Push for Calumet Heritage Area Growing

Photo credit: Field Museum

The story starts at home but encompasses the Calumet region. Joann Podkul and Kevin Murphy, who are married and live on Chicago’s east side, are eager to share the story of one of the greatest gifts of the region: its heritage and why it is so important in today’s world. Podkul, a former teacher and Murphy, an author and former journalist, are part of a growing movement to make the Calumet region a National Heritage Area (NHA) that would tell the story of the region’s integral role in shaping America.

National Heritage Areas typically support historic preservation, conservation, recreation and heritage tourism. The Calumet Heritage Partnership (the Partnership), in collaboration with The Field Museum, is guiding the development of a feasibility study for the NHA that is due out this summer or fall. The study will be submitted to the National Park Service for review; ultimately, Congress makes the final decision on whether to approve an NHA.

The Partnership includes diverse representatives from environmental, cultural and historical organizations working in both the Illinois and Indiana portions of the Calumet region. Over the last year, the Partnership sought and received public input for the feasibility study in public meetings, focus groups and other presentations in the region.

“Having a Calumet National Heritage Area would be a great way to tell the important stories of this region for people who live here as well as visitors who are just learning about it,” says Mario Longoni, urban anthropology manager with the Keller Science Action Center at The Field Museum. Longoni worked closely with communities in discussions about their heritage, which have provided critical input to the study. “It’s also significant because there’s so much bridge-building going on: People and organizations are coming together through this process.”

The push to designate the Calumet National Heritage Area builds on decades of work by local residents and leaders to understand, explain and preserve the region’s assets. Now, the Partnership is building an effort to tell a distinctly regional story – a story that reverberates with themes that have national significance. For many who drive through the region, it may be hard at first glance to see the scope and breadth of what the Calumet region is about – and why it is special. What is distinctive about the region, to the point where its story stands out? Answering that question has been at the center of the Partnership’s work. Preliminary themes the Partnership has identified include Nature Reworked: Calumet’s Diverse Landscapes, Innovation and Change for Factories and Workers, and A Crucible of Working Class and Ethnic Cultures.

Mike Longan, an urban geographer at Valparaiso University who is Indiana vice-president for the Calumet Heritage Partnership, says he finds the contrasts inherent in the region “fascinating. You can go from the city to the country in minutes. And then there’s the history of race relations, industrialization and deindustrialization.”

“You can see history here in ways you can’t in other places,” adds Longan. “I think the metaphor of a crossroads helps describe this region.”

Though the boundaries of the heritage area are still being defined, one strong possibility illustrates how diverse the region is: The Calumet region defined by the national heritage process would feature the Pullman National Monument on the west and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on the east.  Then, at the state line, Wolf Lake—with more than 20,000 natural species, according to a 2002 count—bisects Illinois and Indiana.

Add in the region’s countless lesser-known assets, like its burgeoning arts scene and a Mexican community in South Chicago that has existed since the 1920s, and the richness of the region is clear. Indeed, the Calumet Heritage Partnership has identified more than 250 resources that reflect the region’s assets.

“A national heritage area would help showcase the contributions the area has made to the development of this country,” says Sherry Meyer of the south suburbs, a geographer who gives tours of the region and is vice-president for the Calumet Heritage Partnership in Illinois. “Our region has been integral to the creation of America.”

For more information, go to: http://www.calumetheritage.org/

A Millennium Reserve priority is to support national heritage areas for distinctive regional landscapes in the existing I & M Canal National Heritage Area as well as the proposed Black Metropolis and Calumet national heritage areas.


April 2016