‘It’s the End of Chicago’ (Geographically) – Chicago Magazine
To reach Chicago’s most southeastern corner, you must take the bumpy, bumpy Boy Scout Road from Hegewisch and then turn onto a set of tracks belonging to the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad. With Powder Horn Lake to your right, follow the tracks between tall stands of reeds, still in their wintry blush, to a rail yard where black tankers idle. Then turn onto a disused railway spur, weeds growing between its sleepers. Ahead, just across the border in Hammond, Indiana, are the rusting sheds of a long-abandoned industrial enterprise.
Chicago’s southern border is perhaps the wildest and least developed part of the city, a hinterland that in some places feels more rural than urban, despite being within the limits of the third largest city in America. Like the country’s southern border, it’s a no-man’s land that cuts through woods, lakes, rivers, and federal facilities off-limits to the public. It would have been logical to set the southern limits of the city at the Petit Calumet and Grand Calumet rivers. Instead of respecting the natural boundaries, however, surveyors have drawn a straight line that corresponds to the middle of 138th Street and is often impossible to follow, even by bicycle or on foot. Last weekend I tried and for most of its duration failed.
After leaving the Belt Railroad yards, the city limits move west across Powder Horn Lake and through Burnham Woods. I only had a bike, no canoe or machete, so I couldn’t paddle and bushwhack through these wild barriers. To pick up the line, I cycled south to the village of Burnham and into the dirt lane behind 138th Place, a street of vinyl-walled workers’ cottages and a long-shuttered Old Style bar. Along the north side of the driveway is a tangled fence of vines – a border fence between the city and the suburbs, as fragile as any in the Sonoran Desert, barring the way to Mexico. On the other side is Chicago.
The cul-de-sac lane ends near the south bank of the Grand Calumet River, the body of water that gives the Calumet region its name. From here, the city limits cross the confluence of the Grands and Petits Calumets. When they made landfall again, they crossed the northern tip of Burnham Park. A few square feet of this suburban park is actually inside Chicago, though the village of Burnham still mows the grass. This is what happens when the Euclidean determinations of man impose themselves on the seductive irregularities of nature.
Between the Little Calumet River and the Bishop Ford Highway, the city limits are inaccessible, as they pass through land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the O’Brien Lock and Dam. Chicago became an important Native American settlement, and later a major city, due to its position astride the watershed between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley, the continent’s most important water transportation systems. O’Brien Lock is the artificial transfer point between the two systems, allowing barges traveling up the Cal-Sag Canal to enter Lake Michigan.
The closest I could get to O’Brien Lock was 130th Street, a mile north of the city limits. Here are some tips for Chicago cyclists: First, don’t ride on 130th Street. Second, don’t get a flat tire there, especially if you live 195 blocks away. I cycled past the Torrence Avenue factory of Ford Motor Co., which makes the Explorer, every police department’s favorite SUV. There is no bike lane on 130th Street. A bicycle there seems as fragile and out of place as a Sunfish sailboat at the Battle of Midway. After a few near-misses with vans under a railway viaduct, I parked my bike on the sidewalk of an old bridge crossing the Petit Calumet. (Former as built under the town hall of Martin Kennelly, who served from 1947 to 1955.) The pavement was strewn with rocks and broken glass, so when I pedaled it was with a punctured inner tube.
I can’t imagine anything more reckless than biking across the interchange between 130th Street and Interstate 94. This would result in a fatal collision with a distracted driver who didn’t expect to see a stranded cyclist while he was was decelerating from Bishop Ford at 55 miles. one o’clock. To survive, I struggled forward on a flat tire until I reached the nearest settlement. This was Altgeld Gardens, a two-story townhouse housing project built for World War II veterans. I locked my bike in front of the library and continued on foot, which turned out to be a fortuitous necessity.
I always thought Altgeld Gardens was the southernmost neighborhood in Chicago. I was wrong. There are Chicagoans south of Altgeld. In search of the river, I followed an oiled road that passes behind the Haskins Chicago International Charter School, past the Peter Rock Church of God in Christ. In the woods, obscured by branches, was a green sign pointing to 134th Street. On this block were two brick houses backing towards the river, then a third house, surrounded by old vehicles, including an RCN pickup truck and a cruiser with the peeling marks of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Police Department. As I walked past dogs barked warnings behind a wooden fence. I raced away from that rural scene, into the urban world of the Golden Gate. I knew I was far south, but not in Shawneetown.
And yet, there is still more of Chicago beyond the river. At Indiana Avenue, I unlocked a Divvy e-bike and rode it across the metal bridge, into the only neighborhood in town south of Calumet. Just four blocks long and eight blocks wide, it is bounded on the west by Riverdale, on the south by Dolton, on the north by the river, and on the east by River Bend Prairie, a grassy landfill carved out by natural gas wells. At 138th and Leiden is St. Mary’s Catholic Church, built in 1956, abandoned by its declining congregation in 2011. A stone bas-relief of the Virgin Mary stretches out her hands above doors that are no longer open . Further down the street are the Seashells Yacht Club (“Where the Water Meets the Heart” / Members Only) and Pier 11 Marina, which is for sale.
On 136th Street, Walter Perez was hunched over under an open hood, working on his truck’s engine. Perez has lived in this quiet neighborhood south of the South Side for 20 years. Although it’s part of Chicago’s Riverdale community area, he says, most people think it’s in the adjacent suburb of Riverdale, with which it shares the 60827 ZIP code. The cops know better.
“There was a fight over there,” Perez said, pointing to Indiana Avenue. “They came from this side. Someone called the Riverdale police and they said, “No, it’s in Chicago.”
Because “there are no restaurants, mechanics, or banks” in the neighborhood, everyone shops on Sibley Boulevard in Dolton. Life here is suburban in every way except tax bills and mailing addresses.
“It’s the end of Chicago,” Perez said. Then he looked at me. “When I saw you coming down the street, I thought, ‘He’s lost.'”
I was not lost. I had found exactly what I was looking for.