I've been thinking so much about what to say in my last column that I'm beginning to identify with Neil Armstrong. Neil had to come up with something memorable to mark his landing on the moon, and even though my audience is a bit smaller than his, I did feel a need to deliver something extraordinary to mark my departure after ten years of writing Field & Street. But so far all my ideas are about as striking as "Gee, it's great to be here on the moon." So I think I will just offer a little look back at the past decade and skip the exalted phrases.
One column every two weeks for ten years adds up to somewhat more than 250 columns, a number that amazes me. When I started, I didn't believe I could think of enough ideas to keep the thing going. But I soon learned that there would never be enough space to cover everything that deserved attention.
A lot has happened in the past decade. I was a young man when I started, and now I'm a geezer. My daughter could barely read in January of '84; now she has a driver's license.
The first apartment I ever rented in Chicago was at North and Sedgwick, and over the years escalating rents had driven me ever farther north and west until, just eight months after I started writing Field & Street, I finally bought a place at Montrose and California and settled down. This is as far north and west as I'm going, I thought at the time.
But here I am in Seattle. And houses are so expensive we may have to move again. My expectations are that I will finally come to rest somewhere around Nome.
Ten years ago the U.S. government was in the hands of conservatives who thought their whole duty lay in serving corporate interests. Today the government is controlled by ...well, you can't expect everything to change.
Of course we don't want everything to change. Ten years ago we were fighting to preserve the last of the Calumet marshes. A lot of people thought we were wasting our time, and a lot of active environmentalists didn't even know there were marshes hidden among the steel mills on Chicago's southeast side.
Now even people who work for the city know about the marshes, and since active work for their preservation began--with the formation of the Lake Calumet Study Committee by Jim Landing--not a single acre of wetland has been lost. This year Walter Marcisz found 17 great egret nests at 122nd and Torrence. That endangered species did not nest at Lake Calumet ten years ago. There were 662 black-crowned night heron nests at the Big Marsh at 116th and Stony Island, a third again as many as were present ten years ago. Our problem as a city is that while we have managed to hang on to the marshes, we have lost almost all the steel mills.
When we started working to save the marshes, the threat was garbage dumps. But in the course of fending off Waste Management Inc.'s attempt to place a huge landfill on the Big Marsh, an interesting political alignment developed. Neighborhood groups--working class and often multiracial--from Hegewisch, Jeffery Manor, and Altgeld Gardens began working with the mostly white, middle-class environmental organizations. Initially the environmental groups wanted to save the marshes and the neighborhood groups wanted to stop the flow of garbage into their communities.
The concerns of both parties in this coalition broadened as time went on, and when Daley announced his airport proposal both environmental groups and neighborhood organizations were able to speak out quickly and effectively with a high degree of unity. Everybody knew everybody else, and people had been gathering information for some years--information they could now put to use against the airport. The airport idea is apparently gone now, but the coalition endures.
In 1984 much of the huge Cook County forest-preserve system was degenerating at a rapid rate. Pieces of land that were known from historic records to have been high-quality prairies 50 years ago were being taken over by junk woods whose shade killed the rare prairie plants. European buckthorn was invading both forests and prairies, threatening to make the whole preserve system into a vast trash monoculture.
But as we enter 1994 that depressing trend has been turned around. We still have a long way to go, but we are plainly heading in the right direction. For the first time in its history the Forest Preserve District has a person assigned to the job of developing ecological plans for each of the preserve properties. Forest-preserve crews are clearing buckthorn and other aliens and even carrying out prescribed burns on land that needs them.
The district has also changed its attitude toward citizens. Where once it adhered to the traditional Chicago idea that we don't want nobody nobody sent, it now welcomes volunteers.
This shift really began with the creation of the North Branch Prairie Project 16 years ago. Steve Packard, now with the Nature Conservancy, started the group. He gained permission from the district to plant seeds from native species in several preserves along the North Branch of the Chicago River. Bit by bit that permission was expanded, until eventually volunteers took over management of the affected preserves. Operating under general plans approved by the district, they planted native species, removed aliens and other unwanted plants, even carried out controlled burns.
Today the North Branch Prairie Project is a sort of all-volunteer conglomerate. Gangs of 50 or more show up for workdays. Others are monitoring populations of plants, butterflies, and birds. A gardening project designed to provide a continuing supply of seeds involves hundreds. A growing stream of publications pours from North Branch presses, and the group also sponsors large conferences on prairie and savanna restoration.
The success of the NBPP helped push the Forest Preserve District toward opening up to volunteers, and the retirement of Arthur Janura as general superintendent and his replacement by Joe Nevius greatly accelerated the trend. This past summer the district hired Kelly Treese as a volunteer coordinator, another position that never before existed.
Groups modeled on the NBPP are now at work at Poplar Creek, in the Palos Preserves, and in the preserves near the Sand Ridge Nature Center. As the volunteer movement grows, we could reach the point where every parcel of forest-preserve land has its complement of caretakers.
The forest-preserve districts in the collar counties use volunteers too, but Cook County has more of them--at least 2,000 people have done some work in the preserves in the past year--and Cook County provides them with better support. Tools, equipment, and professional guidance are all readily available.
The growth of this volunteer army is directly improving the preserves, restoring and sustaining the complex natural communities native to northeastern Illinois. It is also providing something the forest-preserve system never had before--an active, involved constituency. The district is interested in buying land right now, and it can count on the volunteers to support that move. When the county board holds hearings on the forest-preserve budget, volunteers will be there to testify.
However, I will be in Seattle. All Seattle thinks it's way ahead of the rest of the country in environmental protection, but the fact is you can't spit without hitting a Superfund site. Boeing pretty much runs the place, and nothing happens in the area of pollution control unless they want it to. They are constantly threatening to move their operations out of the area, so the politicians are fearful of offending them by suggesting it might be nice if they obeyed the law. Public agencies save face by carefully avoiding the collection of too much data. Meanwhile many of Puget Sound's shellfish beds are closed by pollution, and the salmon runs get smaller and smaller.
As a city Seattle lacks Chicago's exoticism. Everywhere you look there is nothing but white bread. It may be crunchy crusted and hearth-baked in wood-fired ovens, but it is still white bread. The immigrant presence, whether of older groups like Poles and Italians or the more recent arrivals from India or Cambodia, is much stronger in Chicago, where places a few blocks apart seem to be on different continents, with signs on the stores not just in different languages but in different alphabets. Here you can't even buy a fresh tortilla.
The weather is tedious. The forecasters are constantly having to think of new ways to say it is going to rain. So we get "rain," and "periods of rain," and "showers" --and my own personal favorite: "rain changing to showers." And the TV weathermen say things like, "Today's high was 46, well below the normal high of 49 and far from the record high for this day, which was 52."
But the fish is excellent--while the supply lasts--and the Dungeness crabs are superb. There are many excellent local beers, and if you get sleepy espresso is available everywhere--even McDonald's has it.
So long, everybody.