Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Chicago River Walk -- What a Difference a Couple Years Make

Chicago River Walk Construction (Curbed Chicago)
I swear – I never will get used to how quickly time goes by. 

As I wound my way up and down the river yesterday, conducting a couple of tours for the Chicago Architecture Foundation with the First Lady crew, it became almost impossible to make myself heard above the staccato clang of sheet piles being driven on the south side of the river between Wabash and Dearborn Streets.

The work, well underway now, is part of the massive River Walk project that in the next 18 months or so will turn the south side of the river, especially the section from Wabash to Lake Street into a tourist magnet.  When finished, the design will yield five themed areas that are expected to pull 2.8 million visitors to a section of town that was formerly hidden from view and inaccessible.

And that is what is so hard to believe.  Because on this date, June 3, in both 2010 and 2011 The Chicago Tribune carried stories about the river that were far less flattering than the glitzy new tourist attraction we are watching rise today.

In 2010 the Obama administration doubled down on a pitch the State of Illinois had already made about cleaning up the river.  The Feds were not content with simply providing standards for water quality.  The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s stated in a letter to top Illinois officials that the Federal Clean Water Act required all waterways to be eventually clean enough for recreation “In and out of the water.”  [Chicago Tribune, June 3, 2010]

And what was the response of local officials.  Louis Kollias, the director of monitoring and research for the Metropolitan Water District of Greater Chicago, said, “We think the river is clean enough for how it is used today.  Why should we be spending millions of dollars to do this?”

Sort of missed the point, didn’t he?  A point, after all, which the E. P. A. said was to STOP using the river the way it was being used.

Mayor Daley joined the outcry, in a mixture of mockery, sarcasm and delightful Daley-isms, the Mayor cried, “Go swim in the Potomac.  We’re trying to make this river every day cleanable, more cleanable.”

Exactly a year later, on June 3, 2011, The Tribune reported that the Illinois Pollution Control Board had handed down a 58-page order demanding that the Chicago River, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River be made safe for primary contact, a term that set a standard for human beings being able to use the river recreationally, including taking a swim, without fear of morphing into alien life forms.

Two weeks later the board of the Water Reclamation District ended Chicago’s hold-out as the only major United States city that skipped the final germ-killing step in the treatment of its waste water before it was released, by accepting the mandate of the E.P.A. and the Illinois Pollution Control Board and approving a bond issue to clean up its act.

That was just three years ago!  Today with barges crowding the construction site for the River Walk and pile drivers slamming away at the barriers for the recreational zones that will serve to strengthen the beauty of this city in a garden, it’s hard to believe so much has happened so fast. 

Every day we’re getting cleanable, more cleanable.  It’s something to feel good about. 



1 comment:

Jill Bartholomew said...

It is wonderful when a plan comes together and everyone wins. This is good for the river, great for Chicago and anyone who plans to visit this vibrant city. Thanks for sharing this happy story.