Connecting the Dots

I lived in Chicago from 1986 to 1995. At that time, four-fifths or more of Chicago’s household waste was being stored in Lake Calumet, on the far southeast side, and the remainder went up in smoke via the ovens of the Northwest Incinerator on the west side. I don’t know how the booty was divided between landfill and incinerator, so I just made a pilgrimage to both places to acknowledge the relics of my earlier days.

Lake Calumet has been referred to as “one of the greatest ecological disasters in the history of North America.” About half the total area of the original wetlands that connected the Calumet River to Lake Michigan has been filled in, much of it under conditions that didn’t even meet the rather lax waste management standards of the 1950s. The list of contaminants is long and frightful, while the list of endangered and threatened species gets shorter as time goes by.

Abandoned industrial hulkBesides my garbage and the household leftovers of fellow Chicagoans, vast amounts of steel slag from the local mills and other industrial and chemical waste contribute to the 87 acres of toxic devastation. The characteristic pipe-studded garbage mounds go on and on, the length of almost 30 long city blocks north to south, from 103rd to 130th street, more or less, here and there relieved by ponds, elbowing right up to various residential neighborhoods. The hulking, rusted-out industrial behemoths of once-flourishing heavy industry sit abandoned along the edges, loose metal pieces creaking in the breeze, a monument to heedless rapacity.

Almost as wide west to east, the trash stretches from the Dan Ryan expressway pretty much to the border with Indiana. In places, the wetlands have been restored to a semblance of their natural state. Most days, men can be seen fishing to supplement their dinner.

Northwest IncineratorThe Northwest Incinerator is also within city limits, on a small industrial island in a residential ocean. I made my way there, at 740 N. Kilbourn, with an idea that it is no longer operational, following serious environmental violations in the 1990s and protracted community organizing to have it shut down. But the first thing I notice upon my approach is an unusually large concentration of blue garbage trucks that gradually coalesces into a single stream disappearing steadily into the gates of hell, in the shadow of the incinerator’s towering chimneys. The sickly smell of ripe garbage hangs over the scene, leaving no doubt about the nature of the business conducted here. The incinerator once supplied steam directly to the neighboring Brach’s candy factory, which does appear to be gone. I try to imagine the mixed aroma of garbage and cheap chocolate that once held sway, wondering whether the air would have caused tooth decay at the same time it damaged the lungs and brains.

Not that I was aware of all this when my garbage wound its stealthy way to these two places. What surprises me now is how extremely close I came to all the bits and pieces, without ever actually grasping the pattern now so plainly apparent. I taught at Chicago State University for a few years and participated in a summer science program, probably in 1993, which included a segment on environmental science and environmental justice. I knew about the environmental justice movement and that it received an important impulse in the late 80s and early 90s from the communities organizing on Chicago’s southeast side that suffered most from the local environmental insults and high cancer rates. I met Hazel Johnson, who’s been called the mother of the local environmental justice movement. I even went along on a field trip to visit the Calumet landfill. But in all of this, I never actually connected the dots between my own garbage and the consequences. Somehow, it struck me then as a problem of what Chicago did with its garbage, rather than a problem of what it did with my garbage.

My garbage was picked up once a week by the local collection agency and then it vanished–from my awareness, if not from the earth. It disappeared into the collective unconscious, so to speak. I thought about trash, of course, especially when the communal dumpster filled up before I came by with my offerings. But it was a separate issue that lived in a different compartment of my brain than the one that contained Lake Calumet, environmental racism, Hazel Johnson chaining herself to a truck in the attempt to put a stop to existing landfilling practices, or waste management practices in general. The difference, captured in a single pronoun, paints the whole world in a different color.


4 Responses to “Connecting the Dots”

  1. 1 Tony Dzik, Ph.D.
    February 3, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Hello, Marijke. I’m writing a book about the 1960s economic geography of the neighborhood immediately to the north of the Northwest Incinerator. I lived in that area from 1953-1987 and there was controversy when it was proposed. I would like to use the fine picture you have on your site in my book.
    May I have permission and, if so, how do I credit it? Thanks, Tony Dzik, Ph.D/,Professor of Geography, Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio

  2. 2 Assis Francisco de Castilhos
    June 8, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I willl go to Chicago. Do you know of a incinerators equipped with energy-recovery plant of waste near to Chicago? I would like to visit it. What is it adress? thank you.

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