Two cities, and two bubbly creeks
Legacy of past environmental crimes
Baltimore often looks to Chicago for inspiration on how to become a cleaner and greener city.
Like Baltimore, Chicago was a largely industrial city at the turn of the last century. Chicago had meat-packing, while Baltimore had shipyards, a steel maker and a host of chemical companies. Chicago had its namesake river, fetid and polluted from the stockyards’ cast-offs - carcasses, entrails and other parts of the cow that you don’t want to read about over breakfast.
Chicago, though, has turned its waterfront into a large and lovely public space. Residents love biking around Lake Michigan, or strolling through Grant Park and over the city’s many river bridges. One summer visit, I spotted a pick-up game of beach volleyball and was briefly transported in my mind to Miami. Where Baltimore has paved-over waterways, Chicago has let its rivers flow, and the city has benefitted from their beauty. And where Baltimore has siphoned off much of its harbor front as a playground for those who can afford it (I’m looking at you, HarborView and PierSide), Chicago’s approach seems more egalitarian. If you can afford a CTA ticket, you can get down to the lake and enjoy it - even if Chicago is still a city with stark income disparities and a legacy of segregation (again, not unlike Baltimore).
But Chicago has problems lurking under the surface that sound worse than Baltimore’s. For one, it was built with a combined sewage system. When it rains, stormwater combines with sewage, and the whole mess gets treated and discharged into the Chicago River.
The Chicago River actually flows in reverse, a decision made to keep waste out of the drinking water system. But with more extreme storms, the gates and locks are opened, the river resumes its original course, and the pollution flows into the crystallinewaters of Lake Michigan. It has been described as a tsunami of waste. Stormwater tunnels built to alleviate the problem can’t contain it.
And then there is Bubbly Creek, a one-time wetland that the meat-packing industry used as its dumping ground. In the decades before the Clean Water Act, the stockyards dumped in all manner of putrid waste. When the entrails and offal decomposed, the creek began to bubble from the methane and hydrogen sulfide gas. A black tar rose to the surface and occasionally people would walk on it and disappear into the creek, only to surface later - safe, but stinky. A friend who smelled a sample from the bottom told me it remains the most disgusting odor he’d ever smelled. And he grew up on a farm and writes about pollution for a living.
I was talking to Adam Lindquist, manager of the Healthy Harbor Initiative for the Baltimore Waterfront Partnership, about Baltimore’s cleanup progress. He began talking about Chicago as a model for how we could become a town that uses the waterfront. On the one hand, Lundquist said, you don’t want to send people out into a waterway that’s polluted; on the other, if you wait for it to be cleaned to enjoy it, you never build the constituency for clean water. Chicago residents didn’t wait, but it should be noted that no one is swimming in Bubbly Creek - even if they are willing to pay big bucks for condos along its banks.
Chicagoans do not lack a sense of humor about their foul-smelling history. At a South Side bar, you can order a Bubbly Creek - made with Old Granddad and a blood orange bitters rinse. Might as well make the best of it, kind of like how Bostonians sing “love that dirty water” when the Red Sox score a home run.
I mentioned to Lindquist that we are ahead of Chicago in one way - we don’t have a creek that bubbles.
To the contrary, he said. The Jones Falls also bubbles.
In hot weather, Lindquist said, he has seen it himself. Bacteria slowly break down waste, and the bubbles come to the surface. Just like in Bubbly Creek, black masses rise to the surface. It is the sediment, rising up, reminding us that you don’t have to live with a legacy of stockyards to have a fetid mess.
And though Baltimore doesn’t have to contend with the combined sewage problems gripping Chicago, the city on the Patapsco has plenty of its own waste problems. Old pipes need to be replaced. And while Washington and Chicago have a chance to treat their stormwater, Baltimore does not.
“We’re never going to send our stormwater to a treatment plant,” Lindquist said. “It is always going to go straight from the streets.”
As for how that’s working out for Baltimore, we’ll find out next week. Lindquist’s organization will be releasing the Healthy Harbor report, which grades the harbor and its streams.
Here’s hoping we’re heading towards not just a swimmable and fishable future, but one that also includes beach volleyball.