Sofie Lie

River Reflections

Celebrating the natural and unnatural waterway at the heart of the city

The bridge was ahead in the darkness, its true extent impossible to gauge. We moved past the riverside mountains of gravel and sand and scrap metal at a brisk clip, but the gentle hull of the boat made no wake on the placid water, and the crowd on deck was lost in a wedding dance. 

Get out there and see how low it is, the man in charge told me. The skyline, glowing over the stern, hit my eyes as I stepped onto the upper deck. The view ahead remained murky.  He mulled over my report, tapping a finger on a spoke of the chest-high wooden wheel. We’ll inch up to it, and you’ll take another look, he said with the confidence of the owner’s son. 

None of us—captain and crew in the employ of a downtown tour boat company—had ever sailed this far up the winding reaches of the Chicago River. Never during the day, and never at night.

The bridge drew closer, visible only as a lattice of darkness where its rusting girders scuttled the city’s light. Two, maybe three inches to spare, I yelled over the music. The bridge slowly bent back the first of the boat’s flexible antennae as the small crew, about sixty passengers and several tons of steel slipped effortlessly upstream. 

More than ten years after passing under that bridge, I can still smell the river’s heavy odor and feel the relief that came as we laughed and sailed onward, watching the tree branches reach closer from the banks and realizing that we should turn back while we still could. Places instill lessons that shape us. For those who have spent time on it, the Chicago River’s wisdom continues to find new applications. 

 Recently, environmentalist and educator Libby Hill’s 2000 book, The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History, was republished with several new chapters. They cover the Chicago Riverwalk, the Asian carp crisis, the disinfection of the river, and the restoration of its habitats. But the imagination is stirred, memories are unearthed, and childhood lessons are recalled largely during the first, older half of the book, which describes the river’s origins. 

After the last glacial retreat, Lake Michigan filled with water and then leveled out at somewhere near its current depth. (What is now the Loop was under several stories of water as recently as 14,000 years ago.) Trees sprouted on the stretch of land between the river and the lake, and prairie took hold to the west. A slight ridge in the landscape, running between what is now Leavitt Street and Albany Avenue, was all that separated the Five Lakes from the Father of Waters.  

 While civic lore teaches that engineers breached this divide in 1900 by rolling the river uphill, the actual history was never so clear. In a passage that reintroduces us to the Lower West Side, Hill tells how Mud Lake, the boggy division between the lakes and the Mississippi that stretched west from Little Village, flowed both ways depending on the wind. When Mud Lake swelled with rain, a canoe could make it from one watershed to the other without running aground. Hill’s clarification, so casually relayed, puts one of Chicago’s sacred truths at delightful risk. The reader feels let in on a huge secret when they realize that, while the river flowed towards the lake before it was reversed, it did so just barely, and in its upper reaches not always.

The writer Nelson Algren spent much of his life within several blocks of the Chicago River. But the opening of his Chicago: City on the Make, paints a coastal-prairie picture of “moving waters as far as the eye could follow” and “a sea of grass as far as the wind might reach.” 

Hill’s portrait is different: one of a city defined by its river, not just while explorers still thought China lay beyond Montreal, but also once railroads eclipsed boats and after telecommuting eclipsed the need to transport anything at all. Her’s is an alternative to Algren’s classic setting, and inspires a search for the few stories that use the river, rather than the lake or prairie, to reveal our city’s emotional truths. A night scene in Stuart Dybek’s “Blight” takes place on a railroad bridge, from which a band of youths push their defunct car into the river, only to realize that they left a saxophone in the trunk. But this is one of the waterway’s rare appearances in a tradition dominated by skyscrapers and shacks, lakefront and prairie. Hill’s narrative points to this imbalance, and leaves us looking for material to tip the scales.

Another sacred truth is that of the “founding father”—both his identity and his purpose. In the popular imagination, the first explorers who paddled up the Chicago River and trudged through its swamps embodied the raw self-reliance that made Chicago’s lonely fur traders, land speculators, bankers, gangsters, and politicians rich. In 1847, however, Hill tells us that 20,000 people from eighteen states met at the frontier town of Chicago to demand that the federal government fund local infrastructure. Hill includes photographs of weekenders in Sunday rowboats that dwarf the teeny river, reminding us that this waterway was no Hudson, Delaware, or Potomac, and needed all the outside help it could get if it was ever to host a great city. Without the support and guarantees of government, the city would never have grown beyond a few cabins, and the boastful frontiersmen would never have been able to boast so much.

There are other surprises. Hill cautions against the clever idea of monetizing Asian carp by catching them for food, lest someone decide that aiding their spread into the lakes would be profitable. Her descriptions of a tunnel wide enough to swallow a small house, running for dozens of miles deep below Chicago, awakens a curiosity as to what else we don’t know about the city below our feet. When a rainstorm overburdens Chicago’s network of sewers and drainage pipes, this “Deep Tunnel” siphons off billions of gallons of excess water and stores it until treatment plants catch up. Next time it thunders, think before you turn on the faucet. 

 At the very beginning, Hill tells us that the river’s story is a “microcosm of the uneasy relation between nature and civilization.” It is a generalization, but the reader might be willing to defer judgement, as broad inquiries with groundbreaking results seem to be a Chicago specialty. Think of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, in which he debunks the idea that the city existed in opposition to nature, using the futures market for grain, which helped build the Loop, as an example. 

But as the book wears on, piling interesting fact upon acronym upon subheading, it starts to feel like the narrative will never land its punch. Not even Hill’s occasional craftiness—“no longer would dilution be the only solution to pollution”—can lighten the otherwise plodding prose. Hill occasionally hints at alternate theories to her “microcosm,” but these offer no more than a sentence of respite before the narrative plunges back into hydrological blow-by-blows. “Individuals make a difference,” she tells us. “Someone needs to stand up for nature,” she quotes from a public meeting. How many times have we heard this and agreed? 

The reader reaches the last paragraph of the book still waiting for a clear resolution. Hill’s parting passage tells us (unhelpfully) that a “river is a continuum over space and time,” before abruptly concluding that “humans and rivers are interdependent.”

 A reader might respond with a generalization in kind: good books are always part of a larger conversation. The sources a writer draws from, the words she uses, the arguments she makes, and the truths she embraces do not stand alone, but rather respond to past voices and shape those of the future. In what conversation does Hill take part? 

The Chicago River was actually written piecemeal by Hill’s friends and colleagues—fellow environmentalists and educators—who handed over chapters that she edited with a common voice. The text is filled with detail, the kind of stuff that could launch a thousand term papers.  

But if you live south of 87th Street, you’ll have less to work with because, as Hill notes, that is the approximate dividing line between water flowing into the Chicago River and water flowing towards the Calumet River system, to which she devotes less attention. By virtue of geography, the book spends most of its time on the North Side and even in the suburbs, following the River’s branches as far as Waukegan. 

The book’s limitations come into focus when Hill invites the reader to admire the river’s transformation from industrial dumping ground to urban amenity. Behold, Marina City, once “a vision for attractive residential living.” But as you stand on the riverwalk admiring the corncob towers, there’s no mention of their infamous developer, the policies he helped craft, the problems he helped create, and the implications of the vision Marina City still represents. Charles Swibel built the towers as a self-contained, luxury “city” within the actual 1960s urban-crisis Chicago. This, in the midst of his tenure as the head of the Chicago Housing Authority and promoter of urban policies that compelled him to make Marina City a fortress. From the French trappers to Fort Dearborn to Cholera to Swibel, Hill’s river is a city-maker, whose banks hint at where Chicago is headed. Are Lincoln Yards and the 78— the largest of a new generation of inward-facing mega-developments—part of the city we want the river to build?     

 But Hill did not set out to cover this ground, and seems to place the onus on the reader to apply the book’s raw facts to their own projects—whether that be volunteering, doing more research, or writing reviews. 

 Which brings me back to the bridge. That heavy river smell hits me whenever I’m asked to join in doing something I know we better not do. Other places on the river, where the bridges actually open to let boats safely through, instill in Chicagoans an expectation for the unexpected. You never know when several tons of steel, which sit motionless for six months, might suddenly rise into the sky and mess up your day.   

The Chicago River is not just an engineering feat or environmental cause. It’s an emotional truth filled with shipwrecked saxophones and ads for new condos. Hill reminds us that it deserves our attention.

Libby Hill, The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History. $24.50. Southern Illinois University Press. 328 pages

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Max Budovitch is a contributor to the Weekly. He last wrote about developers and the future of Woodlawn.

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