In 2001, a group of cyclists organized the Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakeside. Their goal: to bring a jackhammer to Lake Shore Drive and restore it in a grassy park. They said an eight-lane highway separating Chicagoans from Lake Michigan violated Daniel Burnham’s saying that the shore would remain “forever free and clear.”
“We are taking the city’s most valuable property and dedicating it to eight lanes of automobile traffic,” organizer Michael Burton told the Reader. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to dedicate it to the park?” Wouldn’t that increase the value of the adjacent property? Wouldn’t that make the city more livable? Are we not always looking for ways to reduce pollution? “
Back then, cyclists were seen as eccentric pastors, using aesthetic and environmental arguments to promote a program that would annoy hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans. The group has since disappeared from public discourse, its website and phone number are gone. But maybe they weren’t that crazy.
Today, Lake Shore Drive is attacked by Lake Michigan, which this year has reached a level approaching its all-time high. It could increase further next year. Just last week, flash floods closed the Drive for several hours between Montrose and Hollywood. In May, water opened a crack in the roof of a pedestrian underpass near Oak Street Beach.
“In some cases, with the storms we’ve had recently, the lake water flows through Lake Shore Drive and appears on the west side of Lake Shore Drive,” Ald said. Brian Hopkins, who represents the Gold Coast, said at the time. “The lake is actually eroding Lake Shore Drive and its basement right now.”
Currently, the city is trying to slow down the rising waters with concrete jersey barriers. Hopkins, however, has an ambitious and expensive plan to rebuild the “crumbling” platform, using the landfill to add more parks south of Oak Street Beach.
“The types of erosion that we’re seeing from climate change… we can’t get away with jersey walls,” Hopkins said. “We need to rebuild Lake Shore Drive. “
Hopkins is right about one thing: the lake levels that undermine LSD are a result of climate change. No matter how much money we spend on repairing the causeway, the lake will keep coming. This begs the question: is Lake Shore Drive even a viable thoroughfare in an era of global warming?
The Drive as we know it today traverses lands that did not exist a hundred years ago. From the 1880s, the Chicago shore was extended east to Lake Michigan using landfills, largely from the Great Chicago Fire, up to half a mile. (A historical marker in Lincoln Park, a hundred yards west of Drive, indicates the original shoreline there.)
As Lake Michigan returns to its original dimensions, we can either retreat or get out of the problem with barriers to hold water. But what is the point of walling the natural element that made us a city in the first place?
One solution, as reported in this magazine a few years ago, is to build permeable roads to allow water to seep in. the Sun-Times recently advocated for building a reinvented Lake Shore Drive, with better walkways and bike paths, rather than just repairing the road. The city, they argued, thought too “defensively”.
Architecture critic Anjulie Rao doesn’t think Lake Shore Drive should be eliminated altogether, but she does believe it should be closed to private vehicles. (Currently, the Drive carries 160,000 cars per day.)
“It’s a viable road, of course, but not for cars,” Rao said in an email. “I did not have the impression that the Sun-Times the editorial talked about the OTHER future of LSD: one that could be a bus-only route. The article complains about the effects of climate change on the road, but doesn’t seem to say, “Hey, maybe if we want to stop climate change, we should stop driving cars.” In this view, you don’t. not deal with climate change, only the effects of climate change.
Lake Shore Drive is obviously an institution in Chicago. He even has his own song. But her disappearance might not be as disruptive as people imagine. Anyone who lives close enough to LSD to use it to get downtown also lives near decent public transportation. All highways also go downtown. Having lived in Rogers Park for over 20 years, I can say the best thing about my neighborhood is that it sits beyond the north terminus of Lake Shore Drive, allowing unimpeded access to the lake.
Chicago has always imagined that it would be a winner in the age of climate change. We tell ourselves that our altitude of 600 feet, our temperate climate and our enormous reserve of fresh water will prevent us from burning like the South or drowning like the coasts. But even we are going to have to make concessions to our changing planet. Could our most famous route be one of them?