the final destination for dredged sediment that is extracted from the Calumet river – a process that is still crucial to keeping the river and lake clean. The current location is nearing its capacity, and the Army Corps is searching for solutions, including extending the life of the current site by making it taller (increasing its capacity) and ultimately finding a new location.

Many residents feel caught, wanting to close the site and begin the process for finding new uses for the site (for example, for park space), and also wanting to avoid the creation of a new storage facility for dredged material in their neighborhood. Friends of the Parks wants to facilitate an open dialogue about the options and has engaged in advocacy to help find a new location that is suitable to the community. In their opinion, the most important outcome is that residents are informed and engaged in the decision-making processes for the future of their parks and open spaces.

Our Great Rivers / Great Rivers Chicago: MPC’s Blogs and highlights on Our Great Rivers are made possible in large part by the Chicago Community Trust, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Union Pacific Foundation, BNSF Corporation, Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ArcellorMittal, Comcast Corporation, and individual donors.