The Riverwalk's new extension stretches from State to LaSalle. Credit: Walter Mitchell via City of Chicago

Last week, shortly after sewage-laced floodwaters left Chicago’s brand-new stretch of the Riverwalk coated with something brown and squishy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the launch of programming there to celebrate its grand opening.

After a power wash.

The programming looked like standard street-fair stuff: yoga, face painting, “family music,” and drink specials at a few of the vendors. Only two events drew on the unique location: the last of the regularly scheduled spring bridge lifts on Saturday morning, and the first item on the schedule—a Wednesday-evening Friends of the Chicago River cruise that would focus on wildlife.

Indigenous Chicago River wildlife? Other than the kind that parties, pollutes, and occasionally floats to the surface, requiring a trip to the morgue? I hustled down to the Wendella dock at Trump Tower and bought a ticket, joining more than 200 Friends of the Chicago River supporters in what turned out to be a fund-raiser for the organization.

Friends has been around since 1979, with a mission “to improve and protect the Chicago River system.” It played a major role in turning the river from the garbage dump it was to the recreational boon it’s becoming, and it also operates the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum at Michigan and Wacker Drive.

The cruise went as far north as that notable natural landmark Mercedes-Benz of Chicago, and as far south as Bubbly Creek. Bubbly is the infamous one-and-a-quarter-mile portion of the river named for the gases caused by decomposing animal carcasses and other industrial by-products that were dumped into it during the heyday of Chicago’s stockyards. Upton Sinclair, in his 1906 packinghouse exposé The Jungle, described it as “a great open sewer” so toxic and volatile that the sludge on its surface was prone to bursting into flames.

But that was then. Things all over the river are better now. According to tour guide (and Friends staffer) Claire Snyder, there’s a beaver living near Wolf Point, the historic juncture where the North and South Branches meet and turn toward the lake, and a North American river otter has been spotted on the river by Union Station. She says a section known as the South Branch Meander is an important stopping point for the seven million birds of 700 different species that migrate through Chicago every spring and fall. She talked about catfish and bluegill, painted and snapping turtles, muskrats, brown bats, red fox, and mink. But except for some birds—mostly geese and gulls—the only critter I spotted was a crayfish she’d brought on board in a jar. The most exotic sight of the evening was the 100-year-old Canal Street vertical-lift railroad bridge, which accommodated three trains as we watched and then, bridgehouse and all, levitated 50 feet or so to let us pass.

The final three-block section of the Riverwalk, scheduled for completion next year, is designed to include a man-made “swimming hole” with a nonriver water source. That might seem odd unless you know that, as Snyder noted, every day 1.2 billion gallons of bacteria-laden sewage effluent is released into the river. She says a more stringent disinfecting process is supposed to be in place at two out of three local sewage treatment plants by the end of this year, but even then the river’s not likely to be safe for swimming, though that’s the ultimate goal. The Deep Tunnel, intended to significantly reduce sewer system overflow during storms, won’t be finished until 2029. And in mid-June the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it’s canceling a $15 million Bubbly Creek restoration project in light of ongoing EPA studies that suggest additional contamination, possibly requiring a more extensive environmental fix.

So when the Riverwalk is finished, we’ll have an uninterrupted landscaped walkway that’ll stretch one and a quarter miles from the lakefront to the Lake Street Bridge, along a waterway cleared for some kinds of recreation but almost certainly not yet clean enough for a dive. Like Millennium Park, it’ll have turned an eyesore in the heart of tourist territory into an amenity. And the residents of those big new condominiums going up around Wolf Point will have a nicer view than they would have had. Whether it’ll generate enough vendor fees to pay off the $95 million that’s been borrowed so far to pay for it is another question.

For now, the newly completed section, which runs from State to LaSalle, offers a pleasant chance to get close to this still-dicey water. Ostensibly three separate “rooms” (the Marina, the Cove, and the River Theater), it’s a vibrant basement-level concourse through a skyscraper canyon, echoing with the clatter of traffic. You can stop there for a beer or a glass of wine, rent a kayak, or just perch on a bench or on the steep stairs of the final block (which look like they’ll be treacherous in winter). At evening, with narrow bands of walkway light reflected in the rippling water and in metal panels that line the ceiling of the underpasses, it’s a dramatic change of scene.

Friends executive director Margaret Frisbie told me that the Riverwalk is giving people “a great firsthand introduction to both the magic and the remaining problems that the river faces.” They can see that it’s “full of fish,” Frisbie says, and also, as in the muck left by the recent flooding, “the need for continued cleanup.”

At the grand opening on Saturday—maybe the only glorious day this June—following what turned out to be a rollicking performance by the cast of Million Dollar Quartet, former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood suggested that Mayor Emanuel, who hit him up for that $95 million loan, was so vital to this project it should be named the Rahm Emanuel Riverwalk.

When the mayor spoke, he recalled the dirty days: “The river used to be something you biked over, or drove over, or threw something on.” Now, he said, “You have direct access, if you so choose.”

But you might not choose to put your toes in.

The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events says it expects to have weekly Riverwalk music events starting mid-July.  v