Living Concrete of Chicago

Chicago, IL
Clouds scraping over the tops of buildings in Chicago’s downtown core.

I have not always appreciated guided tours, preferring instead to explore things at my own pace by simply poking around, but sometimes you can learn things from them that you might miss otherwise. A good tour guide is like a gossipmonger who knows not only the history of the city but also the funny quirks and stories that get buried over time. When my friend and I decided to take an architecture tour of Chicago we were pleasantly surprised by all the details that don’t make it into the city guide books.

On the morning of our tour the weather was not ideal. The second we got off the subway we realized that an extra sweater would not have gone amiss. Fog coming off the lakefront turned into mild drizzle on the streets, making the morning chill even more miserable. We ducked inside a warm cafe for a breakfast of toasted sandwiches in the hopes that the weather would lighten up while we ate. Taking our coffee with us to keep our hands warm we walked towards the river.

Details from the Du Sable Bridge at Michigan Avenue.
Details from the Du Sable Bridge at Michigan Avenue.

Our tour was by boat since the river that winds its way through the downtown core provides an excellent view of the city’s architecture. The docks from which the tours depart sit just east of the Du Sable Bridge on Michigan Ave. Below the main street level there is a beautiful path that goes along the water out to Michigan Lake. During the day it is filled with joggers and bikers but in the early morning it is nearly deserted. There are small café booths tucked between the trees, their owners have yet to set up their tables and chairs for the lunch crowd, and a pleasant feeling of quiet morning anticipation hovers over the riverbank.

The tour took about two hours and despite the weather we chose to sit on the top deck for a better view. The bridges that cross over the river are not very tall and our ship passed under them with only half a meter to spare. Chicago’s architecture is widely varied and the history behind the architects of the city, not to mention their numerous rivalries, is very interesting. Our tour guide often jumped back and forth through time, comparing the river’s past to its present condition.

Chicago was a booming commerce center in the 1800s and the river was so crowded with ships that it was said you could cross it simply by stepping from one ship deck to the next. Unfortunately, the river was as dirty as it was busy. The pollution was horrible and any building that was put up along the waterfront would have its windows and balconies facing away from the river. The threat of contamination to the drinking water in Michigan Lake pushed city officials to eventually engineer a way to reverse the river flow. This was a rushed and quiet affair that was dealt with without much fanfare because reversing the flow of the river meant that all the waste would end up being flushed down to St.Louis. Chicago decided that it was better to ask forgiveness than permission.

Later, after the river underwent numerous cleaning operations the city implemented a new bylaw that required all new development along the river to include a riverwalk. Today, these areas along the river are mostly for recreational purposes and serve as green spaces in the city. Some parts of the riverwalk have restaurants with open patios, other places have parks or fountains, but everywhere it merges seamlessly into the rest of the city.

Chicago’s cityscape is a smooth blend of different eras and styles. There are modern buildings that mimic waterfalls with their uneven balconies and levels, the walls seeming to undulate with the passing clouds reflected in the glass. Older buildings like the Chicago Tribune tower take their inspiration from centuries past, invoking visions of Gothic cathedrals reaching for the heavens.

It is refreshing being able to experience a city from the water as well as the land. To see the skyline disappear into the clouds as you sit out in the river’s mouth or to glide past secluded courtyard balconies hanging over the water’s edge, Chicago is beautiful from all angles. It was wonderful getting to know the history behind the city’s construction while floating down the very river that shaped its character over the decades.

Chicago River from Michigan Avenue.
Chicago River from Michigan Avenue.

Leave a Reply