The desolate stretch of territory alongside the South Branch of the Chicago River is littered with the shed husks of the city’s industrial past. Along overgrown banks, the rusting ribs of derelict warehouses poke out beneath crumbling storage silos. Just before South Ashland Avenue cuts across the river, there is a small spit of land where the South Branch splits — a couple of acres at most. Canal Origins Park is choked with weeds and windblown trash. Its concrete path leading to the river is lined with historical signs, now sun-bleached and obscured by a palimpsest of graffiti tags. A line of electrical pylons marches along the riverbank toward the hazy skyline of downtown, four miles distant.
Locals gather at a railing, fishing in the brown water. One angler, a retired limo driver originally from Michoacán, Mexico, chomps a cigar beneath his handlebar mustache and surveys the scene. I ask him if he ever eats fish from the river, and he just laughs. He’s a regular here, he tells me, but returned to the spot only a few days ago after having stayed away for weeks.