Inspired by this unusually snowy Chicago winter, I recently set out to cross-country ski the entire 18.5 mile Lakefront Trail from north to south, unclipping and hiking where necessary, and stopping to check out public art and other sights along the way whenever I felt like it.
On the morning of February 13, with the mercury in the low single digits Fahrenheit, I bundle up in lots of layers and board the Red Line in Uptown with my skis. Exiting at Thorndale, I walk a few blocks east to the eponymous beach, north of which the shoreline is privatized. Just south is the Thorndale Beach Condominium building, 5901 N. Sheridan Avenue, where Bob Newhart’s psychologist character lived in his 1970s sitcom.
Skiing conditions are excellent as I shush across Osterman and Hollywood beaches, gazing at the fractured surface of the semi-frozen lake. I’m staying off the Lakefront Trail itself since, unlike most bikeways in this city, the path is plowed by the Chicago Park District on a near-religious basis.
After skirting Montrose Beach and heading west past the harbor, I turn south to take the snow-covered gravel road that leads along the shore towards the Waveland Clock Tower. When the road reaches the Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary, I travel west to the Lakefront Trail to get around Belmont Harbor.
Skiing parallel to the path, I visit the colorful Kwa-Ma-Rolas totem pole, which is actually a replica of the original artwork by the Kwakiutl Indians of Vancouver Island, donated to Chicago in 1929 by Kraft Foods founder James L. Kraft. A few blocks south at the Belmont rocks, a longtime LGBTQ hangout, stands another monumental sculpture. Keith Haring‘s 30-foot-tall green figure Self-Portrait is the centerpiece of the AIDS Garden, which honors lives lost to the disease, plus those currently fighting to eradicate it.
Just north of the Diversey bridge stand three more sculptures, including two announced this month as “identified for public discussion,” by the city-created Chicago Monuments Project, an initiative to reevaluate artworks and plaques on the public way and in parks. Mayor Lori Lightfoot formed the committee in the wake of last year’s demonstration at the downtown Christopher Columbus statue, where some protesters staged a coordinated attack on police officers guarding the monument, and the force responded with a brutal crackdown. In the interest of public safety, Lightfoot “temporarily relocated” all of the city’s sculptures of the genocidal explorer.
These two lakefront sculptures are among 41 potentially controversial artworks flagged by the committee for further scrutiny, apparently because they are portrayals of Native Americans done by white sculptors. While some monuments on the list depict Indigenous Americans as murderous or servile, to my non-Native eyes these two works seem to be respectful and dignified portrayals.
The Alarm, which shows a Native family listening for an unknown danger, sculpted by John J. Boyle, was commissioned in 1880 by former fur trader Martin L. Ryerson. He dedicated the work to “The Ottawa Nation of Indians—my early friends.”
And A Signal of Peace, sculpted in 1890 by Cyrus E. Dallin, which depicts a man on horseback with a feathered headdress and upraised staff, was donated to the city by arts patron Lambert Tree with an explicitly anti-racist intent. He wrote that the monument was a tribute to Native Americans who had been “oppressed and robbed by government agents, deprived of their lands . . . shot down by soldiery in wars fomented for the purpose of plundering and destroying their race, and finally drowned by the ever westward tide of population.”
The monument committee, which includes three enrolled citizens of Native tribes, will make a recommendation, informed by public input, on whether these pieces “warrant attention or action.” That could mean removal.
The third sculpture also used to be controversial, but for a totally different reason. Artist John Henry‘s Chevron, a lofty, blue windmill-like structure, formerly stood on private property at Armitage and Burling in Lincoln Park, but many neighbors complained it was an eyesore. It was relocated to the lakefront in 2015.
After passing the North Avenue beach house, disguised as an old-timey steam ship, I visit Boris Gilbertson‘s striking midcentury-modern Chess Pavilion. It was constructed in 1957 of concrete and Indiana limestone, with a Jetsons-esque canopy, flanked by five-foot-tall king and queen sculptures.
The trail is officially closed between North and Ohio due to icy conditions, but it’s smooth sailing as I head towards the famous vista of the Hancock and the giant Old English sign for the Drake Hotel.
The notorious Oak Street curve, where high waves have nearly dragged many trail users into Lake Michigan, is a different story. But the lake is pretty much frozen here today, or at least totally still, so the only issue is navigating the ice boulders that litter the shoreline.
After crossing the river via the Navy Pier Flyover and following the curve of the shoreline, I continue along the snowy edge of Monroe Harbor, with a backdrop of Michigan Avenue’s cliff of high-rises. I round the Shedd Aquarium, pass by the Adler Planetarium, and stop to refuel with chocolate chip cookies and piping-hot ginger tea by Soldier Field. (The thermos is a wonderful invention.)
Nearby is the Balbo Monument, a 2,000-year-old Roman pillar given to Chicago by Benito Mussolini to commemorate the trans-Atlantic flight to our city by Mussolini’s air commander and Blackshirt leader Italo Balbo in 1933 or, as the pillar’s inscription says, “in the 11th year of the Fascist era.” In 2017, following the racist violence in Charlottesville, aldermen proposed relocating the pillar and renaming Balbo Drive, but they ultimately caved to pressure from local Italian American leaders who viewed Balbo as a hero. The pillar is on the Chicago Monument Project’s list, so hopefully the ensuing public discussion will spur city officials to finally get rid of these tributes to murderous totalitarians.
By the time I reach 35th it’s getting dark and my body is complaining—among other things, it feels like I might lose my right-middle toenail. I decide to catch the CTA back north and complete the trip later.
I return the following Saturday, February 20, after 18 more inches have fallen, starting out at the elegantly serpentine 35th Street Pedestrian Bridge. Just west stands the tomb of Illinois senator Stephen Douglas. The 96-foot-tall structure features a column topped by a statue of the “Little Giant.” Douglas is famous for arguing for allowing the expansion of slavery to new U.S. territories during his 1858 debates with Senate challenger Abraham Lincoln, the antislavery candidate.
The Chicago Monument Project has identified all five statues of Lincoln on park district property or the public way as potentially problematic. That’s largely due to reassurances Lincoln gave white voters during the debates that, while he opposed slavery, he didn’t support equal rights for Black people. His position later evolved, thanks in part to lobbying by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Ironically, unlike the statues of the Great Emancipator, there’s little chance of this massive monument to slavery apologist Stephen Douglas being removed, since it’s on a state-controlled historic site.
As I head south on the revetment, passing by prairie-like scrub vegetation, the snow is excellent and the lake is totally still, possibly frozen through. At 41st I ski across Oakwood Beach and pass by another giant new bike-pedestrian bridge, a curving cobalt structure I’ve dubbed “The Blue Wave.”
Approaching the 47th Street bridge, I see a couple of teens flop down in the snow and then recline there for a while, gazing at the sky. By tiny 49th Street Beach, there’s a comfort station covered with a colorful mural of faces, flowers, and seagulls. Continuing towards Hyde Park, I see lots of University of Chicago students and families out enjoying the sunshine.
At Promontory Point I encounter the David Wallach Memorial Fountain, created by husband-and-wife team Frederick Cleveland Hibbard and Elisabeth Haseltine Hibbard and installed in 1939. When running, the fountain provides refreshment for people, dogs, and birds alike. It’s topped with an adorable bronze fawn.
After passing the Museum of Science and Industry and 63rd Street Beach, at 64th I stop to photograph the sun setting over Jackson Park, next to Fishing Eagle, carved out of a dying ash tree, still rooted in place, with a chainsaw by Jim Long in 2014. Then I cross the Animal Bridge, which connects Jackson Park’s outer and inner harbors, created by Peter J. Weber and Thomas E. Hill, built in 1904, and adorned with carvings of the heads of hippos and rhinos, faces of water deities, and ships’ prows.
Not long afterwards I arrive at the South Shore Cultural Center, my finish line. It’s an imposing structure, built as a country club in the early 1900s, with a design partly inspired by an old club in Mexico City. Early members included retail tycoons Marshall Field and Montgomery Ward. African Americans and Jews were barred from membership in the private club up until the 1970s, when it went out of business rather than integrate. The park district bought the property, turning it into a highly inclusive community center.
The day after I complete my odyssey on skis, the temperature hits 38 Fahrenheit, and even warmer weather is predicted for the coming week, promising to melt all the mounds. I’m glad I took advantage of the primo skiing conditions while they lasted, and got an education on coastal, sometimes controversial, public art as part of the bargain. v