We have never respected the river.It was a poor people’s neighborhood, starting in the 1840s, when the poorest huddled along its banks. The wealthy preferred the lakefront and not without reason.
After the stockyards opened in the 1860s, a portion of the river was called “Bubbly Creek” because it was filled with animal carcasses and waste that would bubble to the surface.
And still, during the Great Depression people moved into houseboats on the river. They had no money for rent.
We threw dead bodies in the river…the occasional car.
In April 1992, the river seemed to say enough is enough.
I am on the Kinzie Street bridge looking at a hole in the river: The city is flooding. Through a tunnel dug under the city in the early 20th century, the water flows—250 million gallons of water, flooding Loop basements, closing Loop buildings.
The city rushes into action. Sixty-five truckloads of rocks and cement as well as many, many mattresses plug the hole. Three days later businesses reopen. The city’s cost? An estimated $1.95 billion.
A guy named Steve Coppola writes a letter to the Chicago Tribune: “The next time the Chicago River leaks, I think we should plug up the hole with aldermen.”
A columnist responds, “No way. Too light. They’d float away. But we could try tossing in their wallets and pinky rings.”
A few months later I am standing on the same Kinzie Street bridge; it is early September. The hole has been long plugged and a man is selling a newspaper. Streetwise publishes its first issue; it contains stories, photos and a page of feelings from homeless people—people who can earn money, who can gain pride, by selling the paper.
Says a man named Marvine in that first issue: “I don’t mistreat the public and I don’t want them to mistreat me.”
The man on the bridge tries to sell a woman a copy.
“Go get a job?” she screams. “I’m sick of you people.”
The words spit from her mouth: “You people.” And the man says to me as the woman walks away, “I do got a job and I’d like to tell that woman that the line between her and me ain’t all that thick.”
He was right. We are all “You people.”
The river flows.