Weather Updates

With the Caravan’s arrival, ‘the Bush’ blooms again

Neighborhood residents (from left) Joe Perez Rich Melendrez Charles Bessett MargaritCruz walk near former U.S. Steel South Works site where

Neighborhood residents (from left) Joe Perez, Rich Melendrez, Charles Bessett and Margarita Cruz walk near the former U.S. Steel South Works site where the Dave Matthews Band and other groups will play. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 1, 2011 12:37AM

The sons and daughters from the last generation of men who worked at the U.S. Steel South Works still live in the neighborhood near 86th and South Green Bay Avenue. They are loyal that way, a joist welded to the past.

They remember when the sky turned orange at night from liquid iron dropped into large boilers. When the rest of the city was going to bed, neighborhood kids could play baseball and ride bicycles under tangerine heavens.

The Dave Matthews Band Caravan brings a renewed spark to the neighborhood next weekend when it sets up at Lakeside, the site of the former steel plant that closed in 1992.

More than 50,000 steelworkers labored on the site. The neighborhood known as “the Bush” had a bar on every corner: Leo’s, Seagull’s, Ray’s Tavern on Burley. The 1960s Chicago Blackhawks had hearty pre-game meals at Gene’s Steakhouse, 83rd and Burley.

Matthews fans won’t find any of this.

The orange fades to black.

There are no more bars, and the closest restaurants are a mile south of Lakeside: the Italian cuisine at Roma’s, a Richard J. Daley favorite at 9273 S. Chicago (773-375-5700) and Mexican fare at Cocula’s, 8847 S. Commercial (773-374-3214). “It’s five minutes away,” said Rich Melendrez, program director of the South Chicago Neighborhood House, a block away from the concert site at 8458 S. Mackinaw. “You could take a bus. If we had a bus.”

Melendrez, 40, is the unofficial mayor of the Bush. During a recent walk up and down the neighboood streets, just about everyone said hello, shouted a South Side salutation or ribbed Melendrez about his loyalty to the Chicago Cubs.

On Saturday, the South Chicago Neighborhood House (773-731-8187) will be the closest hot spot to Lakeside. Between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. the settlement house that opened in 1919 will be serving soft drinks, chicken flautas with Spanish rice, chocolate-covered strawberries and homemade cupcakes to concert goers. Neighborhood kids will headline a talent show. No word if they will sing “Tripping Billies.”

The house had closed in August due to lack of funding. The building was slated to be razed. Neil Bosanko, executive director of the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce, led the drive to have the house reopened in February, gathering the spirit of 45 volunteers. Bosanko, 57, is battling pancreatic cancer. A stretch of street along the Lakeside site was recently named in his honor.

Margarita Cruz is a 25-year-old neighborhood house volunteer who lives on South Mackinaw. “Its exciting to have the concert in this area,” said Cruz, whose late father William worked in the mill as a teenager. “People think we live in Indiana. You always think of concerts on the North Side and in the suburbs. This puts us on the grid. People do live this far east.”

Acclaimed Calumet Region photographer Gary Cialdella likes to quote Robert Gard: “No place is a place until things are remembered.”

The Bush is quite a place.

Blanketed by grass and weeds, the old EJ&E (Elgin, Joliet and Eastern) line runs near the concert site. “The train would drop off the coal for the steel mill,” remembered Joe Perez, a former ironworker who grew up at 85th and Buffalo. Melendrez added, “When the trains came you literally could not get in and out of this neighborhood for a good 30 minutes.

“For people over 30, people who remember it, it’s cool to see something coming back. Even now, you say ‘Bush,’ they say, ‘U.S. Steel.’ It was a force of 50,000 people coming together for their paycheck. We built downtown Chicago in the Bush. Those beams in the Sears Tower came from Bush. That’s the first thing my dad told me. Everywhere there’s a skyscraper in America, chances are at least a couple beams came from Bush.”

Life is no longer so large in the Bush. “On the last [10th Ward] aldermanic election, 154 residents voted,” Melendrez said. “In the 1970s I’d guess it was at least 6,000.” A condemned and allegedly haunted two-story house, empty for a decade, sits next door to the neighborhood center.

“This is the result of absentee landlords,” Melendrez said as he looked at the house, tagged with faded graffiti. “It is some of the things our community has had to deal with. It is a haven for gangs.”

On the flip side, the New Sullivan Elementary School opened in 2000. It is one of the newer buildings in the Chicago Public School system.

The residents are proud of the history in the Bush. “Rick Stelmaszek [former Cubs catcher, current 62-year-old Minnesota Twins coach] lived at 83rd and South Shore Drive,” Perez said. “Dick Butkus had family at 85th and Mackinaw. [Late wrestler] Moose Cholak hung out at Seagull’s Bar. It was a good neighborhood.

“It is a good neighborhood.”

Cruz and Melendrez would like to see concerts on a regular basis at Lakeside. Melendrez waved an arm in the air and said, “Check out this weather. You go five blocks in the city and it’s 90 degrees. You come to Green Bay [Avenue] and you’re going to get this cool breeze.”

But Cruz won’t be going to the concert. On Friday she is participating in a Relay for Life benefit.

Melendrez said, “We actually got a call from [sponsor] Target, and they’re supposed to send us some [tickets]. If we get those we will send representatives from the neighborhood.”

Perez, 48, doubts he will attend the concert. Charles Bessett, 39, a house volunteer and resident of South Mackinaw, added, “It’s not so much the ticket price. It’s just that Dave Matthews isn’t right for the age we’re at. If it was U2, there would be a line of us waiting to get in.”

Lakeside’s developer, McCaffery Interests of Chicago, has reached out to the community, according to Melendrez. “They have planning meetings here, and there’s no reason for whomever wants to voice their opinions not to do it,” he said. “But our great grandfathers dealt with that: ‘They’re bringing this in, they’re moving that out.’

“Don’t tell me you love me, show me you love me.”

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