[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
In 25 years of commuting to work on the far southwest side of Chicago, I have seen many “points of interest”: bungalows, housing projects, and McMansions; public and relatively public recreational spaces; industrial sites, often abandoned; disappearing rural spaces; and beautiful parks and forest preserves. All of these are built on land once lined by Native American portages and trails, used for Creole trading posts, and bearing the glacial remains of the last Ice Age.
My series Mapping Beverly to Blue Island (MBtoBI) was motivated by the elements I see making up the social and environmental landscape of the Southwest side and the Calumet region. These include the outsider energy I see in storefront churches on 95th Street, Ashland, and Western Avenues; my disappointment in the continued racial and ethnic segregation of city and suburbs and the restoration of apartheid in public schools; and my respect for the social justice mission of the Sisters of Mercy, originally unconventional women influenced by the Quakers, who took their missions to women on the streets of young American cities in the 1800s, and some of whom still protest yearly at the School of the Americas. I wanted to show the pride of the first-generation college students I’ve taught over the years; the pride in the number of Arab-American students who attend my university, often wearing headscarves (resembling the nuns’ former headgear). I wanted to express this respect, even as I admit to the exclusivity of this private religious school that relocated (from 53rd and Cottage Grove in 1956 to the 103rd Street/Evergreen Park neighborhood at the edge of the city) as part of white flight.
I used existing maps as a reference, drawing in bird’s-eye view accurately mapped sections of South and Southwestern regions on four-foot long rolls of paper: the scale of promotional banners. I created panels bordering the maps to explain points of interest. My points of interest were peppered with images of the past and present that have often been left out of official histories. Unlike the banners hung by local chambers of commerce, positively and superficially promoting a neighborhood, my mapping banners were meant to question how the dynamics of power, possession, displacement, and use define a region—along with geology, natural history, and culture. The hand-drawn consistency suggested the graphic simplicity of a logo. I developed the cultural themes of housing, work, leisure, religion, and land history—each explained under its heading below—in contrasting image panels, which hung as long paper banners between the MBtoBI map sections.
I represented the Chicago bungalow, the special icon of blue-collar single-family home ownership in the city, as a singular brick structure. A Chicago Department of Housing map of the Bungalow Belt, mostly built in the 20s and 30s, describes it as “stretched along the outskirts of Chicago in a crescent shape between suburbs and industrial neighborhoods outside the loop.”  Another panel shows the location of the racially restrictive covenants that legally segregated Chicago’s South Side from 1915 to 1948. This map was bordered by key dates having to do with the Beverly AreaPlanning Association, a group formed in 1947 to work toward housing integration.
Public housing in the Calumet Region is shown in panels depicting an early version of Altgeld Gardens, the housing project built to house Black defense plant workers in 1942, near Riverdaleand adjacent to a Department of Sanitation landfill by the Calumet River.
Another image, on the founding of suburban Robbins in 1918, shows a “shotgun house” typical of the rural South at the time, and an image of famous Robbins aviator Bessie Coleman, arcing in flight above Blue Island, which refused to house African Americans in 1918. An oil tank panel discusses the oil refining industry in Robbins.
Work-related images include a depiction of the 1937 Memorial Day Strike Massacre at “Little Steel,” a panel on the Pullman train workers strike, and a panel on the continued existence of some steel production, albeit in facilities dwarfed by the abandoned USX site. My visual reference to Lake Calumet connected to the Grand Calumet River by a channel completed in 1927, suggests the early impact of those waterways, but doesn’t show the reshaping of Lake Calumet as its curves are straightened to accommodate large ships form Lake Michigan.
Images of golfing and golf courses recur throughout the MBtoBI project. Private golf courses, with their mystique of leisure in a verdant park (and someone doing the work of carrying your clubs), played a role in the development of Midlothian and suburban Homewood-Flossmoor, with access enhanced by rail service to courses. Later, public golf courses became more common. While the preponderance of public golf courses west of I-57 follows the suburban-industrial divide separating the west and east sides of the Calumet region, this has been balanced by the addition of the course named for Joe “The Champ” Louis, who broke the PGA color barrier, along the Little Calumet, and more recently the Harborside International Golf Course, sited on reclaimed brownfields on a corner of Lake Calumet.
One panel shows the Beverly/Western Avenue boundary of 1909: Catholics west of Western Avenue, Protestants east of Western Avenue. This was one of the many temporary boundaries fashioned by Western European Protestants to avoid mixing with Eastern European Catholics. This past positioning is currently experienced as a long string of Irish bars on the west side of Western, with no bars on the dry east side. Churches as forces of unity and division are presented in a panel showing two crosses and the top of a mosque, a kind of coexistence becoming more common in the Southwest city and suburbs, not without continuing tensions.
In a Markham Prairie panel I celebrate the survival of the rare prairie star wildflower. But the industrial legacy of the Calumet Region left an enduring environmental stain, despite some remediation efforts. Métis, a people descended from early European settlers to the Chicago region who lived with and married members of various native tribes, are shown in a drawing being forced to leave Illinois by newly-arrived, disapproving Yankees.
1. Pacyga and Shanabruch, eds., The Chicago Bungalow, 8.