Jim Sweeney, from left, "Conservation" Mike Echterling, Stacey Clayton, Tom "Coyote" Larson and Silas Sconiers. | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 19, 2013 6:47PM
“...The best way to fight racism is with solidarity.”
— Bobby Seale
I first met Silas Sconiers on Sept. 10 at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore’s Park Training Room. Members of the Miller, Porter County and Diana chapters of the Izaak Walton League of America, Perch America, Northwest Indiana Steelheaders, Lake County Fish & Wildlife and Friends of the Kankakee were there in support of Sconiers.
As a last resort, after years of being ignored, Sconiers has filed a civil rights complaint regarding the fact there is no public access on Gary’s lakeshore for anglers.
Also on hand were Sloan Farrell from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Civil Rights and Rose Pruitt and Ken Brodie of the National Park Service. Pruitt is chief, Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, and Brodie is Environmental Justice Coordinator for the park service.
Sconiers, 62, lives in the Midtown neighborhood of Gary. He is a retired employee of EJ&E Railroad who served in the National Guard for 12 years.
And, he’s a man on a mission.
“I was born in a house on 25th Avenue and Jackson Street,” Sconiers began. “When I was about 6, we moved to Gary Small Farms. I broke a lot of records as a hurdler at Calumet High School.”
As a kid, did you like to fish?
“Did I like to fish? We lived out on the Small Farms — we were river rats!”
Brother, I resemble that remark.
“We had homemade boats. We stayed up and down that river (Little Calumet). We swam at Lake Etta and Lake Sandy Jo. If you didn’t know how to swim across Lake Sandy Jo you were a punk. You had to be able to swim across Lake Sandy Jo to be a man.”
Fishing the Big Lake?
“Dad used to take us out to Buffington Harbor all the time. We used to go out there every Sunday so we could get out of going to church with Ma. We’d catch so many perch — jumbo perch.
“You could catch ‘em with a naked hook. We used to make our own lures with a pair of split shots and an old house key. We’d shake it up and down and the perch would grab it. Those perch were ravenous.”
When was the last time you were able to fish off the pier at Buffington Harbor?
“Probably around 1967. I went to several government agencies, from the governor’s office to the (Environmental Protection Agency). More than one governor or mayor has turned a blind eye on the situation.”
Explain your complaint.
“I want an equal opportunity for the citizens of Gary. The city of Gary is the only city in the United States and Canada on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system without a public access fishing spot.
“The city of Gary has 22 miles of lakefront. It makes no sense that we don’t have access. Gary is comprised of 93 percent minorities. And we don’t have a place to fish. Something is wrong here. We just want the same opportunity as everyone else.
“They say the beaches are open to us. That’s a joke. The first time some sunbather gets a hook in his or her foot there will be hell to pay. A grown man can cast as far as he possibly can from the shore and still be in only a foot of water. And there’s no structure — just sand. When you fish off a pier, you’re fishing in 15 to 30 feet of water. That’s where the game fish are.”
Silas, with all the negative headlines you see, you’d think City Hall would welcome the opportunity of opening up Lake Michigan’s piers to sports fishermen. It’s a good, clean outdoors activity.
“If the kids had a place to go fishing maybe they wouldn’t be getting into trouble. Kids need something to do. It’s a way to keep their minds occupied and get fresh air. When they sit around listless, they get into trouble.”
Would getting access be an expensive endeavor?
“We have piers, break walls and wharves already in place in the city of Gary. All we need is access. The city doesn’t have to spend one dime. The fishing clubs would gladly buy life preservers. We would gladly empty the garbage cans ourselves.
“It’s a shame. You go out to Marquette Park and look at what they done. All they did was shuffle the sand around and plant stickerbugs.”
“It’s an African-American term for briars.”
For more than a century in the Steel City, it has always been about the Carnegies, the Judge Garys, the fat cats of the Tolleston Gun Club, the Donald Trumps, the politicians and the yachts.
And for a kid from Gary not be allowed to toss a line off a pier into Lake Michigan is as pitiful as it was for a kid living next to old Chicago Stadium and never once getting the chance to see his beloved Bulls play live.
But there is strength in numbers and it fired me up to see grass-roots groups show up at the Park Training Room in Chesterton backing a guy who is literally fighting city hall and refuses to back down. And it was good to see the southern and northern portions of Lake County united and personified by the likes of river rat Coyote Larson and Silas Sconiers, who as a kid fished off the pier of Buffington Harbor with his father.
Twenty-two miles of shoreline...