By Ben Joravsky

It’s not exactly the Mississippi, but the cruddy little creek that winds through Bridgeport is poised to be a little piece of paradise on the near south side.

A surprisingly strong effort led by social workers, environmentalists, and local teenagers is emerging to clean up Bubbly Creek and convert it into a park.

“Bubbly Creek’s a landmark in Bridgeport,” says Andrew Hart, program director at the Fellowship House, a local social-service organization. “Cleaning it up and making it a park will be a big source of pride for people here.”

Around the country Bridgeport is known as the birthplace of Chicago’s Democratic machine and the home community of many powerful politicians, including the Daleys. But few people outside Bridgeport have heard of Bubbly Creek, which is part of the South Branch of the Chicago River, a tributary that runs from south of 26th to Pershing Road. It was once a major port for ships heading into Chicago from the Atlantic seaboard.

“It was the city’s lifeline, the start of Chicago or at least industrial Chicago,” says Hart. “It was around this waterway that brickyards, foundries, steel yards, and, of course, the stockyards were built. They call it Bubbly Creek because it bubbles. And the reason it bubbles is because of methane gas. I guess there’s still a bunch of dead cows down there emitting methane. Of course it’s very polluted. There are so many toxins in there it can’t be dredged.”

The surrounding neighborhoods are working-class communities whose residents love the waterway but have learned to abide by certain rules: don’t drink from it; don’t swim in it; and don’t eat any creature, fish or fowl, that lives there. The creek is also the source of neighborhood folklore.

“You hear all sorts of tales about things happening on the Bubbly’s edge,” says Laurie Miller, a 22-year-old lifelong Bridgeport resident who plays guitar in the band Pistol Whipped and will soon graduate from Columbia College. “When I was growing up I heard about this kid named Charlie Brown, just like the Peanuts character, who fell into the creek; he was trying to climb out, but another kid stepped on his hand, and he fell back in and drowned.

“This was also a big hangout for high school kids. There’s a place called the Rocks where teenagers go to drink beer. It’s surrounded by trees so you can pretend it’s a real secret hiding place, even though everyone’s been there and the cops have been busting kids there for years.”

On most spring and fall days bands of intrepid men and women can be seen fishing the creek. But it’s not a completely soothing spot. The creek’s western bank abuts an industrial stretch near Archer and Ashland; on the other side are excavation sites, factories, and warehouses, so it’s virtually impossible to escape the sounds and smells of trucks and cars.

At the same time the creek is the only stretch of natural greenery on most of the near south side. Rows of oak, aspen, and maple trees along the edge provide a little curtain from concrete and soot. Kids can scamper among the trees, pretending they’re pioneers panning for gold.

“Every year I take a bunch of the kids and their families camping in the woods up in Michigan and then I ask them: show me your natural area,” says Hart. “They always take me to Bubbly Creek. They call it the Amazon. I’ll hike it with them and I’m always surprised to discover its beauty. You can even see a rare bird–the black-crowned night heron. It’s a beautiful bird. God only knows why, but they choose to nest here.”

Not surprisingly, Hart was devastated by what he saw when he first visited the creek several years ago.

“The banks were piled high with debris and waste,” he says. “It was being used as a fly dump. When the water level was too high, there was raw sewage being dumped into the creek. It smelled.”

Last year he convinced his supervisors at Fellowship House to seek federal environmental cleanup funds. The Clinton administration responded with a $30,000 grant, enabling Fellowship House to hire ten local teenagers to clean up the river.

“We called it the River Crew, but the kids called themselves the River Rats,” says Hart. “They were all Bridgeport kids from the Fellowship House. Many of them lived in the Bridgeport Homes, a public-housing complex on 31st Street. It was really an employability program to teach kids the meaning of work. We paid them five bucks an hour, and they came out there 30 hours a week, even in the hottest weather.”

Over the course of the summer the River Rats hauled away about 15 tons of garbage. “We found all sorts of junk along the creek, including a washing machine, a big safe, a sofa, and oil drums,” says Hart. “It was disgusting.”

They planted ground covering, built several spillways to control erosion, and laid walkways along the river. In time they began to garner some interest from nearby residents, even those who’d doubted such a cleanup would ever work.

“I love this river, I care about this river, so when I heard what they were doing I was really excited,” says Miller. “When I was younger I’d imagine how beautiful Bubbly Creek would look if it were cleaned up. But I didn’t think it would happen. I even wrote a paper for a college class called ‘Who Cares About Bubbly Creek?’ The attitude about cleaning up Bubbly Creek has always been that it’s always been dirty, it will always be dirty, and I’ve got other things to worry about so don’t bother me. In a lot of ways it’s so Bridgeport. I mean, I grew up here. I know what it’s like. It’s a very insular working-class community. You can be born here and never leave and never feel you can change anything.”

Miller heard about the cleanup project while working as an intern for the Community Media Workshop, a public-relations agency for not-for-profits. It’s a bit ironic that she now finds herself part of the cleanup effort, since she spent much of her adolescence dreaming about escaping from Bridgeport.

“I was always different–I was the kind of kid other kids called a space cadet,” she says. “The other girls were concerned about makeup and impressing guys, and I was wondering about who I am and why I’m here. Not just here with my family, but here on this planet. You talk a lot like that in Bridgeport and people are going to think you’re pretty weird. I went through this big rebellion thing. I used to be ashamed to say I’m from Bridgeport. But now I’m proud to be from here. People are down to earth. Sometimes you have to get away from a place to get perspective.”

Through Hart’s efforts other environmental organizations with few south-side connections–like Friends of the Chicago River and the Openlands Project–are joining the effort. Earlier this year they persuaded the Park District to acquire most of the surrounding land, which is owned by the state.

And in the next few weeks a new batch of River Rats–Noel Rocky Cruz, Brian Richardson, Lisa Richardson, and Christian Hernandez–will build more walkways and haul away more trash.

“The park is still being designed,” says Hart. “It will have lots of walkways and there will be a launch site for nonmotorboats, like canoes, rowboats, and kayaks.”

So far there’s been little opposition. Some of the land on the west side is used by truckers who sell watermelons from the rear of their semis and pickups. On any given day in spring or summer they’re there, carving watermelons in half and throwing them on the gravel parking lot for the geese that nest along the banks.

“I’ve told those guys what we’re doing, I tell them to get involved,” says Hart. “I don’t know if they’ll be happy; if the park comes there will be grass where that gravel lot is, and they’ll have to sell their watermelons somewhere else. But the area will be better. You can make a change, you can even clean up a dirty creek in Bridgeport if you try.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.