Things were so clean then we used to swim in the Chicago River.
- Stuart Dybek, I Sailed with Magellan
The river begins—as all things do in Chicago—at the lake. It moves sluggishly through downtown, passes beneath Beaux Arts–style drawbridges. On sunny days, its green mirror reflects sky and metal and glass. We’ve seen the river hundreds of times. Walked above it. In summer, the architectural-tour boats ply its waters. The guide’s voice over the loudspeaker bounces off the surrounding concrete. Yachts—decks knotted with partyers, drinks in hand—come and go. The air here smells of sunscreen, algae, and diesel. Above, bridge crossers in Cubs gear with kids in tow, downtown office workers in suits and slacks scissor-legging to the Red Line or Union Station, thinking already of later.
Maybe, if we’re honest, we only really see the river when we’ve been away for a while and return, tired, a little out of sorts, and notice something of its everyday grandeur. Had it been there all along?
The river, of course, is not the lake, which orients everyone in Chicago (Walk east toward the lake, you can’t miss it) and is a source of yearning during the long winter, a first lover you just can’t quit. There’s a real sense of there there on the shoreline, where in the distance sky meets watery horizon. The river? It’s everywhere and nowhere. It snakes along for a seemingly unknowable 156 miles, north to south.
The North Branch, whose headwaters lie some 25 miles from the mouth, was originally considered a separate river entirely—named Guare, after an early settler. Lengths of the shallow, winding North Branch were eventually deepened and straightened to accommodate industry, and the North Shore Channel was dug to pump in Lake Michigan water and push things—there was much in the river in those days that needed pushing—southward.
The South Branch, once called the River of Portage because it connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, has also been much changed from its original winding self—its bends unbent, its shallows scoured. It flows southwest from the downtown confluence of the North Branch and Main Stem as far as South Damen Avenue, where it merges with the manmade Sanitary and Ship Canal. Not much about the modern Chicago River can be considered natural. Maybe that only adds to its mystique.
For years, in winter, riding the Brown Line, I’d rattle over the river, to and from my office. Below, dark water, pale ice scrims. I knew the river as a passing-over moment at the end of the day, an innocuous something that intrigued me but which I understood only in a piecemeal way. I’d heard the river was the reason Chicago existed. I’d heard it had long been polluted. I’d heard, too, that massive investment in it was underway, a transformation—led by environmental advocates, City Hall, developers—that would revive the downtown waterfront promenades and bring native flora and fauna back to the river and its banks.
I moved away from Chicago two years ago, and the river largely fell out of mind. Until I read about the 760-acre North Branch development project that is slated to bring apartments, hotels, offices, and playing fields to a stretch of the river once shunned as a blind alley. It was described as an undertaking of a cost, scale, and ambition to rival the creation of Millennium Park, with an impact that might prove even greater. The project struck me as a symbolic pivot point, an immense commitment that seemed to say Chicagoans had stopped thinking of the river as an eyesore and starting thinking of it as an asset.
It felt like a good time to take stock of what ran beneath the bridges, so I decided to come back and see the Chicago River with new eyes. Over several days, I wandered along its banks, paddled it in a kayak, cruised it in a motorboat, took an architectural boat tour, and had long—you might say meandering—conversations with advocates, enthusiasts, nostalgic riverside residents, and a homeless man who has lived near the banks for many years. Among the things I learned is this: The river is alive. And like all living things, it carries with it vestiges of the past while continually remaking itself. And the only way to truly know it is to be on it.
I. Ferocious Expediency
Early Chicagoans, like most Americans in the 19th century, were brutal pragmatists. They valued progress at any cost. In 1835, city dwellers shed few tears over the scattering of the area’s original inhabitants, the Potawatomi, despite the Potawatomi’s own lamentations—800 warriors marched across Chicago’s early wooden bridges in a ceremonial leaving of the lakeshore. Their native fishing and hunting grounds having been overtaken, they’d accepted a brokered agreement to move beyond the Mississippi River into what is now Iowa. It was a deal they couldn’t refuse.
Chicagoans believe in industry, even if it creates hazards that we’ll live to regret. Or even regret at the time. The river was subjected to this ferocious expediency. Human waste flowed directly into its waters. So did the effluent from tanneries, meatpacking plants, soap factories, metal forges, and gasworks. Upton Sinclair, in his 1906 novel The Jungle, which I remember reading wide-eyed as a college freshman, gives us, in all its wonder, Bubbly Creek, a miserable tributary near the Chicago stockyards that gurgles with the gases of decomposing entrails:
Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily. … Every now and then the surface would catch on fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out.
Who were the poor immigrants to complain? Were the farms going to hire them? As for the wealthy industrialists, they held their noses and made plans for moving to the suburbs.
As most Chicagoans know, at the turn of the 20th century, the flow of the river was miraculously reversed. Its end became its beginning. It seems almost biblical, the reversal of a river, what with the legions of immigrant workers driven by the pharaohs of industry and engineering. Originally, the river and its foul contents flowed into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water—a catastrophic circumstance given that, as David Solzman writes in The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterways, “Chicago’s production of waste was as prodigious as its growth.”
City leaders, betting on a short-term solution, at first moved the drinking-water intake farther out into the lake. Disease found people anyway. Cholera, typhoid, and other waterborne illnesses tormented residents. A particularly deadly outbreak of cholera in 1849 spurred the establishment of many orphanages, some with Dickensian names, such as St. Joseph’s Home for the Friendless. In 1885, less than a decade before it hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago was deluged by a huge rainstorm, and the resulting contamination of the lake killed 518 people and forced the city to take drastic measures.
Work on the 28-mile Sanitary and Ship Canal, the largest municipal project in the United States at the time, began in 1892. It’s difficult to exaggerate its scale. As Solzman notes in his book, more rock, soil, and clay were excavated than would be for the Panama Canal. In fact, Chicago’s canal became a model for Panama’s. In 1900, the gates were opened, gravity did its work, and the flow of the river was reversed. Now the epic stink of Chicago’s disease-causing waste and toxic factory ooze could make its way into the Mississippi. Even before the canal was finished, Missouri—and honestly, who couldn’t have seen this coming?—sued Illinois, but an awkward fact undercut its legal standing: Missourians, too, sent their raw sewage and industrial pollutants down the Mississippi to other states.
“You find a lot of interesting things floating in the river,” Seamus Ford tells me. “I found a bowling pin once.” I’m kayaking with him and his 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte, on the North Branch near Goose Island. Seamus, who is 51 and grew up in Rogers Park, has a salt-and-pepper goatee and gets an intense look of concentration when he talks. His day job is doing PR for a consulting company, but his passion is the river.
Early-morning sunlight diffuses over the water and warms the dark wood pilings that rise from the shallows near the banks. Seamus says he’s found vegetables, coconuts, and soccerballs—lots of soccerballs—in the river. My finds so far: a waterlogged baseball and an acorn squash with a price sticker still affixed.
We’re heading north, paddling under the North Avenue Bridge. Seamus tells me his great-grandfather found a woman in the river once. Rescued her from drowning. This was sometime in the 1870s. Recently arrived from Ireland, he was walking near the downtown docks. Imagine: black smoke spewing from smokestacks and shrouding the sky, steamers crowding the waterway. Seamus’s great-grandfather heard shouting. Saw a young woman flailing in the river. She seemed to be drowning. He took off his coat and handed it to a bystander, then jumped in to pull the woman out of the paths of the steamers. He and others most likely revived her on the shore, maybe wrapped her in a blanket. When Seamus’s great-grandfather looked around for the man he’d given his coat to, he was gone, and so was the coat. A city on the make, even then.
Seamus has been kayaking the North Branch since the early 1990s, when the area was mostly an industrial backwater. “I’d paddle down here some mornings,” he recalls, “and used condoms would be floating everywhere.” He wondered how they’d gotten there until he noticed the gentlemen’s club and pay-by-the-hour motels amid the old factories. “Prostitutes walked up and down North Avenue openly soliciting.” Everything found its way into the river.
We float beneath a decommissioned railroad swing bridge, past a couple of abandoned shopping carts stuck in the muddy bank. As we round a point south of Cortland Street, a high grinding sound fills the air. I notice a silvery film on the surface of the river and a hot metallic smell. Just beyond an embankment, an immense machine heaves into view: a scrap metal shredder with a spout gushing fragments of things that once meant something to people—lawn chairs, charcoal grills, swing sets.
Mostly, though, the remnants of the North Branch’s industrial past are gone. Blocks from where we’re paddling, a sleek Apple Store and a Whole Foods, among other businesses, have taken the factories’ places. A Jeanne Gang–designed rowing facility now stands near Belmont Avenue. Buildings that once housed tanneries and shipping companies have been converted to condos and fitted with large banks of windows, the river these days being something to gaze at rather than turn away from. The condos are connected to the water by walkways, which lead to piers. Many of these changes seem long overdue, but when I think of the cost of land near here and the expediency with which the river has been treated in the past, I think it’s fair to ask, Whose river will it be?
On one of the piers, we find a collection of cracked-open crayfish shells, likely the remains of a heron’s feast. We paddle on, and a family of mallard ducks parts to let us pass, then rejoins behind us. Charlotte laughs and slaps the water with the paddle, getting Seamus wet. At the base of another pier, she picks some flowering chives to nibble on. Beyond those, a grove of tall grasses, reeds, and yellow flowers. By the end of the day, we’ll have seen blue herons, hawk-like ospreys, and two good-size beavers, which will scurry away as we approach but remain hidden in plain sight, one just below the river’s surface, its eyes and snout peeking out, the other lurking behind some more wood pilings, knocking soil and branches into the water.
Here and there, we see fish jumping. In the 1970s, the river was home to only seven species. Now it’s home to 70. Margaret Frisbie, the executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, a 38-year-old environmental advocacy group, told me that the long-fought-for implementation of new water quality standards in 2011—including a requirement that treatment plants disinfect all wastewater released into the river—has yielded results. So have oxygen-boosting aeration plants—Seamus, Charlotte, and I pass one, bubbling away, at Webster Avenue. But Margaret said the biggest boon to the life of the river has been a storm-water containment system—more than four decades in the making—known as the Deep Tunnel. Begun in 1975 and still years from completion, it’s the largest such reservoir system in the world, catching billions of gallons of runoff from major rains before all that dirty water—laden with road salt, sewage backup, and other kinds of detritus—hits the river.
Not all of the flora and fauna returning to these waters are welcome. At one point on our kayak journey, a huge carp leaps from the middle of the river, and I’m reminded that a cousin of this fish—the Asian carp, a voracious invasive species that could decimate the food sources of other aquatic animals—has been caught in nearby waters. A short while later, we spot a pair of native painted turtles, each eight or so inches long, resting on a half-submerged log. The turtles, I later learn, represent both a success story and a cautionary tale. Success because cleaner water has allowed them to thrive. Cautionary because the proliferation of invasive plants at the river’s edge has forced the females, who like to lay their eggs in sunny spots, to leave the safety of the riverbank and cross the path of passing cars and bikes.
Seamus says we’re witnessing a river in transition.
A transmutation. Alchemy.
In 2004, a homeless man named Richard Dorsay was found living inside the infrastructure of the Lake Shore Drive bascule bridge. He’d built a three-room wooden shack among the girders and camouflaged it with blankets. He had a microwave, space heater, television, and PlayStation, all connected by an extension cord to one of the bridge houses. He said he’d been living there three years when the police found him. Sometimes, he later told the Associated Press, he’d be minding his own business and the bells would go off and the bridge would start to rise. He’d hang on to the beams. “The first time it was scary,” he said. “After that, it was almost like riding a Ferris wheel.”
The river and its environs have long attracted people with nowhere else to go, people who don’t want to be seen. Perhaps they come because, for so long, no one ever thought to really look at the river.
My second day out, on a motorboat excursion with a 32-year-old river guide for Kayak Chicago named Brian Westrick, we pass what appears to be an encampment under the Cortland Street Bridge: coolers, blankets, jugs of water. A little farther on, near an industrial area off Kingsbury Street, there’s another one: plywood, blue plastic sheeting, a tent, storage containers, and, sticking their heads above the tall grasses, four ghost-like figures that turn out to be blankets and clothes on posts, drying out from a recent rain. Does a family live here? How many might there be?
I remember Seamus telling me about seeing a camp farther up the North Branch: two large couches and a lamp with an extension cord. A furnished apartment under a river bridge. “They even had an Oriental rug,” Seamus said. There’s no end to human ingenuity, it seems.
As Brian and I pass the second encampment, I notice a man moving among the drying clothes. I wave to him. To my surprise, he waves back and calls out to us. Brian pulls the boat alongside the six-foot concrete retaining wall that separates the river from the camp above. The man looks down at us. He is bearded, dressed in a red T-shirt, shorts, a red bandanna. Looking to be in his early 50s, he’s tan, muscled. He seems to be healthy. He tells us his name is Robinson—a fake name I’ve coined at his request—and asks what kind of license you need to pilot a boat like ours on the river. He’s very interested in public waterways, he says, and quotes a series of what sound like court decisions related to public river access, rattling off the legalese so fast it’s hard to tell if it’s truth or nonsense. Robinson speaks without pausing, like someone who hasn’t talked with anyone in a while.
At length, Brian tells him that you need to have a license for certain kinds of boats.
Robinson considers this and then, as if momentarily caught up in a dream, says, “I would really like to be on the river.”
Our curious conversation continues, with Robinson talking down at us from the top of the wall and Brian making a comical effort to keep the boat stationary in the wind, flaring the engine and occasionally circling the craft around.
Robinson tells me he’s been living on the river for seven years. “I’m trying to get as many people as possible to be self-sustaining. Off the grid. Lots of us will be living this way in the near future.”
I ask where he goes in the winter. Is there a shelter close by?
“I stay here along the river,” Robinson says matter-of-factly. “Winter of 2014 probably took two years off my life.”
I’m remembering that winter, nearly three weeks of subzero temperatures. The lakefront turned into hills of ice. I ask him how he manages the cold.
“Wool and plastic,” he says. “Trapping body heat is the thing. But it has to contour to the body. No air pockets. Have to strap your hands inside so they don’t slip out. Les Stroud, Survivorman stuff.”
Brian and I look at each other in disbelief.
“No bugs and no rain in the winter is a real advantage,” Robinson says.
He tells us he chooses to live outside because he doesn’t want to take handouts, that he believes in self-sufficiency and thinks it would be a better world if everyone did. He says he has animal companions at night. Coyotes that howl in unison at passing police sirens. A marmot that tore up his camp looking for food. “One time a raccoon woke me up with his paws on my forehead.”
He also says that he sleeps with his head in a Coleman cooler. This isn’t because of the weather. According to Robinson, it’s fairly common for the homeless on the river to be attacked. At night, mentally ill people, sometimes addicts, will sneak up on you when you’re sleeping, he says, and “smash your head with a rock,” steal your possessions. In Robinson’s case, those include a phone and a laptop, which he plugs in at a nearby shop and uses to keep in touch with friends and family.
Finally, Brian and I continue upriver, but Robinson and I will later resume our conversation over email. I find out that he became homeless a decade or so ago after losing his job with a trucking company. I also learn that his favorite works of American literature are Mark Twain’s river writings: Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I think of how the King and the Duke, those hucksters from Huck Finn, are always on the make, always twisting feeling for gain, and find themselves up against Huck and Jim’s unschooled, pure goodness. A simple dichotomy.
Our eyes tell us so little. Would it surprise you that—as I learned from family members I got in touch with—Robinson graduated from a prestigious Catholic university in the 1980s? That he maintains a membership at a local gym, where he showers, works out, and attends meditation classes? That he has two sisters, one a police detective in another city, who worry over him? That he could be sitting next to you—even now—in a café along the North Branch in his clean shirt and red bandanna?
IV. Something Elemental
Brian and I push considerably farther up the North Branch than I went the day before with Seamus. Soon, in Ravenswood, we’re seeing small fishing and recreational boats tied to docks, the postindustrial giving way to the bucolic. The river feels wilder here, more aboriginal, remote. Trees—cottonwoods, elms—overhang the banks, creating patterns of light and shadow on the water in the late afternoon. Two-flats line the river to the east, larger and more opulent houses to the west.
Two sculls come toward us, likely high school rowers from nearby Lane Tech. Brian slows the boat to a crawl to cut down the wake. I wave to them, but they don’t wave back. They seem tired, their faces pinched.
As we’re letting them pass, I ask Brian how he got started in the river guide business. He tells me he was an account manager for a steel company and also used to work as a software sales rep. “Good pay, trips to Europe even, staying in nice hotels,” he says. But he was gritting his teeth all the while. So he quit both jobs. Returned to what he loved. “My back used to hurt from sitting at my desk in front of a screen so long. Those jobs were just disconnected from the physical world. I missed that. It feels good to be outside.”
He punches the engine. We continue north. Eventually, we reach the confluence of the North Branch and the North Shore Channel. Here, we encounter a small four-foot dam. A group of adults and kids are fishing from a concrete promenade. “Most people want to go downtown on tours, so I don’t get up this way very often,” Brian says. “But I really should.”
On the way back south, we pass beneath the Lawrence Avenue Bridge, and I think about Terri Zupanc, a visual artist I talked to a few days before. She and her husband bought a two-flat along this very stretch of the river in 1994 and embraced its elusive charms long before kayaks and sculls regularly glided along it. She took inspiration from the river for her drawings and photographs. “It was just lawless on the river then,” she told me. “There was a real sense of freedom there, a haven within the city.” In the mid-1990s, she’d see houseboats tied up at the docks. The boaters paid a nominal fee to the property owners to plug in an extension cord.
Lots of artists, actors, and musicians lived in those houseboats and two-flats, and they didn’t take the river for granted: “They saw it as something elemental.” Music could be heard coming from the boats and the back porches, and folks would light communal bonfires at night on the riverbank and hang Christmas lights on the bridges, no planning committee needed. Even then, the river seemed to be bristling with wildlife. “Oh my God, the animals!” Terri exclaimed, her voice suddenly childlike. Deer, foxes, muskrat, turtles. Beavers that chewed up the cottonwood trees until the residents wrapped the trunks in wire fencing.
Terri would pilot a small motorboat to her art studio above a horse stable near a zinc smelter off North Avenue, not far from the gentlemen’s club. She might have crossed wakes with Seamus back then, a lonely kayaker amid the floating condoms. Sometimes on Friday afternoons, Terri would take her boat all the way downtown, picking up her friends alongside the tour boat docks for a floating happy hour, not far from where Seamus’s great-grandfather had rescued the woman near the mouth of the river. No doubt the light would’ve been perfect.
The sun is out the next day as I paddle, this time alone, along the Main Stem in the heart of downtown, though I can’t help noticing the clouds gathering in a far corner of the sky. The Centennial Fountain, which every hour sends a spray of water arcing across the river near its mouth, douses me, a portent of what’s to come.
If you pass close enough to the busy patios of the restaurants and hotels lining the north bank, someone will eventually lift a glass to you or wave or smile. It’s a long holiday weekend, 70 degrees and sunny (for now), so why not smile?
Along the Chicago Riverwalk—the immaculate 1.3-mile waterfront promenade completed in 2016 with the help of a $98 million federal loan and no small amount of arm-twisting by Rahm Emanuel—gleaming steel awnings emerge from the bridge anchorages to protect pedestrians like cupped hands. Crowds flow along the walkway and fill the cafés and bars. Pleasure craft weave among the double-decker tour boats. If any spot can open your eyes to the lucrative possibilities of the river, it’s this one.
I wait until there’s a big enough break between the tour boats and paddle across to the opposite bank. At Dearborn Street, I see a man fishing under the bridge—muttonchop sideburns, red-and-blue baseball cap. I ask him if the fishing’s good. He reaches into a bucket and pulls up a line with four perch on it. “It’s OK to fish in the river now,” he says. “This is my favorite spot for perch right here.” He glances sideways, perhaps worrying he’s said too much. Then he leans over the rail and takes a conspiratorial tone. “I catch catfish sometimes the length of my arm,” he says, measuring it out. I say that’s something, considering the way the river used to be.
I paddle up to one of the Riverwalk landings near a coffee shop so new its sign isn’t up yet and strike up a conversation with an employee named Tim Gibson, who moved to Chicago from Detroit a year and a half ago and just graduated from Le Cordon Bleu. He’s trained in French gastronomy and wants to open his own restaurant. Tim has a round face and an easy smile. We talk about the South Side, where he lives, and the differences between Detroit and Chicago. “I love that Chicago is a hub,” he says. “It’s a good place for people from somewhere else.” From inside the shop, we watch kayaks, yachts, water taxis, and tour boats pass, joggers dodge pedestrians, office workers stride across the bridges above. Everything in motion. Nothing still.
Back on the river, I paddle under the La Salle Street Bridge and, given the crowds, hope to catch a glimpse of Suit Guy, the bridge dancer who wears flamboyant attire—powder blue and shocking pink one day, gold lamé another—and performs a kind of mechanical burlesque, propellering his jacket over his head, when the tourist boats pass. I think of a documentary I saw about him. As with so many people and things associated with the river, Suit Guy—known to some as Riverace, as in Liberace—has a story that runs deeper than you might think. His name is Vincent P. Falk. He was born in 1949 and orphaned as a baby, abandoned by his mother at a now-shuttered hospital not far from the river—found in a basket in the rushes, you might be tempted to think—and raised at none other than St. Joseph’s Home for the Friendless, the orphanage that got its start after the cholera epidemic of 1849. I wonder if he’s drawn to the river, if he feels compelled to bring joy to people there, because of these connections. Today, though, Suit Guy is nowhere to be seen.
I’m rounding Wolf Point, the colossus of the Merchandise Mart looming above me, when the wind picks up. The tour boats appear to be moving faster now. I’m out past the Congress Parkway Bridge when the rain starts. I make for the east bank, where I notice some willows and elms sheltering a collection of about 10 tents, which I realize are visible only from the water. South of the camp I can see rubble-strewn vacant lots—a vast emptiness that stretches all the way to the high-rise condos in the distance. It feels lonely here. Forgotten. But it likely won’t be for much longer.
I haven’t seen any other craft on the South Branch since I left downtown. I paddle on. Lightning farther off. I find protection south of Roosevelt Road, underneath one of the rusting rail bridges, which casts a rain shadow on the water. A ghost of the bridge.
The rain lets up enough for me to push on. Just beyond Ping Tom Memorial Park, near Chinatown, the giant Canal Street Bridge appears before me. When it was built in 1915, it was the heaviest lift bridge in the country. Its towers are 195 feet tall. Amtrak trains cross it regularly now. Back in the bridge’s heyday, the lift had to rise frequently to let oceangoing vessels from the Atlantic continue on their way to the Mississippi.
A siren goes off. I hear clanking metal. The bridge begins to move. It takes three or four minutes for it to rise to its full height, directly above me. Rainwater is pouring off the trusses. Blood thuds in my ears. It’s one of those moments when the past seems very present. I twist around in my kayak, half expecting to see a cargo ship bearing down on me. But nothing’s there. It’s only a test run.
Later, after the rain stops and the sun comes back out, I tie up at the dock at Lawrence’s Fish & Shrimp, a modest lunch counter that opened in the early 1950s. I order fried cod and a beer and take my lunch back to the dock. I gaze downriver, past the Cermak Road Bridge, at one of the many buildings erected along this stretch of the river in the early 20th century to serve the industrial behemoth of Chicago. Now derelict, its windows are broken and its walls are covered in graffiti.
Near the top, someone has painted a message in large blue and white letters: “Memories Are Sacred.”
Whose memories and of what? I wonder.
And what of the river’s future?
Some say it might be clean enough to swim in before long. Polluted by expediency, reversed out of necessity, flowing through a city of wonders and deprivations, the river has more stories yet to tell.