[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
This section interrogates the concept of the ‘border’ and asks how borders compel or dissuade migration.
Inhabitants call it “The Calumet” or even just “The Region.” The Region—comprising the far Southeast Side of Chicago, parts of the South Suburbs, and parts of Northwest Indiana—is connected by ecology and economy, refusing to respect the boundaries of cities or even states. The word calumet comes from French, and refers to an Indian pipe, recalling the deep history of the place Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable traveled to around 1779. “Although the Calumet region has no fixed boundaries,” says the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “most Chicagoans understand it to be the part of the metropolitan area surrounding Lake Calumet and the Calumet river system.”
But do most Chicagoans understand it…at all? Maybe the city of Chicago itself is really just an afterthought to The Region. With Chicago, Calumet shares histories of rivers’ courses reversed, of railroads and smokestacks and reinvention. South from 79th Street (or thereabouts) down to Joliet, Monee, Gary (or thereabouts), this is a place whose natural and social ecologies were marked first by the drastic environmental changes wrought by industry, then by the second shock of the economic decline that came with industry’s demise. It holds a rich trove of labor history. It was a destination for European immigrants who preserved their own cultures in churches and taverns, and Black migrants arriving from Mississippi in the Great Migration: Mississippi to the South Side, a major itinerary in which the Loop itself is just a periphery. The Region also contains farmland, and architectural treasures, and rich bird habitats. And its residents are working to reclaim the place and make new life bloom—like a scrappy plant emerging from the eroded slag of a steel mill.
On October 17, AREA friends and contributors led a group on a tour of some key sites in The Region’s history, co-sponsored by the Smart Museum of Art’s Heartland exhibition (running until January 17, 2010) and the Franke Institute for the Humanities at the University of Chicago. Special thanks are due to Charles Vinz and Samuel Barnett (who shared research related to their contributions here); to Sherry Williams, founder and executive director of the Bronzeville/Black Chicagoan Historical Society and curator of “The Great Migration And What They Brought With Them” at the Pullman State Historic Site; and to travis, Mississippi Chickasaw/Black painter, gardener, Vice-President and Treasurer of American Veterans for Equal Rights, and performance artist providing Guitar/Words/Voice/Noise for the experimental noise ensemble ONO since 1980, who opened his Jeffrey Manor home to our group and provided delicious chicken gumbo.