SOUTH DEERING — Three projects at Big Marsh Park on the Southeast Side are continuing the dramatic turnaround of the former slag dump into a gateway to the region, which is better known for its industrial past than its natural beauty.
The 300-acre Big Marsh Park, 11559 S. Stony Island Ave., is the Park District’s largest natural site, said park supervisor Stephen Bell. The north side of the park is still being restored for public use, but the south side has seen major changes: It has a new paved bike park and environmental center, as well as walking paths, dirt trails, jump lines for bikes and picnicking space.
The end goal is to “cap” the entire park with clay, which will protect it from any contamination lingering from the steel industry’s use of the land. The south side has been capped, but not the north side.
The steady improvements to Big Marsh Park are part of an effort to restore access to “degraded” Calumet region lands, alongside recent and planned upgrades to nearby Indian Ridge Marsh Park, Hegewisch Marsh Park, the Marian R. Byrnes Natural Area and Steelworkers Park, Bell said.
“It’s an opportunity for the community to reimagine, rediscover and reclaim these spaces that they haven’t been able to go to for so long because they’re dangerous, they’re post-industrial, they’re dump sites,” Bell said.
The centerpiece of that rejuvenation is the newly constructed Ford Calumet Environmental Center, which will serve as a hub for programming and “eco-recreation” at the five Southeast Side parks. Bell serves as director of the center, which was designed by Valerio Dewalt Train, the architects behind Vue53, Earl Shapiro Hall and Gordon Parks Arts Hall in Hyde Park.
The center was initially planned for Hegewisch Marsh Park. Designed by Jeanne Gang — the architect behind Solstice on the Park, City Hyde Park and the University of Chicago’s north residential commons — the Hegewisch plans were scrapped due to high costs, as reported by WTTW.
Now based out of Big Marsh, the center will offer drop-in programs for families, activities for school groups, volunteer opportunities and more when the coronavirus pandemic lets up, Bell said.
Programming will center around native plants, animals and habitats, with a particular focus on helping kids interact with their natural surroundings.
“The vision for it is that it’s a gateway into the Calumet region … as a way for people to learn more about the history, the culture, the environment — all of the great things that are still happening here,” Bell said.
A newly-finished sculpture at the southeast edge of Big Marsh Park complements the restorative focus. The sculpture features waterfowl, woodpeckers, coyotes, fish and other wildlife that have returned to the area following years of restoration work.
The unnamed sculpture, delayed for months by the pandemic, was completed Friday by renowned urban artist Roman Villarreal with the addition of metal butterflies by Pilsen-based artist Frank Diaz.
The piece is “a tribute to our history,” Villarreal said. Depictions of native wildlife and Indigenous inhabitants honor the land’s traditional uses, while the metal butterflies represent the land’s transformation from industrial waste site to accessible green space.
Work on the sculpture doesn’t end now that humans have done their part — the piece is in nature’s hands now, Villarreal said. The elements will weather and discolor the stone while creating a patina on the metal butterflies.
“No matter what happens, Mother Nature is going to take over,” Villarreal said. “Unless we stop her, she’s going to claim it.”
The sculpture “is a really nice way to springboard … into the space around it,” Bell said. It’s already serving that purpose: numerous walkers, bike riders and families stopped Friday to view and praise the piece before continuing to explore the park.
“Because this is such a wide-open, wild, forgotten space, we needed something to draw people in,” Bell said. “This big monolithic, totemic piece draws you into the park and is depicting all of the things that I love about the animals and the plants that are here.”
Big Marsh Park might be recovering from its days as an industrial dump, but one machine is still very welcome on its grounds: the bicycle.
A 1-mile dirt track for low-impact riding and three jump lines for BMX riders of varying skill levels have been in place. On Friday, a 32,000-square-foot paved pump track was opened to the public.
Paul Fitzgerald, executive director of Friends of Big Marsh, a nonprofit founded to support “the Park District with regards to the bike park,” said the existing dirt pump track was “out of commission more often than not” due to flooding.
Over the past 18 months, the nonprofit raised funds for the paved trail, boosted by a $500,000 matching grant from an anonymous donor whose foundation focuses on promoting access to green space in cities.
The funds paid for bike park construction company Velosolutions to start work in July.
The bike park project is “important to both the community and for the city at large,” Fitzgerald said. “The young people of the Southeast Side deserve something world-class in their backyard.”
Over the next year, Friends of Big Marsh plans to make two more expansions to the bike park.
First, park stewards will create a big hill using clean fill, then get community input to determine what type of bike trails residents want to see on the hill. That project will be followed by a multi-use path connecting the north and south sides of the park.
From the environmental center to the sculpture and bike park, years of improvements have created a park that reflects its complicated past without losing sight of its present and future.
“The Southeast Side has the most amazing natural space in the whole city,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not just a dumping ground.”
To donate to the continued development of the bike park, you can visit the Friends of Big Marsh website.
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