The Brownlands

In the spring of 2008, some college acquaintances invited me to a party in what they called "the Brownlands," a weeded-over expanse south of Roosevelt Road, between Clark Street and the Chicago River. A bonfire—easily visible from Roosevelt’s elevated sidewalk or any of the nearby South Loop condo towers—marked the location of the party within this unpopulated, unlit area. There was drumming, fire poi, and drunken scrambling over disused rail equipment. We knew we were trespassing, but we proceeded without concern.

It seemed no one cared what went on in the Brownlands. While some people bushwhacked their way to the party from the south, I parked in a parking lot on the other side of Roosevelt and walked past an empty security guard post to a gravel road. No evading of authorities was needed. The most surreal thing about the party was the untroubled existence of this neighborhood-sized uninterrupted tract. How had this escaped developers’ eyes while sitting a stone’s throw from the Loop’s financial district and the adjacent real estate bonanzas of University Village and the South Loop? How had it escaped the city’s eye, especially given Daley’s penchant for pharaonic, transformative projects like Millennium Park and the Olympics?

Once the Brownlands were the intended site of one of the largest construction projects in Chicago’s recent history. Between Roosevelt, Clark, the freight lines, and the River, developers had planned Riverside Park: an instant neighborhood, in some ways more drastic than neighboring University Village.

Riverside Park, or the Riverside District, came into being in 2001, when Tony Rezko’s Rezmar development company bought the land for $67 million from another investment consortium, which had bought the land in the late 1980s from CSX Corporation, owner of the railyards that used to cover much of the South Loop. The Rezmar plan for the area included an Ikea and roughly 4,600 residential units. To give an idea of the scale of the project, the controversial development slated for the current site of the Michael Reese Hospital will have a little over 2,000 units.

Rezko and his consortium petitioned the city of Chicago for $120 million worth of TIF funds, the largest TIF grant in the city’s history. The city received their TIF application the same week Rezko was indicted for his corrupt business practices. Since Rezko’s 2006 incarceration, Anglo-Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi has taken over the project through his General Mediterranean Holdings Company, intent on developing the exact same plan. I stopped by Riverside Park again this summer, riding my bike to the Roosevelt Road underpass I’d gone through a year before. Security was beefed up—instead of a solitary kiosk at the entrance, half a block north of Roosevelt a vaguely military checkpoint loomed with concrete barriers and two round-the-clock guards. A chain link fence blocked the muddy entrance to the tract.

But the guards weren’t there for Riverside Park—they were watching over Roosevelt Collection, a development under construction on the north side of Roosevelt Road. A rendering on the website (www.rooseveltcollection.com) shows lofts and retail around a postmodern piazza. It’s essentially a miniature Riverside Park, a New Urbanist "sophisticated…vibrant community" with "lifestyle stores" and "trendy restaurants." It’s not without its own woes—the lofts went rental due to lack of sales.

One guard stood on a deathly white platform in the still, 95-degree heat. He’d been at Roosevelt Collection for a year, he told me, and he’d never seen anything resembling work going on across Roosevelt. The city used some of the land to store equipment. Two or three homeless people lived inside. Every now and then, bikers or hikers would emerge, though they were not allowed in the first place. No one did anything about these occasional trespassers, of course. Sometimes men—they could’ve been businessmen, but the guard wasn’t sure—went onto the site to take pictures. It’s not too much of a stretch to venture that the speculative investment in this site and the rapacious level of development on all sides ensures Riverside Park’s continued vacancy. Each set of developers pays larger and larger sums for the land, driving up its value. The vacant land’s value is further inflated by its proximity to nearby investment activity. Only megaprojects like Riverside Park could conceivably recoup the investment—projects requiring such highly coordinated public and private effort, not to mention costly basic infrastructure like water and gas lines absent from the site, that they are unlikely to get off the ground in the first place.

While the land lies vacant, nearby developments like Roosevelt Collection to the north or Chinatown Square to the south reinforce the physical barriers around the site’s borders and points of access, so as to maintain their own security and desirability. Developers seek to separate themselves and their projects from the site, which seems an unsettling reminder of the limits of the revanchist city, remade through megaprojects like Riverside Park. The site has unfailingly stymied private developments for the last several decades, and grand designs have fallen on their face since at least the 1909 Burnham Plan of Chicago, which called for an enormous Beaux Arts train station at the intersection of Roosevelt Road (then 12th St.) and the Chicago River.

Meanwhile, Chicagoans doing their damnedest to exist on (or momentarily enjoy) the social and geographic margins have been independently discovering the site for the last several decades. Graffiti artist and writer William "Upski" Wimsatt wrote a travel guide to the area for the Chicago Reader back in 1991. He called it the "frontier," an apt name that evokes the Old West, another time and place that had a magnetic pull on loners, eccentrics, and tycoons eager to extract fortunes from untapped land. Wimsatt talks about one willingly homeless Vietnam vet homesteading amid the reeds, as well as the rail lines criss-crossing the southern edge of the land, a one-time Mecca for Chicago graffiti artists. Subsequent generations of Chicago bohemians have similar experiences of the site: they happen upon the place or hear about it by word of mouth, astounded that such a place even exists. They cavort with their friends in what they see as their secret playground. Then, either out of fear of being found out by some sort of authority or out of boredom with the place, they leave.

In an odd way, the two groups most attracted to the site—developers and bohemians—experience the site in a strikingly similar fashion: it is a foil for their fantasies of urban space. The area is an enormous blank canvas of dirt and weeds upon which both groups project their urban utopia, be it a polished amenity zone, outrageous under-the-radar party spot, or escape from social constraints. And similarly, for both groups, these fantasies have yet to put a permanent mark on the ground—leaving the site to be endlessly rediscovered. ◊