One of the Chicago area’s best-kept secrets has made it out into the world thanks to the New York Times’ list of 52 “Places for a Changed World.”
The Little Calumet River made the list at no. 29, nestled right in between the Red Sea Mountain Trail in Egypt and the Inner Hebrides Islands in Scotland.
Located near the village of Robbins, the waterway has a rich African-American history.
Every year, the New York Times Travel desk puts out a list of 52 places it believes people should consider traveling to.
Its 2022 edition highlighted destinations “where travelers can be part of the solution” to issues like overtourism, climate change, supporting economies that depend on tourism and opening travelers’ eyes to cultures different from their own.
Karen Weigert, sustainability contributor for Reset and executive vice president at clean energy nonprofit Slipstream, joined Reset to discuss why it’s such a big deal the New York Times acknowledged the Little Calumet, efforts by local organizations to connect Chicagoans over the years and more.
Here are highlights from the discussion:
On why waterways like the Little Calumet River matter:
Karen Weigert: “It’s really just such an extraordinary example of how we deepen our understanding of Chicago. We talk about geography, about ecology, we talk about culture, but it’s really about our deeper understandings of this place and how we’re all tied to it. So it was remarkable to see the New York Times nestle in our Little Calumet River in a broader understanding of global solutions through travel.”
On what makes the village of Robbins special and how it ties into the river:
Tyrone Haymore: “It is the third-oldest Black town in the United States, and what makes it so historically important is that we had the first Black-owned and operated airport. It turned out to be the real genesis, beginning of the Tuskegee Airmen as we know them. 1931 is when the airport in Robbins was built by two men, then two women joined them later: Janet Brags and Willa Brown. They started a school there after they learned to fly.
From Robbins, we have these movie actors. Nichelle Nichols was born in Robbins; her father was the third mayor of Robbins. And then we have Dwyane Wade, the athlete, and we have Mr. T. He doesn’t talk a lot about it, but actually, his childhood growing up was in Robbins, Illinois. And the latest one is Keke Palmer.”
On how Openlands got involved with the Little Calumet River:
Laura Berghusen: “At Openlands I work with waterways throughout the Greater Chicago region to improve habitat and water quality and also public access to the waterways. Openlands worked to help create the Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Trail plan, and we’ve really been working on it since the 1990s. The plan presents a vision for publicly-accessible canoe and kayak trails – 10 waterways throughout the region – and the Little Calumet River is included in those waterways. Back in 2018, Openlands participated in a planning process that was initiated by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and it was a way to better connect the communities near Albion Woods, which is the forest preserve on the north bank of the Little Calumet River near the Bishop Ford Expressway through the Little Calumet River and also the Beaubien Woods also offers access to the river, as well as access to other natural areas within that preserve. One of the outcomes of the planning process was the idea of connecting communities to the river by telling this really significant African-American history that took place along the river corridor in the neighborhoods and in the villages along the banks.”
On how environmental justice ties into this project:
Laura Berghusen: “One thing that we’re really trying to do here is make sure that all communities in the Chicago area have access to their waterways for recreation, for education, and one thing that we found is in many places along the Little Calumet River, there is almost no access to the river.”
Karen Weigert: “It’s about safe, healthy places, but it’s also the way those places can connect us to each other and to the broader place where we live. And it’s really remarkable about the National Environmental Justice being anchored in Alkyl Gardens – a place that isn’t even on the CTA train line. It’s a far sell, often viewed as geographically isolated, and yet there’s a richness in history and now, through this water trail, everyone can be close and have an opportunity to touch into that history.”