In South Chicago, A Neighborhood Faces Change

As Changing Gears gets underway, we’re featuring stories from our partner stations about the issues facing the Manufacturing Belt.

South Chicago, once a vibrant industrial neighborhood, has been hit hard by the decline of the steel industry. Thousands of jobs have disappeared at U.S. Steel, the biggest industrial presence in the area. Now, the city council has taken another step toward formalizing plans for a new development that could mean condos, new stores and the potential for jobs on land that is co-owned by the steel maker.

It’s just the kind of project that would show the area is Changing Gears and moving toward a new future. But not all residents are happy about the prospect. Michael Puente, a reporter with Changing Gears partner WBEZ, looked at the situation last month.


The bells of Immaculate Conception Church have rung in good times and in bad here in South Chicago on Commercial Avenue. The church sits just a few blocks from what was once the front gate of U.S. Steel’s South Works near 79th Street.

In the 1960s Christine Varela used to work at her in-laws’ restaurant outside the factory’s front gate when it was bustling with steel workers.

VARELA: We opened all day long in the morning and then we closed about 10:00, 11:00 at night.

But as jobs dwindled in the ’70s and ’80s, Varela says so did the customers.
When South Works closed for good in the early ’90s, the Penny Piece restaurant closed too.

And Varela says many of her friends left South Chicago. So she says she welcomes the news about retail and housing going up on the now nearly vacant South Works property.

VARELA: We need it. Yes. People need work.

MABWA: This is going to be a new city for Chicago and a new area for southeast residents.

Nasutsa Mabwa is project manager for McCaffery Interests of Chicago.

The firm co-owns the land with U.S. Steel. At nearly 400-acres, the property is nearly the size of the Loop.

MABWA: This site is basically the last lakefront development of vacant land in the city of Chicago.

Last week, the Chicago City Council approved zoning specifications for the site. It outlines where McCaffrey can build its condominiums, apartments and a million-square-feet of retail space.

What McCaffrey has planned comes after five years of planning. But it’s been even longer for South Chicago residents like Neil Bosanko. He’s been hearing ideas for the land for the last 15 years.

BOSANKO: We had heard rumors from Disney World to prisons to everything. Bosanko heads the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce.

South Chicago and its adjacent neighborhood, the East Side, are considered working class, industrial areas.

Bosanko doesn’t see that changing even with $500,000 condominiums planned for the new Lakeside community.

BOSANKO: Everything we’re doing in the community business district, with the help of the community, is to make sure that we are a community mom and pop, ethnic kind of shopping district like Streeterville, like Humboldt and some others that would attract people no matter what income levels and where they come from.

But not everyone is backing the plan for South Works. Less than a block from Bosanko’s chamber office on Commercial Avenue is Centro Comunitario Juan Diego.

It’s a non-for-profit community center helping many of South Chicago’s underprivileged youth.

Robert Garcia volunteers at the center. Garcia says he remembers attending several community meetings in the late ’90s about what to place on the U.S. Steel site.

GARCIA: People talked and nobody listened. People said directly they wanted jobs, they wanted some type of industry to come back. Something to come back to the area to help out the people that live in the area. Unfortunately, it seems like those plans were scrapped.

Much of the development on the U.S. Steel site lies in the 10th Ward of Ald. John Pope. Pope says South Chicago has plenty of vacant land that’s away from the lakeshore. And that land can still be used for industry.

POPE: We had some plans to do some industrial development on the site and I think we realized that the lakefront is so valuable and so pristine that we would like to preserve it for something that’s non industrial.

Pope also says the new retail will bring new jobs. Robert Garcia’s not satisfied.

GARCIA: But the question becomes how much are people going to actually be making in those jobs? Are they actually going to sit there and sustain a family or are they little part-time jobs that barely pay enough for people to keep up?

But Alderman Pope, some mom and pop business owners and others around here say many areas of the city have been developed.

Now, it’s South Chicago’s turn. Work won’t begin until at least 2012.

Developers and investors are counting on tax incentives from the city to help offset cost of the work for the multi-billion project.

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