The Good Lord, having some time on His hands one day, and being in a particularly good mood, decided to have some fun. He would create a series of rivers and lakes that would allow the humans (who would sooner or later live in the area) to start out way up north, in what would become Canada, and travel inland from the Atlantic Ocean and then south and west, traveling all the way to the Gulf of Mexico by boat. However (however!), it shouldn’t be too easy. I know; I’ll put a waterfall in one place and some rapids in another. I’ll make sure that there are plenty of other obstacles as well. Let’s see how long it takes for the humans to figure out how to deal with all of them so they can travel the whole way without setting foot on dry land.
Let me begin by stating that I had never given much thought to the Chicago River. No, let me be honest: Who knew that it even existed? Not if you’re from New York and crossing the Hudson is a big deal. But so is this waterway that now bisects the Windy City. It has been 350 years since some very trusting Native Americans showed the White Man the portage, the four-mile overland passage that connected the Chicago River (and thus the Great Lakes) to the Mississippi. And once a connecting canal was built in the nineteenth century, that’s when Chicago started becoming Chicago – if you get my drift.
It was Sunday (the day after the Shabbat mentioned in my previous article), and Tina and David were taking Barbara and me on a river cruise on the self-same Chicago River.
It’s hard to fit six people – plus Milo’s car seat – into your standard sedan. So whenever we traveled, Tina, the two of us, and Milo would ride in the car, and David and Damon would go by bicycle (one way to keep fit!). Tina, always being on top of things, knew which parking garage to patronize – far enough away not to cost an arm and a leg, but near enough so that we, huffing and puffing, could walk the many blocks to where we needed to be. I hadn’t realized where we were at the time, but we were in The Loop, along with lots and lots of other folks. Being from New York, I am neither astonished nor flummoxed by large crowds of people walking the streets of a city. (Yeah; been there; done that; that’s cool.) I’ve seen my share of tourists in my time, and who else do you think would be wandering around Chicago’s business section on a Sunday (remember, Sunday is a day off in The States)? And lots of them want to take a boat tour on the Chicago River. It’s the most popular tourist attraction in the city.
Not just any river cruise would do for us; we would be aboard Chicago’s First Lady (that’s the name of the ship), the only river cruise led by the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center. Says their brochure, ‘Highly trained and passionate docents provide a detailed narrative of Chicago’s various architectural styles and the stories of the people who designed and built our city.’ No argument from me on that score. The woman providing the narrative (I was on the lower deck buying drinks and snacks when we started, so I never got her name) knew the history of every building we would see. I’m sorry I couldn’t tape her presentation, or even better, make a video. But all is not lost; if you want to see a really good photo of what we experienced, I urge you to click on the link here.
There are rivers, and there are rivers. Some, like the Jordan, have historic or religious interest, but otherwise aren’t worth the time of day. Some, like parts of the Mississippi, are so vast that they become borders separating states or countries. Some, like the river we were on, are just the right size: wide and deep enough for boats to navigate but narrow enough to easily walk across (assuming, of course, that someone has taken the trouble to build a bridge). You’ll notice the adverb ‘easily.’ Let’s go back seventy years. You might have seen, on a pleasant Sunday morning, my father, mother, brother and me hiking on the walkway across the George Washington Bridge on our way to the park at the base of the Palisades. Again, you’ll notice the verb ‘hike.’ Not stroll, not I’m going to the Starbucks across the river; I’ll be back in a jif. When someone is wearing a knapsack, y ou k ow they mean business.
Because the river is right in the middle of things, it was only logical to erect the skyscrapers that became the city’s hallmark on its banks. And then others followed suit. Now there is, as our docent called it, Chicago’s version of the Grand Canyon: miles and miles of tall buildings, with many vying for the honor of being the classiest guy on the block.
As I think about it now, I’m reminded of a concept I came up with over twenty years ago: creating an environment of excellence. I remember trying to explain it to a group of people. One bright young thing – I outranked her by a good thirty years – replied, somewhat dismissively, you mean ‘leading by example, as if I hadn’t said anything worthwhile. Actually, no. The first lemming leads by example; the rest of them follow, by jumping off the cliff. We don’t want that. What I meant was creating a situation where all involved would feel obliged to give their best effort.
As our docent explained, many of the buildings lining the riverbanks have their own pedigrees, designed for some important outfit, often by an architect with serious credentials. Nobody was going to create a shanda by putting up something as ugly as the HolyLand project in Jerusalem. It just wouldn’t do.
We went down the river; the boat turned around and went up the river; it turned and headed towards Lake Michigan; it turned around and came back to where we had started. All the while, our docent regaled us with stories about the buildings, about how they changed the flow of the river, about the great fire of 1871 and the scapegoating of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow (Can you scapegoat a cow?). But in all due respect to our guide, the Grand Canyon of Chicago speaks for itself. Pretty impressive.