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Tales From the Frontier 

When John Edel set out to make a place for small businesses and artists in Bridgeport's industrial wasteland, he knew it would be hard. He didn't know it would be this hard.

When John Edel first went to Bridgeport in 2001 to look at the old Lowe Brothers paint warehouse, it was surrounded by a few low brick buildings and lots of overgrown vacant lots filled with trash left by drive-by dumpers. A couple homeless guys were living in some steel containers out back, and a pack of dogs roamed the area. The warehouse's owner, Tim Medema, told Edel that a year earlier one of the dogs had attacked a man and the man shot it. "Everyone was armed then," he said. Edel later heard that the people in the city's planning department called the neighborhood Little Beirut.

Edel, a 36-year-old industrial designer, was working for a film and video postproduction house, Post Effects, building virtual sets for clients such as trade-show organizers and TV-commercial producers. But he'd long wanted to buy an old industrial building and fix it up as a work space for artists and small specialty manufacturers--a place where people could build real things in the real world. The old paint warehouse was definitely real.

The three-story, 24,000-square-foot building, at 1048 W. 37th St., had been nearly empty for months and going to hell for years. The roof was a rotting muck of old roofing paper and plywood patches. The sump pump was broken, and the drain had backed up, covering the basement floor with an inch of oily water. The gas had been shut off, the wiring was frayed, and all the fuses were blown. For kicks one of the former occupants liked to shoot at the doors and windows with his rifle, and they were pocked with bullet holes. Medema told Edel he once got into an argument with the guy, who put a knife to his throat. A friend of Medema's who was on the roof with his gun heard them shouting and scared the guy off. Medema said the guy was later convicted of homicide and sent to prison.

The ceiling on the third floor was coated with soot because the same guy liked to burn trash up there. At some point Medema had boarded up the windows on the second floor and held raves, and someone had sprayed graffiti all over the walls.

Edel walked around, taking it all in. He decided the building was just what he'd been looking for.

As a kid growing up on Chicago's far north side in the 70s and 80s, Edel was fascinated with the big old factories that were closing down in the area. He and his friends would sneak into them and explore the soaring spaces, climbing on abandoned machines and overhead cranes, taking home scraps of metal and signs to put up in their bedrooms. "For the most part I was too young to know what those plants were or what they made there," he says. But he loved them. "Mostly it was the power, the energy you saw in those places."

As a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago he focused on the emerging field of virtual environments and worked on the CAVE, an early environment developed by the school's electronic visualization lab. In his spare time he and his friends scrambled around the old industrial parts of the city, particularly ones that had rail lines, and went spelunking through the coal tunnels below the Loop. "We'd dress up in jackets and ties and wear chest-high waders," he says. He'd always liked tinkering with machines and building things like chopper bikes and model boats, and at one point he became part owner of an old steam locomotive down in Taylorville, helping with repairs until the main investor ran out of money and sold it. For two summers he worked as a short-order cook on a restored observation car from the old California Zephyr, which was hooked to the end of Amtrak trains. He loved that job and added restoring an old Pullman Palace Car to his list of long-term plans.

After Edel graduated he found a job as a 3-D designer for a company that made headsets for virtual-reality games, then moved on to Post Effects, which claims to have the only virtual set for hire in the midwest. The talent perches on a small scrap of blue carpet in front of an irregular grid on a wall, and Edel and his coworkers fill in whatever background the client wants using computer technology developed by Israeli defense researchers for making smart bombs. Bill Kurtis used to tape a show there in front of a stunning computer-generated skyline. Virtual sets are much cheaper to build and maintain than real ones, and they allow clients to have in the background of their ads or videos fantastic structures that would be difficult or impossible to build in the real world.

Edel still built real things--and sometimes wrecked them. For ten years running he hosted a party on the Fourth of July, inviting friends to bring old television sets, which he smashed to bits with some elaborate contraption he'd concocted. "I hate TV," he says. One year he built a catapult, another year a 41-foot tower with a huge log that dropped on the TVs. "The best one was the eight-garage-door-spring-powered rail gun," he says. "It was capable of hurling a late-60s console-style television at a slight arc off the second-floor deck. They flew about 22 feet off the ground over a span of 18 feet into a wall of 96 sharpened steel spikes, after which they'd crash to the ground. The TVs were on. They were fitted with a traveling extension cord, and sometimes we'd put fireworks in the back so they'd go off in midair."

When Edel began searching for a building to buy in the summer of 2001 he wanted an old one made of reinforced masonry, which is extremely strong, and one with a rail siding--for that Pullman car. He stumbled across the Lowe Brothers warehouse, which had been built in 1910, while surfing the Web, but the price was too high. A year later it was still for sale, but the price had dropped to $220,000, which he thought he could handle.

He liked the big spaces in the building, the warm red brick, the large windows that could fill it with natural light, though it obviously had plenty of problems. "At that point it was in crappy condition but fundamentally solid," he says. "It would need all new services--plumbing, electrical--but I would expect that in most properties. The location was good--you can commute there by bicycle--and the primary qualification was that it had a rail siding." The siding, which curved around to the back of the building, had been disconnected across 37th Street, but the owner, Norfolk Southern, seemed willing to reconnect it.

There wasn't any water in the building, because the water main under 37th Street was broken. It turned out that the street was owned by a private company, but Edel had a letter from the city to a previous tenant stating that it planned to buy the street and fix the water main. He says he called the planning department and city officials assured him the sale of the street was nearly final. "They told me, 'You'll have water in a month.'"

Edel had been planning and saving for this project for years. He already had a name for his business--Bubbly Dynamics, in honor of nearby Bubbly Creek, the branch of the Chicago River into which the stockyards once dumped their offal. He even had a tenant lined up, a drywall distributor who was paying high rates to have his product unloaded from railroad cars on 47th Street and wanted to lease Edel's entire first floor, where he could unload the drywall with his own crew. Edel decided to take the plunge.

He saw it as buying a piece of the city's industrial heritage. "Chicago was once the great industrial hub of the nation," he says. "It still is--the region is anyway." The area around the warehouse is laced with rail spurs that were built to serve the lumber warehouses along the South Branch of the Chicago River. By the end of the 19th century the old-growth Wisconsin woods were pretty much gone, and as Chicago's lumber industry waned, investors from the stockyards started buying up the spurs as part of a plan to generate new freight traffic in the area. They also put in streets, provided electricity and telegraph service, and hired a staff of engineers to build warehouses and factories to suit business owners. The Central Manufacturing District, as it was called, was the first planned manufacturing district in the nation, and it was so successful the investors went on to build another district south of Pershing Road. Today the corporation they formed, now known as CMD Realty Investors, develops manufacturing facilities all over the world. It long ago sold off most of its buildings in Bridgeport, but it's the company that owns the stretch of 37th in front of Edel's building.

By the 1960s manufacturers, like the population, were moving out of the central city toward its periphery, where it was cheap and easy to build vast single-story structures close to the new expressways. As the companies moved out, their old buildings were either abandoned or taken over by nontraditional businesses.

The Lowe Brothers warehouse had changed hands several times by the early 90s, when Bob Krueger rented it for his motorcycle-parts emporium, Scooter World. The building's owner died, and it passed into the hands of his daughter. She got behind on the property taxes, the building deteriorated, and eventually Tim Medema bought it from a syndicator. Krueger closed Scooter World in 2000, leaving heaps of burned parts behind the building and a few broken cycles in the basement.

Edel relished the idea of making a written-off building productive again, of reinventing a piece of the city's industrial past by turning it over to boutique-scale businesses. "There's a market for smaller space--people making furniture, light-industrial concerns," he says. "I want to prove that it's possible to turn a derelict building in the inner city into a showplace of modern design and manufacturing--and do it for a small amount of money." And he wanted to go a step further, by making the building as green as possible, adding energy-efficient windows and insulation but also using recycled materials whenever he could. "A lot of developers believe the most efficient way to build is to knock down what's there and start over. That's a tremendous waste if you consider the entire life cycle of the building--the cost of new materials, the energy used for demolition and hauling the debris away."

Edel figured that buying and rehabbing the building would cost between $425,000 and $450,000. He planned to pay for the project using his savings, his salary, income from tenants, and the revolving line of credit he took out on his Logan Square two-flat, which he'd bought in 1997. He says he and his wife, Julie Dworkin, policy director at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, both live frugally: "The tenants pay the mortgage, and we don't drive a car. Our biggest expense is food." He knew money for the project would be tight, so it was going to be pretty much DIY. He'd work on it when he wasn't at his day job, and Dworkin would help him when she could.

Edel says that a few days before the closing he and Dworkin went to look at the building again and found Krueger and another man hanging out. "They were like, 'Oh yeah, a guy died in the yard yesterday. But everything's fine now.'"

Medema had been in court because the building had so many code violations, and the first thing Edel had to do that summer was fix the remaining ones. He cut the weeds, picked up the trash, and had the building tuck-pointed. Then he tore out all the old windows and doors and replaced them with efficient new ones. He says the building inspector dropped by and was pleased that someone was finally rehabbing the place. "He'd written it up many times," Edel says. "He was frustrated the previous owners never did anything about it."

A couple police officers also started dropping by. "They'd been watching the building too," says Edel, "partly because it was a center of crime in the area, but partly because one of them was interested in purchasing an industrial building himself."

Edel made a deal with his college friend Matt Samsel, a cabinetmaker and carpenter who'd built everything from bathrooms to boats: Samsel would help out with the rehab in exchange for space for a workshop, though they didn't bother to specify how much help or how much space. Edel describes Samsel as one of those hypercreative people who have a dozen clever ideas half-finished at any given time but who come through with a brilliant solution at the moment you most need it. "A good guy to have around," he says.

"We have a similar visual vocabulary," says Samsel. "We can build things in one another's heads."

Together they shoveled the soggy mess off the roof, which was solid, reinforced concrete--it was actually a floor, because the original owners thought they might add a story someday. The two then built a new drainage system, strengthening the structure so that it could someday hold the soil and plants of a green roof.

Things were going well until summer's end, when managers at Norfolk Southern abruptly announced that the company wouldn't reconnect the rail siding after all, even though its engineers had drawn up plans. The managers said that the spur crossed 37th Street and that grade-level street crossings posed a hazard. "I've got a complete set of drawings from their own engineers," Edel says, "but when it came to upper management, they would much rather deal with power plants or other big operations. They basically decided our minuscule four or five carloads of traffic a week didn't warrant the risk."

Edel had just lost his only paying tenant. At least the drywall guy had some damaged inventory he needed to get rid of. "It was sun bleached or slightly wet around the edges," Edel says. "If you cut off the damaged parts it was still perfectly good material. He was going to have to pay to get rid of it."

Edel was quickly learning the art of the money-saving deal. He made an arrangement with a waste hauler who needed a place to leave the occasional Dumpster or two for short periods: the hauler would put them in front of Edel's loading dock, Edel would fill them, and the guy would cart the debris away for free. Edel figures he filled at least a couple dozen during his demolition phase. He also managed to salvage materials that were in the Dumpsters when they arrived from other construction sites: bundles of conduit, not-quite-empty spools of electric cable, even a few working air conditioners. Krueger, who sometimes dropped in to see what Edel was doing, helped him buy used materials, including a slew of radiators from somebody who was ripping them out of an old apartment building. "There's plenty of room at the bottom of the food chain for people to pluck materials out of the waste stream," Edel says.

That fall Bubbly Dynamics hit a second snag. Edel had been invited to a meeting where the city presented its plans for street improvements. As the officials and business owners talked about curb cuts and plantings they were going to put in, it came out that the sale of 37th Street hadn't happened. "That was the first I'd heard that the water wouldn't be restored until the following spring," Edel says. "It's difficult to have tenants if you don't have water. And it's difficult to have income if you don't have tenants."

As a temporary measure he rigged up a flush toilet by pumping the water that was still backing up in the basement to a set of plastic drums by the bathroom. He also ran a long garden hose from one of his neighbors' spigots to a cistern on the third floor as a backup supply.

Unable to get paying tenants, Edel turned to people who would trade labor for space. He's a longtime member of the Rat Patrol, a chopper and tall-bike gang that builds bikes out of scavenged parts. Edel offered them space in the north end of the basement, which quickly filled with stacks of wheels, frames, chains, and handlebar sets as well as welding equipment, hacksaws, and other tools. In turn the Rat Patrol members helped him load and empty wheelbarrows full of junk into the Dumpsters, including layers of urine-soaked plywood that had been nailed over some of the floors, plaster Edel scraped off the walls, and interior walls he knocked out with a sledgehammer. Then they helped him build new walls.

Samsel, who was also helping out, had moved part of his wood shop into the south end of the basement. The space was big, but it was filling up fast with stuff he acquired at auctions--a steel safe, fire extinguishers, an entire wood shop from a girls' school, and things people offered him for free, like a cardboard box with dozens of rolls of string. Edel often arrived at the warehouse and saw new treasures Samsel had piled on the loading dock--a giant plastic Santa, antique sofas with no upholstery, broken sewing machines, tall wooden windows in their frames, boxes of old books and woodworking magazines. Edel suggested he might be going overboard.

Late that winter Samsel found Edel his first paying tenant--a metal finisher named Ruben Birch, whose work is on display outside the Cheesecake Factory on Michigan Avenue and in Las Vegas casinos, among other places. Birch, who wanted to rent part of the basement, told Edel he didn't care whether there was running water--or windows or heat, for that matter--but he did need a working freight elevator.

Edel now had to take on fixing the elevator, something he'd never tried before. He says it turned out to be one of his favorite rehab jobs: "To figure out how this thing, built by a company that's been out of business for 50 years, is wired, tracking the problems, learning how all the relays function so it levels out at each floor--all the doors were bent and rusted shut."

The water that backed up in the basement had got into the oil in the hydraulic works, so he had to drain the tank in the control room, replace damaged pipes and the seals on the piston, then pour in new oil. He spent a lot of time in the glistening muck at the bottom of the elevator shaft, taking apart the piston to figure out how it was put together and repairing it. "We had to rehang the counterweights, replace burned circuits and broken cables," he says. "But it's fixed. The tenant uses it all day long."

That spring Edel and Samsel started going to Green Drinks, a monthly social gathering for people interested in green development and design, where they met Rob Vagnieres, an architect who'd been encouraging his clients to use green elements for years and was looking for a big green project for his portfolio. Edel described Bubbly Dynamics but said he couldn't afford to pay Vagnieres his full fee. Vagnieres said he was willing to be flexible. In the following months they discussed wind turbines for the roof, an air-conditioning system that would pump cool air from the basement to the top of the building and let it sink through the floors below, awnings for the south face of the building that would block the sun in the summer and let it in in the winter, and a system that would allow Edel to reclaim waste heat from tenants' machinery, supplying preheated water to the boiler. "They come to us with ideas and bounce them off us," says Vagnieres. "We'll tweak his ideas so that they meet the code. 'Yes, you can build those stairs if they have the proper nose.'"

But Vagnieres was another cost Edel had to factor in. He'd now been in the building nearly a year and still had only one paying tenant. He thought he'd found a second, sort of, when he ran into a friend he'd met working at the headset company. Max Minkoff had a marketing degree and a recipe for a gourmet cookie invented by his grandfather--bruttinis, or "little uglies," which tasted like a cross between a meringue and an almond macaroon. Minkoff didn't particularly want to make bruttinis. He just wanted to market them. He was already selling them to Trader Joe's under the Trader Giotto's label, but he was having trouble with his contract bakers. The recipe was a little fussy, and the batches were too small for the bakers to be interested in making sure they always came out right. Minkoff offered Edel a contract to bake the cookies.

"I've always wanted to try my hand at contract manufacturing," Edel says. He made a few inquiries and found he could buy used equipment for $50,000, and he talked to a friend who'd managed a contract bakery. He figured he could go to the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council and get its members to help him hire local workers, who could walk to work.

Of course the plan was contingent on getting the building finished and up to code, which included having a water supply. The spring passed, then the summer, and Edel still had no water. The city was negotiating with CMD, which now wanted a waiver absolving it of any liability associated with steam pipes under land it owned in its old Pershing Road manufacturing district. Someone at the planning department suggested, unofficially, that Edel hire a plumber to dig a trench and lay pipe to the Morgan Street main. But that would have cost a lot, and besides the city had promised it would be only a few more months. That fall Edel realized he had to tell Minkoff he couldn't accept the contract, and Minkoff decided it was time to stop making cookies.

Meanwhile Edel had heard that Richard Bosserman, whom he'd met while working on the steam engine in Taylorville, was looking for a place to house his machine-tool collection. Some of the tools, which were in a basement on Canal Street that had flooded the previous summer, were 100 years old, and some still had the original buffalo-hide belts used to run them with a steam engine. Edel told Bosserman he could move them to the third floor at the warehouse, which he'd long ago decided was for grand projects. Edel now had one more tenant who wasn't paying rent, though Bosserman was happy to let him use his tools.

Samsel had started moving some of his collection of miscellany from the first floor to the third, where he was setting up a professional wood shop next to Bosserman's machine shop. Samsel thinks it would be great to have a community of craftspeople ensconced there, working in various materials, sharing tools, and collaborating on jobs of all sorts--a "Valhalla of a workshop." Edel chuckles at that vision, but something like it seems to be taking shape.

The following winter Samsel found Edel his second paying tenant: Nick Rodriguez, who runs an art-glass business, moved into the basement.

Edel and Dworkin got married in August 2003, and a year later they were expecting their first child. Dworkin had spent a lot of time helping with the rehab before she got pregnant, but she no longer could. "I sometimes feel a little guilty," she said, "like I ought to be down there more."

Edel decided it was time to revise his plan. He needed to rethink how many jobs he could realistically finish himself and how many he should pay someone else to do so that he could finish the place and find more paying tenants. He decided to hand over the things he didn't want to do anyway as well as the things that were truly hard to do, including the electrical work, even though it would cost him $70,000.

The exterior walls are now insulated, the interior ones all constructed. The electricians have nearly finished the wiring; the building will have four times the power it once did and a lot more outlets. Edel's buying two new, efficient boilers, but the other green projects--the awnings, the turbines, the green roof--are on hold. He's ready to do the plumbing, but he still doesn't have water. Connie Buscemi, a planning department spokesperson, confirms that city officials are still negotiating with CMD to buy the street and says they're trying to close the deal "as soon as possible."

Edel has named the building the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, and he hopes it will pay for itself in five years. There's space for nine tenants, and he has another one lined up--Vagnieres says he plans to move in as soon as everything's finished. Until two weeks ago some of Samsel's stuff was still heaped on the loading dock. Edel had given him several deadlines, and when Samsel went out of town Edel and some friends piled the stuff in a semitrailer.

The neighborhood is still run-down, but someone has bought another building down the street and is rehabbing it for artists and small businesses. The pack of wild dogs has disappeared, and Edel hasn't heard of any shootings since he arrived. He says the running joke among the owners on the block is that his building was the source of all the problems.

He's already looking for another building, hoping he'll be able to find something he really wants when he's ready to buy. He sees possibilities all the time riding his bicycle to and from home--abandoned warehouses and factories that are there one day and razed the next. "We're tearing down industrial structures at a terrific rate," he says. "They don't fit the modern production model--investors can't see what to do with them."

Last winter he saw a complex on Western at 18th Street that he wanted bad. It was a maze of warehouses and manufacturing halls, the earliest dating back to the 1880s, that had been built separately, then patched together with skylight roofs. It also had a rail siding. Someone had bought the property two years earlier, when it was still occupied, then let it go vacant. Now he was selling it as a teardown--250,000 square feet for $850,000. "What attracted me was the variety of types of structure, especially the assembly hall at the center," says Edel. "It had been the main assembly hall for Link-Belt Cranes. It was very old, with a clerestory roof and a mezzanine that ran around the interior like a balcony--almost like a conservatory. That and the heavy-industrial nature of the building--thick masonry and huge steel beams. It was a perfect place for a very mixed use development." He shakes his head. "It suffered from an owner with no vision. He believed there was nothing to be done with that building but tear it down, and that's what he did."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell, John Edel.

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