Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Chicago River

Reflected glory 

The Windy City will, at last, clean up its filthy river 

Nov 26th 2011 | BUBBLY CREEK, CHICAGO | from the print edition

THE old-timers down by Bubbly Creek were hoping to land catfish for dinner. On a sunny afternoon they were fishing on a southern fork of the Chicago River made famous by Upton Sinclair in his social-realist novel of 1906, “The Jungle”. Sinclair described how offal and waste from the meatpacking industry had created a river so vile that putrid gas bubbled up from the bottom and made the river literally combustible. Today, the river hardly ever bubbles but the pollution remains so serious that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered the state of Illinois to clean it up. Earlier this month, the EPA and the state finally agreed over how clean the river should be. [More...]

River walk

It is lovely downtown by the Chicago river, even as winter starts to draw in. The skyscrapers and the water provide one of the world's most impressive urban settings. You can descend down from the busy street level in a few steps and arrive at the peaceful river. From there you can leave all the hustle behind and stroll through town and out to the (now) blustery lake. The river itself, like so many other things in this town, is a dirty mess but one that is finally being cleaned up. The future of the city, as well as the river, may be less murky now that local water officials say they will disinfect the sewage that goes into it.

One of the people I interviewed for a recent piece on the river, Debra Shore, a commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, said that her agency is looking at a host of other water quality standards being proposed by the state environmental protection agency. In the future, it isn't just the sewage that will be cleaned up but the river could see improvements in the amount of dissolved oxygen (which would help aquatic life), and the amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen which would reduce the growth of algae.

All these water quality issues are important not only for the current and future users of the river, but for everyone downstream. At the moment, all the junk that Chicago throws into its river ends up in the Gulf of Mexico and contributes to creating one of the world's largest dead zones. A depressing invention of modernity, a vast area of the ocean where so much crapola has been dumped into the ocean that little or nothing can survive there. The Louisiana fishing industry, the second largest in the nation according to this piece, is being damaged by an excess of nutrients being flushed into the ocean.

I also spoke to David Spielfogel, who is the head of policy and planning in the City of Chicago for the Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He put the problem of the Chicago River into perspective. The lake, he said, was a spectacular front yard where people flee at the weekends and bikers use to get downtown. The river could offer just the same thing but going through the heart of the city. And let us not forget that some of the city's most expensive real estate is by the lake. Experience from other major cities around the world tells us that city riverfront properties ought to be glamorous, desirable and expensive--not so cheap that you put your warehouses and industry there.

Margaret Frisbie, Executive Director of the Friends of the Chicago River, told me about the history of the river. How her group formed after a piece had been published about the friendless Chicago River and how in the early days they pushed for access to the water and a continuous river trail with guerrilla canoeing, and by taking people out and showing them the marvel on their doorstep.

It is all starting to pay off now that water quality is on the agenda. Margaret also told me that in the last five years the conversation about the Chicago River has changed. "People know what you are talking about when you talk about the river, its not about sewage and shipping, its about people, wildlife, boating, property values and for the first time regular people who are not involved in environmental activism or live near it see the value in a whole new way".

Groups like the Friends of the Chicago River, and the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, can look at the river and reflect on a quiet victory for common sense. You can also read the NRDC's report on the river here

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Losing things...


Lost and not found 
Nov 19th 2011, 19:51 by N.L. | CHICAGO, from the travel blog Gulliver.

AS A frequent business traveller I’ve come to accept that the loss of personal items is something that comes with the job. On the way out of a hotel room I go through the mental checklist that we all use. Laptop… check…phone… check…wallet… check, and so on. But after the important things are accounted for, we then have to hope that our frisk of the room has been enough. And it frequently hasn’t. The sad truth is that, once you have shut that door, your chances of retrieving anything left behind are pretty low. [More...]

Friday, November 18, 2011

Circular infrastructure

What goes around 

Learning to yield 

Nov 19th 2011 | CARMEL, INDIANA | from the print edition

“I MEAN, it’s round, how difficult can it be?” asks the front-desk attendant at the Renaissance Hotel in Carmel, exasperated, when asked whether visitors struggle to navigate the town’s many roundabouts. Carmel, just north of Indianapolis, has 70 of them—more than any other city in America. But while locals love them for their speed and efficiency, visitors are apprehensive. One recent out-of-towner was so terrified by the strange formations that he preferred to travel by taxi. The mayor, Jim Brainard, built the first roundabout in Carmel in 1997 after seeing them in Britain. Instead of a four-way intersection with traffic lights, a circular bit of road appeared. It was so successful that today Carmel is the roundabout capital of America, and the mayor plans to rip out all but one of his remaining 30 traffic lights. [More...]

Friday, November 11, 2011

A black eye in the Buckeye

Ohio’s referendum 
A black eye in the Buckeye 

The unions flex their muscles in Ohio 
Nov 12th 2011 | COLUMBUS, OHIO | from the print edition

IN TOUGH economic times it might well seem reasonable to suggest that public-sector workers need to contribute a bit more, or to admit that their unions have extracted some unreasonably generous benefits. Even Democrats such as Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, and Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, have said public-sector workers need to tighten their belts. Yet in Ohio the public-sector reforms of the Republican governor, John Kasich, were roundly rejected in a ballot on November 8th. [More...]


In Ohio this week, the public gave the governor John Kasich a electoral thumping as they comprehensively rejected his attempts to outlaw strikes among public-sector workers and greatly limit the extent of collective bargaining.

His biggest mistake was probably including the police and the firefighters in his plans. They are well-respected members of Ohio society and have powerful, well-organised unions. But even so, the scale of his defeat suggests that even had these two groups been excluded (as Scott Walker did in Wisconsin), he would have very likely been in trouble. In America they call this sort of politics "overreach". Where I come from it is called "biting off more than you can chew".

There is no particular love of unions in Ohio. One old woman, with a shotgun propped up nearby, told a canvasser "get off my porch you union crony". Moderates said things like, "I'm not a union person but..." and basically explained in one way or another that they didn't think the new law was fair.

There was a real show of union strength, with people coming in from all over the country to organise and campaign and someone even told the crowd the morning before the results came in that they were going to stuff Kasich's law down his throat. I was told that there was an incredible "energy" among the unions that had not been seen in a long time. This energy is now heading for Wisconsin in an attempt to unseat the governor there, who has enacted similar legislation. Beyond that, they will be working on the 2012 election.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On buying food

Just deserts

Poor access to fresh food is a solvable health problem

Oct 29th 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

THE corner shop on South Honore and West 59th in Englewood is an uninviting sort of place. Those windows that are not bricked up are covered in heavy security grilles; the shopkeeper hides behind a Plexiglas wall. Most of what is on offer is either packaged or carbonated, and is always processed. [More...]