An Autumn Calumet Cruise - Metropolitan Planning Council

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An Autumn Calumet Cruise

Under clear skies and brisk lakefront wind, Great Rivers Chicago partners boarded a Wendella boat and trekked down the Calumet River. 

Clayton Harris, Executive Director of the Illinois International Port District, addresses tour boat

On September 29, 2017, under clear skies and brisk lakefront wind, Great Rivers Chicago partners boarded a Wendella boat and trekked down the Calumet River and through the Illinois International Port District, one of the busiest ports on the Great Lakes, as part of the Great River Chicago’s Port District and Calumet River boat tour. Not only did representatives from the 10th Ward Aldermanic office, Chicago Park District, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Claretian Associates, the Port District, the US Army Corps of Engineers and MPC learn about the Port’s past, they discussed its future. 

When MPC released its Great Rivers Vision last year, staff detailed a plan to make Chicago’s rivers more productive, inviting and living. What follows are ideas on each point, gleaned from the September 29 port tour: 

PRODUCTIVE

Boarding at Crowley’s Yacht Yard on East 95th Street, attendees started the tour down the heavily-industrialized Calumet River by learning about its history and future potential. As we floated past big-rigs and barges loaded with steel coils and lumber, the Port District’s Executive Director, Clayton Harris, III, explained how the Port is the greatest multimodal facility in North America, taking pride it its ability to serve sea, ground, and rail transportation networks. Later, guest speaker David Bucaro, from the US Army Corps of Engineers, explained the important work that the Army Corps does to maintain the infrastructure of the Calumet River, such as maintaining the Calumet Harbor section of the Port. As we made our way down the Calumet, we visited the O’Brien Lock on 130th street, which was designed by the Army Corps in 1957 and has helped facilitate movement of freight and even help manage storm water runoff in the area. A revitalized Port and healthy Calumet River are vital parts in making Chicago’s rivers productive! 

INVITING

The residents near the Calumet have no public access to its riverfront, and there has been increasing community interest to change this. Angela Hurlock, of Claretian Associates, a South Chicago-based organization committed to affordable housing for local residents, described local interest in transforming a small grassy area under the 92nd Street bascule bridge into a public park that promotes open access and community programming. Attendees saw enormous potential for growth in industry, but even more was recognized for increased public access to the Calumet. While the boat passed under the iconic Chicago Skyway, 10th Ward Aldermanic Chief-of-Staff, Ismael Cuevas, highlighted the great pride the 10th Ward has in the Calumet River, a vital asset for future inclusive economic development in the community.

LIVING

Increasing access to the Calumet River makes our rivers more inviting! Yet, there are environmental challenges that still need to be addressed.

Local residents and government entities alike demand more access to Lake Calumet, historically a hive of industrial activity. As we reached the midpoint of the tour upon arrival at Lake Calumet, we were quickly surrounded on all sides by barges and warehouses, when Suellen Burns, from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), discussed the potential ecological, economic, and recreational opportunities at Lake Calumet. Programs like the IDNR’s Coastal Management Program can provide the resources to conduct ecological studies and remediation to the area, such as programs to manage invasive species in the area, among many others.

Making our rivers living requires nurturing them back to robust ecological health. As Lauren Umek of the Chicago Parks District shared, increasing the area of natural acreage in our parks is an excellent way to do so. The Calumet region’s wealth of wetland ecological habitats is a huge future asset to the community and to mother Earth!

Challenges remain for the Great Rivers Vision in the Calumet River, but as seen on this boat tour, understanding these questions through discussion of possible solutions with enthused constituents and stakeholders provides a hopeful future for our rivers.

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