The Chicago Riverwalk on a sunny day Credit: Steven Vance

Last weekend, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, city officials, and the guy who greased the skids on a $98 million federal construction loan, former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood, celebrated the completion of the third and so far final phase of the Chicago Riverwalk.

“We have reclaimed this space to transform the river into Chicago’s next great recreational frontier,” the mayor said, according to a statement released by his office.

Then construction resumed. Maybe it’ll be done next month. In the meantime, however, the Riverwalk is walkable.

I went on Thursday, a cold, gray day with a damp, bone-chilling wind. I didn’t have to worry about crowds.

Here’s the really great thing about the Riverwalk: You can stroll along the south side of the Chicago River from the lakefront to Wolf Point (at the confluence of the North and South branches of the river), without having to surface at street level.

That’s sweet, because it used to be that for every horizontal block you were able to walk along Wacker Drive, you’d have to climb straight up a vertiginous staircase, cross a densely trafficked street, and then descend another staircase. I never counted, but it seemed like 100 steps each way.

Now you can just descend, as I did at Wacker and LaSalle, and roll right along.

The new section of the Riverwalk is three blocks long (the whole roughly $100 million project is six blocks). Each block—or “room,” as the city has deemed them—has its own entirely forgettable name and identity.

The first room, from LaSalle to Wells Street, is the Water Plaza—a splash pool and multi-stream fountain, where, according to the mayor’s office, children and families can “engage with water at the river’s edge.”

Chicago Riverwalk, Water Plaza
Chicago Riverwalk, Water PlazaCredit: Santiago Covarrubias

Does that strike you as just a little redundant? Bringing water to the river? I thought so, but there are two very important reasons why it’s not: First, there’s a rule that every single new public space, no matter where it’s located, must have it’s own splash pool and interactive fountain. Then there’s the other reason: despite improvement, the Chicago River is still really, disturbingly polluted, and you never, ever want your darlings to put their toes in it.

Which brings me to a subject no one is talking about, but which, like a nasty undercurrent, pervades this project: somebody, probably lots of somebodies, accidentally or otherwise, are going to ignore the splash pool, plop right into the actual river, and need to be hauled out. We don’t talk about it in polite company, but this is why every room on the Riverwalk is now equipped with one of these: 

A life preserve along the Riverwalk
A life preserve along the RiverwalkCredit: Deanna Isaacs

The second new room, between Wells and Franklin, is the Jetty: again, according to the mayor’s office, “a series of piers and floating wetland gardens with interactive learning about the ecology of the river, including opportunities for fishing and identifying native plants.”

Chicago Riverwalk, the Jetty
Chicago Riverwalk, the JettyCredit: Deanna Isaacs

I couldn’t identify these forlorn little plants, but I could tell that they were in distress—maybe sea sick from the wave action that had their metal-rimmed floatie boxes incessantly clanging against one another.

The metal posts apparently anchoring the plant rafts are notched at various heights up to five feet. Perhaps to measure the vegetation? Or—wait a minute—water levels? Let’s not go there.

The last of the three new rooms, the Riverbank, between Franklin and Lake Street, was easily my favorite. Never mind that the rear of it backs right up to the roaring traffic of Lower Wacker Drive and is dominated by a zig-zag ramp that looks to be nearly as long the Riverwalk itself. The front has a welcome, curving swath of something we almost never see in this patch of the city: bright green grass.

Chicago Riverwalk, the Riverbank Room
Chicago Riverwalk, the Riverbank RoomCredit: Deanna Isaacs

It also has a fine view across the river of the Merchandise Mart and the Sun-Times building. The latter, where the Reader offices reside, is, for now, only partially obscured by one of the towering new residential buildings going up all along this western leg of the Riverwalk.

I’ve heard that the city intends to put a “destination business,” like a restaurant, in the Riverbank, so this uncluttered, grassy oasis—like the view of the Sun-Times building—might not be around for long.