Post by: Glenn Schneider
Big streams of lava hot slag spill out onto the strip of land at 115th and Stony Island as black smoke rises from it. This was the scene at when the South East Side of Chicago was still a booming industrial corridor. After much of the industry left, specifically the steel plants were closed, the land sat flat, open, contaminated, and unused. That is until last year when the Friends of Big Marsh teamed up with the City of Chicago and opened it as Park District Park #564 aka Big Marsh. The vision of the park is to “provide a new type of recreation in Chicago that marries habitat restoration with public use.” Presently, it is one of the many wonders located on the Southeast side of Chicago and has 278 acres of open space for hikes, bike rides, and fun! It plays host to Chicago’s premiere BMX park as well as plenty of open space to wander about or just relax.
The park includes a variety of habitats from marshes to prairie to woodland. Restoration is a big part of the park and Green Corps is out there more than once a week removing invasive species such as Buckthorn and planting native seeds. Not to mention the frequent community volunteer days they host to help with that work. It is very popular spot for bird lovers as the park plays host to a wide range of our two-winged friends including bald eagles and great blue herons!
Obviously, it is not terribly easy to grow plants on old slag, so the BMX tracks have been built on the most contaminated area of the park. However, the entirety of the space is being developed to protect and enhance the “overall natural habitat of the park property including sensitivity to flora, fauna, and wetlands.” There is even a planning in the works with The Chicago Environmental Fund to create the Ford Calumet Environmental Center to help locals and regional visitors "celebrate the environmental, cultural and recreational assets” which is slated to open in 2018.
Out Our Front Door had the chance to talk with a Big Marsh team member Chental Handy. Here’s what she had to say concerning her goals for the park as well as what rolls beer and bike can play.
OOFD: What are some priorities you see for the park?
Chental: Our local community is a major priority for us. We really want to engage with our neighbors and not just be a destination for bicyclist from far off communities. The park is not just for bicyclists. It can really be enjoyed by anyone.
OOFD: What are some ways you hope to get the local communities to the park to enjoy the recreational space?
Chental: We have a bunch of events coming up including a camping series which will be an evening (though not overnight) in which we teach some camping basics and everyone hangs out around a campfire, eats s’mores, and those kind of things. I also would like to get a youth bicycling group going here to help get some of the area’s kids doing something better than just walking the streets.
OOFD: That sounds awesome and right up our alley! We might have to hook-up for some youth programming next year. Do you have any other big events you have coming up this summer?
Chental: Yeah. We have our Birds, Bikes, and Beer event on September 16. Starts at 2 pm and goes until sunset. This is another way we are trying to encourage the local community to come out and enjoy the park. Bicyclists can ride the trails, non-bicyclists can walk around or just relax. We'll even have an Ornithology Society come out with binoculars and help folks spot birds because we have a huge variety of birds here. Really, it’s just an excuse to get out and enjoy the nature of the park.
OOFD: And the beer part?
Chental: Ha. And yeah, we will be reaching out to a local brewery to get some beer donated, and we will be providing the beer for free to those that come out.
OOFD: Did you say “free beer”? I think you’ll have an amazing showing if that’s the case.
Chental: Ha. We hope so.
So if you are into BMX biking and want to experience the best Chicago has to offer, come on out to Big Marsh. Or if you want to just roll around the park on your cruiser bike or even just on foot, come on out. I was there a few weeks ago to ride around the park. I then ended up spending an hour or so just chilling on a bench, watching the crazy air some of the BMXers were getting on those big jumps. Super entertaining stuff!
Finally, a lot has been made about the difficulty of access to the park (it is way South East and there are not many ped/bike friendly routes) though the city and Active Trans do have plans in the works to fix this problem. If you want to learn more about what is being done on that front, John Greenfield did a good write up on it for Streetsblog.
Learn More about Big Marsh and upcoming events at:
Big Marsh Park is at 11599 S. Stony Island Ave, Chicago, IL 60617.
As for now, here are the parking and directions section from the park’s website:
Directions and Parking to The Park
"If arriving from a community to the north, please take 103rd St to S. Doty Ave, then go left (South) on Stony Island 1.7 miles to the Park. From a community to the south, please take Torrence Ave north, head west (left) on 122nd St, and then turn north (right) on Stony Island until you reach the park."
"If you are taking the Kennedy from the north side to Big Marsh, you take exit 65 (95th-103rd St) and then follow the north community directions above. If you are taking the Kennedy from the south side to Big Marsh, your exit is 66A (111th St). Follow the signs for 111th and then turn right onto the ramp to S. Doty Ave. Turn north (left) onto S. Doty Ave for 1.2 miles until you reach Stony Island. Turn right onto Stony Island and follow until you reach the park (1.7 miles)"
"There are two parking lots. Use the northern parking lot to access the passive walking trail. Use the southern parking lot to access the bike park." -Chicago Park District
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"To immerse , educate, preserve & advance the history, culture, trails and native habitats of the Lower Lake Michigan Basin Area"