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In Remembrance Of Rezkoville, Chicago's Great Lost Urban Wilderness

By Stephen Gossett in News on Feb 21, 2017 4:52PM

Chicago has its fair share of green oases for whenever we urbanites require a quick fix of wilderness. But as much as we adore, say, the Garfield Park Conservatory or the Nature Boardwalk at the Lincoln Park Zoo, there isn’t a great bounty of honest-to-god, untamed, non-manicured wilderness to explore within the city limits—which is why the recent razing of Rezkoville, as it’s colloquially known, leaves such a sting.

In early December, crews were spotted clearing the site —a massive 64-acre parcel of land bordered by Roosevelt, 16th Street, Clark and the riverfront—and by late January, it appeared to be fully leveled and fenced in. With it gone, so too goes the site’s curious and unique ecosystem: a place of strange bird sightings; unexpected wildlife; plant life uncommon to Chicago bursting in abundance; and off-the-beaten-path, impromptu trails, much-loved by adventurous cyclists.

All the brush and overgrowth is gone because, really, it was inevitable: a giant swath of riverfront land between the South Loop and Chinatown won’t go undeveloped forever. A 2002 plan by former owner and disgraced Rod Balgojevich associate Tony Rezko (hence the name) fell through; but last year, developer Related Midwest announced a 15-year project that would transform the onetime rail yard (vacant since its demolition in 1971) by adding thousands of new residences, plus retail and office space. It will be an entirely new neighborhood, essentially. (A court ruling in 2016 determined that Related partner Nadhmi Auchi owed more than $17 million related to loans involved in the deal, which may potentially stall the timetable.) Either way, the city’s long-overdue Wells-Wentworth Connector plan, which will run a north-south road the length of Rezkoville remains scheduled to begin construction next year.

But lost to all that development is one of Chicago’s most unique, relatively untrammeled urban escapes. Jana Kinsman, mastermind behind celebrated beekeeping initiative Bike a Bee, said she saw “city-rare” birds like an indigo bunting, stumbled across a highly unlikely jewelweed patch, and witnessed the distinctly non-urban sight of mud daubers building nests over the course of the past two summers when she frequented (as often as twice a week) Rezkoville. There were coyote tracks, and friends reported spotting foxes, she said. “It was a really special, quiet area, with a lot of wildlife that was allowed to exist without the urban din,” Kinsman told Chicagoist.

Because it was “all neglected, there were so many processes happening there freely without human intervention,” she said.

Liz, 33, of Edgewater, echoed Kinsman’s fond, in-the-semi-wild memories. “Last summer we saw a kind of blue firefly I've never seen anywhere else. Being in the middle of a the city, surrounded by the smells and sounds of a prairie, with the city lights rising up all around you was kind of mind bending,” they told Chicagoist.

There is a danger in glamorizing the space as a sort of back-to-nature quasi-preserve/urban-explorer playground. For the homeless tent-city residents who once lined the south branch of the river at Rezkoville, it was a real-life sanctuary—not of the wildlife kind, heavily littered in parts, and not always safe. (Kinsman recalled one homeless woman with whom she became well acquainted and who described a predominantly functional, live-and-let-live environment; but Kinsman nevertheless admitted feeling intimidated at times when going to Rezkoville unaccompanied.)

And there’s little doubt that the Wells-Wenworth Connector will be a boon to both the South Loop and Chinatown neighborhoods it will connect, acting as the very sort of (potentially bike-friendly) alternate passage that so many of us initially sought en route to discovering Rezkoville. Also, greater housing density could help moderate rising costs in the area. But given that The 606, Big Marsh, and—perhaps sooner than later—South Works may soon receive their inevitable, ultimately impossible-to-argue-with makeovers, Rezkoville felt like perhaps the last of a secret-escape kind—and certainly the most expansive.

Still, while we pour one out for Rezkoville’s inimitable lost ecology, those who loved it still hold out hope that it won’t prove so difficult to replicate in the long run after all. Given Auchi’s legal entanglements, all the new sewer systems that would have to be installed to accommodate Related Midwest’s development, and the possibility of environmental damage as a result of its old railroad past, could it all somehow stall and allow for another wilderness to sprout?

As Kinsman put it, “We hope that it’s cursed.”

(Note: Related Midwest did not return requests for comment. Ald. Danny Solis (25th Ward) did not immediately return requests for comment about relocation of homeless residents or potential environmental risks on the site. This post will be updated as necessary.)