The next tour begins in five minutes.
I have a simple question for anyone who thinks they know Chicago; bite your lip. What is there to do or see in the nearly two-mile stretch between Chinatown and Downtown?
Oh, that new Dearborn Park neighborhood.
That’s nearby, but 180 degrees off of what I have in mind. Something farther west than Dearborn Park, but east of the river.
That area? I’ve driven by there a million times. There’s nothing memorable about it. Some old factories and railroad tracks, that’s about it. No one goes around there. It’s completely abandoned.
My own early education about the near south side came from my father. My father used to tell the story of the small-town family from somewhere in the midwest who, after finishing dinner at a restaurant in Chinatown, decided to work off the meal by walking back to their downtown hotel. According to my father, the country folks aimed for the skyline and started walking. Within a few blocks, a kid pulled a gun on the father and shot him dead on the sidewalk.
Horror stories like this one–told with an underlying smugness that the teller, unlike the out-of-towner, knows that there are poor black (pronounced “high-crime”) neighborhoods around Chinatown–encourage the children of the urban bourgeoisie to confine their lives, like the lives of their parents, to the sliver of territory along the lakefront or to the outskirts of town. Through generations of urban bourgeoisie wisdom, “street smart” has come to mean knowing which half of Chicago not to visit. But what can a person who fears his own city presume to know of the world?
If your impressions of the area were anything like mine, perhaps it sounds absurd to be told, indeed for me to tell, that this desolate and probably dangerous stretch of earth between those two familiar “towns” is worthy of a guided tour, which begins in four minutes.
Imagine a vast abandoned land–spanning an area of about 25 square blocks in all–a composite of forest, prairie, and archaeological dig. Wild rabbits and pheasants live here, so does the spirit of Twain’s Mississippi. At least a dozen city streets find their dead ends at its perimeter.
With the increasing commercialization of land, it is the decaying places, like this one at the heart of our city, that have inherited one of the most sacred roles in the experience of our nation, that of the frontier.
Ah, the frontier, the great American frontier. Historians attribute Americans’ self-reliance and ingenuity, in large part, to the presence of the western frontier and all the possibilities it embodied. Nowadays, the myth of the frontier retains power not as a location but as a symbol of the everyday unthinkable, the familiar but uncrossable boundaries in life. For young Huck Finn, the Mississippi River was the frontier, part of why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written more than a century ago, is still so widely considered the greatest book about growing up American.
Today, as the cityscape gags and doubles over on minimalls and cable TV wires, and an increasing number of city kids simply can’t afford to escape to Wisconsin or anywhere really, the urban frontier appears uniquely situated to grab hold of the young imagination, claiming for its own the romance that once belonged to the Old West.
But even among those who can afford to escape from the city, the urban frontier holds a certain attraction. For one thing, it has no tawdry gift shops, no concession stands, no trailer parks. Deep down, most of us want more out of our vacations than the sterility of theme parks, resorts, and well-traveled wilderness. Even risky ventures such as skydiving still keep us safely removed from the thing we fear most of all, which is of course the other half of our own city–the half where the Reader isn’t available.
The urban frontier, where raw city meets raw wilderness, is an antidote to the incompleteness of city life. For the sheltered bourgeoisie, it means an introduction to the forbidden urban underworld. For the sheltered poor, it means an introduction to the unfamiliar natural habitat. For all, it exists more than anything as an internal frontier–a frontier of the mind–a living monument to the deepest fears and fascinations of a stratified city.
And it is simply adventure, simply crossing barriers, that dull children from sheltered lives really yearn for when they turn to Nintendo, Great America, or the latest commercially packaged entertainment. The forbidden domains of the city are where the real adventure lies, not in the controlled setting of some wilderness camp. The greatest opportunities in the world to explore the unknown, talk to amazing people, and become cosmopolitan cost only the price of a CTA token. The tour begins in three minutes.
Despite its central location in the city, the 25-square-block piece of land I’ve been talking about is so ignored that no one even knows what to call it. Hell, I don’t even know what to call it. Usually, people speak of it (if they bother to mention it at all) in relation to what it’s between–the Loop and Chinatown, east of the river, west of Clark Street–or in relation to where they were going before they got lost in it. If I wrote for the Tribune, I might call it “the generally blighted strip . . . [full of] weed filled vacant lots and exposed, underused railroad track,” but since I don’t, I’ll just call it the frontier because that’s what uncharted lands have always been called.
In truth, Chicago has many frontiers, and the frontier on the near south side is only my favorite. Everywhere train tracks, water, factories, parks, rooftops–or just plain neglect–conspire to create secret places within the city. It is possible to glide past these places, to look down on them from an overpass or from the window of a commuter train; but the real luxury lies in being there on foot, in having the freedom to roam the land indefinitely, to stop and start, to rest and climb, whenever and wherever you feel like it.
I have visited this frontier many times, sometimes with guests, sometimes alone. I have climbed on its bridges, wandered its prairies, and played tag inside its abandoned buildings; I have lain down in the middle of its forests to daydream, and indulged my hobby of mural painting under some of its forgotten viaducts. I feel a personal affection for this frontier now, but originally I came for the most ordinary of reasons. I simply wanted to see what was here.
Chicagoans I’ve brought here for the first time invariably find themselves amazed at what they see. Wide-eyed, a native will usually ask two questions: First, “What in hell is all this wilderness doing in the middle of Chicago?” Second, some variant of “Gosh, isn’t this place marvelous?”
The answer to the first question is complicated. The space was created during the 20s and 30s in two stages. From 1925 to 1937 the city vacated more than nine square blocks south of 16th Street between Wentworth and the Chicago River for Santa Fe rail yards and, at about the same time, passed an ordinance to straighten out the river where it snaked east between 10th Street and 18th, to push it a full block and a half west of its original location. Mid-century, the railroad business collapsed, the rails were removed, and a huge strip of wilderness was left to sprout in the middle of the city. On paper at least, this land has been carved up by developers, but they haven’t built much yet because there are no utilities, phone wires, streets, or sewers on the land.
As for the second question, the answer is yes.
It is impossible to say what kind of neighborhood the frontier belongs to. Of course, the area is primarily industrial. It spans the no-man’s-land between the well-to-do instant neighborhoods of the South Loop and the low-income housing projects of the Near South Side. It also spans the district of the new South Loop elementary school, where children from both communities come together to play and learn; their parents to learn and fight.
At the frontier’s northeastern edge, the fashionable Dearborn Park development, and its charming twin Dearborn Park II, nibble away at the open prairie. As anyone who has wandered Dearborn II’s exclusive streets knows, nowhere else in the city captures the spirit of suburbia quite like it–save maybe the Gold Coast’s vertical suburbia.
A monument to midwest-style affluence, corncob-shaped River City, standing just inside the northern border of the frontier, looks like a fat and satisfied version of Marina City–or a spiffed-up version of the Hilliard Homes, designed by the same architect, Bertrand Goldberg, and located near the southern edge of the same conspicuously ignored land. The main difference is that the Hilliard Homes are low-income CHA projects; their proximity to Chinatown, as well as their roundness, has earned for them the ghetto derision “egg roll ‘jects.” From select places on the frontier it is possible to view both kingdoms at once, the egg roll projects and their upscale counterparts, the egg roll condos of River City. Imagine the confusion such a resemblance could cause for someone visiting Chicago. Driving in late one night to visit relatives, out-of-town guests are told to look for the corncob-shaped building (you can’t miss it) just south of the skyline. Look honey, there it is!
I guess by now you’re getting impatient to visit this wild land for yourself; thank you for waiting, let the tour begin. My directions may not be safe, but then again neither do I appear to be the surgeon general.
Get off the Dan Ryan el at the 22-Cermak station which is one block east of Chinatown; turn north at the miniature pagoda on Wentworth as though you were going to the Chinatown parking lot. Instead of entering the lot, clench your teeth and continue walking toward downtown.
Haunting music please. When you cross Archer Avenue, you have already entered the ghost city. Tall, sinewy plants shoot up five feet through the suddenly patched and potholed pavement of Wentworth, a street that dead-ends, after ten miles of grandeur, in the next block. On your right, Dan Ryan el tracks plunge into the ground where it is said they will one day connect with the Howard line, and on the left abandoned buildings offer a humble welcome. If you see people on this street, your drinking problem is serious.
The first building is an old, but freshly boarded-up, two-story red-brick train-station commissary. If the sidewalk out front appears tidily swept, it’s probably a courtesy of the wind. Contractors are erecting a shopping mall along Archer just inside the southern edge of the great land. How do you like that? You’ve barely even gotten to the frontier, and already it’s shrinking.
A block behind you stands the gateway to Chinatown; before you, temporarily at least, stands the gateway to the frontier. Spray-painted tag names sprinkle lampposts, crumbling buildings, and every visible surface. Barbed-wire construction fence flanks the train station on both sides, but there is a hole between the fence and the next building–a torched and abandoned loading dock–a hole that an average-sized person should have no trouble slipping through. (If the hole in the fence is patched, which happens periodically, you can also enter a little farther down, where Wentworth dead-ends, at the base of the 18th Street bridge, or hell, you could just hop the fence–but beware, the construction site on Archer has 24-hour security.)
As you cross the threshold of the abandoned loading dock, your thoughts race back in time to stories of childhood. Stories of adventurous children who dared to explore the house on the hill; deep-sea divers who rummage a phantom shipwreck; astronauts who piece through the ruins of an extraterrestrial civilization.
Luckily for new jack explorers, the loading dock isn’t too creepy, at least not as abandoned buildings go. Although the outer shell remains mostly intact, there are enough openings to let in light. Scale what remains of the stairway up to the curious accordionlike fixtures on the second floor–if you can manage to get up there without falling through the stairwell–and to the third floor, where you’ll find a ladder that leads to the roof.
A sea of bricks, cinders, beams, glass, plaster, insulation, and tile covers the floor. At times it becomes hard to discern what has been scorched by fire or rusted out, or what just got dumped here. In the center of the main room, there’s a hole smashed through to the cellar; doorways lead into side rooms. In places like this, tag-style graffiti with its deftly woven letters seems to lurk like giant spiders–almost menacing enough, when noticed in the corner of an eye, to make even a strong soul start. I dare anyone to climb up to that roof at night.
Out in back of the loading dock stand piles of industrial and household trash as high as one-story buildings–sometimes higher than the caved-in roof of the loading dock. Buckets of rusted machine parts lie busted open, their contents scattered across the ground next to a hill of paper, beaten back into pulp by the rain.
At the base of one of these piles, in the shade of a mulberry tree, a friend of mine once noticed a fat leather easy chair slouching in front of a makeshift linoleum table. Open sacks of beans and rice lie on the table next to a pot as if to say “Someone put me here, and whoever it is is coming back.” “Let’s go,” my friend said, “I feel like we’re invading their privacy.”
There really isn’t much in the way of human life on the prairie, but at least four enterprising hoboes, subtracting themselves from the ranks of the homeless, have set up camp here–not many, considering how many people live in Grant Park these days. At the suggestion that they could have more privacy if they moved here, Grant Park vagrants have been quick to tell me they would be too scared to live in such an empty place.
“I feel much safer sleeping out here, where at least the cops will come by if someone tries to kill you in your sleep,” explained a man who survives by washing car windows. “If you get in trouble and you’re all alone out there–not close to any busy streets–no one is going to help you out.”
Shane Wilson, a crippled but sturdy man of 40, doesn’t need anybody’s help. Three years ago Shane built himself a one-room house, tucked away in a grove of trees on the frontier, and he has lived there with his two dogs ever since. (The dogs are free to roam the city and forage for food, but they always return home.) On an afternoon not long ago, he sat on his one-chair porch with small, near-sighted eyes focused calmly behind round spectacles. He wore a camouflage bush hat over his patchy brown face, sweatshirt jacket open at the chest, a pair of cutoff jeans, and black high tops like stables housing his skinny bare ankles. “I like it here,” Shane said, speaking abruptly in short sentences. “Because I’m scared of everybody. ‘Cause I’m a paranoid son of a bitch.” He ignored a yellowjacket that buzzed about his hard, broad jaw.
Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Shane spent 18 months as a medic in Vietnam, then returned to the States and came to Chicago to live with relatives. “Let’s not talk about that,” he said; 1983 was the last year he had a traditional post office address. His bad knee and bad back forced him to walk on crutches; now he uses a cane.
“I don’t like nobody,” Shane said. “I don’t know why I’m talking to you now. Nobody comes around here.” Then he added: “How did you find me?”
I told Shane I stumbled onto his house while wandering, to which he howled “I’m a wanderer!” tossing his head back to close his eyes at the sky. Shane is a penetrating if slightly deranged satirist.
Shane was paid a visit once before. By a member of the toughest street gang in Chicago, the Chicago Police.
Shane: “This big ol’ six-foot-three cop came down here, said ‘Get the fuck out of here.’ I didn’t say nothin’. Then he said, ‘You better be gone when I come back.’ Three months later, in November, he came wearing a snow hat. I was inside, heard my dogs start barking. My dogs was just protecting their territory, they weren’t doing nothing wrong. They were only trying to protect me because I saved them from out of the gutter. If you touch me right now, they’ll probably try to kill you.
“I was lying on the ground and the cop yelled at my dogs and then shot at one of them with a .38–but I didn’t have my glasses then so he might have just fired in the air. Wherever he fired don’t matter; the point is, he thinks he can do anything to me because I’m a tramp and I don’t have any rights. After that, I had to move away from there to where I am now.” Shane left his old residence intact as a decoy to police.
Shane earns enough money from collecting aluminum cans and scavenging to sustain a modest life-style. Assorted bottles of consumer goods, pots, and miscellaneous household effects are arrayed atop his tarped wooden roof and along exterior shelves. The house also boasts two glass windows and a fireplace. Inside his home, which he calls “the camp,” Shane has room enough for a mattress, a small bookshelf (overflowing with paperbacks), a cabinet, and a space on the floor to spread out his art supplies or invite a guest to spend the night (his comment about not liking anybody was mainly attitude).
Shane’s camp may be square in the heart of Chicago, surrounded by the city; but with dogs to keep him warm in the winter and a mannequin outside to scare away prowlers, he lives as a hermit might in the backwaters of Louisiana–or Vietnam. He bathes and does laundry in the river, hanging his clothes out to dry, or roasting them over a fire in the winter. He shaves, brushes his teeth, cleans house, and worries about his appearance. When he’s not out scavenging, he spends his days reading, listening to oldies on his battery-powered radio, and working on charcoal drawings, which he could easily sell but won’t. He even burns his excrement in a bucket to avoid contamination. (One night he got drunk, poured gasoline all over the bucket, and tried to light it. The bucket exploded in his face and set him on fire. That’s how he got his patchy complexion.)
Shane is an American homesteader.
Back at the loading dock, the landscape out behind the back wall appears to be in turmoil. Stretching two blocks west to the river, everything is either uprooted or overturned, the ground is marred violently in places. Dragonflies alight on boards, and concrete crumblings of every sort protrude from monstrous mounds of ground. Thickets of fledgling trees jut up everywhere, asserting themselves to the scattered piles of boulders. In places the ground is cracked deeply enough to stick your fingers inside.
The frontier is a place of vast solitude, but also a place of visual drama, the kind of place where you might expect to stumble upon the planet’s umbilical cord or some such thing. If this is God’s country, it is God’s other country, the afterbirth of “nature’s metropolis.” A braggart I know from the South Bronx is fond of saying it reminds him of home. Tough old factories, with names like Continental Paper Grading Company, are layered in browns and grays behind the ten-story twin skeletons of the 20th Street Amtrak bridge a quarter mile to the west across the restless prairie. Entire chain-link fences, chunks of building, and telephone poles lie strewn about as in the wake of disaster. The whole wild country seems locked into a tense, wordless dialogue with the Sears Tower, which cowers only a few blocks away.
“I give,” the Sears Tower cries out at last. Humbled by its awesome rival, it crumbles, returning to rubble.
“Welcome back brother,” the wise one whispers in return.
“Your first thoughts?” I once asked a friend who was visiting the frontier for the first time.
“Don’t tell anyone about this place; let’s live here.”
Here you could be Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in Oz–or anyone anywhere there are vast possibilities right down the rabbit hole and no one to rely on but yourself. Here a person could scream symphonies and still not be heard. Here a person can do anything at any hour in plain view, probably without being bothered. Forces of life and death, past and future seem magnified, as if great battles had been fought or apocalyptic armies are converging to raise the soil once again.
But that’s all in the imagination. The ones who are really raising the soil and converging around here are not imaginary armies, but builders hired by developers. Try putting my What is there to do between Chinatown and Downtown question to John Heimbaugh, developer for the Chinese-American Development Corporation, only one of three groups planning to develop a portion of the frontier. For Heimbaugh, the thing to do between Chinatown and Downtown is clear: build more Chinatown. Starting with the Chinatown Square shopping mall on Archer Avenue (the construction site we passed earlier) scheduled to open next spring, Heimbaugh hopes to expand Chinatown northward to 18th Street, erecting townhouses, condos, a park, a hotel, and a convention center. Market permitting, Heimbaugh expects to develop 32 acres–a full quarter of the frontier–by 1995.
According to Heimbaugh, the time and the land are ripe to build. “That land is the only land of any scope immediately bordering Chinatown,” Heimbaugh says. “The Chinese businessmen and others who invested in Chinatown Square have strong economic and cultural motivations for expansion. There’s a strong housing market and little commercial vacancy in Chinatown. But over and above money, I think the motives for expanding Chinatown are primarily cultural. If a community can’t grow and prosper, it will die.” Sort of a Chinese version of Manifest Destiny.
If you can believe the architectural drawings that cover the walls of Heimbaugh’s office, it is a matter of only a few years before the Wentworth Avenue ghost city gets lined with fresh asphalt, manicured shrubs, and hordes of shoppers. People like me might weep, but realistically there’s probably no need to feel nostalgic. As long as the city’s population doesn’t boom, the golden law of urban entropy holds: gentrification in one locale ensures abandonment elsewhere. If developers keep swallowing up the edges of downtown like this, heck, the next frontier could be State Street Mall.
In the meantime, let’s just hope for Chinese culture’s sake that shoppers can find this place. After all, even the Sun-Times reporter who wrote the story about Chinatown Square (on the cover of Home Life, August 2) lost his sense of direction. He reported that the New Chinatown would be bordered on the north by the river, which really lies to the west, and on the west by Cermak, which is an east-west street.
Let’s keep walking. Over on your right, is this; and over on your left, is that–sorry, I’m not going to give away too many secrets (there are many if you have a discerning eye, I won’t spoil them for you). Like Florida’s Everglades, the frontier encompasses several microregions, each with its own personality. Of course, vegetation is one of the chief aspects of each microregion. On an early fall hike, one sees Queen Anne’s lace, ferns, cattails, sunflowers, giant dandelions, six-foot-high spherical purple thistles called dame’s rocket, brush plants with bloodred leaves, thickets of wild mint, even a couple of withered-up grape vines awaiting winter. After a rain, the fragrance overwhelms the senses. There are at least 50 different species of wildflowers in all (all right nitpickers, some of them are “weeds”)–that’s three more species than there are in the much-fussed-over, million-dollar transplanted wildflower garden at Randolph Street in Grant Park.
Wild animal life also thrives. Black-winged butterflies flit about; crickets make popcorn noises in the brush; families of ducks nest along the river (where at least 26 species of fish reside now that sewage, courtesy of the Deep Tunnel, has been diverted to other waterways); rabbits, barely present just a few years ago, now outnumber squirrels–a circling hawk sends them scurrying down their holes.
But the real kings of this wild territory are not fuzzy little animals but track-thrashing trains. If Chicago is the country’s railroad capital, this is the railroad equivalent of the Oval Office. Rows of stripped-down track beds are still in evidence from when Santa Fe ruled the land. Sometimes when three different trains are passing at once, the frontier seems like one gigantic train park. Three Metra lines and two new CTA lines cut through sections of it, along with the sauntering continuum of freights. The periodic foghorns of trains taking off from Amtrak’s national headquarters (just across the river) chill you to the roots of your goose bumps.
When I first happened upon the frontier five years ago (I spied it from the window of a Dan Ryan el train) I was a 13-year-old graffiti writer and the area was devoid of graffiti. Hmm, I thought, biting my lip.
At that time, Chicago graffiti artists devoted most of their energy to painting rooftops along CTA train lines–up until 1987, that is, when the book Spray Can Art helped to popularize the notion of the “graffiti art gallery”: a set of abandoned walls where graffiti artists could paint even during the daytime with little fear of being chased, arrested, hit by a train, electrocuted on a third rail–or of other, infinitely more infuriating mishaps such as dropping a spray nozzle through the tracks, or confusing colors in the dark. A place without disturbance, a theater without an audience, to concentrate on one’s work.
By 1989, the area around the 18th Street railroad and river overpass–known to graffiti writers as the Hall of Fame or “the Fame” for short–with sister walls at 12th and 16th streets had become the most graffiti-saturated region of the city. Practically every inch that can be reached by standing on or climbing something has been painted and painted again–even the rafters crossing above the river are crowded with tags. Although graffiti writers visit the Fame regularly, the chance of seeing one is slim. If you’ve ever wondered why kids turn to tagging, try putting your signature up in those rafters next to ours. And please, don’t feel guilty, no one is ever going to have to come down here and clean it off. They’ll build a new bridge before they clean the graffiti off this one.
Every graffiti writer in the city has left his tag here, as have writers from across the nation and across the world. Names like Riot, Slang, Agent, and Zorro are crowded together, but usually don’t overlap, the authors careful not to write over each other’s insignias.
Dozens of bold frescoes in airbrushed precision are still visible from beneath the scrawlings. On one wall a mohawk-topped devil pops out of a spray-paint can to leer at a naked girl who belches flowers. One writer vicariously takes revenge against the police on another wall by depicting one of Chicago’s finest being strangled by an angry spray can.
Some walls here have been painted a dozen times, photographed, and shown in graffiti magazines from as far away as Australia. Of course, the recent Chicago Tribune story on graffiti (on the cover of Tempo July 18) neglected to mention the Hall of Fame among the city’s “fiercest zones.” But hey, when you’re writing about something as subterranean as graffiti, who’s going to notice if some of your research (and two of your three photographs) dates from 1986?
During its heyday in 1989, new frescoes went up every week at the Fame and upward of 80 kids would congregate every Saturday morning for the all-city writers’ convention to trade photos, sign and compare each other’s sketch books, and settle disputes–or even start them. The older and mouthier writers would deliver lectures–from atop some broken-down stove or a pile of railroad ties–to an audience quieter than that in any classroom.
The highlight of each writers’ convention was afterward, when everyone would stampede up the connector ramp to the nearby Dan Ryan el station. Sometimes we would even stop a train to cross the track before we boarded it once it arrived at the station. Then we would ride all over the city getting on and off of trains, standing in between cars with our homemade two-inch markers, rocking everything–didn’t care who saw us–and scaring all those nice gentle people away from using public transportation.
Now the 18th Street Hall of Fame stands a sad monument to a youth culture gone awry. Although new murals are still painted here almost monthly, they are inevitably destroyed within days by scribbling idiots. Now they call it the Hall of Shame. An art sprung from egocentric scribbling is haunted by the pathology of its roots. One recent piece included a built-in space for taggers with a simple request: “If you must tag, do it here, not on our piece.” That saved the piece for about a week.
Away from the Fame, spray-painted frescoes have fared better. These are the jewels in the belly of the city, the gold in the river of the urban frontier. A message left on a wall from one writer to another: “To Antik, this spot is still hush hush.”
Even as someone who has contributed to the painting, I still find myself perplexed to see so much graffiti in such an abandoned territory. Mental equation: Here is graffiti; people write graffiti; where are the people? The juxtaposition of evident effects with invisible causes inspires disbelief–like waking up covered with a strange blanket when no one else was home.
A fellow graffiti writer once confessed he sometimes feels as though the people who made all the graffiti down here are going to jump out and surround him.
“But you know all these people,” I protested. Most graffiti writers know one another.
“I know I do, but still,” he said, “It just feels that way. It makes my skin crawl like the place is infested or something. It feels lawless like it’s some kind of a gang headquarters.” A while later he asked me suddenly and in a disturbed tone if I’d read Lord of the Flies.
One time, a writer’s convention was interrupted by a drug dealer with a giant Ziplock bag full of marijuana. A big fat Jheri-Kurl writer named Stash tried to grab the bag away from him. A fight ensued and the marijuana began to spill on the ground. Within moments, a dozen writers were scrambling on the ground trying to pocket some of the fallen marijuana.
With the lawlessness as a given, there is something sublime about delinquent kids of every background gathering in a secret hideout, arguing moral questions (graffiti self-government), formulating strategies to take over Chicago, staying up all night to perfect a piece of work. Kids by themselves doing the sort of thing many a community center would turn into grist for grant proposals.
Out behind the Fame, the river embankment has crumbled away so that it’s possible to dangle one’s feet in the murky water–gray, blue, green, yellow, or red, depending on the season and your angle on the bridge, sky, or trees–which laps gently against the roots of encroaching vegetation. Curious, jellyfishlike metal capsules protrude from the water atop clusters of logs.
Downtown the river seems strangled by walkways and bridges; here it meanders along, reflecting on its foliage like a friend taking a breather after a hard day at the office. Here the serenity is disturbed only momentarily by motorboating yahoos who careen up the river in summertime. As they whiz past, heeding only the glory of their own faces in the wind, they don’t notice a person who might be watching quietly from one of the clearings on the east bank.
Moving north, past 18th Street, the prairie thickens into a light forest that can be crossed by way of a winding country lane, a reincarnation of what was known as Purple Street back around the turn of the century. The road’s warm immediacy drowns out, for a moment, all of modernity and the forest glows softly when the wind blows.
Eventually, the country lane opens up into a field where marsh plants tough out the drought. The ground is claylike and the slight basin at the bottom of the 16th Street train viaduct fills up when it rains; the pool forms a virgin ice rink in wintertime.
One hundred meters to the west, the tracks that pass above the viaduct open out over the river, yielding a startling view. Two sets of track converge to form a double bridge across the waterway, but one is out of service and its bridge is raised permanently at a magnificent 80-degree incline, towering dangerously above the other–as the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex may once have towered above its prey.
Many bridges along the river are equipped with steep, sturdy stairways and ladders, and this bridge is no exception. Nothing save your own good sense will prevent you from climbing to the top of the 16th Street bridge, where railings are minimal and views are dizzying. Even some bridge tenders won’t climb up there.
There’s someone in the bridge’s control room around the clock and you have to sneak past if you want to scale to the top. Once recently, as a friend and I descended from the bridge’s heights, we were apprehended by a tender, a thin, curly-haired woman named Rina, who reminds you of someone’s mother.
“Keep coming down,” she prodded, surprising us as we inched down from a few landings above. “Come on down here. I called the railroad police on you. Come on.”
We edged past her on the narrow stairway, the threat of police sirening down our spines.
“Wait, don’t run away, listen to me. Wait, I’ll cancel the call to the police,” she said. We paused on the stairs. Sensing she had our attention, Rina spoke, stopping every few words to let us consider the gravity of her warning.
“When I lift up this bridge,” she began, “do you realize that the concrete counterweight falls, and the whole bridge structure tips upside down? Do you think you would survive if I lifted up the bridge while you were on it? When I raise this bridge, I only check to make sure no one’s standing on the tracks. I never check up there where you were. Even if you saw a ship coming down the river, do you think you’d have time to climb down?”
There was nothing to say.
“Please don’t ever go up there again,” Rina said. “Do you realize what it does to me?”
The forest around the bridge is almost impenetrable farther to the north. I’m positive bodies have been dumped into the river here, and apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. Yeah cops, I saw the remains of your Dunkin’ Donuts conventions.
Around 14th Street, an abandoned freight train (minus the engine) waits on rusty B&O tracks. It has been waiting there a long time. What is it waiting for? Gertrude Warner, author of The Boxcar Children, knows. Her children’s book about orphans who, fleeing well-intentioned adults, discover an abandoned boxcar and make it their home has remained a classic for half a century. Any orphans out there need a home?
Wasting electricity, a perpetually red traffic light commands the old train not to drive itself off into the river. But more surprising than the train itself is that you can walk through the forest on either side of it and never know it’s there–the frontier is that wide and dense.
North of the Roosevelt Street bridge lies more marsh, more densely forested hills; a layer of delicate topsoil dries and curls up around the edges like potato chips. At the doorstep of River City–near the northern edge of the frontier–the ground is thick with the silky dust of construction. The tour’s over, thanks, and have a safe trip home. The journey is over. I collapse to the hard ground, my whole body spent.
I close my eyes and try to think about the city. Hmm, I think, there are so many places I haven’t really been. I wonder about the area between Chinatown and the Illinois Institute of Technology campus at 35th and State. Come to think of it, I wonder about the area between IIT and Hyde Park. I bite my lip. I’ve never really been to those places before, and anyone who thinks they know Chicago should go, I think; I want to know, and so I go.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Margarita Garcia.