On a recent Sunday on Chicago’s Riverwalk, a few dozen people sat on red and yellow Adirondack lawn chairs listening to classically inspired pianists Shi-An Costello and Jonathan Hannau improvise.
Instead of pausing for music from passing party boats or speaker-amplified tour guide trivia, Costello incorporated the sonic scenery into the performance. “It’s a dialogue, trying to treat it like a duet between the playing and the sounds of the Riverwalk,” said the lifelong Chicagoan, who added that the area wasn’t even on his cultural radar until booking this summer’s concert.
A major facelift that started a decade ago turned the Riverwalk into a pedestrian-friendly zone, and a number of al fresco dining and drinking options now line the scenic 1.25-mile riverfront path. But this summer the waterfront stretch has begun coming into its own as a cultural destination.
The city has expanded a Sunday afternoon concert series it introduced last year, invested in more public art and added family-friendly events such as afternoon fishing for children.
As the sun goes down, visitors to the Riverwalk can view a rotating selection of short films broadcast on the side of the Merchandise Mart just across the water. Running until the end of summer, the experimental art film Billiken touts Chicago’s legacy of Black house music and dance, while another honors the work of internationally-known textile artist Nick Cave.
Tara Vock, who works for the city’s cultural affairs department and has worked on Sounds of the Riverwalk concert programming, said that the area called “The Confluence,” where the North, South, and main areas of the Chicago River meet has become a draw for people passing by, who can catch a concert and nestle in a lawn chair.
“People tend to kind of stop and listen whether it’s for five minutes or they’ll pull up one of the Adirondack chairs and sit down for the entire performance,” Vock said. “It’s a nice surprise seeing culture there when they might not have expected.”
Today, the Riverwalk consists of three other distinct areas in addition to The Confluence: The Esplanade (the area between Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue), The Civic (the area between State Street and Stetson Avenue) and The Arcade (the area between Franklin Street and State Street).
The Sunday that composers Costello and Hannau performed, the scene along the Riverwalk was peaceful, the kind of day that could inspire a painting similar to the Art Institute’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, with a light breeze providing just enough respite from the heat.
Walking towards The Confluence from the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum by the DuSable Bridge, a dizzying array of restaurants and a gelato shop buzzed with people. At an area called “The Jetty,” which the city has opened up to fishing for children and adults, one child ran to a parent to show off the catch of the day.
Nearby, a community marketplace intended for minority and woman-owned businesses offered up a variety of food and shopping options. While many of the bars and sit-down restaurants along the Riverwalk had gotten crowded, the stores in the marketplace – including the vegan eatery Feed Your Head, the south Asian food business Chiya Chai and the handcrafted arts shop Colores Mexicanos – felt relaxed.
For Erika Espinosa and Gabriel Neely-Streit, who own Colores Mexicanos in the marketplace, the opportunity to sell homemade jewelry, art, decor and clothes from Indigenous communities in Mexico in downtown Chicago feels like a unique opportunity.
They opened their Riverwalk location in 2021 after previously operating the shop in a co-owner’s basement.
“We’ve noticed that the businesses on the Riverwalk are getting better and better because the city has brought in other really cool cultural small businesses that really represent the diversity of the city,” Neely-Streit said.
Next door, Swadesh Shrestha, co-owner of Chiya Chai, said the chill culture of chai tea matched the atmosphere of the Riverwalk, where visitors will often sit in an Adirondack chair and dig into a book as they sip tea.
“The whole culture of chai is relaxing, taking life a little bit easier,” said Shrestha, who grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal and is now based in Chicago. His chai business, he said, often brings back the nostalgia of childhood, something he’s eager to share with the Chicagoans and tourists who come through the Riverwalk. “That’s the magic of the chai, and I feel like we’re at the right place to showcase it.”
In addition to restaurants, bars and shops, the area also now highlights several dynamic public art pieces. These include The People in Your Neighborhood by Dont Fret, a colorful portrait series of 55 Chicago residents and local notables, such as the Walking Man and “Tamale Guy” Claudio Velez. East of Michigan Avenue, visitors will find the giant mural You Are On Potawatomi Lands, by Ojibwe artist Andrea Carlson. Near the Community Marketplace, another mural, The Radiance of Being by Kate Lynn Lewis, celebrates a century of Art Deco architecture.
Josh Coles, the director who oversees the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, said that renewed attention to the Riverwalk space hasn’t just proven good for tourism – it has improved the ecology of the river.
“The increased usage of the Riverwalk only positively affects the river itself, because people can get down to it and see if there is litter down there,” Coles said. “And they’ll be more inspired to tell someone to try to clean it up.”
After the recent concert, Costello said that performing alongside the water, surrounded by a cacophony of sounds, he felt connected to his co-performer, the audience and the city itself.
“I feel very safe there in a weird way, you can see so many things going on from far away, there’s a peacefulness to that,” Costello said. That afternoon, the sounds of hundreds of footsteps, thunderous boat engines, and bits of conversation become their own concert: given new life, just like the Riverwalk.
Isabella DeLeo is a freelance writer based in Chicago.