Southsideland: A History of Recycling in Chicago

CHICAGO HISTORY by Marlee Prutton

61st and Blackstone is an industrial place. To the east looms the smokeless spire of a closed glass plant, to the north the flat, forgotten remnants of the 61st Street gardens. It is quiet now. It is morning and this hard place is softened. So separate from the gothic labyrinth of the university’s quadrangles, it sits across the midway—a solid span of green that marks the end of green. Slanted light pours through the angular spaces between buildings. In the middle of the street these lines stream like tight rows of soil, a potential sealed by cement. It is here that the didactic worlds of urban and rural are on a collision course.  A chain-link fence is held together by vines that protect a brick and metal building partially hidden by the spire, the chains, the vines. This is the Experimental Station. The farmers have come. It’s market day.

Sign at Experimental Station

Chicago’s historic Hyde Park neighborhood is defined by a varied ethnic demographic and an income disparity that ranges from affluent to impoverished. Home to the University of Chicago, Hyde Park has become an island amidst two of the city’s worst neighborhoods—Woodlawn and Washington Park. The historical boundaries of 60th to the south and 47th to the north have been etched into the land by the traced racial and economic marks of unchangeable routes. Ken Dunn, the director of the Resource Center, the man responsible for implementing the city’s first recycling program, and his business partner the artist Dan Peterman would call the Experimental Station a “border institution”—a place that breaches the 61st Street divide.

He fits in this room. Chairs crafted out of scrap wood fill the front parlor of the Southside Hub of Production (SHOP), a cultural center in Hyde Park. The building is 150 years old. Curtains in street-facing windows billow out contained only by black wrought-iron bars. Ken Dunn hovers his hands over the eccentric, almost deformed woodwork of one of the chairs and you can see the tough, tanned skin of a farmer. Dirt. Soil. Fences. Water. Outside has come in.

Creaking up to the second and third stories of SHOP, Dunn’s excitement grows as single bulb lights, hanging from thin wires, illuminate each of the workshops. It is clear that this is a space of dreams he’s wandering through, in a project still dark and full of potential like a tilled, late winter field. This is where he tells his story—in a place where he fits—in this room, in this house, on this side of this particular city.

In the late 1960’s, a year into Ken Dunn’s PhD program at the University of Chicago, he hadn’t yet chosen a specific dissertation topic. Filling his Volkswagen bus with empty barrels, Dunn decided to conduct  an experiment to test the theories he had been working on about local resources. Unemployed men who buzzed around a liquor store, sitting outside reading the paper, looked up when the van sputtered to a halt on the corner. The lot adjacent to the store was piled so high with bottles that the land was consumed. He asked a few of them if they would help pick up and sort the bottles into the barrels. He would drive down to the glass factory six miles south, cash them in and split up the money. They spent the rest of the day working, and each went home with a good amount of cash.

Ken considers the story to be the genesis of the Resource Center, his non-profit recycling program, and explains further, “I took this as kind of a demonstration of a concept, that if one discovered value where nobody else saw it, and combined the overlooked human potential with the overlooked material potential—brought those two together—you would have a self-supporting, value creating system…and you’re not going to get opposition from anybody because you’re not taking what they thought of as rightfully theirs.” The concept would turn into his dissertation, “Resources in Discontent,” and would eventually become the Resource Center itself. He reflects: “A society must be judged by how well it uses its resources, not by any other standard. Understanding resources is understanding what is occurring within a society.”

That day, after he came back and split up the profit, as he was walking away, Dunn couldn’t wait to get back to his desk to take notes and document what had happened. He thought, “This will be my PhD!” It would be a project about valuing things at the most local level, building economies that could positively affect quality of life. His train of thought was interrupted. One of the guys shouted out “Hey man! Where do we work tomorrow?” He turned around and almost said “Oh you don’t get it I’m a student, had an idea — you’ve helped me prove it. I’ll bring you the book when it’s published!” He almost said, “I’m an academic. It’s not my job or your job, it’s just a demonstration.” Turning, he shrugged, calling back: “I don’t know. But I’ll be back within a week or two and give you the plan.”

A new graduate student in the University of Chicago’s art department, Dan Peterman arrived in Chicago in 1983. Peterman spent time rummaging through Dunn’s southside haunts for materials, and the two men eventually met. He came around enough that Ken asked to hire him at the new Resource Center location. Peterman was fast becoming a popular artist in the environmental art movement. The space at 61st and Blackstone, the original drop-site for the Resource Center that Dunn later purchased, was an almost abandoned relic by the time the artist wandered through it. Used at one time as a library, a bakery, a clothing exchange, the spot’s layers of material history fascinated Peterman, who asked to use a part of it for a studio. There he was able to work on his own recycling project—the manipulation of objects and trash, of forgotten resources into works of art.

The Tribune came and took a muddled photo. At 61st and Blackstone, a bus was buried in compost, the deep black pile set off by the contrasting sky, broken by the force of a line of trees assaulting the light. In the early eighties, Dunn and Peterman spent a great deal of time at the place still referred to as 61st Street, creating an office out of the old Volkswagen bus that they buried in compost for natural insulation. It has now formally been named the Experimental Station after Frank Lloyd Wright’s speech “The Art and Craft of the Machine”, in which he wrote: “The fire of many long-honored ideals shall go down in ashes to reappear, phoenix like, with new purpose.” But back then, before purpose or structure, it was two men in a makeshift office, a place where they talked, schemed, laughed, discussed, and dreamed. On the fate of objects. The nature of borders. An obsession with recovery. Collectors. These subjects were real, understood in the company of the other. It was art, what they were doing.

Ken Dunn

Dunn and Peterman both held a strong, singular interest in “border institutions”—an attempt at reconciling the division between southside communities. In a University of Chicago Magazine article in 2000 Peterman explains: “The Resource Center was unique. It was one of the only entities operating across the border. Nothing else was moving across 61st Street other than the postal service.” They have spent the last three decades wandering between worlds, building spaces, bridges between. It has been a defining feature of their life work. Dunn says, “It occurred to me that there could be a significant impact on the city, if we had projects on the boundaries between affluent and underserved areas. The wealthy communities could provide the materials and the neglected communities could provide the manpower. Surplus materials collected from Hyde Park could provide jobs for people in Woodlawn.” The Experimental Station, perhaps even more than the Resource Center, would become an institution capable of bridging the socio-economic, cultural and racial divide—a place of art, music, and food. Ken recalls: “Dan discovered a way of being an artist that was intensely local. He made me understand the power of art. Taking sludge, garbage in society, distilling it all to find quality. Every fact we encounter validates our opinions. This is only broken occasionally, when we don’t have to defend ourselves, when ways of looking are obscured and suddenly possible, open. Art holds what reason cannot. Art allows people to conceive of other ways of being in the world.”

The cleaning of abandoned lots—the project of the Resource Center—was a natural catalyst for the start of dozens of community gardens in these areas. Two city development plans were being undertaken around the same time as the Resource Center’s fruition. The Chicago Transit Authority had just finished constructing the Dan Ryan Expressway, a highway that essentially sliced the southside down the middle. As a result, it forced the Chicago Housing Authority to tear town four miles of housing projects including Stateway Gardens and Robert Taylor Homes, which ran on the highway’s eastern side from Cermak to Garfield Blvd. Also, the Kenwood Branch, the Garfield Park Line and the Stockyard Branch southside “L” stops that serviced three major neighborhoods were abandoned and demolished. This was Chicago transportation at its apogee, and mistakes were made that caused insurmountable geographic isolation for these communities. An expressway that was meant to provide access, to connect southside neighborhoods to the city center, in fact made it an “out-bound” space, defined by its incongruity: a wasteland to be moved through.

Looking through the city’s tax rolls, Dunn discovered that more than half of the lots in the southside neighborhoods were city owned properties. These “soft-sites” are parcels of land that developers have received approval to build on, but which, due to a down-turned economy, loan rejections, or failed funding, are reclaimed by the city and consequently lie fallow. Dunn initially checked on getting permission to garden on the abandoned lots, but it would have been impossible. So, they just started using the land. And it happened again and again.  Dunn explains the start of this new project: “For these neighborhoods to go out, to assert themselves; taking possession of a space that someone else had left, that was injuring their community. That made the project very popular. There’s something about being on the edge, something right about it, even if you can’t articulate it. It really took off. We got a lot of gardens started that way.”

Ken Dunn was the first to initiate both a household and commercial recycling program in the city of Chicago. The original drop-off site, where he had continued to pick up collected materials since the fateful success of that first experiment soon expanded to over sixteen sites throughout the southside. At East 87th and South Kingston, Dunn had knocked at doors, but no one had answered. After years of working the recycling program, word had caught on and men had to walk for miles to find glass, paper, scrap metal that they could drop for cash. Picked clean. There were blocks where half the lots were vacant, and for the first time in a long time, you could see the ground, the dirt. He went out one Saturday with a rake and a shovel. Curtains breathed deeply, billowing out against rib-caged, first floor windows. Curious silhouettes moved in and out of frames and eyes stared down from safe back porch nests, from Chicago’s wooden labyrinths attached to the backs of brick buildings.

University of Chicago Steam Plant at 61st Street & Blackstone

A man came out and asked Dunn what he was doing with the land, what was going in. “I said, ‘It doesn’t seem like these lots are helping anyone who lives around here. I’m just here cleaning up. I was hoping somebody would help.” The man was surprised, expecting a catch. Ken asked him what he thought should go in. The man said, “I’ve always wanted to put a garden in here, but I couldn’t find out who owns it.” Whoever owns it was not putting it to proper use. It didn’t matter who owned it. In Dunn’s opinion, the land should be reverted to the commons. There are over 50,000 abandoned lots in the city, over 10,000 acres; some are being productively used, most are not. They are haunting places, vacant except for the traces of material lives used then abandoned. Here was a plot of land, cleaned and ready. Dunn thought this neighborhood had a right to take it and use it.

On a plot north of the Experimental Station the land is flat and empty. In 2009, just three years ago, this space was the site of the 61st garden that included 143 plots, supporting 130 households. In 1995, Peterman and his wife Connie Spreen purchased the Resource Center-owned 61st Street land, which did not include the garden, and took over as garden coordinators. The garden land, owned by the university, had been used for over twenty years as a community space. The Experimental Station had a tight, symbiotic relationship with both the garden and the community of gardeners, co-evolving in a mass effort of reclamation and transformation. They had created beauty and kinship in a void. Jamie Kalven, a former 61st Street gardener and a teacher at the Experimental Station, asserted in The Huffington Post: “these linked initiatives have enlarged the ground for civic integration. They constitute welcoming and convivial public space where those long kept apart by fear and folklore can become in the deepest sense neighbors.”

The university had made a deal with the Chicago Theological Seminary to build a new “green” facility in exchange for their historical building on the corner of 57th and University Ave. They would need the garden space, adjacent to the building site, for construction work. The construction of a green seminary building that would require the avoidable destruction of a local garden teemed with irony. Adding fuel to a fire that tore through community meetings and Hyde Park Herald editorials, the former Chicago Theological Seminary building would become the future location of the Milton Friedman Institute.

With the understanding that the land was provisional, the community was forced to capitulate and the garden was torn down. Ken Dunn, who was more and more removed from the work at the Experimental Station, has a respect for the transience of land tenure, believing that the debate over the garden got out of hand. The work he does depends more and more on the support of the city, which gives him temporary control over vacant lots, and, since Rahm Emmanuel’s election the city finances the clearing, initial soil costs, fencing and irrigation for his garden projects.

The sun is setting into SHOP sending filtered, musty light into the ground floor studios. He’s excited as he turns a corner, pushing apart two French doors. A little room, with floor to ceiling book shelves envelope a small fireplace with thin black bricks. The space has been obviously transformed, even to new eyes. “The artist is my old friend Dan Peterman. What you’re looking at is plastic wood—one of his main mediums. In the early eighties a company on the southside invested in this stuff, made millions of pieces from recycled plastic products and went immediately out of business because the planks shrunk in the sun. They gave it all to me, and I gave it to Dan.”

Each piece is approximately five by eight inches, the size of a book, in every shade of blue and green, speckled with the faded memory of melted objects. Peterman reconstructed the floor of the room into a plastic parquet design and lined up the remaining pieces to fill the empty shelves. Dunn stands in this blue dream quietly. He turns, shrugs, hands-in-pockets, looking at the fake plastic books.

61st Street Farmer’s Market

He had worked with Peterman most of his life, on a project that would never be complete. “This exhibit makes me nostalgic.” He pulls out a cornflower blue plank, holding it tightly between farmer fingers. “Dan and I have always talked about writing a book about our work on the southside. Our story. But the leisure time has never been there; the work is never done. And look at what he has made—a library full of empty books.” Putting back the piece, fitting it in line with all the rest, his eyes are clear as he turns away to leave. “It’s appropriate isn’t it? But very sad.”

The lot is still vacant. The sun has just come up and bars of light playfully mimic the forgotten garden rows at 61st. Now trucks are pulling in, white tents reach for the blue sun and bloom like gardenias. Farmers stack themselves in rows side-by-side and wooden tables with produce; from far away the fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses are colors off set in sharp contrast to the white of the tents and the grey of the streets. The doors of the Experimental Station have been thrown open. The gates are untangled and even the lot looking on in earnest is fecund, full of a dormant potential. This is a place of transformation, of experiment, and even of revolution. And it is most apparent on market days.

Marlee Prutton works for the Chicago Humanities Festival and is an urban farmer for the Resource Center. She graduated from MAPH in 2012. A native west coaster, she misses the Pacific and the Sierra Nevada, but is slowly succumbing to this city, the prairie, and the blue inland sea. 

(photo of Ken Dunn by Matthew R.F. Balousek, all other photos by Eric Allix Rogers)

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