Chicago’s Calumet Region

By Thomas Lewallen
(April 2015)

The Calumet region twenty-two miles south of downtown proper, has been predominantly occupied by heavily polluting businesses and industry since Chicago’s incorporation in 1837. With Chicago being the ideal midpoint in the nation for transportation by rail, and then by water after the reversal of the Chicago River, industry moved in (Sellers, 2006). At one time Calumet housed one of the largest steel producing operations in the world. Being conveniently located near transportation and water needed for manufacturing, the industry took off.

Calumet devoted its land and residents to steel and other dirty enterprises from 1900 to the unfortunate collapse of industry in the region during the 1980’s. For over 50 years, the Calumet region was home to and employed mostly American southerners and European immigrants in the steel mills and other industry (Pellow, 2004). This changed at its peak in the early 1970’s when the United Steelworkers of America counted over 130,000 members in the union—with African Americans and Mexicans making up the majority of employees (Pellow, 2004).

Picture of Water Sprinklers Dousing Petcoke Piles. Courtesy of E. Jason Wambsans / Chicago Tribune

Picture of Water Sprinklers Dousing Petcoke Piles. Courtesy of E. Jason Wambsans / Chicago Tribune

After the collapse of industry in the region during the 1980’s, what was left behind was a swath of brownfields and toxic waste. Remnants of a once thriving industrial zone, these plots of land are highly contaminated with everything from pesticides to heavy metals (EPA Region 5).

Is the state of the Calumet region purely an environmental concern or are there social injustices occurring as well? In other words, are less affluent neighborhoods purposely being sought out to house these polluting industries or has this been merely matter of happenstance? If so, how can the city of Chicago rectify this? Maybe the better question is: does Chicago care to?

Read the entire text of Thomas Lewallen’s article, “Cleaning Up Calumet: Environmental Contamination on Chicago’s Southeast Side,” here in pdf or Word format.