Have your say: Lake Michigan vs. Chicago River

A friendly bar debate turns into a Curious City smackdown that you can participate in, too.

December 5, 2013

Editor's note: Reporter Chris Bentley provided question-asker Devon Neff and his friend, Abby Ristow, with some homework; the idea was that reporting and insightful interviews could settle the pair's high-minded water fight. In the "Smackdowns" podcast episode, you can hear the friends' final take. In most circumstances, Curious City encourages peace among our readers, but here we hope you'll keep the fight brewing by voting in our poll and encouraging others to do so. Current results are available if you'd like to remain a bystander! 

Like so many questions for the ages, this Curious City query started as a bar debate. Our questioner Devon Neff and his friend Abby Ristow wanted to know:

Which is more important to Chicago (historically and today): Lake Michigan or the Chicago River?

Even though they’ve argued this since last April, the issue still isn’t settled.

“She took the river and I took the lake, and we were very adamant about our discussion at the time,” Devon said. “I just see the lake as being more of an asset to Chicago.”

His view of the lake from his apartment in downtown’s Aqua Tower might be a factor in his opinion. Abby acknowledged the river’s got a bit of a checkered past (bubbly creek, anyone?), but she said that isn’t the whole story.

“We’ve used it so much that we’ve almost gotten it to the point of ruin. But I think it’s changing,” she said. “For me it’s changing, but I’m always a cheerleader for the underdog.”

Whenever possible, we at Curious City like to settle things, but it’s hard to be definitive in this case. Our editor, Shawn Allee, has been pulling his hair out over how broad this question is. And Devon and Abby’s seemingly ironclad positions changed throughout our initial interview.

“I’m actually torn,” Devon admitted as we wrapped up the discussion. “The more and more I think about it, I’m really not sure if I’m for one or the other.”

Abby chimed in with a similar equivocation: “I think specific to Chicago the river has more of an impact. But the region? The lake.”

Almost everyone we talked to — shipping people, environmentalists, kayakers, even Mayor Rahm Emanuel — was hard pressed to pick one over the other. Even those that were for the lake or the river usually added the caveat that we’d be remiss to discount the other entirely.

“It was the confluence between the river and the lake, and the connection we could make to the Mississippi River that was what was important,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River.

So we’re acknowledging right up front that the lake and the river work together, inextricably. Still, we need an answer.

So, what to do? Well, we’re going to let you settle this one — with some help. We’ve gathered facts on the waterways’ relative importance to our city and region below, as well as words of wisdom from a few people who work with Lake Michigan and the Chicago River.

Here’s how you can help:

Water       

Before we dive in too deep, the lake has one very big thing going for it; namely, it’s the region’s principal source of drinking water. More than 26 million people drink from the Great Lakes, including residents in Chicago and many of its suburbs.

But the river has also served an important purpose: In addition to connecting Lake Michigan to inland waterways, it’s long served as an engineered extension of the city's sewer system. Its famous reversal in the 19th century enabled the continued growth of a metropolis on the make that might otherwise have choked on its own waste. (There's talk now of re-reversing the river, which some say could spur another revitalization.)

So both serve a vital function to the city’s daily life.

Shipping

“I would answer that from a broad and multi-state/national perspective, there is no doubt that the Lake itself is far more significant,” said Stuart Theis, executive director of The United States Great Lakes Shipping Association. “That said, certainly [the Chicago River] has much to do with commercial activity which takes place in Lake Michigan and in particular, Chicago.”

The Chicago River saw more than 2 million short tons of cargo in 2011, the last year for which data is available. Chicago is only the 34th most trafficked port in the country based on total cargo, but it is the second most popular in the Great Lakes (Duluth-Superior on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border is 21st in the country, with 35 million tons in 2011 compared to Chicago’s 20 million). A lot of the bulk freight traffic at Chicago’s port actually moves between the city and inland ports, staying out of the Great Lakes entirely. In 2011 Chicago handled about five times as much domestic freight as foreign.

But with highways, railroads and two major airports nearby, the port of Chicago could support more waterborne movement of cargo. In July Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn announced plans to spend $500 million updating the Port District over the next 10 years.

The connection between the river and the lake is still critical for shipping. Hear more from Delbert "Del" Wilkins, president of Illinois Marine Towing, Inc. in Lemont, Ill:

Pop culture and symbolism

The river is on Chicago’s flag, in the form of two horizontal blue stripes. It’s also the inspiration for the Y-shaped “municipal device” found throughout the city, including on the Chicago Theater marquee and inside the Cultural Center.

Hollywood also loves the river. Of course, the Blues Brothers jumped the Chicago River. And in The Hunter (1980), actor Steve McQueen’s last flick,a driver famously flung a green Grand Prix Pontiac off the 17th floor of Marina City, plunging it into the water.

Director Andrew Davis featured the river in The Fugitive as well as other films. He waxed poetic about this for the documentary Chicago Filmmakers on the Chicago River. “Almost every movie I’ve done has shown some part of this river just because it is a vein of life in the city,” Davis told documentarian D.P. Carlson. “I think that showing the bridges, and the roads, the major roadways and the river is part of the blood of the city. It makes the city tick.”

That visual fascination doesn’t end with the pros. The tag “Chicago River” on the photo sharing site Flickr returns nearly 34,000 results.  “Lake Michigan” turned up more than 256,000, but that isn’t specific to Chicago. “Chicago Lakefront” produced 2,269 uploads. But maybe people are using different tags (and just “lakefront” is too generic).

Skyline shots often include the lake — say, from the popular photo spot in front of the Adler Planetarium — and Navy Pier, the state’s biggest tourist attraction, is obviously lake-centric. The river does host the very popular architecture boat tours, though.

 

Recreation

Biking and jogging along the 18-mile lakefront trail is one of the more popular activities for tourists and locals alike, at least when the weather’s nice. Beaches along Chicago’s "forever open, clear and free" shoreline are packed during the warm months, a unique condition Joel Brammeier, president of Alliance for the Great Lakes, pointed out while singing the lakefront’s praise.

Brammeier said the open lakefront is “the envy of communities around the world.” But it only got that way because of a series of careful decisions:

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A lot of people still cringe at the thought of Chicago River water, but its quality has improved dramatically in recent decades. Since the Clean Water Act of 1972, the number of fish species in the river has gone from 10 to 70.

The Environmental Protection Agency approved Illinois' new water quality standards for the river recently, requiring the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to start disinfecting the waste it pumps into the sanitary canal. The river should even be clean enough to swim in by 2016!

Our question asker Abby Ristow has kayaked a few times, but I asked Ryan Chew, who founded Chicago River Canoe & Kayak in 2001, how recreation along the river has changed since then. He said it’s up dramatically, and he thinks that’s because the river provides an unexpected connection to nature in the middle of the city:

Margaret Frisbie from Friends of the Chicago River made a similar point about seeing the city from the lake and from the river. She admitted the view from the lake captures Chicago’s grandeur. But she says the river provides something different and, perhaps, more valuable:

Natural resources investments

Recently, several groups have called attention to the economic benefits of investing in both natural resources.

A report commissioned by Friends of the Chicago River and Openlands said each dollar invested in the river provides a 70 percent return.

Likewise a Brookings Institution analysis said fully implementing the Great Lakes restoration strategy, which includes cleaning up pollution and preserving fisheries, would generate tens of billions of dollars in economic activity.

Even though he picked the lake, Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council points out its value to the city is only guaranteed through constant and long-term investment — the kind he hopes the city will make in the river, too:

Infrastructure investments

Plenty has happened along the lakefront. The 31st Street Harbor opened in 2012, and plans to revamp Lake Shore Drive could include more park space, as well as additional routes for bicyclists. Some 600 lakefront acres formerly home to U.S. Steel’s South Works plant could become a futuristic community that developers U.S. Steel and McCaffery Interests have dubbed Lakeside.

But there’s obviously a lot going on with the river these days, too, and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the river’s catching up. He has called the river “our second shoreline,” and plans to continue an ongoing shift from industrial land use to recreation along the river:

The mayor’s much-touted plan to extend the riverwalk downtown is the clear centerpiece: between State and Lake Streets, six themed areas like The Marina and The River Theater are meant to attract businesses and pedestrians and give the riverfront a sense of place all its own. Construction on that could start soon.

Three private developments where the main branch splits — Wolf Point, River Point, and 150 N. Riverside — all include landscaped parks at their bases, celebrating to varying extents their place along the Chicago River.

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Chris Bentley is a reporter for Curious City. Follow him at @cementley.