For nearly two decades since the U.S. Steel South Works plant on the Southeast Side closed, those who live near the vacant, sprawling site say they’ve felt largely forgotten by the city their families helped build in what was once the heart of industrial Chicago.
But on Saturday, at least, the area was back on the map and alive with music when thousands of concert goers arrived for the second day of the Dave Matthews Band Caravan. Expected to draw roughly 100,000 people by Sunday night, the three-day multiband rock festival is the first major event held at the lakefront plot stretching from 79th Street to 87th Street since the plant closed in 1992.
Despite heavy traffic on major roads leading to the old steel plant, several people who live in the South Chicago neighborhood known as the Bush said they welcome the attention.
“I think it’s good. It’s bringing people into the neighborhood, trying to fix it up,” said Susan Cruz, 56, who has lived nearly her entire life among the neighborhood’s aging buildings and now mostly empty taverns and corner markets. “Nobody knew we were here. They thought (the city) ended at South Shore Drive.”
The area thrived back when U.S. Steel and other nearby steel plants were in full operation. Parking spots were nearly impossible to find, and, after each shift, the local businesses were filled with crowds of steel workers unwinding over a post-work meal or some cold beer, several residents said.
But all that has changed since the plants and factories closed. Where families once settled, there are now boarded up homes. On streets where children once played freely, rising crime and violence now keeps many indoors.
Renee Ventura, who followed her father, grandfather and several other relatives when she took a job in the U.S. Steel foundry, said she remembers leaving the door to her family’s home unlocked and walking around the neighborhood without fear.
“You couldn’t do that now,” said Ventura, 54, who volunteers at the South Chicago Neighborhood House just a few hundred yards from the plant’s site. She now lives in the nearby Hegewisch neighborhood. “Sometimes you shouldn’t walk the streets out here. But it’s still our home.”
Sarai Miranda has spent all of her 19 years in the Bush.
She’s heard of the area’s past from her father, who spent three years working for a company that cut steel beams produced by U.S. Steel. But it wasn’t until Friday, when the first day of the music festival brought the faint sound of guitars and the laughter of outsiders arriving in limos and buses that she’d realized how her old neighborhood was capable of so much energy.
“More people are coming to the community,” Miranda said, standing in the back of her parents’ corner grocery store. “I probably saw 1,000 new faces in and around the store yesterday. I’ve never seen a bus drive through this neighborhood.”
Miranda’s father, Ramon, said the sight reminded him of the days when CTA buses would line up for blocks every day, taking steelworkers to and from their jobs.
“I think it’s good because you’ve got more people around,” he said. “We’re not making (more money), but you see lots of people enjoying themselves.”
Although this weekend’s festival is only temporary, the old steel plant site has long been the target of a neighborhood rebirth, with ambitious plans that were eventually abandoned ranging from an airport to a casino.
The current plan — a $4 billion project spread over 30 to 40 years that would include new housing, a marina and a shopping center — promises to change the neighborhood yet again if it is built. Many who live nearby said they want the land developed but worry they wouldn’t be able to afford to stay.
Until then, there was music and some welcomed excitement Saturday.
“It’s fun,” said Porcha Perry, 20. “It’s a good experience to see something new going on.”