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The Least-Wasteful Man on the South Side Moves Into a Streetcar House

By Sam Cholke | May 27, 2015 6:06am
 Ken Dunn of the Resource Center has purchased a 119-year-old streetcar house in Burnside as the new home for his recycling and reuse businesses.
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BURNSIDE — The least wasteful man on the South Side is moving to Burnside and is setting up shop in a 119-year-old streetcar house in a six-acre forest.

Hyde Parker Ken Dunn, the founder of the Resource Center, has bought the former Calumet and South Chicago streetcar garage at 93rd Street and Drexel Avenue and will make it the new home of his recycling and reuse businesses.

“There’s been a lot of investment here and it can be preserved for the future,” Dunn said.

Dunn said he envisions the 125,000-square-foot warehouse, still laced with streetcar tracks, as the hub of his recycling business and the Creative Reuse Warehouse, a business where he will buy things like a semitrailer full of recipe cards and find some way to resell it.

On Tuesday, Dunn walked through the warehouse, clearly excited about the pallets of hydraulic tubes the previous owner had left behind. He pointed to one pallet of hoses with blue caps that he said all fit his recycling trucks and then pointed to another with red caps that he said could be cut and refitted for a whole host of machinery.

Still valuable, he said.

Dunn's Burnside property is sandwiched between two railroad lines.

Most residents of the south lakefront have likely seen Dunn before. He frequently drives one of his six white recycling trucks on routes throughout the South Side and is almost always wearing an old Navy uniform.

“For years, I’ve worn exclusively used Navy clothes,” Dunn said, a style he said he hopes catches on as the uniform of a zero-waste movement.

Walking past pallets of wildflower seeds and packets of plant food, the source of Dunn’s sartorial inspiration becomes clear. Dunn still has stacks of boxes of surplus Navy clothing, the leftovers of a purchase from the mid-‘80s of six semitrailers of the pants, shirts and jackets.

Dunn said most of the things he buys he’s able to move out in about a month.

He said one of his best lots was reselling 76 semitrailers full of 12-ounce beer bottles from a Milwaukee brewery. He said he was able to resell the bottles to a new Chicago brewery at a bargain and help them get established, though he declined to name the brewery.

“I have to hit on something before I say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it,’” Dunn said of the mix of things he’s accumulated.

He said the new space would make it easier to make gambles, like buying the entire stock of a closing bolt factory because he will be able to display what he has available more easily.

The Resource Center runs a Creative Reuse warehouse out of 222 E. 135th Place, but much of Dunn’s stock was scattered across the South Side in 30 semitrailers, which he has moved to the new Burnside warehouse.

After he gets a new roof installed and tuck-pointing done by early next winter, he said he would put up shelves to allow customers to browse.

And Dunn has some bizarre goods for sale.

Ken Dunn holds up one of the former displays he's recovered from the Field Museum.

Opening one semitrailer, Dunn clamors up to point out the placards and railings from a motorcycle exhibit from the ‘90s at the Field Museum, a longtime client. Underneath all of it is a massive wooden bench with scrollwork arms that used to be in the museum, the last of two Dunn recovered from the museum.

Dunn said once he’s all moved in, he will convert his recycling drop-off and sorting yard at 1325 E. 70th St. into a farm and then will get to work on the six-acre forest behind his streetcar house.

Dunn's new six-acre forest is largely a thicket of invasive buckthorn that will eventually be converted to farmland.

“Some of it we might save as a forest for a while, but this can all be farmland,” Dunn said of the dense woods choked with a thicket of invasive buckthorn.

Dunn, who has been converting vacant lots on the South Side into gardens and urban farms since 1968, has seen worse land made fertile and workable again.

When Dunn was 2 his father bought a forest in Kansas that had been buried by the Dust Bowl. He said some of his earliest memories are of his father digging the trees out of sand dunes and cutting them down. He said his father planted clover for years and plowed it into the sand to build the land back up into workable soil.

Compared to that, Dunn said, none of this seems all that difficult.

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