By Molly Glick –
Jim Gonksa left his home in Chicago’s Back of the Yards over 45 years ago when his father’s meatpacking job relocated to Bradley, Illinois, where land and rents were more affordable. Today, the majority of the neighborhood’s once-thriving meat processing plants have disappeared. The former Peer Foods factory site on 46th street lives on, absent of hanging carcasses and sausage linkers. The building is currently occupied by a kombucha startup, a beehive workshop, a bakery, brewery and a specialty ice distributor, among other niche businesses.
Today Gonska serves as director of community services for the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. He said he has noticed transformations in the neighborhood since his homecoming, particularly an increase in diversity and a drop in income due to the shuttered industrial giants. But the Back of the Yards could assume yet another identity in the coming decades as a different kind of business invests in the district. This time around, sustainable circular economies may replace assembly lines.
This is the vision of the non-profit Plant Chicago, founded in 2011 by Bubbly Dynamics, LLC. Plant Chicago facilitates the cooperative operations for 25 small businesses renting in the 93,500-square-foot facility known as The Plant. Plant Chicago has ambitious plans – it wants to change how we run businesses.
“Today we operate in a linear economy where resources are extracted, a product is manufactured and consumed by us…and then it goes to a landfill,” said Stef Funk, education associate at Plant Chicago. “Instead of wasting something, we’re redefining what waste itself means” among businesses at The Plant.
The building’s tenants work to convert each other’s excess materials into valuable resources. Chickens roost in dried grounds from Turkish coffee-maker Four Letter Word, Funk said. The same grounds are incorporated into “bio-bricks,” along with a mix of sawdust and spent grain from Whiner Beer Company. Once the research is perfected, bio-bricks sourced from the Pleasant House Bakery could eliminate the need for firewood.
Downstairs, an urban garden is illuminated by fuschia LED lights. Funk points to fish in a tank at the garden’s periphery. Here an aquaponics system pipes nutrient-rich water that is absorbed and filtered by plants and returned to the fish tanks. On their visits, local students gaze wide-eyed as they learn about how bacteria breaks down ammonia in the fish waste and provides plants with nutrients.
“It’s difficult for children to imagine things they can’t see, or even wrap their heads around the idea that there’s bacteria in here,” Funk said.
Plant Chicago offers free tours to Back of the Yards residents. Funk said that they are “the first people to know” about jobs at the non-profit and its interior businesses. Nearby high schoolers find work there, too.
Plant Chicago also hosts farmers markets for residents, something Gonska said he doesn’t often encounter in the area. Gonska acknowledged how new businesses usher in much-needed resources. Still, there are concerns surrounding gentrification.
“We look at it as a positive,” Gonska said. “Any company that comes into the neighborhood, it’s positive for employment and the services that they offer the city.”
Now, Gonska sees less of the bakeries and butcher shops in Back of the Yards of his childhood. The last remnant of his father’s career here is the still-bubbling Bubbly Creek of the Chicago River, where decaying animal carcasses tossed there ages ago in a pre-EPA world continue to decay.
Photo at top: Stef Funk of the not-for-profit Plant Chicago displays a vintage blueprint of the sprawling Union Stockyards. The stockyards employed 40,000 people at its height in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where The Plant refurbished a meat processing facility, now home to Plant Chicago and 25 green businesses. (Colin Boyle/Medill)