Of Bridges and Boathouses: Mayor Emanuel's Chicago River Investment

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Chicago is filled with remnants of days gone by, buildings and infrastructure created to serve people and the economy, some still in service, some no longer used, and some serving a new purpose of helping us remember and focus on who and what we are as citizens of a great metropolis. Throughout the City, “vestigial infrastructure” reminds us of our past and suggests how to address our future. Consider the near South Side, where the river hosts huge drawbridges, once used by the railroads that serviced the stock-yards and lumber yards, and now stand unused, permanently arcing up into the sky. These massive bridges bear witness to a time when Americans built big, built for the future, and built to last.

Last week, I stood in the shadow of one of these bridges near Ping Tom Park at the edge of Chicago’s Chinatown and the Chicago River. The occasion was a very interesting press briefing from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and USEPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. The Mayor and Administrator were in Ping Tom Park to roll out plans for a series of new boathouses that will be built along the River in neighborhoods throughout town. The drawbridge that loomed behind the podium provided a striking backdrop to the news conference, evoking a tradition of purposeful investment in infrastructure to meet the needs of the City and its people.

So, while some dismissed the announcement as political theater, and a stream of pretty words about curious investment in the waterways that wind through the city, I think the announcement marks a strong commitment to the future of the River, committing the power and resources of the City and USEPA to making the River safe for kayaking, canoeing and boating.

The Mayor’s announcement was a strong, public down payment on the vision of transforming the Chicago River into a clean, safe, and usable “backyard” for Chicago. As has been noted by many, Chicago’s beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline is the front yard for Chicagoans. The new mayor wants to really clean up our backyard--the River--so it can be used similarly.

It’s quite a job. The folks kayaking and rowing in the river now risk an array of diseases that stem from the fact that 70% of the volume of water is partially treated sewage from water treatment plants. This must change, and soon. After one of the longest cases ever before the Illinois Pollution Control Board, the sewage agency responsible has finally agreed to disinfect the sewage effluent from their plants. Another case brought by NRDC with other environmental groups, to stop uncontrolled sewage overflow into the River, is before the federal District Court.

And the Mayor’s boathouse announcement, made with the head of the USEPA, further advances the march to a cleaner river. It signals City and Federal commitment to the hard work necessary to clean the river. 

Another happy-making aspect to the announcement is that the exceptionally talented architect Jeanne Gang (NRDC Midwest Council member, and MacArthur “genius”) has been tapped to do some of the boathouse design work. Jeanne Gang creates thoughtful, sustainable and elegant buildings with special attention to water environments. She has been working with NRDC to create a new vision for the Chicago River, which will soon be published as “ReverseEffect" (she talked about the project recently on Chicago Public Radio's "Eight Forty-Eight").

Certainly, in the short-term, there are risks with having more people on the dirty waterway. The City will need to be sure there is clear communication about the dangers associated with it, but I think that the signal Mayor Emanuel sends with the announcement of the boathouse projects, is clear: the River must be valued as an amenity, anchoring economic activity, quality of life improvements and aesthetic grace to neighborhoods well beyond the Loop. In my mind, it’s long past due, deserving of the smart, sharp, modern infrastructure that is meant to serve the City and built to last.


Chicago River Press Conference 1 image by jmogs via Flickr