Lake Calumet Airport: 20 Years Later

Lake Calumet Airport: 20 Years Later

Today WBEZ starts taking a closer look at the changes to Chicago’s City Hall, now that Mayor Richard Daley announced he won’t seek re-election, and there’re some 20 aldermanic seats up for grabs. It’s a project we call “City on The Remake,” and we’ll focus on how Chicago government affects the lives of average residents and what changes might be in store. This time around, we look back at one of Richard M. Daley’s first political failures. Just months after taking office in 1989, Daley proposed building a third airport on the city’s far Southeast Side. It’s an area known then and now for huge tracts of abandoned industrial land and high unemployment.

It’s Friday night in Chicago’s farthest South Side neighborhood, Hegewisch.

A couple dozen Hegewisch residents come together to enjoy the warm temps and show off their rides during Cruise Night on Baltimore Avenue.

Hegewisch doesn’t feel like a neighborhood. It’s more like its own town. It has a downtown with taverns, pizza joints, banks and grocery stores.

GIFFORD: I can go out at 3 in the morning and walk my dog and feel safe. It’s kind of like Mayberry in the city.

Nancy Gifford’s lived here most of her life and remembers Mayor Daley’s plan to build an airport in her neighborhood. She and her friends tell me what could have changed: Instead of being a drag strip like it is now, Baltimore Avenue could have become a tarmac.

GIFFORD: There are people whose families have lived her for generations. You’re just going to wipe it out for an airport?

SLATER: What’s going on? This was supposed to be an airport?

BETTY RESKEY: Yea, originally this was going to be an airport. Burnham was going to be gone and part of Cal City. So, it was wiping out the whole Southeast side here.

Antoinette Slater looks dumbfounded when she hears all this. She wasn’t even born when Mayor Daley talked about a Southeast side airport. She didn’t hear it from her parents or in school.

SLATER: I actually didn’t know this was supposed to be a runway. I’m only 19 and I grew up here. And I love this place. Now, to even know that they wanted to make this into an airport and a runway, I’m like, they would have taken my neighborhood.

She’s right. The airport wouldn’t have just taken up Hegewisch. It would have gobbled up areas west and south of here and it would have gone into Hammond, Indiana too. And there’s more. It would have displaced 10,000 residents and the city would have had to relocate dozens of landfills and factories like the Ford Motor Plant.

All of this was part of Daley’s dream 20 years ago.

DALEY CLIP: This is for real. The economic impact for the Northwest side of the city, Northwest suburban area and western suburban area was dramatic! We all saw it! And we’re going to do the same thing here in the Southeast side, Southside, south suburban and Northern Indiana, where it’s greatly needed!

That’s Mayor Daley touting the airport idea to reporters. He tried to make the case that O’Hare Airport improved the Northwest side of the city.

So, why wouldn’t a new airport do the same for the Southeast side? And he was ready to fight for it, too.

DALEY: I think what we have to do is to go out into Hegewisch, go out to South Deering, go out to the city, go out in the suburban area, Northwest Indiana and tell them what this airport, economic development, would do. Is steel mills coming back? I don’t see anybody building steel mills? Is factories coming back? You see no one building factories. So, we’re talking about economic opportunities and jobs.

At the time, everyone thought an airport would bring some new jobs. But people wondered how much that would cost the community.

ELLMAND: We’re were losing all our churches, all our banks. All these things were being destroyed to put an airport.

Bob Ellman has run a pet shop called 7 Seas for the past 40 years. Back in 1990, he was also the head of the Hegewisch Chamber of Commerce, which lead the fight against Daley’s airport monster plan.

ELLMAN: I understand why the mayor was doing it. Those properties were vacant for many years with the steel mills closing. But displace almost 10,000 people would have been crazy. You know, believe it or not, there were a number of people who were for it. They saw it as a way of getting out, trying to get the value out of their home and moving on. But it was just so monumental task.

Most residents and business owners I spoke with admit the Southeast side may be worse than it was a generation ago.

It’s got fewer jobs, it’s got fewer residents and it’s got few ideas to change that.

SCHWIETERMAN: You think what might have been.

Joseph Schwieterman’s a professor at DePaul University, specializing in transportation and airports. He’s always been fascinated with Mayor Daley’s Lake Calumet airport project.

One big question in his mind is whether it would have been good for the south side?

SCHWIETERMAN: This area, I have to say, Hegewisch is a little gem, but there are areas around it with these vast tracks of open land that was a remarkable thing that within city limits we had an area like this that had this few people in it. But boy the city doesn’t have a real good strategic plan right now to get good jobs down in this area.

Another question Schwieterman asks himself is what would have happened to air travel around Chicago?

SCHWIETERMAN: Midway wouldn’t have reached its full potential because of airspace limits with this airport and pressure to push airlines down here to Lake Calumet. At the same time, the mayor, there’s no question you couldn’t have embarked on this gigantic modernization project at O’Hare.

There’s one more thing we want to know from Schweiterman. The Mayor has never said why he let his dream of another airport bite the dust. The mayor dropped the idea by 1992.

So why did the mayor give up?

SCHWIETERMAN: I think the control issues had to be a big factor. I never got proof of that but it was pretty evident that the state wanted to create a commission that would have members beyond the city of Chicago. So suddenly, he would be taking heat for an airport but not really controlling it. That’s a big downside for the city.

Schwieterman and I keep talking as we roam around the intersection of 133rd street and Baltimore.

The neighborhood isn’t some economic basket case but it may need some work.

Mayor Daley’s leaving but will the next mayor come up with a bright idea to improve it.

So, could the idea of a Southeast side airport ever come back?

SCHWIETERMAN: Today, it would be a much harder sell than that. Neighborhoods are much better organized than they were in the late 80s. Poor neighborhoods, the environmental justice movement has taken off. The O’Hare modernization buys us more time before we’ve got to make that tough decision of where the next airport is going to be. No question we’re going to have to debate that but it’s so hard now in the 9-11 environment to credibly say we’re going to need an airport in 2020, we’ve got to move on it.

Back at Cruise Night in Hegewisch, there’s grilling going on and music playing. Folks like Nancy Gifford know that while not everything is perfect, she’s glad the airport proposal never took off.

GIFFORD: Even now it wouldn’t because this is our home, people live here. Even though people downtown and north of the city don’t know we exist. I mean we’ve been here forever. And like I say, it’s not like it was when I was growing up but it’s still a nice little town.