South Chicago’s Steel Mill Past
February 19th, 2010Filed under: Stories
Mike Ochwat outside the South Chicago Neighborhood House
For this installment of People and Places, DePaul University student Jose Hernandez talked with Mike Ochwat about growing up on the Southeast Side.
On a sunny winter day, I had the privilege of taking a drive around the South Chicago area and a little known neighborhood commonly referred to as the Bush. With this drive came the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the past with Mike Ochwat, a former Bush resident.
For most of the twentieth century, the Bush was all about 79th street, depending on who you asked, of course. Others might say it was really defined by the old mill gates at 83rd Street on the north and the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern rail tracks on the south. In 1943, when Mike was born, U.S. Steel Corporation ran the massive steel mill that dominated the Bush and employed thousands of Irish, German, Polish, and other eastern European immigrants. During the early 1900s, Mexican immigrants, Mexican Americans, and African Americans had found work there as strikebreakers and also stayed in the area.
A typical home in the Bush today
After Mike’s father, John Ochwat, served in the military during World War II, he returned to his family in 1948, a disabled veteran with a scarred face and hands that prevented him from returning to his old job in the mills. At the corner of Mackinaw and 85th Street, the heart of the Bush, some Baptist reformers built the South Chicago Neighborhood House (SCNH) where John Ochwat worked as a janitor. Mike’s mother, Marjorie Long Ochwat, worked in nearly every facet of SCNH’s operations for decades, even after the family moved out of the building in 1953. Mike would hang out at SCNH on Friday nights, sometimes attending movie nights where the gym would become a theater and patrons could buy popcorn and Old Dutch sodas.
Despite the Baptist presence in the neighborhood, the Bush remained overwhelmingly Catholic, including the Ochwat family. In this very centralized neighborhood, Polish and Mexican families lived, worked, and prayed together, primarily at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish at 91st and Brandon and the nearby St. Michael’s, where Mike’s family attended services.
In addition to St. Michael’s church, the Bush had Khan’s store, Marcinco’s Grocery, Bush Furniture, and Shipkovitz, a drycleaner. Mike also mentioned the countless taverns and bars where working men gathered on payday after a long week and Polish women prepared old country meals to celebrate a wedding or a christening “in the hall behind.” Mike’s father John eventually returned to work at the mills, and Mike himself worked there briefly in 1965, just after he graduated from college.
These mills are now empty, but occupy a space in history where thousands of workers from around the world once produced steel that extended railways across the country, helped fight global wars, and built skyscrapers in downtown Chicago. Mike remembers that past fondly saying, “It was our home. It was what we knew.”
Listen to Mike Ochwat describe religion in the Bush: