Walk of the Divides

divides walk 1Before there was a Chicago, the wetlands between Lake Michigan and the Des Plaines River were traversed by a barely perceptible low rise. This was a Continental Divide: all water west of it flowed to the Mississippi; all water east of it flowed to the Great Lakes. Indigenous people carried their canoes from one side to the other, crossing an extensive swamp. But colonial competition over trade routes carved a canal across the divide. Later, other canals reversed the course of the river. Wetlands were drained, land was severed from water and peoples were severed from ancestral life ways. Property and nation were made. The Great Lakes began to flush the city’s waste down the Mississippi, helping to create a Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.


Reshaped by hydraulics and layers of settler landfill, what we call Chicago is continuously being re-divided. On this walk we will search for the location and meanings of the hidden Continental Divide, looking for clues between canals, rail lines and highways, between official histories of a colonial past and a neoliberal future.

For the 2-page walk map/brochure, click  here


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Divides walk 2

Map of Chicago with former I&M Canal, West Fork and Bubbly Creek

1. Vanished

The Illinois & Michigan Canal opened in 1848 and was used for twenty years after completion of the Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900. Today no trace of the I&M remains at the Canal Origins Park. Most of the docks and the entire West Fork of the Chicago River have also disappeared. Instead you find simplified displays that narrate the origins of Chicago as a heroic story: “Geography is Destiny.” What gets lost is a planning process that involved wars, dishonest treaties, the exploitation of cheap immigrant labor and the fact that from 1870 onward, the I&M canal was an open sewer.

2. Path Dependency

Following the ancient canoe portage, the I&M Canal marked out a transportation corridor that keeps on growing and changing. First the Rock Island Railroad was built alongside the canal in the early 1850s. Many others followed, and by 1900 the area west of today’s Origins Park was a giant rail yard, serving the docks, the grain elevators and the meatpacking district. Corwith Yard, west of Kedzie, was opened in 1887 and is still operational today. The Sanitary and Ship Canal was dug in the 1890′s to drain Chicago’s waste. Finally, the Stevenson Expressway was blasted through this place in 1964, and it buried the old I&M Canal under a huge traffic jam. Now the biggest railyards are out in Joliet. The pathway we walk leads through ruins. Are we really so dependent on all this transportation?

3. Grain Elevator

What is it? Farmers put their crops in there, and they get a receipt which is just like a check. They loan the receipts to traders, who go to the CBOT and sell speculators the right to buy those receipts for a fixed price at a later date: that’s called “futures.” A grain elevator holds seeds of life, but in reality, it’s a lot like a bank. By the 1850′s, every railroad company needed to connect with an elevator next to a navigable waterway. In 1871 the Sante Fe line already operated one just east of here, but it burned in 1905. The one we see was built in 1906 and closed in 1971. From the 1990′s to 2009, it was the city’s biggest squat: the Sky Factory. Last year it was used for a shoot in the movie Transformers.

4. Cook County Jail

It’s a huge repression machine holding over 12,000 prisoners, with an integrated criminal court and one of the largest mental hospitals in the country. It functions like a warehouse or a nightmarish labor bank. The industrial system that we see around us depends on these institutions for discipline. Isn’t it time to end mass incarceration?

5. Celotex Superfund Site

This is one of the many abandoned manufacturing sites concentrated along the canal in Little Village, Chicago’s most densely populated neighborhood. After a decade of struggle, grassroots groups secured site remediation and shut down the nearby coal plant. Now residents are bracing for the next assault: gentrification.

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divides walk 2Over the last 200 years, the Chicago area has been made by human hands and capitalist policies. The reversal of the river system by canals, pumps, dams, locks and engineering works is just one example.

Foreign Trade Zone is a learning project that tries to build understanding about the city we live in, by means of research, mapping, and above all, direct experience. By walking together, seeing what’s on the land, meeting people and learning about their work and their struggles, we hope to generate knowledge about parts of the city that are never visited just for entertainment purposes. These are also places that people inhabit, places where they work and live every day. In fact, these are places that matter to all us as basic infrastructure.

You can join us for trips to the South Works redevelopment site, the Port of Chicago, the oil refineries and power plants to the west of the city, and to the rail yards and warehouse districts around Joliet.

Centro Autónomo Group

Here are some photos of a walk in the same area with the social justice students at Centro Autónomo, just back from their study abroad in Mexico. We began at the Canal Origins Park after a storm the day before, with a lot of sewage in the water; and we walked the Divide, visiting the Sky Factory grain elevator and ending at the Cook County Jail. A fantastic walk, thanks to all who participated.