Big Marsh: A New Park Rises on Chicago’s South Side

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Just weeks ago, I stood on a hill in the center of an industrial-themed bike park and was astounded. A kid on a bike turned a 360-degree flip off a ramp built into an expert jump line. This was Big Marsh, Chicago’s bold new experiment in eco-recreation. It wasn’t just the kid’s radical air that astounded me, but the clarity of the park air and the remarkable surroundings. On a sunny November day that felt more like June, in the middle of proud working-class neighborhoods that built their lives on steel mills, this restored ecology and bike park arose from the wreckage left by the shrinking of Big Steel.

Friends of Big Marsh

Big Marsh park lies within the Calumet Region, a huge area at southern Lake Michigan that was once second only to the Everglades in terms of natural wetlands and waterways. Heavy industry took its toll. The steel mills that acted as magnets for working class immigrants and African American families, like my in-laws, dumped by-products of their manufacturing into the surrounding marshlands. The toxic brew of heavy metals left over in the making of steel is called slag. In places like Big Marsh, the slag has hardened into scrubby red rocks hostile to plant and animal life. It’s no wonder that over the decades people stopped exploring this region’s remaining natural spaces.

To remove the slag from Big Marsh, which lies within the southern boundaries of Chicago, the cost was estimated upwards of $200 million. As an alternative, the Chicago Park District, in partnership with a group called Friends of Big Marsh, proposed that a bike park be built on the slag heaps where plants wouldn’t grow. The two groups sought to provide better access to nature for residents of Chicago’s South Side and all of Chicago by investing in recreational resources such as this park. We started with an environmental cap of clean dirt on top of the slag—over 2,500 truckloads from construction sites across Chicago, contributed in-kind by the city. Then the bike plaza and trails and restored wetlands took shape.

Friends of Big Marsh

As a cyclist and nature lover who knew the byways of the bike routes, neighborhoods and forest preserves in Calumet, I was naturally drawn to the opportunity to be involved and serve as initial interim executive director of Friends of Big Marsh. It takes a community to activate a park, and we were fortunate to have such partners as REI, the Southeast Environmental Task Force, Slow Roll Chicago, and Major Taylor Bicycle Club. As Ismael Cuevas, chief of staff to Alderwoman Susan Garza and a dedicated cyclist, said to me on our ride from her office, “Growing up on the South Side, we didn’t have opportunities like Big Marsh; no one was taking us cycling. I’m excited about what this means for young people to have an asset like this in their own backyards.”

Friends of Big Marsh

Activate it we did. On November 6, 2016, I had no idea what—or who—to expect. Having spent so much time enjoying nature that too few explore, I knew that a multimillion-dollar investment in an unused polluted field was a risk. When the mayor’s arrival for the ribbon cutting and press cutting was immediately followed by dozens of South Side cyclists from Major Taylor and Slow Roll, I had goosebumps on the back of my neck. As the mayor walked up the runway that will be a finishing chute for national-class cyclocross races, and approached a bike plaza built on industrial themes with shipping containers, the cyclists closed on his heels and the visual evidence was in: The crowds had arrived.

“You have to see Big Marsh firsthand to believe this place,” I had been telling people. See it and ride it. I may never attempt to fly off the wooden ramps of the expert jump lines, and my choppy circuit on the pump track is a little slow, but there is still plenty more for me to ride, and I can appreciate how Big Marsh brings together all levels and ages of cyclists. For me, no other place creates such magic by marrying renewal and recreation amidst the urban landscape.

#OptOutside at Big Marsh! Please come join us for the first cyclocross race at Big Marsh on Friday, November 25.

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