On Saturday September 17th, 2016, I almost died. Of course it was no one’s fault but my own, but if I had to push the blame on someone (other than myself that is) it would be my boyfriend’s roommate, Ethan. Sorry for throwing you under the bus, bud.
Mr. Minnesota himself comes from a small town of 5,000 who regularly disregard the rules. Graffiti to him is arts and crafts: A Pinterest DIY with life threatening risks as a bonus. Scale a building? Fine. Explore a 25-inch manhole? Easy! This boy is crazy. Or maybe I’m just sheltered, I don’t know. Coming from the suburban area of Michigan, I had no idea what I was getting myself into on this adventure. Call it naïve if you will. Still I went: Curiosity must have gotten the best of me. Ethan had asked my boyfriend, Michael, and I to accompany him on this journey for safety reasons. I do not recommend anyone ever attempt these ventures, and I would never wish this situation on anyone. And yet still, we took the Orange Line south. Nothing bad: not scary. Okay. Walked a private road: trespassed. Nothing too bad. Okay. Fine. Abandoned buildings. Broken windows. Graffiti. Holes in the floorboards. Alright… The next thing I know, I am scaling the inside of an 80-foot silo. Not ok.
The Damen Silos were originally built in Chicago in 1906 at 2900 South Damen off the south branch of the Chicago River. In their day, these 35 grain elevators housed over 400,000 bushels of grain. Due to the fact that grain dust is highly flammable, multiple explosions erupted the silos, until one particular disaster in 1977 rendered the silos dysfunctional and were put out of commission.
As it would cost over 17.3 million dollars to demolish this concrete sight, the silos are here to stay for now. Having been left empty for nearly 40 years, these grounds have turned into a playground of sorts. Every weekend the silos are packed with explorers, photographers, artists, and filmmakers alike. Several short films have been shot in and around the silos, along with scenes from the third Transformers movie (you can still see where they blew up bridges for the film and a few of the foreign markings they painted down the sides of the barrels).
Someone must have broken an egress window. The kind with the thick, marbley, layered glass blocks you won’t ever see through. Anyway, it was broken and it led to the basement of the silos. I tucked my legs into the tight hole, ducked my head, and slid under the concrete building. Immediately, the three of us became closer. My survival team: Ethan, Michael, Maria. The basement was black as night. The kind of dark where no matter how long you keep your eyes open, they won’t adjust. There were others in the basement, but they were but voices to us. Our shoes stuck to the mud floor, suctioning with each footstep. Small circular holes, that were barely shoulder width, filled the celling. We had to climb through those. Using large, milky, plastic barrels to hoist ourselves up, we stuck our arms through to push, but I still had to jump.
The bottom of the grain silo was funneled like a cone. I suppose, back when they were functioning, that would have made sense: A funnel for grain. But in actuality, it was something awful to stand on. One foot on either side of the tiny hole I climbed through. The hollow silo was so great and empty, it seemed to go up for miles. And on the side of the silo, where the base met the funnel, was a rickety, rusty, vertical ladder that went all the way to the top. In order to get to the ladder, we first had to walk up the incline of the funnel. There was a small rope that someone must have tied off for this reason; however, it was so thin I could barely catch it with my eyes in the dark. But the next thing I know, I’m being handed this piece of string that I can barely grasp in my hand without it slipping, and I’m told to go.
Once I reached the ladder, I clung on for dear life. One step at a time, the climb seemed to take forever. And the whole way up, I was slamming my shins into the bars of the ladder in fear, causing large purple bruises. With each step I could feel my body getting heavier: gravity increasing and screaming, “why have you left earth?” Even the slightest noise echoed deep within the chasm of these silos, so I held my breath as to not remind myself how high off the ground I was.
Scurrying to the top of the ladder, I threw myself to the ledge, clasping the giant steel beams, which held the structure together, with my entire body. Breathe. On the top of the silos, there was a break in the sheet metal walls that led to the roof. The three of us walked across the thin beams which separated each silo from one another: Tip-toeing around death.
I hate to say, but the view was worth it. The entire Chicago skyline was right in front of us, framed by the glistening river. The sun, low on the horizon, kissed the tops of the skyscrapers, making the scene almost dream like. The people playing in the concrete jungle below: mere specks of dust. And there was actual dust, due to numbskulls nearby doing donuts in a 1991 K-car. But it was nothing like I had ever seen, or will ever see again.
Being on top of those silos, over 100 feet in the air, helped me to see how small we really are in this monstrous city. Chicago’s capacity is so full of wonders that can be found around every corner; although, sometimes we forget that the city in its self is a wonder. Seeing the skyline from such high ground really put things into perspective for me. “Early September anyplace in the city, when the sunlight angles have abruptly changed and everything and everyone appears better, all the edges softened…” -Hemon, Reasons Why I do not Wish to Leave Chicago-.
Being on top of these great concrete grain silos, although dusty and dangerous, was a beauty in itself. Decorated with decades of urban culture and art, these structures are a staple within the Chicago community. In all my time being in this city, which mind you isn’t very long, I met the nicest people at the Damen Silos. Everyone willing to help, willing to encourage. And although these death-defying activities scared me senseless, there were strangers at the bottom with soothing words wishing me luck and safety.
Since moving from suburban Michigan to Chicago, everything has become larger than life: the people, the buildings, the atmosphere. But going to Damen really showed me the big picture, slowed things down, and made me fall even deeper in love with the city.
Even though these silos are old and broken down, to me they represent an even more artistic side of Chicago. Between the shiny new buildings and old architecture of the loop, it was beautiful to see a different angle of the city, and showed me that even in things that are dark and old and dangerous, there is so much light and beauty. This is Chicago. (Maria Kowal/ City of Stories Student)