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This is the End of Chicago (geographically) is a Chicago magazine


To get to the very southeastern corner of Chicago, you need to leave Hegewish on the bumpy, bumpy road of the Boy Scouts, and then turn onto a number of roads belonging to the Indiana-Harbor-Belt Railroad. From Lake Powder Horn to your right, walk along the tracks between the tall reeds, still in your winter blonde, to the train station where the black tankers are idle. Then turn to the abandoned rail backlash, weeds grow between its ties. Ahead, across the state line, in Hammond, Indiana, are the rusty canopies of some long-abandoned industrial concern.

Chicago’s southern border is perhaps the wildest and least developed part of the city, a hinterland that in some places looks more rural than urban, despite being within America’s third largest city. Like the country’s southern border, it is no man’s land that crosses forests, lakes, rivers and federal sites inaccessible to the public. It would make sense to establish the southern boundaries of the city on the Little Kalumet and Grand Kalumet rivers. Instead of preserving the natural boundaries, surveyors drew a straight line corresponding to the middle of 138th Street, which is often impossible to cross even by bicycle or on foot. Last weekend I tried, and for most of its duration I failed.

Leaving the Belt railway sites, the city limits travel west via Lake Powder Horn and through Burnham Woods. I only had a bike, not a canoe or machete, so I couldn’t row and beat through those wild barriers. To raise the line again, I drove south to the village of Burnham and into the muddy alley behind 138th Place, a street of working cottages with vinyl and an Old Style bar with long shutters. Along the north side of the alley is a vine-bound fence – a border fence between the city and the suburbs, as shaky as any in the Sonoran Desert, blocking the way to Mexico. On the other side is Chicago.

The dead end lane ends near the southern bank of the Grand Kalumet River, a body of water that gives the region its name Kalumet. From there, the city borders the confluence of the Great and Little Kalumet. When they hit the ground again, they cut through the northern edge of Burnham Park. A few square feet of this suburban park actually lies in Chicago, although the village of Burnham still mows the grass. This is what happens when Euclidean definitions of man impose themselves on divine violations of nature.

Between the Little Calumet River and Bishop Ford’s freeway, the city’s boundaries are inaccessible because they cross lands owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, which serves the O’Brien Gateway and Dam. Chicago became a significant Native American settlement and then a major city, due to its position on the watershed between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley, the continent’s most important water transportation systems. The O’Brien Gateway is an artificial transition point between the two systems that allows barges moving up the Kal-Sag Canal to enter Lake Michigan.

The closest I could get to O’Brien Castle was 130th Street, a mile north of the city limits. Here are a couple of tips for Chicago cyclists: First, don’t ride 130th Street. Second, don’t miss the bus there – especially if you live 195 blocks away from you. I pedaled past the Ford Motor Co plant. on Torrance Avenue, where the Explorer is produced, a favorite SUV of every police department. There is no bike path on 130th Street. The bike there feels just as shaky and out of place as the Sunfish sailing boat at the Battle of Midway. After several unsuccessful misses with pickups under the railway viaduct, I pulled my bike onto the sidewalk of the old bridge across Little Kalumet. (Old as in construction during Martin Kennelly City Hall, who served from 1947 to 1955.) The sidewalk was strewn with pebbles and broken glass, so when I turned the pedals, it had a broken inner pipe.

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I can’t imagine anything more absurd than riding a bike through the interchange between 130th Street and Interstate 94. This will result in a fatal collision with a distracted driver who didn’t expect to see a cyclist who stopped 55 miles from Bishop Ford hour. In order to survive, I fought forward on a flat tire until I reached the nearest town. It was Altgeld Gardens, a two-story townhouse housing project built for World War II veterans. I locked my bike in front of the library and walked on, which turned out to be a coincidence.

I have always believed that Altgeld Gardens is the southernmost district of Chicago. I was wrong. South of Altgeld live the people of Chicago. In search of the river, I walked along the oiled road that runs past the International Charter School of Haskins in Chicago, past the Church of Peter the Great of God in Christ. In the wooded area, there was a green sign for 134th Street. This quarter there were two brick houses reversing to the river and then a third house surrounded by old cars, including an RCN van and a cruiser with ragged “Truth or Consequences” markings, New Mexico, Police Department. As I passed by, dogs from behind a wooden fence barked warnings. I hurried away from this country scene to the urban world of the Golden Gate. I knew I was far to the south, but not in Schoentown.

And yet, beyond the river there is even more Chicago. On Indiana Avenue, I unlocked an Divvy electronic bike and rode it across a metal bridge to the only urban neighborhood south of Calumet. Just four blocks long and eight blocks wide, it is surrounded on the west by Riverdale, on the south by Dolton, on the north by the river, and on the east by the Bend River, a grassy landfill filled with natural gas wells. On 138th and Leiden is the Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, built in 1956, abandoned by a declining parish in 2011. The stone bas-relief of the Virgin stretches her arms over the door, which is no longer open. Further down the street is the Seashells Yacht Club (“Where the Water Meets the Heart” / for members only), and Pier 11 Marina, which is up for sale.

On 136th Street, Walter Perez leaned under the open hood and worked on the engine of his truck. Perez lived for 20 years in this quiet neighborhood south of the south side. Although it is part of the Riverdale community in Chicago, he said most people think it is in the nearby suburb of Riverdale, with which it has a shared zip code of 60827. Police officers know better.

“There was a fight there,” Perez said, pointing to Indiana Avenue. “They moved to that side. Someone called Riverdale Police and they said, “No, it’s in Chicago.”

As there are “no restaurants, machine operators and banks” in the area, everyone is shopping on Sibley Boulevard in Dalton. Life there is suburban in every way except tax bills and mailing addresses.

“This is the end of Chicago,” Perez said. Then he looked at me. “When I saw you walking down the street, I thought, ‘He’s lost.’

I’m not lost. I found exactly what I was looking for.

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