Mayor Rahm Emanuel is using the new Lincoln Yards project, a $5 billion plan to develop a stretch of the North Branch into a new residential corridor, to score points with his two most important constituencies: upscale North Side whites and African-American South Siders.            

Emanuel is pleasing North Siders by clearing away the last grimy remnants of industry on a stretch of the Chicago River to make way for 5,000 apartments and condominiums. It’s the final step in the river’s transformation from oily commercial waterway to glittering lifestyle amenity.

When the land along the Chicago River was designated as an industrial corridor, urban rivers were considered natural sewers: great for dumping waste into, but not something you'd want to live next to. On the Far South Side, Chicago’s other river, the Calumet, was used as a shipping channel for freighters carrying ore to the steel mills.

Now, like mayors in other industrial Midwestern cities, Emanuel is attempting to remake his river from a dirty outlet into Chicago's second waterfront. He built the downtown Riverwalk, added boathouses along both branches, and oversaw a new riverfront trail in Chinatown's Ping Tom Park. Last year, Emanuel asked the City Council to rezone the 760-acre North Branch Industrial Corridor, which runs from Kinzie to Fullerton, to allow non-industrial uses — such as Lincoln Yards.

The rezoning has made the land more valuable: General Iron Industries, a scrapyard near North and Clifton, is selling its 21.5 acres and moving to the Southeast Side. The city wants to turn that property into a park. Lincoln Yards will also sit on the site of A. Finkl & Sons steel, which moved to the South Side in 2008.

Nobody should mourn that the gentrified Near North Side is losing its last bit of blue-collar authenticity. The riverfront factories were remnants of an era of environmental abuse to which we never want to return. Here’s a telling excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Chicago about Chicagoans’ change in attitude toward riverfront living:

The very first Chicagoan, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, lived in a cabin on the river, but by the 19th Century, “those with the means to own property had little interest in residing on the land. The Chicago River and adjacent low-lying areas harbored disease. During the cholera epidemics in the late 1840s and early 1850s, cases were concentrated along the river and among the German, Irish, and Norwegian squatters who died in their houses near the river. Property holders lived further from the river on higher ground.

The concentration of poverty along the river wards continued well into the twentieth century, as riverfront areas suffered disproportionate exposure to industrial pollution. Cabrini-Green and the Julia Lathrop Homes of the Chicago Housing Authority were sited along the river in the 1930s and 1940s. This trend began to change in the mid-twentieth century, as deindustrialization, sewage treatment, and the initial effects of the Deep Tunnel project, led to dramatic improvements in water quality. Beginning with Marina Towers in 1964, luxury housing began gravitating toward the Chicago River for the first time in the city’s history. The demolition of the Cabrini-Green Homes, and their replacement with mixed-income residential developments, indicates the profound economic shift in riverfront housing.

Sterling Bay, the developer of Lincoln Yards, has released a series of illustrations depicting condos, restaurants, a kayak livery, a skate park, a farmer’s market, a dog park, strollers, bicycles, a soccer stadium, a piece of the 606 trail — everything Rahm voters cherish. It’s going to be Andersonville, Lincoln Park, and the South Loop all rolled up into one pre-fab neighborhood.

Another quasi-industrial operation clearing out to make way for Lincoln Yards is the city’s Fleet and Facilities Management garage, where tow trucks, snow plows, and garbage trucks are serviced. The garage currently sits on the river between Division Street and North Avenue, looming over the Hideout Inn. 

Where is it going? To the former site of Kennedy-King College in Englewood. Why is it going there? Because Emanuel is trying to regain the goodwill of black voters after covering up the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting.

After the video of McDonald’s shooting was released, Emanuel’s approval rating in the black community plummeted to 18 percent. Black Chicagoans had voted for Emanuel in both his elections, providing the margin of victory in the 2015 runoff against Chuy Garcia. To win back their goodwill, the mayor immediately began lavishing projects on the South and West sides. The West Side is getting a $95 million police and fire training academy in Garfield Park. The South Side is getting, among other things, the Fleet and Facilities Management garage.

As the Sun-Times observed in a story on the move:

“Emanuel has spent much of his second term trying to prove that his development efforts are not downtown-centric. In part, it’s an effort to rehabilitate an image with black voters that took a beating after his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

“The decision to relocate city facilities to inner-city neighborhoods is central to that effort.”

The $41.5 million project will be paid for by selling the 18-acre site of the old garage to Sterling Bay for $104.7 million. Englewood, which is losing population as fast as any neighborhood in Chicago, badly needs the development. In 1960, Englewood had 97,595 people; today, the Census Bureau estimates fewer than 26,000 live there. As a result of that abandonment, the median home sale price in Englewood is $39,000, according to Zillow. Moving Fleet and Facilities Management there will bring 220 jobs to the neighborhood. The workers won’t necessarily live in Englewood, but they’ll eat and shop there, just as they now stop in for a beer at the Hideout after a shift on the North Branch.

You have to give the mayor credit. A good politician knows how to turn a crisis into an opportunity, and that’s exactly what he’s done. As politically calculating as Emanuel’s motivations for moving that garage may be, it’s an excellent idea that acknowledges two realities of land use in modern Chicago: the rediscovery of riverfront living, and the need to rebuild emptying neighborhoods on the South Side.