Growing up, Manus Edwards worked at the furnaces of U.S. Steel South Works, once one of the largest steel mills in the country. At its peak, South Works employed more than 30,000 people at its southeast Chicago mill. In the mid-1950s, Edwards, 17 at the time, says he was making between $120 and $200 a week.
“I wasn’t selling drugs,” said Edwards, now 74. “I was cutting iron, shipping iron, hauling iron; doing whatever it took at U.S. Steel. It was rigorous. It makes a man out of you.”
But its closure in 1992 dealt a heavy blow to the surrounding communities.
Now, after two decades, U.S. Steel Corporation and the real estate developer McCaffery Interests have paired up to develop the vacant 470-acre, lakeshore stretch into its own shining city within the city. Plans include the construction of more than 13,000 homes, more than 20 million square feet of retail space, a marina, a new high school and 125 acres of research facilities. Dan McCaffery, president of McCaffery Interests, has promised that the project will generate more jobs and police to patrol the neighborhood, which could help root out some of the gang activity.
But it’s unclear exactly what kind of long-term jobs the site will bring, and whether the project will bring about a rebirth for a battered corner of Chicago.
“If it’s nice, shiny and new, I don’t see why they’d include us,” Mike Medrano, who grew up in the neighborhood, told the Chicago public radio station WBEZ. “They’ve never included us in any particular way before, so, you don’t have enough people with the education to have the jobs to afford to buy the houses out there."
“Working at the snack shop at the marina -- that’s fine,” said Ethan Michaeli, who has spent 20 years working as a journalist and advocate in Chicago’s inner-city. “But that’s not going to change anything in the broader neighborhood. It’s not going to do anything for the real lack of affordable housing in the area.”
McCaffery says he does plan to do something about affordable housing in the area. He projected that 20 percent of the new residences would be affordable housing for low-income families.
“Right now, I’m just a dirty old developer. People in the community have every right to be skeptical of me,” McCaffery said. “They won’t believe me until they see it, touch it, smell it, live in it. But I make a practice of not telling a fib.”
McCaffery has been trying to keep the community involved, holding town hall meetings and tours of the site.
“I think they’re being very mindful, very deliberate,” says Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology professor at Columbia University who has published multiple award-winning books on Chicago’s black urban poor.
McCaffery thinks big, too. With the development’s research centers, wind turbines and revolutionary waste recycling systems, he has touted the area as being, potentially, the “next Silicon Valley.” The excitement surrounding the development even has old-time residents like Edwards dreaming up ideas.
“An ultra-modern skating rink; double to triple figure-eight, state-of-the-art, nothing like it on planet earth,” Edwards said. “...I want it named ‘The Plantation.’”
The developers may not see the selling potential of “The Plantation,” but there’s at least one thing both Edwards and McCaffery want on the site: Barack Obama’s presidential library.
“That’s No. 1,” Edwards said. “And I want 30 percent [of the construction jobs] to go to blacks.”
“This is the area where he was first elected to office,” McCaffery said about the predominantly black area of the president’s adopted hometown. “You could get there by electric train; 1.5 million tourists a year. What do you think that would do for the community?”