Spirits of Place: Chicago

by Jennifer Stevenson

I am an episodic Chicago native.  I was born in the area, lived in Chicago my first nine years or so, moved to the burbs for another six or seven years, moved away to college and grad school, then returned in the early eighties.  I didn’t really have a sense of the city, however, except for its fine collection of dinosaurs at the Field Museum, until my most recent return in adulthood.

Two things I love about Chicago:  the exposed and highly functional nature of its infrastructure, and its devotion to nature and the grandiose natural beauties of the area.


Chicago has a subway system, as do many major metropolitan areas in its league.  But Chicago also has a second railway system most people don’t know about.  It isn’t used as much these days, but back when most buildings were heated by coal, this secondary underground rail system was used to move coal and also any other shipments that didn’t travel by truck.  Paper plates, sides of beef, and barrels of beer were shuttled to restaurants from warehouses and distribution centers into the Loop on little rail cars running on narrow-gauge rails in low tunnels, many of these tunnels dug right alongside the subway system tunnels.  The big newspapers received giant rolls of newsprint in this way.  Merchandise traveled to the big department stores via these tunnels.  Sometimes when I ride the subway I can still see, through archways down in the guts, into these now-abandoned tunnels.

Chicago also uses Lake Michigan and the Chicago River to move people and materials.  Once upon a time, several canals and smaller rivers were also used in this way, but conventional trucking has pretty much replaced the utility of those waterways.  After the underground feeder system was abandoned, the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times received their newsprint rolls via river barge.  (Now the paper comes by surface rail.)  Commuters move from Union Station to the Magnificent Mile via ferry.  Go south of the city on the Indiana Skyway and watch gigantic ocean-going container ships load and unload via mind-bogglingly huge machines.

Most of the water we drink in Chicago comes from Lake Michigan.  It is introduced into the supply via water intakes built a mile or more out in the lake.  From the beach you can see them sticking up like little round islands.  They used to be manned, but are no longer.  When zebra mussels, which are tiny parasitic bivalves, invaded the Great Lakes system via the St. Lawrence Seaway, Chicagoans found the lake mysteriously clearing.  The mussels clog the water intakes and clean native bacteria and algae out of the water, making it sparkling clear.  Ecologists bemoan this fact, but I find it bizarrely pleasing that I can wander out on a breakwater and see all the way to the bottom, even thirty feet down.  The popular brand of cheap bottled water, Ice Mountain, is in fact Lake Michigan tap water.  It’s cold, clean, and free of metallic-tasting chemicals.  Save your money and refill your own bottle at the sink.

Chicago, like every major city, is an appalling pile of brick, asphalt, steel, and glass, but there are two mitigating factors that make it a more than bearable home to me.  First is Lake Michigan.  In the nineteenth century Daniel Burnham (“Make no small plans”) decreed that huge swaths of land be set aside for public use.  Thanks to him, only a couple of miles of lakefront of the entire twenty-two-mile length of the city are private; the rest is public beach or public breakwater.  No matter how tall and shiny the buildings get, there is a sharp edge to the city, beyond which the works of man may not go.  Much of Lincoln Park on the north side is in fact landfill; Lake Shore Drive is built on landfill; and, just inside the Drive, Sheridan Road marks where the earliest, wealthiest citizens built their landmark mansions on what was once the very edge of the shore.  The sun rises over the lake in winter, gilding miles of smooth ice.  The full moon rises over the lake every month about nine o’clock at night, and night herons wing across it, making their clonking noise, and the lights of 747 jets curve across the lake like orderly strings of pearls, lining up for landing at O’Hare or Midway Airports.  The lake is the all-powerful edge of mother nature, saying to the skyscrapers, This far and no further.

Thanks also to Burnham, two rings of forest preserves curve like concentric green rainbows around the western side of the city, as if to balance the eternal depths of the lake.  It’s possible for me to strap on my roller skates and travel from the Chicago Botanical Garden in Northbrook all the way south to Foster Avenue in Chicago, fifteen miles away, without leaving Cook County Forest Preserve District land.  The city holds thousands of acres of dedicated prairie, bird sanctuaries, oak savannah, wetlands, and lagoons, in addition to thousands more acres of green playgrounds and places to throw a monster church picnic.  I can see snowy owls, foxes, great blue herons, coyotes, sandhill cranes, and beavers within city limits.  The deer population in these forest preserves is frankly out of control.  Perversely, this pleases me too.

You can have the fancy architecture.  Gimme the trains and the lake and the green spaces.





Spirits of Place: Chicago — 3 Comments

  1. I love the area around Union Station. I’ve stopped over several times, and had hours just to wander the streets and look at the canals. Several times I’ve made it to the lake, which is spooky because that kind of limitless water means ‘Pacific Ocean’ to me. To face something so large, and oriented the wrong way, is unsettling, I don’t know why. I felt the same about rivers, especially when I couldn’t easily see the other shore. (There are no rivers in Southern California.)

    The other thing that struck me was the good smells. After having read Theodore Dreiser, I’d gained this impression that Chicago stank because of the vividly described meat packing plants. But the city I saw was clean and so many different kinds of restaurants with delicious smells emanating out.

  2. I spent the first 15 years of my life in the Windy City, and though I travel there infrequently now, I still consider myself a Chicago native. One of the reviewers of my novel, *The Aremac Project*, complained “as much as I enjoyed the tour through Chicago’s ethnic eateries … I often found myself “hankering for corned beef on rye and cheese blintzes.” Others concurred. Ethnic eateries, and beyond that, ethnic neighborhoods, are more of the remarkably lovable things about the city of my birth.

    I don’t know if the streetcars are still around, but in my day, Chicago boasted “the world’s longest streetcar line.” I lived at the north end of this line, but alas, the love of my high school life lived at the south end, three hours away. It’s the only thing I really hated about Chicago.