Mark Bouman on Telling the Stories of the Calumet Region
by Hannah Wilson-Black
Mark Bouman couldn’t be more thrilled to work in the Calumet, which he calls the “crossroads of the continent.” Bouman originally led tours for Calumet Quarter groups, and now he teaches in the program, bringing his fascination with the Calumet to his course Planning for Land and Life in the Calumet. A historical geographer by training, in this interview he explains why he became involved in creating an official Calumet National Heritage Area and how this project will serve as a case study in his course for this spring’s Calumet Quarter.
Hannah Wilson-Black: Please briefly introduce yourself. What drew you to the Calumet Quarter?
Mark Bouman: When the Calumet Quarter first started, I was a professor at Chicago State University, which is at 95th and King in the Calumet region. I’d become involved in the area through my time there, and I had some connections with some folks through the work we were doing together, so UChicago asked me to lead a tour for a group of Calumet Quarter students. It kind of became a traditional thing that I’d lead this tour of the Calumet region, which is a mix of really cool landfill areas that you never thought would be there, bridges and other heavy industrial structures, and these community stories. Community and nature and industry all collide in this region. I was immersed in it as a professor and I taught it at Chicago State.
Then I left Chicago State in 2011, and now I work at the Field Museum as the Chicago region program director for the Keller Science Action Center. Our mission is to take the Field Museum’s approach to the world—which includes having lots of objects and specimens that record the story of life on earth—and say, “So what? What do we do with it?” My job is to take that work out into the city with my colleagues and work on cultural understanding projects—culture and nature projects in the region for which the museum adds value. And we’ve chosen to focus primarily on the far South Side of Chicago and the Calumet region. So to cut to the chase, two years ago I was asked to teach a course in the quarter, and we decided to center it around a project I’m involved with called the Calumet National Heritage Area.
National Heritage Areas are grassroots-led partner projects that identify and shine a light on, and work then to preserve and make useful, cultural and natural resource assets in the area. I’ve been leading the process, along with the Field Museum, to create a Calumet National Heritage Area. And we’ve sort of built my course—“Planning for Land and Life”—around that. Two years ago, when everybody was living at home taking this course, I asked students, “Suppose you’re going to do a national heritage area where you live—how would you go about it? What’s the process? What are the stories that need to be told, who should tell them, and what should they say? Why are they nationally significant?” That was the basic structure.
HW: What is a National Heritage Area, and how did the Calumet National Heritage Area become the centerpiece of your class? Is it a case study? Is it also a work in progress?
MB: National Heritage Areas are living landscapes. One thing about parks is that we have a tendency to put a fence around them and say, “The park’s in there, and lifeis out here.”National Heritage Areas can be different. I sometimes describe the CNHA in a nutshell as the Pullman National Monument to the Indiana Dunes National Park and the landscape in between. Turns out there are places in between that are highly significant. Huge steel mills. There’s a lot of globally rare habitat, too, and a lot of creative conservation work.
As for Heritage Areas, there’s fifty-five of them nationally. The first one in the country was in the Chicago region in 1984, and the idea for this particular one (the CNHA) emerged in the 1990s. Here’s an example of just one of the things we could do in my course—we could have the superintendent of the National Park Service come to our class to say, “Here’s how the park system is changing, and here are the issues we’re facing, and here’s how I’m thinking about what a Heritage Area can bring to our mission to be an influence beyond park boundaries.” We’ll probably also have a guest from Pittsburgh, from the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, which is one of the more successful ones. The steel industry has kind of abandoned that whole valley, and the Heritage Area has been able to do a lot with that land. We’ll probably also bring in a guest from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area who has led the process for Alliance of National Heritage Areas to articulate how they advance regional-scale conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. What are they doing specifically that helps to advance that? How do the Heritage Areas promote economic development in a region? How can they exist as tools for other societal purposes? I think there’s some good case material in the CNHA and my job is to bring in people who can speak to it from a variety of angles.
HW: In your bio you say you love to figure out how places tick and that the Calumet is “one of the tickingest places.” What do you mean by that?
MB: There’s a lot going on there. First of all, I’m a geographer—a historical geographer. There are a few questions at the core of my thinking about geography. What are places? How are places made? How do people make a place through their engagement with it?You’re making history all the time. It’s not what happened, it’s what’s happening and what’s going to happen. A lot has happened in the Calumet region. It’s the crossroads of the continent. It’s where things come together.
Ecologically speaking, it’s an ecotome—hardwood deciduous forest meets tallgrass prairie meets boreal forest—and it’s got sand and dry land plants, too. It’s very biodiverse, unusually so. You know, Pittsburgh is not the center of steelmaking in America. This region is, now. This is where cultures have come together from around the world to work and live and play. So what makes this place tick are lots of natural stories—stories about culture and its engagement with nature. There’s an uneasy coexistence here—the Calumet is this economic powerhouse, but we’re at a crossroads between nature and making life habitable for people. Those haven’t always meshed well. It’s a story of some amazing leadership—in communities, for people of color, for workers, for environmental struggles. In terms of what makes the place tick, if you’re looking for stories, this is where many different stories come together.
HW: You mean a story about river pollution is never just about river pollution, and a story about a factory strike is never just a story about a factory strike, especially in the Calumet?
MB: It’s a region of historical conflict. It’s not about the easy integration of all those things and people in one place. In a really serious way, I think about the Calumet as nationally significant because it represents what is great and not so great about America. If we look at this region, we’ll see what we can do when we’re at our best, and what happens when we’re not at our best. And we should learn from it. That’s why being a museum professional is part of this. The Field Museum has archeologists who understand not only how places and cultures emerge, but how they fall apart, and that’s really important to think about. There are really dynamic things happening in this place. I’m so glad that my career has landed me here, because there’s always something new and surprising in the Calumet, and you feel like some of the work might have an impact.
HW: Many people think of the Field Museum solely as a building downtown. Why is it part of the museum’s mission to be involved with the greater Chicago area too?
MB: There’s a couple parts to the answer. First of all, the museum was founded on the edge of the Calumet region. It was founded in Jackson Park, where the Museum of Science and Industry is today. At the time of its founding in 1893-94—at the World’s Fair—you could go up on the roof of the Museum of Science and Industry and you could look in the distance across beautiful Jackson Park, this Olmsted landscape, and see the smokestacks of the Calumet region. The Field Museum was founded out of the World’s Fair, and many of the first curators who were hired went to the Calumet to study natural history—the dunes, the wetlands, the marshes at the south end of Lake Michigan. So a lot of our collection from that time is related to the Calumet.
And if you go back to the 1910s, the museum was already looking at how it could serve a population across greater Chicago. This spirit was tied to the energy that was founding the University of Chicago and people like John Dewey and their influence on educational practice. The Field Museum set up a program in the 1910s that offered field trips for kids, but also mini dioramas of regional scenes that you could check out and bring into the classroom. If you look at where folks were visiting from to tour the museum or check out the dioramas, it was Gary, Pullman, Hammond—that region. So, serving greater Chicago is written into the DNA of the institution.
Now, twenty-five years ago when we reached the museum’s centennial, we were determining how we’re relevant in the world. The museum set up an environment and conservation program which was about cultures of conservation in the Chicago region. The first place they looked was the Calumet region. And then they created a center for cultural understanding and change, which had a lot to do with anthropology and which, as it turns out, also looked into the Calumet region. Those two units merged about ten years later into what’s the unit I’m in. In the last twenty-five years in particular, the museum’s mission has been “to fuel a journey of discovery across time to enable brighter solutions for a future rich in nature and culture.” The most important word is and—how do nature and culture come together, especially in the Calumet?
We have a Calumet exhibit opening in November 2022 called Calumet Voices, National Stories. That exhibit builds on the collections of small entities across the region. We’ll combine it with our collection, we’ll use our exhibit resources to put everything together, and that process will be part of my course as well.
The Calumet Quarter runs in Spring Quarter 2022 and is open to all University of Chicago undergraduates. Learn more.