“When they were closed, it looked like Berlin after the war”

The fumes of the chemical factory are felt, but “it was worse before”. “Before”, when Chicago slaughterhouses were running at full speed in the last century. On this sunny April morning, Operations Manager Carolee Kokola, organizes a tour of the owner of The Plant, a business incubator set up in a former meat-packing factory: in the courtyard, a vegetable garden, where organic vegetables grow, with soil brought back because the soil is polluted; upstairs, green tubes like chlorophyll, which are used to develop vegetable meat, or even extravagant toilets housed in the old rooms intended for smoking meat. The Plant is an ecological program, an atonement for the days of the slaughterhouses, when 55,000 workers killed, cut up, packed cattle from the Midwestern plains in an orgy of blood and waste that reddened the waters of the Chicago River and reeked of the city.

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These times are over, even if the gradual reindustrialization of the premises has made it possible to retain some 15,000 jobs on the site. The Plant also houses a museum on slaughterhouses, of which historian Dominic Pacyga, 73, is the curator. He knows this building well, since it was here, in June 1948, that his grandfather, Stanislaw Walkosz, a Polish immigrant, was crushed to death in a work accident. It was in these slaughterhouses that he himself worked. After pushing carcasses, young Dominic had become a security guard. On the day the slaughterhouses closed, July 31, 1971, he drank heavily, Jack Daniel’s whiskey brought by the breeders. We were burying a world born a hundred and five years earlier, after more than 1 billion cattle slaughtered.

Chicago is the city of breeders, who came to sell their cattle there from the middle of the 19e century, via the railway of which the city became, from 1848, the nerve center. In 1856, the train crossed the Mississippi for the first time, much to the chagrin of rival Saint-Louis (Missouri), which wanted to preserve its river activities and lost its status as the gateway to the Midwest. From then on, the oxen were transported alive from Kansas City (Missouri) or from Abilene (Kansas), the town where the cowboys who transported the cattle on the Texas trail were gathered. The cattle are reshipped, once cut, from Chicago to New York. The invention of the refrigerated wagon – the ice is placed in the roof of the wagons, which produces a current of cool air – makes it possible to generalize transport all year round over long distances.

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