I recall it was enough, in high school, to mention you were going to the “Southside” to cement your badass cred. It would suffice to say you had driven past a numbered street (most east-west streets south of Madison are numbered in Chicago, as opposed to their conventionally named counterparts on the north side) to get a wide-eyed stare of fear and respect. When I had gotten lost as a freshly-licensed sixteen year old and wound up in a fender bender on 111th street, my friends acted as if I had walked into Mordor and back out again.
When I began work at the company I’m still with, I wound up having to drive around the Southside as part of my job. As I got to see the vast swaths of industry, housing projects and rusting infrastructure, my interest in urban exploration was born. Not yet urbex, in the sense of exploring the abandoned, but just visiting the less traveled corners of the city. There was a fascination in coming across the loneliest intersection in Chicago, or a former Nike missile launch site. Early on, this particular vista made a big impression on me: the bend in the Calumet River around 130th and Cottage Grove, looping around a massive factory. I’ve never been able to get a shot which captures the impression this peninsula makes on a passing motorist. I think one would have to get closer, maybe shooting from a boat on the river. But here’s my last attempt from a recent visit, all gussied up in High Dynamic Range and melancholy colors. Perhaps you’ll give me points for style.
There are many fine urbexers out there who take an active interest in documenting the places they visit, either to highlight an aspect of local history or to help preserve them. While I may be sometimes intrigued by that aspect of urbex, I make no bones that my primary interest in this genre of photography is primarily aesthetic. Sometimes only knowing little about the place you’re seeing heightens the mystery, perhaps makes the story a photo tells a bit more universal. I tend to take a “non-attachment” to the sites we shoot; I find it’s a bit dishonest to bemoan their further decay when that is the very process that allowed us to shoot the pictures we did.
That said, I can’t help be a bit saddened when a site I cut my teeth on gets very rapidly demolished. The Riverdale granary was a massive edifice of metal, rust, concrete and ivy. As of our last visit, only the slim north building still stands. Soon, it too will be gone. It should be remembered that impermanence makes all things possible.
This former hotel was once the only place in town where alcohol was available, but only to its guests. Pullman’s employees, however, were barred from the hotel or its bar and restaurant. The industrialist did not believe his workers should drink. As noted in the previous post, George Pullman was a touch paternalistic.
As As I noted in my last post, I’ll be putting up a few shots from this enclave on Chicago’s Southside. The neighborhood started out as a company town for the famous Pullman Palace Car Company, a manufacturer of luxury rail cars. The company’s history is enmeshed with two currents of American history: civil rights, as well as the organized labor movement. In the case of the latter, the famous strike of 1894 was precipitated by an economic recession which cut deep into the company’s profits. The owner, George Pullman, responded by cutting wages of his employees, but not the rents in the company town in which they were required to live. His paternalism was such that it prompted one of his workers to famously quip, “We are born in a Pullman house. We are fed from a Pullman shop, taught in a Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church and when we die we shall be buried in a Pullman cemetery and go to a Pullman hell.”
Though this area has changed much in the last century, it is still recognizable for its red brick rowhouses. Most of the original carriage works are gone, but a bit remains, including this former administration building, restored since an arson fire in the early 1990’s.
A couple weekends ago an urbex trip, having met with little success, morphed into a general city exploration. We would wind up in the neighborhood of Pullman on the South Side. A couple posts on this historic enclave will follow; we’ll start with a bit of art in the heart of this community.