I recently sold my family’s modest Cape Cod on Chicago’s Far Southeast Side, the 10th Ward. My father, a Navy veteran of World War II who earned 10 battle stars, bought the house in the East Side neighborhood in 1953.

My family’s ties to the area, however, began some 40 years earlier.

My paternal grandparents came to America from Serbia before World War I. My grandfather served in the U.S. infantry during the war, then he and my grandmother settled in South Chicago, where my father was born in a tenement at 88th and Burley. A teenage midwife brought my father into the world, and 73 years later I met her at his wake. She had attended to his birth and bore witness to his passing.

Neighborhood ties, indeed.

After serving in his own war, my father returned to Chicago with my mother, whom he had met on leave and married. They lived with his parents for a while in South Deering, west of the Calumet River, before buying that Cape Cod. My father, like his father, became a steelworker, working at the Republic Steel (later LTV) for close to 40 years.

I mention these things because I tend to view the 10th Ward not merely through the filter of my own experiences, but through a larger prism of a century’s worth of Far Southeast Side history, a history that parallels America’s in the 20th century.

As the steel mills flourished along the Calumet River, immigrants flocked to the area. Single-family homes were built and sold, small business were established and thrived, and high-wage union jobs paid for mortgages, cars and education. The ward prospered for decades and families stayed put.

Along the way, men (and women) from my neighborhood went to war. My father, his two brothers and a sister served in World War II, one of the brothers dying in the 1944 Battle of Anzio. Whether building the peacetime economy or defending our country, the families of the Far Southeast Side gave more than their share.

By the 1970s, however, this country no longer had a need for American-made steel — or for the people who made that steel. Mill jobs disappeared, people picked up and left, mom-and-pop businesses closed and the ward shuddered.

In the early ’90s, a second wave of residents left when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley tried to pave over the area with a third airport. Daley failed in that effort, thankfully, but many of my neighbors looked at the ward’s glass of potential and saw it as half-empty. When they left, the ward shuddered again.

Entering this century, the ward didn’t so much shudder as it tried to keep its balance while hit by a series of tremors. LTV Steel went bankrupt, more local businesses faltered, and then the real estate debacle of 2008 struck, spawning evictions, short sales and foreclosures. We lost our Dominick’s — a real community asset — and then our Jewel.

Not all is gloomy. An underappreciated treasure of the 10th Ward can be found along the Indiana border, where a swathe of green space includes Eggers Grove, Wolf Lake and the Wolf Lake Overlook. The area abounds with red-tailed hawks, deer, and migrating waterfowl. Each spring and fall, hundreds, even thousands, of sandhill cranes fly through, headed to or from the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Refugee in Indiana.

In the more than 30 years since the steel mills shut down, the people of the 10th Ward have waited for their elected officials to show a little imagination, to finally see beyond the ward’s industrial past and come up with a comprehensive, economically feasible and environmentally sound redevelopment program.

We’re still waiting.

I am not a city planner, but perhaps I have just a bit more imagination than the past and current occupants of City Hall.

Why not convert the former Republic/LTV Steel site along the east bank of the Calumet River into recreational green space and link it to Wolf Lake and Eggers Grove?

Or, if not green space, why not create a research and development site for the auto industry, especially since the Ford plant is nearby?

Or build a solar energy collection project, not unlike the one west of the river in Pullman.

What we don’t need is the coal-to-natural gas plant that was once (and still is?) proposed for that site. Coal?
How 19th century.

And as for the current debate concerning the storage of mountains of petcoke along the Calumet River, I’ll only say that this strikes me as a perfect example of how the ward is too often viewed through ancient soot-covered glasses by local, city, and state officials: if it’s dirty and industrial, put it in the 10th Ward.

How shameful, unimaginative and unambitious.

I write these words in the form of a long goodbye, having sold the family home, but I don’t mean it as a final goodbye to the 10th Ward, where I still have personal connections to the old neighborhood. But I am cognizant of the danger of looking backward; the fate of Lot’s wife comes to mind. I don’t fear being turned into a pillar of salt but, rather, a pile of petcoke.

If the history of the 10th Ward in the last century mirrors the history of the country, does the current plight of the ward reflect that of present-day America? The 10th Ward is hardly alone in its boarded-up houses and businesses, lethal street gangs, lack of vision and industrial waste. I fear for bleak decades for the ward, Chicago and the country.

But then there are the sandhill cranes.

For decades each spring and fall, I’ve watched them as they’ve migrated over the 10th Ward. Lithe and graceful, mindful of their own kind, they are everything we are not. Soon, beginning in early March, they will be passing overhead again.

The cranes are embodiments of beauty, strength and determination.

Worthy symbols to embrace and emulate, if only we have the courage.

John Vukmirovich is a writer and researcher who still lives in Chicago.