Rename Balbo Drive! Up with Ida! Down With Fascists!

 

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This woman stared unflinchingly at evil and made us all look with her.

 

Like most people in Chicago, I for years thought Balbo Drive, a short street on the south end of the Loop, running from Printers Row and intersecting with history at Grant Park, where hippies and cops clashed in the street in 68, and where, 40 years later, our first African-American President celebrated his election, was actually called Balboa Drive. That’s how I always pronounced it, and almost certainly spelled it. That is to say: I didn’t think about it at all.

Learning (or remembering) that it was actually called Balbo marked the end of my concern for the street, except for always consciously marking the lack of a Rocky-ifying “a” in the middle, in the same way I mentally make an “L” with my thumb when turning left or think about Alison Milnamow when spelling “their” (don’t ask). Even for someone as interested in Chicago history as I am, it seemed unimportant.

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Near historic Lou Malnati’s, apparently.

That changed in the last few years, when in the wake of the country finally realizing that honoring traitors and murderous racists was bad, people pointed out that the Balbo in question was, well, questionable.

During Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, an Italian airman led a roundtrip flight of 24 seaplanes in formation for an unprecedented flight of its kind from Rome, Italy to Chicago, Illinois for the fair. In honor of the achievement, the Chicago mayor at the time, Edward Kelly, renamed the nearby three block long 7th street after the lead airman, Italo Balbo. During his time in the USA he also invited to lunch by President D. Roosevelt and received a warm welcome from Americans, particularly Italian-Americans as a shining example of Italian aviation. In fact, for a time, ‘Balbo’ became a common term to refer to a large formation of aircraft.

That might have been the end of it if the Italian government Balbo was representing at the time weren’t that of brutal Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini even donated an ancient Roman column to the city that exists to this day as another monument to the controversial Balbo. Before his aviation fame, Balbo helped institute Mussolini’s Fascist rule as a Blackshirt leader, a gang of Fascist thugs that intimidated and assaulted non-Fascists that stood in their way. He spent the rest of his life devoted to both Mussolini and Fascism. Many considered Balbo to be Mussolini’s heir before he was killed in 1940 by friendly fire.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love that there was a name of a large group of airplanes, and it was the childishly-syllabically pleasing “balbo”. It’s a balbo of planes! That’s fun! Less fun is fascism.

 

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Brutal thuggish dictator Mussolini is the guy on the left

 

But now comes a movement to rename this street after someone who is genuinely heroic, and who towers over American history: Ida B. Wells.

Balbo Drive would be renamed for Ida B. Wells, an iconic figure in the African-American community who led an anti-lynching crusade, under an aldermanic plan that is certain to stir controversy.

South Side Ald. Sophia King (4th) and downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) plan to launch the effort at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

They will introduce an ordinance to rename Balbo Drive in honor of Wells. If colleagues go along with the idea, it would be Chicago’s first permanent street renaming since 1968 and the first street in the Loop named after a woman and a person of color, according to King’s staff.

Wells was born a slave and died in Chicago, and lived a life of tireless and fearsome advocacy. She was an impossibly brave journalist, traveling at great risk throughout the south to document lynching, calling attention to this terrorist scourge, not letting America pretend that it had moved forward one inch. She called just as much attention to a barely-more-genteel form of racism in the north, particularly this violent and segregated city. She was a pioneering advocate for women’s rights, especially at the intersection of race.

In short, she made America look at itself. She was never comfortable, never safe. And she never stopped.

Thankfully, she seems to be having a bit of a moment. A movement to put a monument of her up in Bronzeville seems to be gaining steam. You can (and should!) donate to it, though it is a shame the city won’t just pay for it. If anyone deserves to be honored, it is Wells.

Now, there are a few counter-arguments. Maybe the most compelling one is that the Loop already has a street called Wells, and although the two wouldn’t intersect, or even really run near each other, that could be an issue. That one is named after William Wells, who was killed in the Battle of Fort Dearborn, a seminal moment in Chicago history, though one that is a tad bit more complex than the heroism on which we were weaned.

Still, Wells is too long to be renamed, and that’s a losing battle. I don’t think it would be that big a deal, since people would say “go to Ida B and Michigan!” There’s only three blocks to choose from. GPS might be the only obstacle here (and it is a substantial one.)

The other argument comes from (or will probably come from) the Italian-American community, which was upset last year when people wanted to remove the Mussolini monument, and there was talk of renaming Balbo to Fermi Drive.

Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans… joined Lou Rago, president of the Italian American Human Relations Foundation, in writing a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times defending Balbo’s honor.

They argued that Italo Balbo had unfairly become “residual shrapnel from the barrage of bullets the rest of the country is firing over what to do with the approximate 1,500 Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces.”

They wondered why the memory of Balbo’s “remarkable accomplishments” was being “swept up into the national wave of removing the past.”

(Note: this is really cute wording. It’s the people opposed to Confederate monuments that are doing violence, and who are “removing the past.” That language isn’t exactly dissimilar to the actual Confederate symps. This is what we call a “tell”.)

“We want to be perfectly clear. Italo Balbo was an outspoken opponent of the Mussolini tilt towards Hitler and was not the enemy that many in the Chicago City Council are portraying he was,” they wrote.

“Despite being a general under Mussolini, when Balbo saw where Mussolini was going with his pro-German policies, he was horrified. He was one of the only fascists in Mussolini’s regime to openly oppose Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws and Italy’s alliance with Germany.”

That’s good! Those are definitely good things toward which to be opposed. He wasn’t a total monster. Things he wasn’t opposed to, though, include: the invasion and destruction of Ethiopia, war in Europe, the crushing of dissent, internal concentration camps, the spread of fascism, being a fascist.

 

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This is him and Benito after “conquering” Ethiopia. The only good person in history to wear a cape like that is Lando.

Now, it is interesting of course, because in America in the 30s, being a fascist wasn’t a disqualifier. It wasn’t a catch-all term for “my political opponent”. Throughout the world, there was a genuine debate if fascism was the ideal form of politics. It was a legitmate political philosophy.

This was true whether it was the personalized authoritarianism of Hitler and Mussolini, the sort of corporatist state envisioned by James Burnham, or a unique American quasi-fascist managed democracy promoted by the likes of Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and for a time even John Kenneth Galbraith.

But here’s the thing: they were wrong. They were wrong about how the powerful should run roughshod over the weak. They were wrong about how rights should be subsumed to monetary interest and the dim horizons of national glory. They were wrong about the relationship of people to state, individuals to capital, and blood and soil to ideals.

In other words, they were wrong about everything Ida B. Wells was right about. We’re still fighting those battles, as quasi-fascist strongman nationalist rule is taking hold again around the world, and America is staring at a particularly dumbshow type of authoritarianism. That’s all the more reason to change the name. We’re fighting for what we believe to be good.

This isn’t erasing the past. It’s celebrating what America should be. It’s celebrating the best of us. It’s honoring the true forgotten past, and honoring someone who never let us forget our dark present. It might be a small street, but it would be a huge step forward.

 

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Friday Good Reads and Quick Hits

It’s been a busy sort of week at the homefront, but we’ve got some exciting articles in the hopper for next week. In the meantime, to slake the omniscient society-hurdling thirst percolating in your word-hungry oppressed and power-lusting eyes (ed note: I’ve been taking writing lessons from Mr. Sean Penn!), here are some quick hits and good reads.

  • The White Sox, now projected to be among the teams with a 162-0 record, are also on pace to hit over 900 home runs this year, a new MLB high mark! In a year that’s between rebuilding and contending, that was a fun start. Matt Davidson has been the forgotten man, going from a top prospect to bust to a steady player. I don’t really expect him to hit three dingers every game (which I think is generous and understanding of me), but he has undeniable raw power, and could become a genuine steadying surprise. As it is, this is the weirdest and worst off day in baseball history.
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Giancarlo Davidson

  • Sticking with baseball for one more second, read David Roth’s little piece on Rickey Henderson the Involved Landlord. He’s exactly how you’d expect Rickey to be, sweeping the floors with his own nutball perfectionism, even explaining, in the traditional third person, that ‘Rickey needs Rickey’s houses to be clean!” It’s a bit of fluff, but a fun brief look at one of the 10 greatest, and probably 10 weirdest, baseballers of all time. And while you’re at it, take a look at Rickey’s stats. Did you know he led the league in stolen bases in 1998, 18 years after the first time he did? That’s nuts. Granted, 66 wasn’t super high for him, but it still would have led the league last year. Actually, it’s only been surpassed 5 times in the last two decades. That’s partly because we’ve gotten smarter about the risk/reward of a stolen base, but to reiterate my earlier point: that’s nuts.
  • All right, slightly more serious: read Peter Salisbury’s latest in-depth report on Yemen for Chatham House, this time on the Southern Question. I don’t think there is any question that the south is key to all of Yemen, and it is being largely ignored in the Saudi/Houthi/US/GCC/Qaeda-ISIS mix. But the Southern Question is really asking “what is Yemen“, and the answer doesn’t seem to be reflected in anyone’s policy. This piece is comprehensive and important, and you should read it all.
  • As a side note, Salisbury’s piece and a maybe-poorly-worded tweet by me spurred a bunch of private conversations, some angry but mostly civil, with southern Yemenis. I’m working on a long piece about the Southern Question that was born of those conversations, and obviously influenced by Salisbury’s great paper.
  • Alana Semuels has a harrowing piece on poverty and segregation in Chicago, making the what-should-be-obvious-point, often completely ignored in our politics and punditry, that “people at the bottom are struggling as much as they always have, if not more—illustrating that it’s not just the white rural poor who are being left behind in today’s economy.” Chicago is vibrant and wealthy and beautiful, filled with fit and educated people biking along luxurious lakefront trails and eating at incredible restaurants, and it is a scuffling dangerous and violent city, where life can be snuffed out in a flash of an instant, the police are another gang, and opportunity is denied by dint of education, by the misery of geography, and by the willful neglect of history. Something as simple as a rail line means the difference between getting a job and staying poor. These two cities rarely intersect.
  • This was illustrated to me at the March for Our Lives on Chicago’s near west side last week. The rally was held in Union Square, now at the far end of one of the hottest restuarant-and-condo districts in the city, which until recently was a meat-packing district. Beyond it a few blocks, the city becomes the “other city”. The rally was filled with the Good Sign Crowd, as boisterous as we were at the women’s marches. But the students, who live in the forgotten Chicago, weren’t interested in the NRA or in Trump or even, really, in Parkland. They reminded us, without pulling any punches, that they were afraid for their lives every day, and that a vast system, in which the petty bloodmanship of the NRA only played a part, kept them oppressed and poor. Those were the two cities colliding; then half of us walked back east, back toward downtown, back toward the gleaming skyscrapers and cool brunch places and open suburbs. The other went back to their lives.
  • London could face water scarcity in 2040! As Circle of Blue points out,  “demand for water could outstrip London’s supply by 2040″, by as much as 20%. Maybe when the rich areas of the world start to run out of water, as opposed to just the poor hot places, we might take it seriously. Ah, but 2040 is a long time away, right? There’s no need for…for…
  • Unrelatedly, 2040 from 2018 is equidistant as 2018 is from 1996.
  • But of course, things don’t just get bad the year of projections. It’s steadily worse. Like, when they say the seas will rise X meters by 2100, it’s not like we’ll go to bed dry and wake up deluged. Climate change is already happening, and happening quickly. That’s the point of this Inverse article about the record rate of arctic ice disappearance. The ice disappears because the planet is getting warmer, and disappearing ice means less solar reflection, which means more heat trapped on the planet. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle, which is why long-term projections might actually be optimistic.
  • Another stark reminder of that is Noah Sneider’s Letter from Siberia, in this month’s Harper’s. Titled “Cursed Fields”, it is about an anthrax outbreak that slaughtered reindeer in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, where reindeer are the primary economic driver for the Nenet people. While there are some who think the anthrax (or some other poison) was spread by Gazprom to drive away the locals in order to access the sweet sweet oil and gas of the peninsula, the probable truth is even more terrifying. Global warming is melting the permafrost (as seen in vast sinkholes and methane explosions, another self-reinforcing cycles), and unleashing microbes dormant from earlier outbreaks. And maybe even earlier diseases to which we aren’t immune. It’s a gripping piece, and a great look at a life in a vast and difficult land, an old way of life uprooted, for ill and for good, by oil and gas in the last century. Sneider also points out that Russia stands to benefit enormously from the treasures unlocked by a melting permafrost, which go hand-in-hand with the diseases pouring forth.
  • Happy Easter and Passover to everyone celebrating. Easter isn’t my favorite holiday, per se, but it might be my favorite one to celebrate. We go to my Aunt Marilyn’s house, as we have every year since I was born. She, and my Uncle Leo while he was alive, lived in the same house for that entire time, raised a family, had us over every year. It is in Wheeling, which is now a booming suburb, but when they moved there was past the outskirts of Chicagoland. Even when we were going there when I was growing up, there was farmland all around their little pocket of houses. It struck me as odd and exotic then, and I felt a powerful nostalgia for it that I couldn’t place, even while it was still there. Maybe it was just being there once a year, every spring, in dewy and never-quite-warm days, but I always felt an intense and unspeakable loss for the day even while I was there, even while I was a kid. And every year the farmlands got smaller, subdivisions were built, and now those subdivisions are old, showing their age, part of the landscape. The slow flattening of America caught up to it, homogenized. But I still see parts of the openness I remember, in carved out fields filled with power lines, in old drainage ponds that used to be for irrigation, in cul-de-sacs that seemed designed for Spielbergian heroes in that 80s borderland of sameness and weirdness, of suburbia and the still-wild rural areas in which monsters lurked. That’s gone now. It was fleeting even while it existed. But you know what they say: you can’t stop progress.

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  • But, on the plus side, I can always say “I remember when this was all farmland”, and feel good and properly old.

The Fish Are On Anti-Depressants: The Great Lakes, Harvey, and Our Weird Global Climate Experiment

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Storm’s coming…

 

A few years ago, I read this cool report out of Northwestern University about an old, hidden, forgotten cemetery near downtown Chicago, underneath some of the most expensive and tony property in the city. This boneyard was the final resting spot of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, before it was forgotten, paved over, and built upon. Skyscrapers and artisanal donut shops linger with a sneering assumption of permanence over a Potter’s Field.

It’s weird, the things our civilization leaves behind. The past, when it burbles up like poltergeists, give us this disconcerting shudder, a weird hollow dread mingled with our awe. I think that comes from twin recognitions: the first is the Ozymandias-like knowledge that we’re all going to be just dirt in the ground one day, and our buildings won’t last forever. The bodies in the ground remind us of that.

But they also remind us that we leave traces. We have an impact not just on our lives, but on the future. And as a species, we have an impact on an entire planet, in sometimes positive but mostly weird and disturbing ways. We’re changing the ecology of our home in a grand experiment to which no one really consented, but in which we’re all both participants and experimenters.

Harvey is a sign of this. Fish on anti-depressants is a far weirder, but no less profound one. In fact, it might be the most damning and on-the-nose verdict on our society I can think of. Let me explain.

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A Scattering of Summer Thoughts on the Orange-Moon Night of August 8th

This post has like, zero politics, and is just discursive and recursive and indulgent ramblings, so feel free to skip. 

 

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This wasn’t tonight, but that’s what it looked like!

 

You set out on an eastward walk as darkness begins to stretch a light blanket over the sky and crickets warm up their chittering symphony.  You’d say it is still light out when you leave the door, but by the time you’re a few blocks away from the lake, where the air takes on a subtle sweetwater perspiration, cars have their lights on and faces are indistinct until they pass you, barely preceded by snatches of conversation.

“If there was going to be a rule about where to stand, there should have been a sign.”

“We have enough space, but we don’t have enough room.”

You don’t know the signs or the rule, and you can’t help them with their space issues. The conversations are all couples right now, older than you, settled in, comfortable in the minutia of their observations. Relaxed and unhurried as they disappear into the strengthening night. But you’re unsettled.

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Some Good News About Asian Carp…For Now (Or: Why Trump’s Budget Ruins Everything)

In this 2012 photo, an Asian carp, jolted by an electric current from a research boat, jumps from the Illinois River near Havana, Ill., during a study on the fish’s population.

So, the Great Lakes actually got some good news this week, when it turned out that the canal leading up to Lake Michigan was free of Asian Carp. There had been a two-week monitoring of the area following the discovery of a carp in the Calumet River.

This is good news because if the Asian Carp get into the lake, they’ll be able to get into all the Great Lakes. They have no natural predators around here, and are expected to be able to out-compete local species for food and resources. They could potentially change the entire ecosystem of the lake, ruining commerical fishing (there isn’t much of a market for them right now), and having huge repercussions both environmentally and economically.

If you aren’t familiar, these are big suckers that jump out of the water when they hear a baot, and can do serious damage to boats and people. They fly around and can break your nose. They hurt when they hit you.

They were brought to America for fish farms, but then during a flood escaped into a river, and have worked their way up. Parts of the Illinois, for example, are completely choked with these monsters. Check this out.

It’s super unpleasant. Even if you don’t care about the ecological ramifications of them dominating the Great Lakes (and you should, what’s wrong with you?) just imagine the havoc it will wreak on boating, on the lakes and their tributaries. It’s a nightmare.

That’s why the US has spent a lot of money to keep them out of the Great Lakes, especially on the the Cal-Sag Channel, and the Calumet River. and the Sanitary and Ship Canal, where there is an electronic fence south of the city. And everyone agrees that’s a good thing. Who could be against it?

Oh, for the love of god

The alarming discovery of an 8-pound, 28-inch adult silver carp comes as President Donald Trump is proposing a federal budget that would gut funding for efforts to block Asian carp and other invasive species from the world’s largest body of fresh surface water.

The Trump administration also has refused to release a government study on new proposals to prevent carp from moving upstream from the Illinois River, where the fish already have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem.

Seriously, what the hell? How is it possible to be on the wrong side of everything? How is it possible to be on the wrong side of this? If you had asked me a year ago, I wouldn’t have even imagined there could be a wrong side. I didn’t think there was a pro-Asian-carp-in-the-Lakes contingency.  Especially not from someone so concerned about keeping America safe from foreigners!

But then, they manage to be on the wrong side of everything, especially when it comes to the Great Lakes. They are trying to gut the Great Lakes Research Initiative, even though it will hurt their white working class base the most.  They even manage to be against making sure ballast holds don’t bring any more invasive species, which is almost impressive. You think they spend their whole days on operatic evil like ending health care or suppressing the vote, but nope: they take time to block common-sense ballast measures.

There’s been some talk about closing the Sanitarity and Ship  Canal. As most of you know, these were built in order to use lake water to wash the filth of the city down the Des Plaines and Illinois toward the Mississippi, and on to St. Louis, which: haha, screw St. Louis. The great shipping and sanitation channels changed the flow of the water, an audacious move, and the biggest diversion in Great Lakes history (which now could be a casus belli). 

But it did more than that. It erased the divide between the Mississippi Basin and the Great Lakes Basin, which means that invasive species in Arkansas can make their way up the vast river system into the greatest body of freshwater in the world. That’s why some people are advocating closing them down.

It’s an equally audacious plan, to be sure, and I doubt it will ever happen. But that’s the kind of big thinking that is needed to prevent a catastrophe. And that is what makes it equally catastrophic that we are being led by the smallest thinkers in the world, a whole party of petty, short-sighted, gleefully-destructive fools who inevitably take the most destructive possible course on every issue.

Protecting the Great Lakes smacks of environmentalism, and so they won’t do it. It’s pure nihilism. May they all be forced to paddleboard through a swarm of madly agitated carp.

Yukon River Rerouting Shows Sudden Impact of Climate Change; Is Bonkers Crazy

 

This river is younger than, say, “Lemonade”

 

There are few things that can change the course of a river suddenly. The New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-1812 briefly reversed the course of the Mississippi by suddenly shoving millions of tons of water in northward, but that was temporary. Normally, (unless like in Chicago you do it intentionally) rivers change directions or reroute their course very slowly, through generations of erosion as it pokes and prods and tries to find the easiest way to flow, a grinding process that eventually levels everything in its path, though never on the mere scale of a human lifetime.

Thanks to climate change, that might not always be the case. Times?

In the blink of a geological eye, climate change has helped reverse the flow of water melting from a glacier in Canada’s Yukon, a hijacking that scientists call “river piracy.”

This engaging term refers to one river capturing and diverting the flow of another. It occurred last spring at the Kaskawulsh Glacier, one of Canada’s largest, with a suddenness that startled scientists.

A process that would ordinarily take thousands of years — or more — happened in just a few months in 2016.

Much of the meltwater from the glacier normally flows to the north into the Bering Sea via the Slims and Yukon Rivers. A rapidly retreating and thinning glacier — accelerated by global warming — caused the water to redirect to the south, and into the Pacific Ocean.

Last year’s unusually warm spring produced melting waters that cut a canyon through the ice, diverting more water into the Alsek River, which flows to the south and on into Pacific, robbing the headwaters to the north.

Think about that. If you lived there (or, I guess, if you are a tremendous liar), you could say “I remember the days when these waters flowed north, onward to the Bering Sea”, and you’d be talking about last summer.

Now, to be fair, this was a perfect confluence of conditions: the way the land was shaped there didn’t have to be too much melt and erosion for the higher ground to make its way to the lower; the channels cut my newly melted water didn’t have far to go. We’re not going to wake up one day and see that the Ohio is charging back toward Pittsburgh. But it is still a stark and terrifying reminder that climate change isn’t something happening in the distant future. It is happening now, and it is really unpredictable.

In essence, we’ve decided as a species to enter a vast generational experiment where we see what happens when we accelerate natural processes and introduce unnatural ones. The earth heats and cools, glaciers advance and melt, rivers change their courses. These things happen on unimaginable time spans. They don’t happen over the course of a century, or the life of a summer. But, thanks to our desire to turn nature into capital, that’s what’s happening.

We don’t know how it will turn out. Things will happen that we can barely even guess. But it seems short-sighted to say it won’t be enormous.

I’ll leave this with an example of what retreating glaciers mean. We all know that the glaciers carved out the Great Lakes and completely wiped out the landscape that came before them. And we know it was cold as hell. But I don’t think it is generally understood how much their immensity impacted geology, and not just topography.

They pressed down on the earth’s surface, slowly impacting it under their enormity. And as they retreated, the surface slowly started to rebound. This is a process that, tens of thousands of years later, is still happening. The impact of this can be felt right around here, in Chicago. When the glaciers first retreated, and the lakes took their present form, the ground was low enough that Michigan (and Lake Chicago before it) flowed southwards, toward the Mississippi Basin. But as the land rebounded, and glaciers cut more channels, eventually the whole Lakes basin made its way to the ocean.

Until, of course, the city of Chicago, disgusted with and sickened by the filth of its residents, reversed the course of the Chicago, turning southern Lake Michigan into an extension of the Mississippi Basin. That happened in a geologic instant. The reversal of the Yukon rivers was even quicker. It was instant.

Our impact on the planet might mimic the planet’s own cycles, as somewhat more sophisticated climate deniers claim, but that’s wildly misleading. It’s a gruesome imitation, at high-speed, a janky cassette player that suddenly turns your music into a screeching cacophony, with little regard for the consequences. It’s like jumping off the Empire State Building and saying you’re imitating the gentle swaying of a leaf on the wind. Same general direction maybe, and with the same end point, but brother, you’re fucked.

A Couple of Rainy Day Thoughts on How We’ve Altered the Landscape

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It’s been a gloomy rainy sort of day here in Chicago. The White Sox opener has been postponed, which is fine. I don’t mind delaying this 95-loss season another day. It’s not spring yet, anyway.  It’s the sort of April rain that feels like the lingering of March, the whole month of which felt gray and wet, a Smarchian sort of slog.

You look out the windows and see the dull and lumpy sky wrinkle itself in a thousand plinging puddles, and watch the puddles grow and slink off toward the sewer, and its hard to remember that it’s only been a few hundred years that rain has been allowed to land that way. It used to fall on the ground, and slowly make its way across whatever basin it found itself in, if it weren’t used up or simply evaporated, reimagining its particles into invisibility so it could fall again.

But that’s not the way it is, anymore. It’s a profound change, and the short-term effects have been, in some ways, disastrous. To build our cities, we’ve altered to way water has distributed itself around the world. We’ve paved over floodplains and changed rivers. We’ve manipulated drainage.

Look at a very minor example, the North Branch of the Chicago River. Patti Welti of DNA Info has the story.

A total of 1.67 inches fell, a record for March 30.

It wasn’t enough to push the North Branch of the Chicago River to flood, but the water did rise more than two feet during the morning and early afternoon.

How does less than two inches translate into more than two feet?

Before the Chicago area was extensively settled, the river meandered across a marsh-like geography, dispersing water over a greater space. Precipitation was absorbed by vegetation and stored in the ground, wetlands and flood plains, according to the report.

As the area became more urban, green space was paved over, wetlands were drained and the river was straightened to better collect runoff that would have previously seeped into the ground. The result is a watershed with very little stormwater capacity, the report explains.

So much of urban history has been about how to drain marshes and swamps. There were enormous struggles in England in draining The Fens, which led to political upheaval, revolutions, and other intrigues. These were enormous marshes, the “sink of thirteen counties”, as Daniel Defoe described them. But the English managed to straighten the rivers and turn the Fens into farmland.

 

Or one could look at the Great Black Swamp that used to cover much of Northeast Ohio, a terrible oozy wasteland that slowed down water flowing into Lake Erie. This was a swamp that was nearly impassable by anyone who didn’t know exactly how to transverse its deep sludgy waters, and was frequently a refuge for natives, who could get through it faster than European-Americans could get around it. Draining it was an enormous accomplishment that led to the creation of cities like Toldeo, not to mention millions of acres of farmland.

Funny thing, though. It turns out the swamp helped keep Lake Erie clean, serving as a natural filter for whatever came through the basin’s rivers. The enormous runoff that resulted, combined with chemicals from the regions farms (which the swamp would have filtered) is one of the main reasons why Lake Erie has died several times. The swamp helped keep away the algae blooms that have decimated the lake.

So we don’t know. We don’t know how these experiments will end. The Chicago River was slow and windy, often more marsh than river. It wasn’t meant to be a straight channel. Maybe straightening it was the price of the city. Maybe paving over its wetlands is how we were built. And maybe it will be fine.

But a rapidly rising and fast moving Chicago River, devoid of any drainage, is, in a very literal sense, unnatural. The short-term effects of how completely we’ve altered our landscape are only beginning to show. The long-term effects are unknown. But, with the rushing clarity of a springtime flood, we know one thing: water always wins.