While industry and the workplace played a large role in shaping the community in Southeast Chicago, so did the activities that people did in their free time. Work time and free time have historically been closely linked, as the steel mills had an effect on how often people would interact with parks and nature. A Southeast Side resident whose father worked at Wisconsin Steel said that, while he would go to the park to play sports with his friends when he was growing up, his family wouldn’t go to the park for leisure or other recreational activities because his father was constantly working, often taking double shifts, and his mother would be taking care of the house.
Because adults were often busy working —in the mills, in service jobs, or in the home —many recreational activities were organized just for children. For example, in the 1930s, women in the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) arranged numerous activities for the children of union members such as beach expeditions, hikes, and camping trips to forest preserves and other natural environments in the Calumet Region. At the same time, organizations like the Chicago Area Project (CAP) formed leagues for youth basketball, baseball, volleyball, and tennis. In addition to these leagues, CAP helped organize tournaments and competitions in badminton, horseshoe pitching, archery, swimming, and track and field.
Many of the sports programs and activities that were organized in the 1930s are still organized today, such as little league baseball, youth football, ice skating, and hiking. In the 1930s, sports helped create greater unity among the kids, and that has not changed. A Southeast Chicago resident who grew up in the community in more recent years credits sports contests in Chicago’s parks for her greater respect for her peers and understanding of teamwork. She stated that in general, parks acted as a neutral ground for children in the community.
Though Southeast Chicago has plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities, the long winters here make indoor recreation important too.In their times of leisure, Southeast Chicagoans have historically turned to the arts, creating a community ripe with opportunities for artists, both amateur and professional. Chicago has a rich history of music, and Southeast Chicago has played a crucial role in that history.
For example, in the early 1900s when the “Chicago style” of jazz emerged, drummer Gene Krupa was getting his start here in Southeast Chicago (pictured on the cover). The child of Polish immigrants, Krupa began playing drums at the music store where his brother worked. He went on to play shows across the country throughout the mid-20th century. More recently, rapper and actor Common began his musical career at his high school on 87th Street. He and a couple friends made a demo that got played on WHPK-FM, and this brought some local fame —the trio even opened a show for rap superstars NWA and Big Daddy Kane. Since then, Common (pictured below) has enjoyed considerable success on his own, becoming the first rapper to win an Emmy, Grammy, and an Oscar.
While Southeast Chicago has produced many accomplished musicians, there is also a vibrant visual arts community that exists here today. Prominently featured near the entrance to Steelworkers Park is a large bronze statue depicting a steelworker and his family, called “A Tribute to the Past.” This statue is the work of Chicago’s own Roman Villarreal, who still sculpts and paints at a studio here in South Chicago. At the studio, Roman and his colleagues are working to revitalize Southeast Chicago through paintings, sculptures, and other pieces of artwork.
The revitalization of Southeast Chicago through art is not limited to paint or clay—from Roman’s perspective, spaces like this park are a sort of canvas. With the endless opportunities to use this space, it acts as a potential focal point for community engagement and development. As Mr. Villarreal says, "Art is the new steel."