Chicago’s beautiful Riverwalk…what took so long to put it together?

On a recent beautiful summer afternoon, I had my first chance to walk the full Chicago Riverwalk.


The city’s website suggests the plans for the Riverwalk started in the late 1990s. Why did it take so long for the idea to come together? For a city that has so much pride in its lakefront parks and protected areas, the river was overlooked for decades. In much earlier decades, economic activity was centered on the riverbanks: rail lines brought goods from throughout the region to ships and counting houses. But, it has been a long time since this activity ended and important buildings have lined this stretch for decades. If a Riverwalk can do much for places like San Antonio and Naperville, what took so long for Chicago to enhance this stretch?

Modern wonder: NYC’s water system

Here is a look at the vast system that keeps pumping clean water flowing in New York City:

The pipes that carry this life-giving force are largely invisible to New York’s thirsty masses. (Here’s a great map.) The system includes 19 reservoirs nestled in the rolling hills and mountains, draining a sprawling 1.2 million-acre watershed; three controlled lakes; 300 miles of underground thruways, including one that burrows 1,100 feet underneath the Hudson River; and thousands of miles of thin pipe under New York’s streets. Together, they deliver fresh, potable water to 8.4 million people in New York City and another 1 million people upstate…

The system emerged as a matter of necessity. “New York City developed this water system because it was unlucky,” says Kenneth T. Jackson, the Columbia University historian and authority on New York City. “It couldn’t could take water out of the rivers, because the Hudson is salty all the way up to Poughkeepsie.” In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the city’s growing number of residents relied on wells, water brought in on ships, and spring-fed ponds like the Collect (near what is now Foley Square), which quickly turned into dumping grounds for sewage and garbage. The fetid waters helped spawn the cholera epidemic of 1832, which killed more than 3,500 residents. And the absence of significant water sources in city streets thick with wooden buildings led to a series of disastrous fires. After the Great Fire of 1835, which consumed about 700 structures, municipal leaders were moved to act…

Built at a time when the city’s population stood at about 200,000, the Croton system served well until the early 1900s. By then, New York’s population soared to more than 3 million, thanks to immigration, expansion, and the annexation of the Bronx and Brooklyn. In the early 20th century, the city expanded the system to develop new resources in the Catskills. The Ashokan Reservoir, whose creation required the submerging of seven villages, came into service in 1915. A system of pipes and canals were constructed to ferry water via the Catskill Aqueduct 92 miles to the Kensico and Hillview Reservoirs in Westchester—including a circular tunnel with a diameter of 14 feet that goes 1,100 feet under the Hudson River near West Point. Water Tunnels No. 1 (completed in 1917) and No. 2 (completed in 1937) carried the water from Yonkers into Manhattan. Next came the Delaware system to the city’s northwest. Starting in the 1950s, vast pools of water created by damming tributaries of the Delaware River were fed into new infrastructure, including the Delaware Aqueduct, which at 82 miles is the longest continuous underground water tunnel in the world. Here, again, gravity does the work. The highest reservoirs are about 1,200 feet above sea level. And the volume of water pushing down through the pipes creates an enormous amount of power. Today, Bosch notes, “the pressure is so great that it can take it to the sixth floor of most boroughs without any pumping,” said Bosch.

The 500 miles of fat pipes upstate are augmented by 6,500 miles of narrower underground conduits that run underneath the five boroughs, from the crags of Riverdale to the distant, wave-tossed shores of the Rockaways. From the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers, right on the Bronx border, pipes plunge a few hundred feet into one of the three massive water tunnels that carry water to the south about 500 feet below ground level. Every 20 blocks or so, vertical tunnels sprout up to feed into trunk water mains, with a diameter of about a foot. Ultimately, they connect to buildings, whose pipes are private property.

It would be really difficult to have the #1 global city without a well-designed water system. Such planning and engineering may not get much attention in explaining New York City’s rise but it certainly had to be present. Interestingly, histories of Chicago tend to note the importance of reversing the flow of the Chicago River so that waste was sent downstream towards the Mississippi rather than into Lake Michigan where it polluted the water supply.

Adding the Chicago Spire to the Chicago skyline

New tall buildings may be exciting but they can dramatically alter a skyline. See what the revived Chicago Spire would do to the Chicago skyline:

The supertall skyscraper’s hasn’t quite had a Cinderella story, as the project has gone through name, design and ownership changes since it was conceived in 2005. If completed, the 2,000 foot building would become the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere.

The various proposals are quite interesting. Two things to note, beyond the proposed height:

1. The Spire has a unique location that helps it stand out from other buildings in the skyline. It is positioned in front, closer to the lakefront and Navy Pier than other tall buildings in Chicago which are closer to the business district or Michigan Avenue.

2. The design helps it stand out as skinny, unusual because of its twists, and unusually tall.

Contrast this with the last major addition to the Chicago skyline, the Trump Tower:


While the Trump Tower dominates the approach in and out of the Chicago River, it is near a bunch of other taller buildings and it has a more traditional design (glass and steel in stacked sections). In contrast, the Spire stands out in front of other skyscrapers and has a more unique design.

If built (and this is still a big if), how long before the Spire becomes a “normal” part of the Chicago skyline? How will it actually cohere with the rest of the skyline?

“Chicago’s RIverwalk To Be the Next Times Square?”

The City of Chicago just announced what it desires for its Riverwalk:

In the Mayor’s attempt to turn the Chicago Riverwalk into Times Square Jr. or Hong Kong Lite, the city may soon be installing some new lights. A lot of lights. The Mayor wants to boost tourism in the city by 10 percent, or attract 55 million annual visitors by 2020 and thinks that adding a light show to the city would be the key. The lights are intended to highlight Chicago’s architecture and skyline, but also to open up tourists’ wallets by extending the day into night.

This “bright” initiative, headed up by the president of Broadway In Chicago, will start with an international call for submissions. Plans show that the lights won’t only be noticeable in the loop, as the Mayor’s vision is to expand the project into the neighborhoods. Perhaps some think Chicago’s world famous architecture can’t speak for itself.

More on the plans:

“It will make nighttime in Chicago an experience unto itself. It will make us North America’s city of lights. People will come from far and wide to see what we’ve done and enjoy our city,” Emanuel told a clout-heavy audience at the Museum of Science and Industry.The light-up Chicago initiative is being spearheaded by Lou Raizin, president of Broadway in Chicago.

If artists, architects and engineers “work together as teams,” Raizin said he’s certain they will find ways to use Chicago’s world-renowned architecture, the city’s iconic bridges, Lower Wacker and the river itself as a “canvas” to “imagine lighting in a unique and different” way.

“It’s about creating a spectacle that winds up allowing us to be sensitive to the assets that we have, but making a pivot that takes the old guard to the vanguard. It’s not just washing a building with light. It’s about creating theater. It’s about engaging. It’s not just color. It’s three-dimensional. It’s really creating events in light,” Raizin said.

One can only hope this is done tastefully and doesn’t turn out to be garish. But, there is a lot of potential with the riverwalk and I’m still surprised it has taken this long to do much. This may seem particularly odd since since Chicago has a long history of protecting land along Lake Michigan. Yet, the city has never quite respected the river in the same way as the lake. The river has always been much more functional: a connection to the Mississippi or a place to dump sewage. Perhaps the lights indicate a new era might soon begin…

Turning the reversal of the Chicago River into a jazz symphony

The Chicago Tribune explains how a new jazz symphony based on the reversal of the Chicago River came about:

That story has been told in history books and classroom lectures, but now it’s coming to life in a novel way: a jazz symphony composed by Chicagoan Orbert Davis and inspired by the revelatory photo book “The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond” (CityFiles Press). In effect, Chicago history will be told here not by academics but by writers and musicians.

Co-authors Richard Cahan and Michael Williams spent years unearthing 21,834 forgotten photographs documenting in luminous black and white the reversal of the river — and its triumphant and disastrous effects on the world around it. Their 2011 book in turn has led trumpeter Davis to tell the tale in “The Chicago River,” a major opus he and his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic will perform in its world premiere Friday evening at Symphony Center, with historic photos projected on a screen.

Neither the coffee-table book nor the symphony would have happened, however, if the precious photos hadn’t been discovered more than a decade ago in the basement of the James C. Kirie Water Reclamation Plant in Des Plaines. The stench of decaying film negatives attracted workers’ attention and drew them to an even more precious find: 130 boxes of glass-plate negatives spanning 1894 to 1928, with written records accompanying them…

Not everyone, however, would hear jazz when studying these vivid images of a rougher, more rambunctious Chicago of more than a century ago. Jazz, however, stands as the ideal music for this time and place, because the turn of the previous century marked the explosive beginnings of jazz in Chicago. Jelly Roll Morton, the first jazz composer, came here from New Orleans as early as 1910, followed by Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong and a generation of New Orleans artists, making Chicago not only the next jazz capital but the exporter of the music to the rest of the world.

The work will be preformed this Friday. It sounds like a clever way to combine music, art, and history. These discovered photographs shed light on something that had only been written about before (see a recent summary here about how Chicago’s growth was fueled by excrement) but the music has the opportunity to add a new dimension.

The music is also a celebration of how a key infrastructure decision helped make Chicago what it is today. Many have heard the problems facing the city because the river flowed into Lake Michigan but what would have happened if the Chicago River hadn’t been reversed? How sustainable was the situation? What else could have been done at the time? People may not think much about sewers and water supplies but these are essential for large dense populations. In other words, you can’t be a global city without a decent sewer system.

Chicago moving forward with federal money to improve riverwalk

Chicago has done a great job developing public space along its lakefront. Not so much along the river. But, new federal money is coming that will help the city improve the downtown space along the Chicago River:

A $100 million federal loan to build an urban playground along the Chicago River downtown is a “done deal,” outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday.

Appearing along the river with LaHood, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he expects groundbreaking for the extension of the Riverwalk to take place in 2014. The six-block project would run along the south bank from State Street to West Lake Street.

The Riverwalk extension is set to include a learning center focusing on the river’s ecology, a “zero-depth fountain” for children to splash in, kayak rentals and a wood-planked section dotted with floating gardens, among other amenities. Details were announced last October…

Emanuel has pressed to continue branding the riverfront as a recreational destination for Chicagoans along the lines of the lakefront or Millennium Park. On Thursday, he characterized developing the riverfront — begun by Mayor Richard Daley — as an important moment in Chicago moving beyond its industrial past.

Why has it taken so long for Chicago to utilize this asset? This part of the Chicago River runs right through a set of impressive buildings and a business district as well as borders tourist areas. As Emanuel suggests, the river is part of Chicago’s industrial legacy. Indeed, Chicago is still dealing with improving the a lot of the land around the river. Originally, the railroad bringing freight and goods to Chicago came up from the south to the southern edge of the Chicago River east of Michigan Avenue. This was a docking area. This is the same area that has only boomed in recent decades and now includes hit buildings like Aqua. Lower Wacker Drive might be nice for cars and the original truck traffic that would be routed off surface streets might it doesn’t exactly lend itself to a pedestrian park.

In the end, this could be a great space for Chicago. I do wonder how the water quality of the river might impact these park spaces but there is a lot of potential here. If Chicago is going to boost its tourist numbers, this could help.