Flood of Memories
Reflections on infrastructure after Chicago’s Great Leak of 1992
April 9, 1993
Chicago is always a rich source of comedy, never more so than in 1992, when the Chicago River sprung a leak. I covered it and wrote it up and offered it to Janet Abrams, then running the Chicago Institute for Architecture and Urbanism out of the Charnley House. It was to have appeared (I think) in the debut number of her new magazine, Velo-Cité. Never happened, and by then the piece was old news. The anniversary of the flood offered me the chance to dry out the manuscript and mail it to The Reader, which ran the revised version you see here. An oddly good piece, or maybe just an odd good piece.
An embarrassed mayor in galoshes. Warped van Goghs at the Art Institute. Soybean kings smiling wanly at jokes about there being something fishy at the Board of Trade.
The Loop flood of April 13, 1992, was less disaster than farce. A global information system so comprehensive that LaSalle Street traders know when it's going to rain in Brazil even before the first drops hit the ground was short-circuited by a bunch of guys who pounded logs into the wrong piece of mud, an irony that made Chicagoans recall the wisdom they'd learned at their mothers' knees: Those whom the gods wish to destroy they make subject to City Hall inspectors.
Mike Royko lamented on the morning after that the city whose slogan used to be "Make no little plans" now rallied round the cry: "Fix no small leaks." (One downstate headline read: "City that works was out to lunch.") Instead of a cauldron of fire or storm, Chicago got a plumbing screwup whose legacy was not myth but mold. If the Great Fire scourged the city of pride and prepared it for its great future, what purpose was served by the flood? The reform of Streets and San?
At ten on the morning of the flood a clerk at Flax, the Randolph Street art supply store, volunteered to a customer that he'd just moved to Chicago. "Does this happen often?" the clerk asked. The answer: yes it does, only in less telegenic form, a little bit at a time—schools that are the worst in the nation, a lakefront disgraced by piles of rubble, factories closed down, housing stock in shambles. Chicago hasn't worked for 30 years—in fact, has never worked for anyone but businesspeople, a fact that made the TV shots of bankers slaving by flashlight like navvies in a mine shaft deeply satisfying to those alert to the irony.
Unflattering comparisons to their city-building forebears sting today's proud Chicagoans, and many of them may have secretly craved a chance to prove their mettle. As disasters go, unfortunately, the Great Chicago Flood wasn't nearly disastrous enough. No one died, and few people even got their feet wet; the injuries done to insurance companies suggested a wise God, not a wrathful one.
Instead of chaos, people who lingered in the Loop after the city's initial evacuation order got a glimpse of what a well-ordered Chicago might be like. There were no traffic jams or crowds, but there were lots of cheerful cops on the sidewalks and public toilets on every corner—hundreds of Porta Pottis, rushed in by contractors apparently confused as to what kind of flood threatened the Loop.
At least the flood established Chicago's position in the roster of municipal buffoonery. City Hall news weavers spun the mishap's various threads into another "crumbling infrastructure" story, but that didn't fool even the Tribune, which recognized the disaster as a management screwup. The leaking tunnel section "collapsed" (to use the preferred term) in the same way that the main telephone exchange in Baghdad collapsed on the first night of the Gulf War. Consultant Inge Frylund, who had been hired by the city to straighten out its parking-ticket system, later noted as an example of the way the city works that no single agency keeps track of everything in the labyrinth below Loop streets. Maps and charts showing the location of sewer pipes are kept by the sewer guys, electrical conduits by Com Ed, and so on, all in separate offices. A contractor is thus obliged to consult with as many as half a dozen different offices before digging, and even then has no guarantee that the information thus obtained is up to date. The most amazing fact about the flood is that it didn't happen sooner.
The city of big shoulders was revealed once again to be a city of thick heads. The trapped water hadn't even begun to stink before a cry went up for the bureaucrats' scalps. John LaPlante, a career public-works bureaucrat, was the first person at City Hall fired. An enlightened city would have run him out of town years ago for his role in the State Street mall and Lake Shore Drive S-curve projects, but his only offense in the flood affair was to get caught thinking just like everybody else. Confronted with evidence of an ongoing leak, LaPlante reasoned that since nothing had happened in the seven months since it was first discovered, nothing would. That kind of complacency has been general around City Hall, where it was assumed that since the tunnels were sound after 100 years they would be sound for another 100.
In the days after the break the noise of heavy machinery—including the clanking of the City Hall legal department—made it difficult to ask whether finding who was to blame for the calamity was the same as finding who was responsible. A system that allows private firms to literally dig out the foundations of a city for profit is a system that divorces ownership from responsibility, price from cost, and indeed the past from the future.
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The media are the storytellers of our urban tribes, and reporters immediately recalled nostalgically men such as Daniel Hudson Burnham, who made no little plans, and Daley I, who presided over the City That Works. During a live report from City Hall that first day, WMAQ AM reporter Bill Cameron toted up the recent mishaps, from blackouts on the west side to natural gas explosions in River West. "Here again," he said, sounding disgusted, "you have Chicago not working during Daley's watch."
What had begun as a sordid tale of construction mismanagement quickly became an infrastructure story, of course, as the floodwater imperiled Loop foundations, electricity distribution systems, subway tunnels, and rail systems. As speculation buzzed about whether or when the water-weakened walls of the whole tunnel system would collapse and take essential electrical and communications lines down with them, it became apparent that the real bravado had been shown not by the divers who let themselves be dropped, blind, into the swirling waters, but by the executives who chose to run fiber optic cables through century-old tunnels.
The urge to magnify the event was irresistible. Watching water dripping from the end of a fire hose into a sewer is not exciting to Chicago viewers, who have been watching the city go down the drain for years. So TV and radio reporters valiantly rushed to hype the drama for their audiences' sake. On Day Two, a WMAQ evening anchor marveled at the news that "250 billion gallons" of water had escaped into the Loop. That prompted her partner to muse about how many Sears Towers it would take to hold that much water. Less than one, as it turned out—the actual figure, already widely reported by print media, was 250 million gallons.
Despite the apocalyptic talk from broadcast booths, the story petered out after about four days, about par for public attention spans on crises. After that, fascination turned to anger—not at Daley but at reporters, because by then viewers and readers were bored. The mayor would have been well advised to do a little something to freshen the crisis. Or manufacture a new one. A C note here or there to a Com Ed engineer—to blow up a transformer perhaps; you know, lots of sparks, no real danger, just something that will look exciting on video. It worked for Reagan in Grenada.
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The real music of Chicago's ongoing opera is not the rat-a-tat-tat of the gangster's machine gun but the steady clonk, clonk of pile drivers. The tourists may gawk at the skyscrapers, but the sights really worth seeing in Chicago are its stepped-stone revetments, its harbors, its water-supply cribs, its bridges, its backward-flowing river.
Relics of a vanished age, alas. Subsequent generations of Chicagoans have come to regard these seawalls and breakwaters and bridges not as working systems but as monuments, inevitable and eternal, placed there by a race of giants past remembering, a resource to be mined rather than a system to be maintained. In rather the way that peasants built huts and stables out of ruined Roman aqueducts, our mayors and governors have built firemen's pay raises and janitors' pensions out of water mains and railroad trestles.
A generation of city builders who beavered away through the 1920s left Chicago in the predicament of the cash-poor inheritors of an estate they can't afford to maintain. One example, just to jog your memory: the "pads" on which the older sections of el tracks stand have gone soft, and fixing them and other problems on the neglected 90-year-old sections will cost an estimated $22 million per mile. Such needs are general: the Regional Transportation Authority talks in terms of billions—six at last count—to bring existing Metra, CTA, and Pace facilities up to standard.
The city manages to keep paying the butler by putting off the tuck-pointing. And in a system that makes catastrophe a condition for investment, city life becomes more or less a chronic emergency.
So principled are Americans about not giving elected officials money that they would rather spend more in car repairs than it would cost them in taxes to fix the streets. The day-to-day costs are invisible, and thus not politically relevant; but such neglect exacts a woeful cost in productivity. It also exacts a more visible toll on public amenity. For decades, not a penny was budgeted for the maintenance of Chicago's once-magnificent shoreline—a social as well as an engineering achievement, since the stepped-stone revetments provide access and a pleasing form as well as wave protection. Minimal repairs to collapsed revetments are part of a $180 million fix-up project the city can't pay for; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can afford the repairs but prefers revetments of stone rubble, which unfortunately are as good at keeping the public from frolicking on the shore as they are at keeping away the waves.
Replace a WPA wrought-iron bridge railing with a standard-issue federally approved precast concrete barrier, and cost-effectiveness is achieved at the price of grace, ingenuity, style, and continuity. The risk to the public is not so much the city's physical collapse as its psychic collapse, as it gets more ugly and less useful all the time. Here's the real infrastructure crisis: it's the new stuff that's decrepit.
The city moved from horse-drawn barges to fiber optics in not much more than a century. Obsolescence necessarily keeps pace with progress, and the pace of progress in Chicago, beginning about a century ago, rendered the systems for pulling streetcars and holding up skyscrapers outmoded as fast as the builders could brag about them.
This has proved a pernicious inheritance, however. A still-young city like Chicago finds it easy to confuse what works with what's new, because everything it's ever known to work was new. We still measure the success of our cities by their newness, and the success of our city builders by their ability to provide the new. The proposed downtown light-rail circulator is the current equivalent of the old tunnel system: an extraordinary high-tech venture meant to obviate congestion caused by low-tech failures to manage street traffic. The proposed third airport is even more apt; it should open just prior to the time—say, 20 or 25 years hence—that the inevitable new national high-speed train web makes it redundant.
Obsolescence in the United States is economic or social as often as it is technological. Here, to build well is to build wastefully, since what is built too well—a bridge, a building—will usually outlast its purpose. (There are exceptions. The sewer system is likely to stay useful for a while, since none of its components—pipes, gravity, rain, and human physiology—are vulnerable to human improvement. And some systems, like the el, have acquired a political utility to replace their vanished economic utility.)
Chicago got used to trading in almost-new things for new things. And the expectation of obsolescence in a city's physical systems helps create it; maintenance is skipped on the assumption that systems will be outmoded before they need to be replaced.
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The fiasco last April at least acquainted Chicagoans with the remarkable artifact beneath their downtown streets. Twenty years ago historian Carl Condit guessed that the freight tunnel system would then have cost $300 million to build, meaning that anyone today who wanted to build a system to sabotage the Loop would have to spend something like $915 million.
Apparently the tunnel system never made any real money: not long after it was completed it was made obsolete by Chicago's improved traffic management above-ground. In that the tunnels are emblematic of half a dozen similarly massive projects proving that Chicago's men of capital recognized the main chance only as it passed them by. The first shipping canal was finished the year the railroads came to town. The rail tunnels under the river at LaSalle and at Washington promised to make streetcar travel speedier at about the time that folks started to prefer buses. Union Station was built to provide a consolidated rail center just when people started traveling by car and plane. And the Sears Tower is a monument to massive corporate bureaucracies of the sort that downsizing and the computer quickly rendered unnecessary.
American cities are now merely elaborate camps for the high-tech hunting and gathering that constitutes the economic work of the nation. Whole generations of taxpayers, moving with each wave of corporate relocation like surfers riding a swell, have never had to pay for a local bridge repair in their lives. They bring little of the attachment, the sense of custodianship, with which so many Europeans regard their ancient cities; moreover most of the "victims" of the Loop flood don't live in Chicago and actively dislike the place.
Designer and critic Victor Papanek argued that when things become obsolescent before they can be paid off, a new system of design or a new system of financing is called for. Today people lease major appliances, cars, even furniture. In France they lease water systems; unfortunately, in the United States we can't yet lease our cities.
Where ancient cities build atop their ruins, we often build around them. Chicago's archaeology is horizontal, arrayed along a profile that's about ten feet high in one dimension and runs from the lakefront to the Fox River in another. The city is littered with rubble that hasn't gotten old enough to fall down—relict rail yards and loading docks, factories and storage tanks.
But like the barbarians who quarried ruined Roman aqueducts to make huts, we can sometimes salvage the past. The Illinois and Michigan Canal is being transformed into a linear park, and the rail yards that ring the Loop, once valuable because trains used them, now are valuable because they don't. There are those who yearn for the day when our aging expressways will be rendered useless by the proliferation of the private automobile and can be paved with solar collectors.
And the Loop tunnels? In the days before inefficient electric cooling systems were perfected, the tunnels were tapped for cool air by Loop movie houses. Some visionary reportedly once proposed the tunnels' conversion into mushroom ranches, and Jacob Dumelle, the longtime chairman of the Illinois Pollution Control Board, in the 1970s suggested fitting the system with giant fans to ventilate the Loop during summer ozone crises. But using the tunnels to carry communications lines is like using rivers to carry sewage: it's clever without being especially smart.
If Daley thinks he can turn a landfill into an airport, why can't he turn the tunnels into a tourist attraction? For weeks after that damp day in April, cabbies were swamped (sorry) by requests from out-of-town passengers to "see the hole." If people will tour the Paris sewers, in a town that offers Notre Dame and the Louvre, think of how they'd flock to see tunnels where the alternatives are the Sears Tower and Ed Debevic's. The turnstiles would be kept spinning by visiting Venetians alone, lonesome for a whiff of home. ●