An Afternoon on the River

Searching for Chicago’s History and Finding Much of My Own

My friend Carter and I rented a two-person canoe on the Chicago River right about where Roscoe Street would meet Rockwell Street (if those two actually met), and if you’re thinking you can’t visualize that intersection, that’s because you can’t. This adventure started at Chicago River Canoe and Kayak, located north of Belmont Avenue, south of Addison Street, and “behind” (i.e., west of) Devry Institute and Lane Tech High School (Chicago’s largest high school) — and the river doesn’t meet an east-west street there.

We had excellent views of both schools, particularly the square, brick enormity that is Lane Tech. A couple of large, gothic trees dotted otherwise empty fields between the buildings and us. WGN’s studio is just to the northeast, the station’s call letters giving away an otherwise nondescript structure. It seemed fitting to take in this scene as we waited for the workers to arrive; we were anticipating enjoying a scenic afternoon on the Chicago River and experiencing an architectural perspective on perhaps 100 years of the City of Broad Shoulder’s industrial glory.

The rental workers arrived and happily discussed our imminent adventure. We took their advice on a canoe (versus a kayak). Although they strongly recommended paddling north, owing to the less industrialized, greener environs in that direction, we were set on taking in the history to be found in the other direction (and doing our best to ignore whatever scum might accompany it). The two of us — life preservers, water bottles, and digital camera (safely sealed in a zip-lock baggie) in hand — headed south under a bright sun and clear skies. The city’s history as told by the buildings we were about to pass was easy enough to ponder, but I didn’t realize how personally connected I would feel to many of the areas we would venture through.

Just past the Belmont bridge, over which I bike about 10 times a week for 10 months of the year, we cruised past a large stretch of newer condos alongside the west (right) bank. The condos’ eastern views of both the river and the skyline are of course a major selling point, as they are for the hundreds, if not thousands of additional condos being built immediately west of this location.

Just to the south the Lathrope Homes came into view on the east bank. This low-rise, comparatively safe housing project, near which my canoeing companion and I both lived for four years, now occupies prime real estate alongside the river bend north and south of Diversey. News broke this summer that they may be torn down — a rumor we heard often living around there, but laughed off at the time. Keep in mind that the infamous Cabrini Green housing project, located further southeast along Clybourn Avenue, was still standing back then. (What little is left of Cabrini Green was visible when we passed its southern edge an hour later.) At the Diversey bridge sits the famous Diversey River Bowl bowling alley, known as the Rock ’n’ Bowl (and which I have long referred to as the “Crack Rock and Bowl”). Many friends have a story or two of being there, usually involving heavy drinking and some mention of the near-permanent foul stench that permeates it.

While these first two bridges are not themselves noteworthy, that’s the exception more than the norm from here heading south. One of Chicago’s claims to fame is that it is home to more moveable bridges than any other city in the world, and many of the ones we were to travel past that day were old and stately. They project a strength and durability that fits this city’s blue-collar image.

The Damen Avenue bridge, the next one we went under, is not one of these old beasts. It was built a few years back when my friend and I lived just north near Damen — and without it the gentrification of the west Lakeview and (to the south) Bucktown neighborhoods would certainly have taken longer. In fact, it’s now hard to imagine the Damen bridge not being there — the alternate north-south routes were decidedly inconvenient. It has two red arches with suspension cables and offers one of the best views of the city’s skyline. To the right are the Vienna Beef factory, and — much more pleasant to remember — a WhirlyBall facility. WhirlyBall is a physical “sport” combining bumper cars and jai-alai type hand-held rackets used to hurl a ball at basketball backboards in order to score. Of course, it’s just as much fun to run around smashing into people, and virtually everyone wakes up the next day with bruises. Do I even need to mention the heavy drinking typically associated with WhirlyBall?

I haven’t spent much time at any of the many retail outlets that we next passed along Clybourn and Fullerton Avenues, so they inspired no memories. Oddly enough, up to this point we had remarked upon the surprising lack of smell emanating from the river, but for some reason underneath the Fullerton bridge it hit us: an unforgiving combination of sulfur (presumably from the two leather tanneries we were now headed toward) and sewer odors. Thankfully it didn’t follow us further south.

The impressive Ashland Avenue and Cortland Avenue bridges were up ahead. Along the east bank of the river at that point was the more than 100-year-old Finkl steel refinery, where I’ve attended concerts, wine tastings, and, on one occasion, North America’s largest “real ale” fest. Should you ever attend one, I wouldn’t recommend canoeing home.

The wine store where I once worked is coincidentally right across the river here, on Elston Avenue across the street from a large scrap yard. As we slowly passed it, a tall crane was moving a Bobcat; it was a bit surreal to see it so high in the air, suspended from a cable and slowly being moved. It was also a reminder that none of this was a coincidence. The river is what allowed this industrial corridor to develop in the first place. The sounds of machinery accompanied the sights through this stretch of the river, and it was all but impossible to communicate with each other without shouting.

By this point we were witnessing more garbage than I care to describe on the river. Oddly enough the scores of birds, mostly Canadian geese and mallards, didn’t seem to mind. They seemed quite at home under the weed trees along the banks.

Just south of the scrap yard are the city’s fleet maintenance building and, right next to it, a great little bar called The Hideout. Next up was the historic North Avenue bridge. It has recently been reported that this bridge is going to have to be replaced due to the incredible volume of traffic that travels over it daily. That’s also the reason why I avoid this section of North Avenue. It’s always crazy busy with cars and no place for a bike during rush hour. There are no real destinations here for me either. I don’t go to the always-busy Home Depot (aka Home Despot). We couldn’t see it from the river, but The Exit (a nightclub) is just to the west; I’ve always had a good time there, but I haven’t even been in a year.

Goose Island, with Kendall College’s new eco-friendly culinary facility, lies just south of North Avenue. I haven’t been there, or even on the island, but I remember watching it being built and wondering what it was going to be.

Down past the Morton salt warehouse, at Division Street, is a river-accessible bar called Life’s Too Short. Its multiple levels, signs, and miscellany make for quite a sight. We had planned on stopping there for a beer or two (it was too hot for any more than that) on the way back, if nothing else to learn the score of the crosstown Cubs-Sox game taking place a few miles to the east of where we started. But a river-facing sign informed us that it was closed for the season. This struck us as odd, considering it was the end of June. If it wasn’t open then, when would it be? There were workers there, accomplishing I’m not exactly sure what; perhaps LTS is just overdue for a little TLC.

The food and drink at Life’s Too Short isn’t anything special; however, the bar’s corny-but-comfortable seafaring setting makes it a fun place to visit at least once. My only previous visit had been when some friends participating in the annual breast cancer walk held a fundraiser there. I biked there after working that night and was fortunate enough to catch a ride home after the all-night open bar.

The most amusing incident of the afternoon happened a little further downstream. Just before we decided to turn around, we passed a decent-sized recreational boat. We waved at the woman behind the steering wheel and she waved back — fairly standard procedure for watercraft encounters, presumably. But in passing her a second time after having begun our journey back north, when we waved again, she yelled out, “Slackers!” Rather ironic, it seemed to us, as she was cruising in an obviously expensive boat, tall as a house, and powered by gas and oil, while we were just two guys in a canoe. Apparently slacker = poor these days, a meaning not at all dependent on, say, the amount of motivation or effort one is putting into a particular activity. Covering 10 miles in four hours in a canoe in 90-degree heat? Slacker. Lazily motoring along in a big-ass boat, barely breaking a sweat …Olympic athlete? Maybe she meant it as a compliment, but if that’s the case, she could have at least offered us a cold one.


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