At City’s Edge, Afterword

At the Beach

My office windows at Columbia College look east over Grant Park, Monroe Harbor, and Lake Michigan. To my right, I can see the lakeshore curve southwards toward Gary, Indiana. On a clear day, I can see the huge steel mills of northwest Indiana, and, on an exceptionally clear day, I can see a bit of the Michigan shore, perhaps sixty miles away. To my left, the view of the lakeshore is blocked somewhat by the buildings constructed over the site of the old Illinois Central railroad yard, but I can see Navy Pier stretching out into the lake. Straight ahead, I have a view of the wonderful Buckingham fountain and a harbor filled (in summer) with pleasure boats. In good weather, I can see boats entering and leaving the harbor and zipping back and forth, including the dinner boats and sightseeing boats filled with tourists. Way out on the lake, near the horizon, one can often see huge ore ships heading to and from the mills.

It’s a wonderful view and I’m grateful to have it. The sight of the lake can also be the source of intense frustration. Since I started photographing the Chicago Lakefront in 2000, there must have been a thousand times that I looked out my window and saw extraordinary moments of light and weather. “I should be out there, photographing,” I’d think. And I would also look at the lakefront and feel very mixed emotions about how it has changed over the last ten or fifteen years. What I remember as a grungy, deteriorating, and largely ignored strip of the city has become a Mecca for tourists, especially tourists with children. The area of the city outside my window, stretching from the newly refurbished and integrated Museum Campus, through Millennium Park (with the gaudy Frank Gehry band shell), and on to Navy Pier has become a sort of theme park. Wholesome, tightly regulated, antiseptic, and crowded. I’m shocked by how much the lakefront has changed in the last few years.

In fact, the changes to the Chicago lakefront began almost as soon as Chicago was founded. Chicago stretches for about 25 miles along the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. It was first settled because this site offered the intersection of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. That sluggish little river could, with some difficulties, lead into the Mississippi River system. It was the crucial link between the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River – the East – and the Illinois, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers – the West. Later, this transportation pattern was duplicated by the national railroad system, with large Eastern trunk lines and Midwestern and Western rail lines all converging in Chicago. In many ways, the Lake Michigan shore created Chicago, shaped it, and continues to be the city’s most defining physical quality.

The lakefront has also been a central focus of my own life in Chicago. Since the age of five or six, I’ve spent many days at the beach, not only in summer, but also throughout the year. I can’t imagine my life in this city without the Lake Michigan shore nearby. Thinking of how crucially important the lakefront is to Chicago, and how important it has been for me, I’m surprised that I photographed the Chicago landscape for thirty years without ever concentrating on the edge of the city along Lake Michigan as a distinct subject. I photographed the downtown area, the industrial region to the southeast, the new suburbs, old neighborhoods, and even the downtown alleys. But somehow, I never took my camera to the lakefront. I was concerned that photographs made at the shore would be too pretty, too much about sky and water, and not connected to the social and architectural reality of Chicago that I thought of as my real subject. Slowly, I realized that photographing the lakefront was an inescapable part of my work. Certainly, the beauty of the lake could be a trap, a distraction, but it was also a legitimate part of the city. Finally, five years ago, I began to make photographs of the shoreline.

The lakefront on the far North Side of Chicago still strikes me as a bit odd, as it did many years ago when my father first took me to the beaches at the end of Albion and North Shore avenues. Our old neighborhood, Rogers Park, was primarily made up of solid three-story brick apartment buildings. We lived about a half-mile from Lake Michigan. We’d walk past those closely spaced buildings – three-flats, six-flats, and courtyard buildings – and suddenly they’d stop. Without any warning or softening, the normal urban fabric of Chicago would just stop, and there would be a bit of sand and a limitless view of water and sky. Swimming was terribly important to me then, and each spring I’d be eager to see the small alterations that winter storms and changes in water level would make to the little beaches that emerged from the ice each year. When I was a bit older, the beach became my preferred playground throughout the year. My friends and I would ride our bikes on the hard wet sand, dodging the incoming waves. In the winter, storms would pile up big hills of ice and snow. The waves would create caverns at the edge of the ice. Then, after the lake froze further, we could explore these. For many of us, living in city apartments, it was our one experience with nature.

At the far north and south ends of the city, natural forces may still determine the shape of some the beaches, but Chicago has radically altered most of its lakeshore. Like the rest of the city, the lakefront shows only the faintest hints of the natural landscape the early settlers encountered three hundred years ago. I remember wondering, as a teenager roaming around the city, why it was that the Edgewater Beach Hotel (a fantastic, glamorous, Florida-style, pink relic) was so far from the water. The Clarendon Avenue Beach House was also a mystery. It was not even within sight of the beach. Well, the beach had been moved.

The first changes to the lakefront were made to the mouth of the Chicago River, near the site of Fort Dearborn. The river approached Lake Michigan from the west, but originally took a sharp turn to the south (at about the current corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive) before curving back to meet the lake near where the Art Institute stands today. In 1830, the first plans were made to cut through the sand dune and straighten out the intersection. Next, Stephen Douglas (of Lincoln-Douglas debate fame) exerted his influence to have some new rail lines routed along the lakefront. He owned lakefront land, and perhaps it’s not just my Chicago cynicism (of politician’s motives) to imagine some self-interest at work there. The tracks were built out in shallow water on trestles, but that area was soon filled in. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 reshaped the land on the southern shore and created Jackson Harbor. Next, the noble Burnham Plan of 1909 re-imagined the lakefront as a monumental civic sculpture: parks, lagoons, canals, islands, and promenades. Not all of the Plan was executed, but Burnham shaped much of the city’s lakeshore. Work on fulfilling that plan extended deep into the twentieth century. Extensive landfills formed Belmont and Montrose harbors, created much parkland along the north shore, and stranded the Edgewater Beach Hotel.

When I was in high school, and swimming competitively, my teammates and I would swim long distances in the lake. We’d especially enjoy turbulent northeasters, when the beaches would be closed, and we could sneak in and body surf in big waves. The beach was a place to walk with a date. It was also a place to walk when things (like dating) weren’t going well and I wanted to be alone. I’d notice other solitary people. We think of the beach as a place for families, crowds, and laughter. But when the weather turns cold and dark, it’s as if the social tide has gone out, leaving only the sad, the angry, and the lonely at the lakefront.

About twenty years ago, I started windsurfing. My friends and I would go to various places to launch: Montrose Beach, 14th Street, Rainbow, Calumet Park. The grittiness of the beaches and what was going on there contrasted sharply with the frivolity of the pastel colored windsurfer equipment. Beach houses were dirty, dilapidated, and covered with graffiti. Some people at Montrose Beach swam in their underwear. Condoms and needles littered the sand. One entered a beach house bathroom with caution. At Montrose, several murders had been committed in a bathroom building near the base of the pier. The city, with admirable pragmatism, solved the problem by tearing it down. Along the stretches of seawall that separated the beaches and harbors, the huge limestone blocks had settled and now tilted with big gaps between them. Was this a good thing? Of course not. Decay, dirt, social problems and crime are never desirable. But I have to admit I savored the authenticity of those beaches then. And they were so very interesting to look at.

Most of those beaches have now been cleaned up. The beach houses rebuilt. The huge limestone-block seawalls have been almost all replaced by sleek concrete curves. Chicago is now designed as a destination for tourists, and the city seems intent on presenting a polished lakefront playground and providing a safe environment. It’s certainly good for the city’s image. And it’s good for Chicagoans also. Perhaps what I see out of my office window is nothing more than an updated version of Burnham’s dream for the lakefront. I’m sure even more changes will follow. But the small beach at the end of Albion Avenue still looks almost exactly as it did fifty years ago when I first went swimming there. On sunny summer days, small boys still learn to swim in the shallow water, while their fathers sit on the sand reading and looking out toward the horizon.