Credit: Ryan Smith

There I was in nothingness. Or at least in the 21st-century urban version of nothing: patches of forest thick enough to get lost in, tall prairie grass grazing my thighs, dirt paths without a destination. But on the horizon, a short distance north of where I stood, was the jarring juxtaposition of gleaming downtown Chicago—skyscrapers and condos and commuters.

My maiden voyage to this improbable swath of wilderness—which at 62 acres is more than double the size of Millennium Park—was wholly accidental. I’d been searching for a shortcut to 18th Street from the South Loop and decided to keep biking down Wells to see where it might lead. One moment I was pedaling on the pavement past a shopping center, the next I was passing underneath the Roosevelt Road Bridge. Suddenly the sky opened up, asphalt shifted to earth, and I found myself on an expanse of barren, undeveloped land I never knew existed. Neither, it appeared, did Google. I opened my Maps app. The blue dot that represented my location pulsed on the border of a neighborhood-size blank space between Roosevelt Road, 16th Street, Clark Street, and a stretch of the south branch Chicago River. It posed an interesting existential question: If a tree falls in a forest that’s not on Google Maps, does it make a sound?

The place wasn’t always disused. The tract was part of a crooked bend in the Chicago River until the late 1920s, when the city spent $9 million ($126.4 million in today’s money) to straighten it. Filled with soil dug out for the new channel, the site was converted into a train yard and crossing connected to Grand Central Station—Chicago’s former terminus for passenger-rail service. As mass transit declined in the age of the automobile, Grand Central Station closed in 1969 and was demolished in 1971. A hulking bascule bridge on the south end remains as a haunting reminder of its mid-century heyday.

In 2002, businessman Antoin “Tony” Rezko purchased the vacant land with plans to transform it into a mixed-use development dubbed Riverside Park, complete with a 50-story tower and an IKEA. Once the Scandinavian furniture giant fled to the burbs, the deal went bust, and Rezko—a political fixer arguably more crooked than the old Chicago River (he was later sentenced to prison on corruption charges related to his ties to former governor Rod Blagojevich)—pawned the land off to the Luxembourg-based General Mediterranean Holding in 2007. Still, a development deal remained elusive for the site that continues to be known as “Rezkoville” or “Rezkoland.” Mayor Rahm Emanuel threatened to use eminent domain to seize the property in 2014, but there was no progress until residential developer Related Midwest (ironically the same company behind the zombie Chicago Spire) took part ownership. Related finally announced plans in May for a multibillion-dollar project that features high-density housing, offices, and retail space.

These were, of course, all facts I learned after my chance first journey to Rezkoville. Crossing the threshold of the Roosevelt underpass had sent me through a wormhole into some futuristic dystopia—the kind fictionalized in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. In the popular YA books (and their attendant films), Chicago’s built environment has been slowly reclaimed by nature. Swamp and prairie land lap at crumbling high-rises, the hulking tombstones memorializing civilization’s end.

When city dwellers delight in sci-fi visions of life in post-apocalyptic metropolises, there’s a perverse wish-fulfillment process at work that has nothing to do with death and destruction and everything to do with authenticity and adventure. In Chicago, we have more than our fair share of parks and zoos that provide a botanical respite from the concrete jungle—but they’re still part of a world where nearly every square inch has been bought, designed, curated, and made ready for easy consumption. These carefully plotted landscapes are meant to evoke nature without presenting any of the surprise or danger of the true untamed wild. Our city’s green space often feels like a temporary cure for a deeper malaise—we want to discover something, touch the surface of something vast and indifferent to our existence, something incomprehensible. We want to experience awe.

On the face of it, Rezkoville offers some promise of uncovering the unexpected. Parts of it evoke rugged beauty. There’s a grassy flat-topped hill that doubles as a scenic outlook with wilderness framed by the city skyline. There are gentle river banks where you can sit and dip your toes into the muddy water.

But the further I explored, a sinking feeling intensified. The discoveries Rezkoville offers are not so much what urban explorers would call “ruin porn” as plain old lamentable ruin. Scattered about the site are overturned shopping carts pilfered from the nearby Target, bags of trash that litter the paths, cracked concrete traffic barriers, and discarded broken furniture. And then there’s the fact that people actually live on the site. Homeless people who’ve slept outside in tents or lean-tos for months, even years.

I spent time with a couple of inhabitants before midnight on a recent Tuesday, the third time I’d traveled to Rezkoville this year. The nearly full moon illuminated the foot-beaten paths well enough that I didn’t need a flashlight to navigate. A man and woman, both middle-aged, sitting near a weathered red tent a dozen yards away called out to me: “Who are you? What do you want?”

“I’m just a guy,” I answered sheepishly. “Just wandering.”

We exchanged pleasantries once I reached their camp, but after a few moments the couple asked again—what the hell was I doing there at night, anyway? It wasn’t safe, they said. A couple of tents had recently been burned. Possibly by junkies. And then there are “the intruders.” Last weekend, it was an after-prom party. A vehicle full of drunken teens drove under the bridge, rolled up near the couple’s camp, and did donuts in the gravel.
“They almost hit me with their car,” said the woman, “so I had to call the cops on them.”

It struck me as ironic. This is the kind of story I’d expect to hear in Naperville, not the wilderness. That’s the thing about Rezkoville: the people who live there don’t romanticize the place. It’s the rarest of secluded corners—away from the law-enforcement hassles of the streets and the restrictive rules of the city’s homeless shelters—that provides some modicum of privacy. But ultimately Rezkoville’s residents just want peace and quiet. And they don’t give a shit about your Henry David Thoreau fantasies. v