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Cityscape: How the Lakefront Was Won

Every sizable city has a symphony and an art museum, but no one has lakefront parks like ours. How we got them is the subject of a classic book recently reissued.



A few months ago the Tribune asked the English-born hotelier Darryl Hartley-Leonard what he liked about Chicago. "What a unique set of circumstances it was that caused the city fathers back then to fight for the idea that the entire lakefront never be commercialized," he enthused. "We look at that lakefront, and we think, 'This is a good town. Greed didn't take this town.'"

Stopped laughing? Good. Now we can talk about how Chicago really got its public lakefront. All but a handful of city fathers fought no such fight for a noncommercial lakefront, though it's natural that a newcomer would assume that they did. People who come to Chicago from places like England don't know that, here, government opposes real improvements rather than advances them.

Having more to be embarrassed about, Chicagoans for a century have been obliged to boast all the harder to outsiders about their city's civilizing amenities. And while every sizable city has a symphony and an art museum, none has lakefront parks like Chicago's. They're offered as evidence not merely of the city's foresight but of its virtue.

How the city got them is explained in Lois Wille's book Forever Open, Clear and Free: The Struggle for Chicago's Lakefront. Originally published in 1972, it has just been reissued in a new (but not revised) edition by the University of Chicago Press. Forever is regarded locally as a small classic, one of the books on that small shelf that one absolutely needs to read to understand Chicago. Its rerelease serves as a valedictory of sorts for Wille, who recently retired as editorial-page editor at the Tribune after a useful and varied career in Chicago journalism.

Wille sounds her main themes in her prologue, and anyone who's lived in Chicago for even a little while will be able to whistle along. Chicago, being Chicago, set out to do what no other city in the world has done. "It would give its most priceless land, its infinitely valuable shoreline, to its people," she writes. "The lakefront would be dedicated to pleasure and beauty, not to commerce and industry." Wille's story spans a century and a half. The early decades saw not only the physical construction of the lakefront, mainly by filling in the lakeshore, but the erection of the legal principles that preserved it for public use. In more recent years the building has been mainly political, as a coalition of groups employing "citizen action and citizen pressure" has risen to protect the lakefront against erosion by politicians eager to appropriate it for everything from pet public-works projects to private clubs.

As history, Wille's account is a great newspaper story. It's vivid and entertaining, anecdotal rather than analytic, and peopled with the stock characters of Chicago's ongoing populist soap opera. While Wille was not a participant in the struggle she recounts, she was anything but nonpartisan. Forever is accurate enough to be credible and misleading enough to be popular. That makes her book less than dependable as history but improves it wonderfully as a polemic.

The hero of Wille's book is Daniel Burnham--architect, businessman and benefactor, author of the 1909 city plan, organizer of the World Columbian Exposition of 1893, and father of Chicago's lakefront. We are introduced to him on the stump, before the Merchants Club. Burnham has been praised as the only planner capable of poetry, and he liked to turn it on for these soirees. Wille quotes at length from a famous paragraph in which Burnham spoke of "the broad water, ruffled by the gentle breeze," of "a crescent moon [that] swims in the western sky." He asks, "What sort of prosperity is this that we should foster and maintain? Not that for rich people solely or principally, for they can take care of themselves . . . but the prosperity of those who must have enjoyment in order to live."

It's a pretty speech, but Wille might have done better to quote more of it. Burnham went on to ask, "Do not these latter depend upon the circulation among them of plenty of ready money, and can this be brought about without the presence of large numbers of well-to-do people?" Peter Hall, noted historian of planning, in Cities of Tomorrow describes Burnham's program as trickle-down urban development with a vengeance. "Implicit in it," Hall writes, "never spelt out, is a notion of an urban economy led by . . . conspicuous consumption, on the part of a European-style leisure class."

While Burnham promised Jane Addams that the lakefront would be designed to draw the working classes to fresh air and sunshine and wholesome recreations, he sold it to the boys downtown as a tourist draw. Its real patrons would be those Chicagoans of means who used to flee to Paris, Vienna, and the Riviera for their amusements; the irony is that Burnham's parks have enticed the middle classes to spend their money in Chicago, only now they do it not as residents but as tourists from the suburbs.

Burnham believed that parks were an antidote to unrest, to overcrowding, vice, disorder, and--it probably need not be said--political radicalism. Chicago's new parks were meant from the first not to amuse the common man but to change him, to render him safe. Wille seems to share Burnham's ambivalence about the People. About Navy Pier she warns, "Care must be taken to prevent it from becoming cheap, gaudy, and overly commercial"--in other words, popular.

This cultural conflict has driven lakefront debate from the start, although Wille seldom considers its effects explicitly. It became an issue in 1986, for example, when opposition arose to Harold Washington's idea to replace Soldier Field with a new lakefront stadium. Noted sociologist Mike Ditka characterized the opposition to a new stadium south of Soldier Field as a sort of third-and-ten between Chicago's "Grabowskis" and its "Smiths." Ditka got blocking help from the Sun-Times--even Grabowskis read--and Rob Mier and Liz Hollander, then Washington's economic-development and planning directors respectively. Hollander argued that a stadium on the lakefront would be a populist amenity, that more people like football than like sailing, for example, and dismissed objections to the stadium as elitist.

This wrangle is typical of a dozen past disputes over the appropriate use of the lakefront, and not least because of the ironies implicit in the quarrel. Before Soldier Field's conversion into an imitation NFL stadium, it was an amphitheater improbably designed for civic pageants, educational exhibits, and the like--that is, built to serve ends every bit as high-minded as those of the Art Institute and the Field Museum. Today, however, Wille would be only one of thousands who would cheer if a smart bomb were dropped on it during the next Air and Water Show, since it would speed the reversion of the site to green parkland.

Lakefront protectors bristle at the charge of elitism, probably because while it flatters them personally it discredits them politically. But their identification with the common man is mostly rhetorical. Writing about the Park District's dark ages between the 1930s and the '80s, Wille notes derisively, "The early park commissioners had been familiar with landscape architects and city planners; the new ones were closer to ward committeemen and precinct captains"--in other words, closer to the average Chicagoan.

Lakefront protectors in the 60s and 70s instead felt a kinship with the city's victimized minorities. Forever Open, Clear and Free reads very much like a book of its time--a time for taking to the streets. Waxing nostalgic during a recent interview on WBEZ, Wille recalled as one of her "favorite demonstrations" Hyde Park women chaining themselves to trees in Jackson Park to prevent a road widening.

Only a romanticized antiestablishmentism could lead anyone to identify with a pair of cutthroats like the Streeters. Cap'n George Streeter was the drunkard and thug who laid claim in the 1880s to land that eventually became Streeterville. Streeter was the archetypical Chicago hero, the little guy who took on city and federal authorities, rich neighbors, and the press with hired thugs and birdshot.

With the assistance of his wife, "Ma," Streeter ran that derelict patch as a vice haven. Sings Wille: "No one, thank goodness, fought more fiercely for the lakefront" than Ma Streeter. Fought for her and Streeter's claims to own it and profit from it, of course. Thousands of people who've always itched to pour boiling water on a cop (as Ma did) may identify with her, but if Ma was a people's champion it was only because she helped so many of them toward martyrdom. Wille's summary account totes up several dead and dozens wounded during some 30 years of intermittent skirmishing. Erma Tranter, head of Friends of the Parks, must sometimes think she was born one hundred years too late.

Chicago's public lakefront dates from 1836. That year three commissioners, appointed to supervise the sale of public lands to finance the Illinois and Michigan Canal, decided not to sell the narrow strip along the lakeshore between 12th and Madison streets. That muddy stretch, they declared on the plat, was to be "a public ground--a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever." These words were the legal foundation for subsequent court challenges to various building plans in what became Grant Park; and the spirit of these words undergirds the whole of the lakefront protection movement.

It might do to examine that fateful decision more closely than Wille does, however. In 1836 the commissioners set aside land for a "common"--less a park than a public square. (The first U.S. urban parks as we would recognize them were not built until the 1850s.) Commons were used as parade grounds for local militia, for markets, public meetings, auctions, political rallies, and other business. Setting aside land for one was a sensible and commonplace provision in a new town, and arguing from that to a mandate for the recreational use of public land and a sweeping antidevelopment law has required some ingenious legal interpretations.

Most of the latter sprang from the pocketbook, if not the pen, of Montgomery Ward, the mail-order king who looked out over Grant Park from his Michigan Avenue office as if it were a sentry box. It was Ward who went to court four times, beginning in 1890, to stop a series of public construction projects in what became Grant Park, suing a succession of City Hall regimes eager to use the space for fire stations, armories, civic centers, museums, and libraries.

Ward was the father of all lakefront obstructionists, a Puritan who first promulgated the creed that since the government could not be trusted to build even a necessary structure adequately, prudence required it be prevented from building anything at all.

His legal argument was perhaps more ingenious than sound, but Ward was at least not snobbish in his disapproval. He decried the rather proletarian amusements offered by First Ward aldermen in an armory that stood in the park. These included prize fights and costume balls at which, Wille reports, the leading madams arrived with police escorts. But Ward also warned against Grant Park (then Lake Park) becoming the "showground for the educated rich," which he felt was foreshadowed by the opening of the Art Institute. (Wille allowed in her radio interview that he would have been "upset" by the subsequent additions to that complex; the legal precedents engineered by Ward were what caused the Field Museum to be banished to a site, donated by the Illinois Central, outside the park boundary.)

Speaking on WBEZ, Wille said of Ward, "He spent 20 years taking that phrase, 'forever open, clear and free,' all the way to the state supreme court. Everybody was against him. The press was against him, the public was against him, the business interest was against him. When he finally won, he said that if he had known how difficult it was going to be to create a park for the people of Chicago against their will, he doubted that he would have done it."

Chicago has a long and unsavory tradition of powerful men deciding things for the people against their will. Ward's intervention was useful, not in spite of its being antidemocratic, but because it was antidemocratic. The most egregious damage to the lakefront has not come at the hands of commerce but of the people's freely elected minions. Perhaps only Chicagoans will appreciate how high Wille is aiming when she writes that the yet-unbuilt dreams for the lakefront could be realized "if the people of Chicago and their government join forces."

The idea of a recreational lakefront took as long to establish as the physical lakefront itself. It was not until well into the 19th century that Michigan Avenue became the site of corporate headquarters, posh hotels, and culture emporiums; these genteel establishments were made possible by the demise of the waterfront industries. And at that point only did the lakefront come to seem valuable.

The demise in the 1960s of the industrial riverfront opened up new possibilities for residential development near the lake. Wille tells how city planners in 1964 endorsed the 1948 Plan Commission's Lakefront Resolution, which restricted the lakefront to cultural and recreational uses "except for the sections between Grand Avenue and Randolph." In fact the 1948 exemption in those sections was only for harbor and terminal facilities. The omission of that qualification in 1964 in effect okayed residential projects such as Lake Point Tower. And as Wille writes in Forever, "The omission wasn't exactly an oversight."

The Lakefront Protection Ordinance of 1973 protected lakefront land from certain public building projects. But local ordinances as yet offer scant protection from overbuilding on private land abutting Lake Shore Drive. Developers exploiting their proximity to the lake have thereby cheated thousands of landward residents of views and air. The resentment toward lakefront residents was expressed most pungently by Charles Bowden and Lew Kreinberg in Street Signs Chicago; they railed on behalf of the average blue-collar Chicagoan against the glass apartments blocking the lake air from the rest of the city, stuffed with "assholes and security systems."

Wille reminds us that 20 years ago the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council (today's Metropolitan Planning Council) advocated view corridors as basic to any plan for air-rights development along the lakefront. The once-radical idea of views as a form of property has since been upheld by several courts, and local authorities from the Hudson valley of New York to San Francisco and Denver require that developers leave view corridors through their projects. View corridors are not yet legally provided for under Chicago ordinances, but the concept has been honored in recent decisions by the Chicago Plan Commission. (Successful objectors to a proposed seven-story inflatable golf dome for Lincoln Park near Wilson complained not that the structure would block their use of the lake but that it would block their view of it while they used the park.)

It is probably true--though Wille doesn't say so--that if it weren't for the rich living along the lake there would be no lakefront-protection movement. There probably wouldn't even be a public lakefront in Chicago if not for the fact that the early lakefront was so ugly and so visible from the tall buildings nearby.

The irony--a satisfying irony to those who share the politics of Bowden and Kreinberg--is that eventually the rich cheat each other of air and views. The push to build as near as possible to the lake so clutters the lakefront that the reason for being near the lake is destroyed. The boom in office, apartment, and hotel towers on the Illinois Central property and across the river at City Front Center owes much to the proximity of the lakefront--which is rendered moot by continuing expansion.

Lake Shore Drive is the poor person's revenge on the rich. All you need to enjoy its views is a car. The roadway is arguably the most popular recreational facility on the lakefront, even though--or rather because--it provides visual access at the expense of physical access.

Wille's accounts of lakefront proposals from Mayor Daley I--Cook County's Ceausescu--read like black comedy. Projects like the airport in the lake, the first McCormick Place, radar stations in Jackson Park were offensive on every ground from cost to aesthetics to the impact on the environment and traffic. Daley was one of those mayors who wanted to see his monuments before he died. Fortunately some were never built, and others have been torn down. The list of surviving eyesores is long enough: McCormick Place and the road interchange that serves it; Soldier Field and its parking lots; Meigs Field; the water purification plant north of Navy Pier.

What may surprise first-time readers of Wille's book is how many fights were won by that hodgepodge coalition of environmental, civic, and reform groups in the 60s. A calamitous expansion of Lake Shore Drive in Jackson Park was halted, as was construction of a lake airport. The 1971 "Lakefront Bill of Rights" advanced in Springfield by Hyde Park representative Bob Mann came close enough to passage that Daley agreed to a local Lakefront Protection Ordinance to preempt an expanded state role in lakefront land use. (The old fox said he wanted the lakefront protected; he didn't say from whom.)

The coalition lost a few too--most regrettably, the building and rebuilding of McCormick Place. But in the process a group composed of the then-Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council, Alderman Leon Despres, the City Club, local architects, the Sierra Club (and other environmental groups), Business for the Public Interest, the forerunner of the Open Lands Project, the League of Women Voters, and others achieved lasting victories. They alerted a larger public to the value of the lakefront, acquired a formidable expertise, and thus earned for themselves political credibility.

One measure of their effectiveness is what has happened along the lakefront since Forever first appeared. Navy Pier is being fixed up. Lakefront protection ordinances are at last being expanded thanks to 48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith. The staff of the Park District (which owns most of the 28 miles of shoreline in the city) has been improved. There is no airport in the lake, no new sports stadium on its shore. A 20-acre landfill off Loyola University's main campus--objectionable less for the physical changes it would have made to the lakefront than for its dubious transfer of lake-bottom land to that institution--was abandoned. High-rise projects on the drive and on Sheridan have even been vetoed by the city's planning commission, events so at odds with the known laws of this part of the universe that they may have turned some developers to religion.

Unfortunately, not everything that's been done has been done well. There are no signs that Lake Shore Drive will ever again be a low-speed pleasure drive. The elimination of the old S curve at Randolph was the sort of improvement only a traffic engineer could love, although the engineers were pressured into building new off-ramps in Lincoln Park to boulevard rather than expressway standards. And certain promising projects never got off the ground. Proposals to expand recreational landfill (drawn in large part from an ignored Johnson Johnson & Roy study from the 60s) were never taken up. New shore-protecting landfill was proposed during the high-water alarms of the early 1980s, but was dismissed as unaffordable or environmentally problematic.

Even so, the half-dozen projects now on the table would do more to redefine the lakefront than has occurred at any time since the 1920s. The list includes: a combined river-mouth marina and turning basin; the relocation of Lake Shore Drive (proposed 20 years ago, it would finally be done as part of the McCormick Place expansion) that would unify the museum campus at Cermak; new landscaping on Lake Shore Drive; badly needed master plans for the restoration and maintenance of the major lakefront parks; the extension of Roosevelt Road to the lakefront (another old idea) as part of the Central Station housing and commercial project; a multimillion-dollar erosion-control plan by the Park District that would add new landfill park space (including beaches) and boat harbors. In 1996 the lease on Meigs Field expires, which opens the possibility of rebuilding Northerly Island as a park or festival site.

To the extent that Forever may be credited with mobilizing opinion on behalf of such improvements, it must be considered a good book. It is less admirable as history. Wille's admiration of Burnham is somewhat at odds with more recent scholarly opinion. In his new book, Constructing Chicago, Columbia University architectural history professor Daniel Bluestone describes Burnham as a latecomer to the lakefront beautification movement who borrowed his ideas from other architects, aldermen, and do-gooders. Nor does Wille explore the conflict between her two heroes. It was Ward after all who frustrated Burnham's sensible plan to locate the Field Museum smack in the middle of what became Grant Park; Bluestone suggests that Ward and his fellow Michigan Avenue property owners objected to it because it would spoil their view of the lake.

It is interesting to speculate whether Wille would produce the same book if she wrote it today. Political opposition to reckless lakefront projects has hardened in the last 20 years. Indeed some--including Wille--might say calcified. What was ad hoc is now permanent, what was amateur is expert. Even Wille, who on WBEZ questioned the opposition to the Loyola landfill and a controversial fish-cleaning station, has confessed to doubts about whether the pendulum's swung too far in favor of the unspoilt, indeed virginal lakefront. Few can be so greedy as the selfless who want what is good for everyone else.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Elwood H. Smith.

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