Can cultural resources help spur a different future for the Chicago River?

Can cultural resources help spur a different future for the Chicago River?
Courtesy of Rich Cahan/Lost Panoramas
Can cultural resources help spur a different future for the Chicago River?
Courtesy of Rich Cahan/Lost Panoramas

Can cultural resources help spur a different future for the Chicago River?

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Big Boats (Rich Cahan/Lost Panoramas)

A couple of days ago, I was inspired by a string of sultry summery days to do one of my favorite things: take a water taxi along the Chicago River.

My trip was a short jaunt to the DuSable Bridge – at this stage they’re only running full routes on weekends. And it’s no surprise why – at 2 p.m. on a weekday, I was the only passenger, along with the captain and one deck hand, who extolled the many virtues of his summer job. Otherwise, all was quiet along the water, which still carried a slight hint of its annual turn to green.

Back on dry land we’ve seen a big flurry of activity around our waterways. Just shy of a year ago, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency made it official: We need to make the Chicago River clean enough to recreate on and in, activities still considered hazardous to our health.

This month the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which after years of costly balking finally agreed to the new regime last June, laid out a plan to disinfect wastewater going into the river, which they claim will make it safe for swimming by 2016.

That’s quite the sea change for the river – from Chicago’s backyard outhouse to its backyard pool in just a few short years – ah, the miracles of chlorine! And while change is driven by a concern for the overall habitat of the river, it also reflects our continuing people-centric view of how to make use of this (once) natural resource.

Our evolving relationship with the river isn’t just a matter of legislative and policy shifts. There’s been a spate of cultural interest as well. In MidStream: The Chicago River, 1999-2010, native Chicagoan and photographer Richard Wasserman explores the entire length of the Chicago River and documents our changing perception of the water, from place for poop to site of pleasure.

Most of his photographs are devoid of actual humans, but he finds our leavings all over the place, from the crumbling remnants of once active factories, to graffiti on bridge braces, to that remarkable man-made endeavor known as the Slow Down Life’s Too Short bar (an all-too-ironic title now that it’s closed). By getting up close and personal with the Chicago River, Wasserman has managed to open up an imaginative space, one that captures both the industrial age of the river and its emerging recreational future.

Bubbly Creek, Reverse Effect (Studio Gang)
That future is also the subject of Jeanne Gang’s utopian Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways, a project inspired by the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) move to re-reverse the river by installing a dam (proper name: hydrological barrier) at the notorious Bubbly Creek (speaking of cultural resources check out local Andrew Malo’s ode to the notorious stew, the 2012 EP Songs from Bubbly Creek).

The dam would literally de-couple the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. But Gang takes the NRDC’s vision, combines it with the river’s “continually reinvented” history and runs wild. She imagines a river freed from its natural and artificial constraints, spilling into the cityscape via a series of freshwater inland lagoons. In these public watery spaces, we could loll about watching movies or listening to music while wetland habitats clean up our … mess.

Gang also led a group of Harvard students to design creative community-based uses of the barrier. One I particularly like imagines an art space that would combine the character of two Chicago neighborhoods: Pilsen (art, muralists) and Bridgeport (politics, speechifying). The low-lying structure’s (think futuristic Frank Lloyd Wright) spine is a giant mural wall, that both bisects the space and leads to an outdoor performance theater. With one elegant journey, two communities historically separated by a variety of barriers, from cultural to geographic, might come together.

How Gang’s truly 21st century river will come to pass remains to be seen. But she’s not alone in rethinking our water ecosystem. I’ve long been a fan of Growing Water, a project by the local architect/urban design firm Urban Lab. And hey, if Chicago can take a dirty, seemingly intractable train yard and turn it into a gorgeous park full of music, dance and public art, then anything is possible, right?

Ok, the money for projects like these doesn’t grow on trees. But a great way to figure out how to get to the future is by exploring how we arrived at our own current moment. Thanks to Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, we can do a little river time traveling. The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed its River and the Land Beyond is a collection of long-lost photographs documenting the original reversal of the river – the digging of a 28-mile canal between the Chicago and DesPlaines Rivers, and the impact of this feat (folly?) of engineering.

State Street (Rich Cahan/Lost Panoramas)
The glass negatives span the years 1894-1928 and were taken for the Sanitary District of Chicago. Like Wasserman’s photos, the images capture the energy of man (the emerging industrial behemoth Chicago) and the energy of nature (the gorgeous flow of a river with its own agenda and logic). And to learn more about Isham Randolph, the man whose energy was instrumental in reversing the flow of the river, check out Chris McAvoy’s wonderful work on the subject.

Cahan (and maybe Williams) will talk about this history Thursday night, at the Unity Temple in Oak Park. Admission is 10 bucks, and their event is part of the Break the Box series presented by the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. The Temple could use your support as well – they’re still working to restore the bronze letters stolen from the façade a few years ago.

The Lost Panoramas, March 22, 7:30 p.m., Unity Temple, 875 Lake Street, Oak Park.