Chicago’s Lakefront: A Rags to Riches Story, NTC+

What do Grant Park, Millennium Park, Navy Pier, Jackson Park, South Shore Cultural Center, and Steelworkers Park all have in common? They all are located on Chicago’s lakefront. Chicago’s 27 miles of lakefront have undergone significant physical, social, and cultural transformations since the time of European exploration. This NTC seminar will examine these transformations.

When the French explorers Fr. Jacque Marquette and Louis Joliet paddled through what is now Chicago in the 1680s, the lakefront was a series of windswept barren dunes reeking of wild onion and garlic, transected by the lumbering Chicago River on its way to joining Lake Michigan. The lakefront seen by Marquette and Joliet has been completely transformed by human agency. Indeed, in 1836, only three years after Chicago was founded, Chicagoans set aside the first narrow shoreline as public ground and declared it “forever open, clear, and free...” Known then as “Lake Park”, this strip eventually expanded eastward into Lake Michigan due to periods of lake filling as well as debris from the Great Fire of 1871. Lake Park eventually became “Grant Park”, the cultural and emotional front porch of the city of Chicago that beckons people from all over America and the world. Later transformations of the lakefront occurred with construction of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park, the Lakefront Trail, marinas and boat basins, the South Shore Country Club (now called the South Shore Cultural Center), McCormick Place convention center, U.S. Steel Company’s “Southworks” site, Grant Park Municipal Stadium (now known as “Soldier Field”), Navy Pier (Chicago’s #1 tourist trap), and Millennium Park.

Chicago’s beaches are the product of structures designed to trap sand moving south along the 300-mile length of Lake Michigan. The shoreline is now protected from wave erosion by gleaming concrete revetments that have enhanced the Lakefront Trail and improved pedestrian access. Future transformations include construction of the Obama Presidential Center. Indeed, the Chicago lakefront and adjacent landscape showcases the transformative legacy of intentional human invention.

The Chicago lakefront has had a tumultuous history full of triumph and tragedy. On Sunday July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams, a young African American boy, was murdered at the 26th Street beach by white agitators. This led to a prolonged race riot that left two African American’s dead and fifty whites and blacks seriously injured. Later systemic racism produced profound differences in access to the lakefront. Grant Park also served as the staging ground for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession through the city, civil rights protests and the 1968 Democratic National Convention demonstrations, the open-air mass of Pope John Paul II, a visit by a young Queen Elizabeth II, and the site of festivals such as Lollapalooza and celebrations for the Chicago Bulls, Blackhawks, and president-elect Barack Obama.