What typifies the Calumet region? To some, it is the singing of the sands as dunes are built and ecosystems are made before their very eyes. To others, the sights, sounds, and smells of the factories where generations of workers have produced huge shares of the nation’s steel, transportation equipment, and petrochemicals are the dominant image. It may be that pathbreaking events in labor or cultural or architectural history capture the attention. Or it may be that here – where industry and environment came colliding together as they did nowhere else in the United States – all of these things are true.
Let’s look at this place in ten images.
A flat, wet, post-glacial topography. The Calumet region occupies clayey bottoms of the former glacial Lake Chicago. Sandy beach ridges that parallel the Lake Michigan shoreline help to define numerous lakes and wetland areas. Rivers barely flow across the landscape. Then, fifteen or so miles to the south, the hummocky wooded hills of the Valparaiso Moraine provide a parallel frame to the lakeshore landscape and yet more variation to this subtle yet remarkably diverse landscape.
Habitat for rare flora and fauna. The Calumet region is an ecotone: a transition between major vegetation areas. It lies where the grand hardwood forests of the eastern United States give way to the stunning tallgrass prairies of Illinois, not so far to the south of the evergreen forests of Michigan. Landscape variations between sand and clay, ridge and marsh, lakeside and landside, set up local variations on the continental bioregional themes. No wonder that the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore counts as the fourth most biodiverse of America’s national parks, where plants like arctic bearberry might be found just steps from prickly pear cactus. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) lists eleven sites that are of statewide significance in the Calumet region. These sites represent over 4,500 acres with eight different natural community types. Twenty-six endangered and threatened species occurrences are also recorded by INAI. Threatened and endangered birds are attracted by the marshy setting along the great north-south continental flyway that passes through the region.
A long-held perception as spare land. The region’s rich natural endowments provided sustenance for the Potawatomi who lived here. For later settlers, Corn Belt-style farming proved more difficult: the wet landscape made travel difficult and led to countless episodes of draining, filling, dumping, or otherwise altering the landscape. The belief that urban wetlands had value as habitat, as flood control entities, as pollution filters, or simply as beautiful and interesting environments in their own right, was relatively late in coming. Even within sight of downtown Chicago, the Calumet region proved to be something of a nineteenth century frontier. In the second half of the twentieth century, a series of landfill hills sprouted across the region, though almost all are now closed and some serve as the home of new creative landscape uses as parks and recreational areas.
More than one hundred forty years of heavy industry. The area possesses a number of attributes that attracted heavy industry, especially steel-makers. It had land for manufacturing plants, bulk storage, and waste disposal; it had a bountiful supply of fresh water for steel-making process cooling; it had an available and willing workforce; it had access via “improved” waterways to both the Gulf and the Atlantic; it lay astride numerous rail lines and their yard facilities; and, it was initially far enough from downtown Chicago to remove its unhealthy aspects from the city’s core, but central enough to the Chicago market that many of its products could be consumed locally. While most of the City of Chicago is known for publicly accessible lakefront, south of 79th street the lake is dominated by industrial activity. Even the swath of dunes country of the national and state parks is punctuated by steel mills.
Strong community traditions. Scattered amidst the wetlands and the factories are the communities that developed near the millgates. People from a remarkable array of cultures found a home in the region. Over the past century, population has expanded to nearly two million people and homes have spread into the moraine country.
A changing economy. Since 1980, the region’s economy has changed markedly, as large-scale facilities have closed, all too frequently leaving joblessness and contaminated “brownfields” in their wake. How to build a productive job-providing regional economy is a major Calumet issue. While major investments in traditional Calumet industries such as oil, steel, and automobiles continue, the region is also home to intriguing “creative placemaking” efforts, replete with vibrant main streets, arts and entertainment districts, and tourism-related developments that capitalize on the unparalleled crossroads character of the region and its cultural and natural assets.
Environmental awareness and stewardship. Life in an industrial region means finding the balance between the products, jobs, and taxes produced by industry and the environmental effects of industrial operations. Strong advocates for public health and the environment find their voice in the region. At the same time, many take action to steward the region’s natural assets, volunteering their time and muscle to work on cleanup and environmental restoration projects in nationally significant areas close to home.
Plans and Actions. More than twenty plans and visions have been produced for the area since the 1990s. The last two years have marked the release of the first-ever regional comprehensive plans by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Two creative phases of the Marquette Plan outline a future for the Indiana lakeshore. In Illinois, a Millennium Reserve: Calumet Core was declared at the end of 2011. Bi-state regional summits have been held to discuss these plans, the next one set for spring 2013. Plans have been accompanied by actions. A regional trail network is rapidly taking shape. Aggressive action to protect and better steward the region’s open space is well underway. Ecological and heritage tourism resources have been established. More children are finding their way outside. And a sense of the region as a place that has ecological, economic, and cultural integrity, even across a state line, has taken deep root.