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Character study

Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is a role model for inclusion

SHARE Nov–Dec 2019

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Downtown Chicago waterfront, Lake Shore Drive.

Photo by Mlenny on iStock

In the early morning light of Chicago, if there is a lull in the traffic along Lake Shore Drive and you stand just so within the berms of the Burnham Wildlife Corridor along the Lakefront Trail south of McCormick Place, you can imagine what it must have been like for the early arrivals to this city: waist-deep waves of prairie grass rolling out to the west, the vast inland sea that is Lake Michigan to the east, the dawn sky an explosion of yellows and golds. The sense that anything is possible.

East Coast and West Coast cities have their roots as ports of arrival and departure, but in the middle there is Chicago, a city that willed itself into existence and along the way shifted America’s cultural center of gravity. Perhaps nowhere is that story better told than along Chicago’s Lakefront Trail. Its shorter cousin, the Riverwalk, rightly receives accolades for its role in revitalizing the Chicago River and energizing the Loop District, but at the end of the day it is mainly a promenade for conventioneers and tourists. The Lakefront Trail threads its way between lake and land, and serves as a threshold to the neighborhoods and communities arrayed to the west. In ways subtle and not so subtle, the trail and the people you meet along it tell the story of Chicago and offer a larger lesson for this populist, adversarial time we live in.

The trail is really two tracks, a dedicated bike path and a separate, dedicated pedestrian path that stretches 18 miles along Lake Michigan; the northern terminus is just short of Evanston and the mansions further up the coast. The southern terminus brings you to the doorstep of the former US Steel South Works plant and the massive industrial landscape that begins at the mouth of the Calumet River and wraps around the southern end of Lake Michigan. The trail connects a landscape of wealth with a landscape of wealth creation. The Navy Pier, jutting out into the lake like a diving board, marks the outfall of the Chicago River and the midpoint of the trail.

12th Street bascule bridge, in Chicago.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The character of the trail north of the Navy Pier differs markedly from what it is to the south, but then again, in so many ways Chicago north of the pier is very different from what lies to the south. Perhaps this is best reflected by the neighborhood names: to the north there is the Gold Coast, to the south there is the Back of the Yards. Originally, the lakefront north of the city was considered swampy and less desirable during Chicago’s great expansion in the late 1800s—the land upon which Lincoln Park and its zoo sits began life as a cemetery and a smallpox hospital. Much of this area was reclaimed from the lake only as recently as the 1930s and therefore has a newness to it. The experience of the trail along the north is more orderly. The trees are in rows, the path is straighter, the curves are more engineered. There are athletic fields carefully arranged and neatly marked.

Beyond Grant Park, Soldier Field, and McCormick Place south of the Navy Pier, the trail moves closer to the history of Chicago. The clues are subtle, in many places barely a whisper where great events, some tragic, some noble, unfolded. It was here—along a placid stretch of beach, near where 23rd Street meets the lake—that Eugene Williams, a young African American, drifted across an unspoken barrier between the black and white section of the lake and was stoned to death, unleashing the race riot of 1919. At the heart of those four days of anarchy was the resentment of European ethnic groups toward African Americans moving into Chicago from the Deep South and taking jobs in the meat-packing yards to the west of the beach. Much of the chaos was instigated by ethnic social clubs, such as the Hamburg Athletic Club, a key member being Richard J. Daley, the same man who, 49 years later as mayor of Chicago, would unleash the Chicago Police on the protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

A little more than 30 blocks farther south, there is a symbol of a more noble part of Chicago’s history, the Museum of Science and Industry, the only remaining building from the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Just to its south, the Midway Plaisance meets Jackson Park. It was near the joining of these two open spaces that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midway Gardens had its brief reign, before falling into disrepair and demolition due to bankruptcy. An extravagant and majestic entertainment complex, it showed Wright at the cusp of his early thinking about an architecture of the prairie. Just beyond the Plaisance is the site of another hoped-for Chicago monument: the Obama Presidential Library.

Cyclists, walkers, and joggers enjoy the Lakefront Trail.
Photo by Yomex Owo on Unsplash

The Lakefront Trail will never be considered an aesthetic triumph by the design world, but it is brilliant in the way it knits into the neighborhoods with underpasses and overpasses. One of Chicago’s greatest strengths is the diversity of its neighborhoods, but it is the Lakefront Trail that provides a mechanism to bring them together. Drawn by the simple pleasures of being alongside the lake, the trail becomes a celebration of diversity. The story unfolding on one end-to-end excursion during an early autumn morning is Donald Trump’s and his minion Stephen Miller’s worst nightmare.

At Foster Beach, near the north end of the trail, a group of young women, Northwestern graduate students on visas from China, are at the Trapeze School, celebrating a friend’s birthday by daring each other to try a flying leap into the instructor’s arms. On the opposite side of the trail, the typical youth soccer experience is unfolding: young boys and girls running amok, trying to lock one another into the port-a-potty while their young, professional parents unload folding chairs from their Range Rovers and Teslas with urgent, earnest looks on their faces. In the space between the fields and the aptly named Cricket Hill, a group of Pakistanis, old friends for years, are setting up an impromptu cricket pitch, one teasing the group that the pitch was not nearly long enough to accommodate his skills. Just before Montrose Beach, a photographer and his assistant are arranging an extended family under a group of trees. Clearly a family from Chicago’s Gold Coast and outfitted in matching blue blazers and print dresses, they compose themselves around the family matriarch, a white-haired woman with porcelain skin who sits in a wicker chair like a dowager queen.

Near the underpass that links the trail with Lincoln Park and the zoo, I meet Kabeel and his family. Kabeel is originally from Baghdad and worked as a driver and interpreter for the US Marines during the Iraq war until, in 2005, things got a little dicey for him. His boss, “a very nice Marine,” arranged for Kabeel to bring his family to the United States. He lives and works in nearby Niles but likes to bring his family to the Lakefront Trail because, he says, gesturing around with his hands as much toward the people as the park itself, “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

Maybe it is the lack of athletic fields or the distant views of the Chicago skyline or perhaps it is the older, more dilapidated park structures that sit like romantic ruins in the landscape, but the southern section of the Lakefront Trail has a contemplative quality not found to the north. One is more likely to find people wearing athletic uniforms and glancing at their watches north of the Navy Pier. To the south, the pace is slower—fewer carbon-fiber Cervélo bicycles and more Huffy three-speeds. Solitary figures walk to and from the lake like Giacometti sculptures come to life. An elderly African-American man walks slowly toward the lake with a fishing rod and a five-gallon Home Depot bucket. Headed in the other direction, a Hispanic man holds his young daughter’s hand. Outfitted with binoculars, a fishing pole and a net, she looks back over her shoulder at the lake. Small groups gather around portable barbecue grills. Sitting on a bench and looking over the scene is Artem. Artem came to the United States from Ukraine three years ago and drives for Uber because he can make his own schedule and his interactions with passengers are an excellent way for him to practice his English. He shares an apartment with four other young men, all of whom found their way here after Russia’s takeover of the Crimean Peninsula. He has a favorite spot along the trail, close to a parking lot just off Lake Shore Drive, a little above Jackson Park. When his routes bring him near the area, he likes to pull off for a few minutes, turn off Uber, and just take it all in: the sights, the sounds, the people.

At the 31st Street Beach, a large group is often seen, an extended collection of family and friends from Chicago’s South Side. They assemble around the 31st Street Pavilion, stratified by age. The eldest sit in chairs on the pavilion’s terrace, while the youngest run in and out of the water at the low end of the beach. In between it is a raucous, slightly chaotic celebration of two great things about Chicago: the music and the food. Just a few blocks south of where Eugene Williams met his fate 100 years earlier, I often wonder if their celebration is oblivious of this fact or in defiant acknowledgment of it.

High above the Chicago River, looming over the Riverwalk is a two-story illuminated building sign that says “TRUMP.” It is not uncommon to find individuals posing beneath the sign, directing rude gestures toward it. But the far more eloquent rebuttal unfolds every day out on the Lakefront Trail as a rich diversity of people, each with his or her own origin story, come together to share the same space, for the same reasons. Standing alongside the lake like the first arrivals once did, one realizes that anything really is possible.

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