Chicago feature for weekend use

BREAKOUT: Fast facts at bottom of main bar

            It may not be like Paris – yet -- but Chicago has spruced up a portion of its downtown riverfront in hopes that the urban shoreline will one day bustle with activity.
            This summer, more than half a dozen businesses, primarily restaurants, have opened seasonal shops along the east-west stretch of Wacker Drive that was rebuilt in 2002. Amenities are few, beyond the pleasant view from the south bank of the Chicago River.
            But it’s a start.
            “Overall, we’re thrilled,” says Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the Friends of the Chicago River. “One of the most important ways that we look at engaging people in the care of the river is to get them near it. … People start to realize the legacy, the history of the river.”
            The green-blue rippling water that rings the Loop’s northern edge was once considered heavily polluted because Chicago frequently discharged sewage with storm water overflow. Since the 1980s, the “Deep Tunnel” project to expand drainage capacity has limited the discharges to about one a month, said Rob Sulski of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
            Today, he said, the quality of the slow-moving river is “good, very acceptable, with the exception of a couple of things – dissolved oxygen and bacteria.”
            Gulls and geese are common sights these days, and Frisbie said there are nearly 70 species of fish living beneath the surface. Still, some observers are leery about the idea of consuming any of the aquatic life.
            “For the most part, I wouldn’t eat out of the river, unless it was seriously to the point we were in another Depression,” truck driver James Davis said Tuesday as he fished from a spot east of Michigan Avenue during his lunch break.
            The 30-year-old said he dreads the impending redevelopment of the riverfront because working-class people like him will feel unwelcome amid white-collar professionals and tourists.
            “A blue-collar worker just doesn’t fit in down here,” Davis said as a large tour boat turned in the water to dock nearby.
            Mayor Richard Daley welcomes the potential crowds. Earlier this month, he announced the new riverfront vendors, which include Bike Chicago (a bicycle rental business) and satellite locations for two established restaurants, Robinson’s Ribs and O’Brien’s.
            The businesses lease space from the city’s park district on cement pads that are partly covered by the overhang of Upper Wacker Drive. Customers can eat at tables overlooking the water and admire the north bank’s skyline of vintage and modern buildings. In some places, Lower Wacker Driver and its zipping traffic is visible, but separated by concrete barriers and chain-link fences.
            The riverwalk is a work in progress. Portable bathrooms are few. To get to most pathways, pedestrians have to descend winding flights of steps at either side of bridges. An exception is the ramp system that zig-zags down to the popular Wabash Avenue plaza and its centerpiece Vietnam War memorial.
City planners hope to connect all of the riverwalk segments with pathways beneath the bridges, Brian Steele, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation, said. But that would take an additional $50 million to complete, at a time when capital dollars are scarce, he said.
            “It’s a project that will take at least a couple -- but likely several -- years to come to fruition,” Steele said.

            The Chicago River …
-      Is 156 miles long.
-     Has two main branches.
-     Is spanned by 45 movable bridges.
-      At its juncture with Lake Michigan, was the site of the first permanent Chicago settlement (that of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable).
-     Once flowed eastward into the lake, depositing sewage and industrial waste into the drinking-water source. A late 19th-century canal project reversed the current and improved sanitary conditions.
-      Is dyed emerald green each year in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
-     Is home to more than 60 species of fish.
-     Eventually meets the Illinois River downstate.
            Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or .