Brick By Brick
Lake Michigan mugs the well-off, who complain
March 19, 1987
A discussion of sorts about the best ways to protect condos along Chicago’s lake shore from flooding, which morphed—as such discussions usually do—into am inquiry into social class and politics.
My colleague Bob Reid put the question which has been on a million lips in Chicago these last few months. If it rains and my basement floods, he asked officials of the state's Department of Energy and Natural Resources appearing on WILL'S "Illinois Press," I have to pay to pump it dry. Why shouldn't they?
For those readers who missed "Illinois Press" that week—and nearly everybody does—I will explain. "They" are the owners of condominiums and other lakeside property along the Illinois shore which is threatened by historically unprecedented high water levels in Lake Michigan. Frightened owners have already tapped the public till for several million dollars' worth of wave protection work, some of it paid for out of Build Illinois money. A February storm did $7 million damage alone, mainly to lakefront parks; this time Chicago will really be looking to Springfield for a bailout. Most of the money will have to come from Washington, but even matching-funds shares for projects that may cost upwards of a billion dollars will be more than Chicago can afford.
In fact, City Hall may float before another flood protection bond issue would. Last fall Charlie Collinson, a geologist with DENR's Geological Survey who's studied the lake rise, noted that it will be possible to go boating on some north side streets if a really nasty storm hits. The immediate cause is too much rain, attendant upon a shift to a cooler regime in the climate cycle. The complicating cause is that they built Chicago in the wrong place. Built in a swamp, the city was a low place for centuries before the likes of Al Capone gave it a reputation for it. In the 1850s the city ordered sidewalks raised in what was perhaps Chicago's first civic uplift campaign. The work pushed the city up out of the mud by three, four, even five feet in places, but for years sidewalks, storefronts, and streets stood at crazily different elevations—not the last time that things were not entirely on the level in Chicago.
The lake has been high before, of course, as recently as the mid-1970s. Many people who live or work near the lake regard it as they might a beloved but inconsiderate relative in town for a visit: Occasionally infuriating, it always goes away eventually. Hydrologists had come to accept that the lake, like hemlines and stock market prices, moved up and down in cycles whose causes were mysterious but whose recurrence was nonetheless dependable. However, in the fall of 1986 the lake did not undergo its usual seasonal decline but edged even higher.
Most Chicagoans will stand graver risks of dying from apoplexy during rush hours than they do from drowning. This is not true of properties. Residents of posh condo towers on the far north side bought there so they could see the lake from their living rooms, not in them. Waves overtopping seawalls are flooding basements, which in some cases house electrical transformers; spray from surf on windy days reaches seven stories high. The water is battering building foundations as well; left untended, the result could be some of the most expensive riprap ever.
Not surprisingly, most of the agitation for official action in the face of rising lake water comes from this neighborhood, more specifically from an association of condo and coop owners whose president and organizing force is Sheli Lulkin. Lulkin (who lives in one of the threatened buildings) took up the lake level cause after an especially nasty storm in July of 1985, in much the same civic spirit with which nonswimmers lead lifeboat drills during ocean cruises. Now when aldermen and congressmen talk about storms along the lakefront they often mean Lulkin and her neighbors. "Our association represents 7,500 registered voters," she points out. "That's clout!"
It is typical of modern Illinoisans to see natural disasters as essentially political problems, a matter of garnering the votes needed to get the money needed to solve the problem—in this case by dikes or landfill. The real problem is not that the lake is too high but that the condos are too close. And while the politicians are persuaded to stand with the condo owners and shake their fists at the lake, the rest of the city is rooting for the waves. The debate over the proper public extent of public responsibility to protect private property imperiled by the lake is slowly turning into a discussion of the moral probity of the well-to-do.
The condo crowd are hard people to like. I was at a conference at which a Chicago parks partisan bemoaned the loss of lakefront to private operations like yacht clubs; a woman in front of me—whose name tag identified her as a lakefront resident—turned to her companion and in a stage whisper asked in that whine in which pampered Midwestern women address an indifferent world, "What's wrong with yacht clubs?"
Construction of the buildings (most of which date from the 1960s) cheated their inland neighbors of their views of the lake and restricted access to the public beaches which until very recently beckoned on their lake-wind side. Proximity inevitably encouraged a proprietary attitude among some condo residents. "They talk about the Ardmore-Hollywood beach as 'our beach,' " complained one critic to me. "They've enjoyed the lake in private, let them suffer in private." Lulkin responds; "These buildings did not displace public land," she says, pointing out that they occupy more (less gracefully, it must be conceded) sites formerly occupied by mansions. "In fact, putting up the condos was a form of proletarianization of the lakefront."
Lulkin's version of the common people's triumph on the far north side is not likely to sway the rest of Chicago, many of whom worry less about putting heat on their congressman than getting some from their landlords. The geologists point out that the lakeshore actually belongs to the lake; the lawyers insist that it belongs to deed holders. Which is correct depends utterly on which view of the world you think is the wiser. The farmers who plant on the drained-and-diked floodplain of the Illinois believe the lawyers to be correct, at least three years out of five on average; so do the developers who build subdivision on clay subsoils and then petition for a city sewer line because their septic tanks don't work. Considered on a nature's time scale these are the works of the least practical of people. But when land becomes property the future becomes tomorrow and forever becomes thirty years, or whenever one's bank note expires.
The condos will be saved not just because the people who own them can afford good lawyers (hell, the people who own them are good lawyers) but because the law itself holds human nature preeminent over the other kind. (The protection will no doubt be accomplished by a political quid pro quo—most likely a landfill for the condo owners in exchange for extending Lake Shore Drive for everybody else—which will compound the mistakes by putting that much more vulnerable property next to the lake.
Jerry Sullivan, columnist for the weekly The Reader, made a suggestion a few months ago which, being sensible, has not been taken up by any of the commissions and agencies studying the problem of lake flooding. Sullivan suggested that it might be cheaper for the government—he did not mention which one, and there have been no volunteers—to simply buy up the condos and clear the land, rather the way the feds bought out the town of Times Beach, Missouri, when it was judged too dangerous for people to live there.
I would propose a variation on that theme. Chicago has made a shrine of its old water tower, one of the few buildings left unscathed by the great fire of 1871. It commemorates the city's triumph over disaster, and thus is misleading in its lessons and arrogant in its assumptions. Better to have left a burned-out hulk standing, like the Japanese and Germans, to commemorate the costs of folly—a more salutary lesson. Lacking that, leave the lakefront condos instead, vacant but otherwise untouched, to be slowly battered into ruin, brick by brick by brick. □