The water lapped a few feet away. It felt strange.
It was the same river I had walked over and around a thousand times. The same river snaking underfoot, the one that acts as a marker for the beggars who work the bridges and that once claimed a cellphone that fell out of my jacket pocket.
But here it was, two feet away, glinting reflections in the dark of the neon and fluorescent from the nearby office buildings, the soundtrack the lapping of water and the laughing of people drinking Belgian beer at the tables behind.
Mayor Emanuel’s Chicago Riverwalk project is one of the city’s new initiatives that put me in a horrible position. Like the protected bike paths I use every day, I can see its role in the bigger picture, but I sort of love the thing for what it is alone.
Alone, it’s a beautiful walk along the water’s edge. A series of bars, restaurants, boat docks, canoe rental spots and other amenities turning a long-ignored minus into a positive.
There was nothing, now there’s something. These are businesses providing jobs where there were no jobs. Downtown workers and tourists flood the Riverwalk during lunches, weekends and after work — I’ve seen them. People walk and ride bikes there. Live bands bring music, art, culture to what was nothing more than the line where concrete met water.
It created something economically, environmentally and even spiritually fulfilling. Little bits of light glinting amid downtown’s dedication to glowering condo blocks and thousand-foot steel alcázars for the overclass.
Or is the Riverwalk part of the darkness?
On the macro end, the walk serves as bread and circuses distracting from financial mismanagement, a disturbing dependence on high-interest loans and a police department whose black sites, statistical manipulation and intimidation/removal of dissenters falls well within my definition of evil.
Am I playing the game by finding beauty beautiful? Is this a distraction?
Or worse, is this the intent?
A few families and joggers ambled by. A man who had been tinkering with a white canoe for the last 15 minutes finally set it down in the water, giving it a few tentative pokes with the paddle before clambering in and slooping off into the nighttime water.
Tour boats and a couple booze cruise charters streamed past. I’ve seen downtowns that empty once the workers leave — St. Louis springs to mind.
No one wants to leave this.
Is a pretty place along the river for Belgian beer, joggers and a nighttime canoeist the final goal? Have all those terrible things been committed to create a beautiful place whose charms correlate perfectly with the tastes of a white, physically active male who likes imported craft brews?
I sipped my beer and stared at the reflections of neon and fluorescent in the water. I passed the time by trying to decide how much was light and how much is darkness.