Legend has it that Chicago’s downtown would have evolved on the southeast side if it hadn’t been for an army engineer’s love for a fur trader’s daughter. When it was time to designate a site for Fort Dearborn, the engineer chose the mouth of the Chicago River over that of the more accessible and navigable Calumet so he could be near his beloved.

“Every neighborhood has its myths,” says historian Dominic Pacyga, a professor at Columbia College. Pacyga and Washington High School history teacher Rod Sellers collaborated on Chicago’s Southeast Side, a pictorial history of the area south of 79th Street.

The book chronicles the neighborhood’s transformation from a Potawatomi settlement to a bustling steel town within a city to the down-on-its-luck neighborhood it is today. The photos were chosen from the collection of the Southeast Chicago Historical Project, in which residents donated over 5,000 photos and told their stories to researchers. The undertaking, which Pacyga helped lead, was completed in the early 1980s.

“I was surprised by how really moving many of the photos most people consider everyday are,” Pacyga says. “They really speak about the material and social culture of a community.” So do a pair depicting the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, in which off-duty police officers opened fire on striking Republic Steel workers. Ten people were killed and 125 injured in the incident.

In the southeast side’s heyday, the steel mills’ blast furnaces lit up the night sky, and a fine rust-colored dust covered everything. During mealtimes and shift changes the streets filled with people. At one time 17 movie theaters served the area.

Today the steel plants are closed, the population has dwindled, and residents must drive to a suburban multiplex to see a movie. The area’s hopes are now tied to the fate of the old South Works steel plant’s 500 lakefront acres. U.S. Steel’s asking price is $85 million, and a number of neighborhood groups have been putting pressure on the city to purchase and develop the site.

In the meantime the photo archives have become a valuable resource in Sellers’s high school classes. “I believe neighborhood people should know their history,” says Pacyga. “Only through knowing their past can they face their future with any kind of confidence.”

Pacyga and Sellers will discuss Chicago’s Southeast Side and sign copies Saturday at 3 at Borders Books & Music, 2210 W. 95th (773-445-5471). It’s free.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Blast furances at South Works, on the Calumet River, 1885.