Monday, March 24, 2014

But Maybe the River's Time Finally Has Come . . .

Riverwalk extension as proposed (Sasaki Associates + Ross Barney Architects)
Five days ago the City of Chicago held a pre-bid conference for organizations and partnerships interested in assisting with the planning and operation of concessions along the new riverwalk, a project that begins this spring and will extend the scenic walkway from State Street to Lake Street, allowing a continuous promenade along the south side of the river from Lake Michigan to the junction of the main stem with the north and south branches.

I wonder how many people today remember what the reaction was back on June 13, 1970 when Mayor Richard J. Daley said, “I hope we will live to see the day when there will be fishing in the river. Maybe even a bicycle path along the bank.”

It was laughter, mockery and disbelief. 

I’ve been riding a bicycle along the river for years now.  And in the past couple of years I’ve seen folks with poles standing on the banks or casting from a small boat in the still pools of the stream.  I’m not sure I would join them at their dinner table quite yet.

The news of the riverwalk extension puts me in mind of another spate of news concerning the river, this one back almost a quarter-century ago on this date, March 24, 1990.  Two weeks earlier the city with the cooperation of the Friends of the Chicago River had released a set ofguidelines for development along the river.  It took two weeks for The Chicago Tribune to digest the information and react to it.

But on this day in 1990 the paper came out in favor for the plan, writing an especially complimentary review of the proposed first stage of the riverwalk.  Today it’s hard to imagine an opening line such as this one, “Mayor Daley is trying to do something such legendary Chicagoans as his father and Daniel Burnham were unable to accomplish.  He wants to transform the banks of the Chicago River into an attraction as glorious as the city’s lakefront.”  [Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1990]

The son of the man who saw fish and bicycles seemed to have hit a winner.

The paper went on, “The guidelines and the many ideas for parks, plazas, walkways, arcades, marinas, cafes and shops contained in the accompanying report are more than welcome.  The lakefront of Chicago is stunning.  It has also been of inestimable value in generating economic growth; as Daniel Burnham said at the turn of the century when he was promoting his lakefront plans, ‘Beauty has always paid better than any other commodity.’”

That’s a line that bears repeating, right?  I might be using that one on one of my river tours this summer.  Beauty has always paid better than any other commodity.

Optimistically, the editorial concluded, “But maybe the river’s time finally has come . . . What is needed now is the will to proceed under guidelines that mean what they say.  City officials are drafting an ordinance that would require minimum setbacks and a review of all development under the guidelines.  All they are waiting for is a positive reaction to the riverfront plan.”

Well, it’s taken 25 years.

Though the mills of God grind slowly;
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting,
With exactness grinds he all.

The Tribune had one last suggestion, and it might be a good idea to carry into the new plans for the river:  "Name an esplanade or a cafĂ© or maybe a gondola for the Medusa Challenger, the giant cement carrier that for years literally stopped traffic, whether on the water or the streets above, when it lumbered up the river.”

Medusas Casts Her Spell (podlikenchicago.files.wordpress2013/11)

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