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A Fantasy Itinerary for a CLUImidwest Tour of Peripheral Chicago

Inspired by a Dwell article published last summer — in which Geoff Manaugh, in his temporary guise as the magazine's Senior Editor, asked Matthew Coolidge, of The Center for Landscape Use Interpretation (CLUI), what makes his favorite city work — we have concocted a fantasy itinerary for an infrastructural tour of our HQ, Chicago. We, too, are interested in learning what makes the city function. From where does it get its water and electricity? What happens to our shit? What about our trash? Where is the nerve center overseeing all that traffic?

Stickney Water Reclamation Plant

Coolidge started at a wastewater treatment plant, so we'll also begin in one, the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant. It's the largest in the world, and if you live in Chicago, this is where your shit, condoms and dead pet gerbils end up eventually after swirling for miles and miles in a vortex network of underground pipes and tunnels.

It should be noted that Stickney doesn't yet have its own Wikipedia entry. If being zoned out of the city and exiled into the fringes isn't a sign of its off-center status, then its digital absence from the seemingly omniscient encyclopedia must surely point to a collective amnesia about this critical urban infrastructure. But then again, the general public is largely ignorant about such things, seeing how we've designed infrastructure to be invisible. Out of sight, out of mind.

Jardine Water Purification Plant

If Stickney somehow represents one end point of something, then one starting point may be the Jardine Water Purification Plant, the largest capacity water filtration plant in the world.

“It draws raw water from two of the city's water cribs far offshore in Lake Michigan and sends nearly one billion gallons of water per day to consumers in the north and central portions of the city,” says Wikipedia.

Though Jardine is located on a prime lakefront location, unlike Stickney, it couldn't be more peripheral. Nearby is Navy Pier, that collection of kitsch suburban mall attractions. While one is rarely visited, the other is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the city, if not the most popular. Chicago would survive if Navy Pier is leveled to the ground, but it would struggle without Jardine.

Also nearby is Lake Point Tower. Until very recently, i.e., last night, we thought that Oprah Winfrey was domiciled atop this trefoil skyscraper, the only residential structure east of Lake Shore Drive, but apparently not. Still, it was always incredibly exciting to think that when one of the world's most popular, most powerful and wealthiest women gazed out of her palatial windows, the Picturesquely framed views of sublime Lake Michigan included that unrepentant slab of pure post-industrial functionality.

Also very nearby is the future site of Calatrava's Chicago Spire, if it survives the economic crisis.

Deep Tunnel Project

And then there's the Deep Tunnel Project, “a large civil engineering project that aims to reduce flooding in the metropolitan Chicago area, and to reduce the harmful effects of flushing raw sewage into Lake Michigan by diverting storm water and sewage into temporary holding reservoirs. The megaproject is one of the largest civil engineering projects ever undertaken in terms of scope, cost and timeframe.”

Digging started in the 1970s, and it's still unfinished. The entire project is expected to be completed in 2019.

You can watch a YouTube video about the construction here.

Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal

Another hydrological megaproject is the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, completed in 1900, when according to landscape historian extraordinaire Jo Guldi, “we used to believe that civil engineering was going to transform civilization.”

The canal reversed the flow of the Chicago River, making it the only tributary besides the St. Lawrence River through which precious Great Lakes freshwater flows out. As an artificial conduit, it's a continuing source of controversy. Calls to re-reverse the river are growing louder, as some fear (perhaps overblown) that this diversion can be used by parched Western states as a wedge argument in their a bid to tap into the Great Lakes.

One good place to see the canal in active mode is at the Lockport Powerhouse. Alternatively, you can simply walk along the canal and then segue into Lockport to explore the urban landscape of a post-industrial, Midwestern suburban town.

Thornton Quarry

For some reason, we didn't think there would be a quarry anywhere near the city, but there is one, Thorton Quarry, located just a few miles south. An even greater surprise is the fact that it's one of the largest in the world.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, what is now Illinois was south of the equator, and a warm, shallow sea covered the region. Reefs were formed, and these mineralized remains of corals, algae and sponges are what's being mined. We don't know how much of the construction materials in the city comes out of Thorton, but we like to think of the highways and skyscrapers here are made of this long lost equatorial landscape.

Now what about electricity? One interesting source is the Byron Nuclear Generating Station.

Byron Nuclear Power Station

To our complete surprise, there are actually several functioning nuclear power stations in Illinois, making it ranked first among the states in nuclear generating capacity. Not all are located near Chicago, but there is a good clustering of them around the city, including decommissioned ones. Beyond the border is a Kuiper belt of sublimely radioactive landscapes, perambulant as though caught in the gravity well of inner city Hyde Park, the site of the world's first artificial nuclear reactor.

As with any tour, there needs to be some side trips, even for one that's already off the beaten track. For instance, one could go to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Before the construction of CERN's Large Hadron Collider, its particle accelerator was the largest in the world. This is where physicists have elucidated (and still continue to do so) nothing less than the fundamental construct of Nature and the landscape architecture of reality.

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

We certainly missed a few places, but you'll let us know which ones in the comments, right?
  • rob
  • May 1, 2009 at 3:06:00 PM CDT
  • Lovely.

    As long as you're discussing quarries and infrastructure in the Chicago area, I suppose you should make a stop at D.I.R.T.'s Stearns Quarry Park. Their description starts at the same place as you do in describing Thorton quarry, but then the histories diverge:

    "Millennia ago, massive reefs formed in the sea that lay across what is today Chicago. These subsurface limestone deposits supplying the stone upon which the city was built. Stearns Quarry, in the historic and diverse Bridgeport neighborhood, was the very first Chicago quarry, opened in the 1830s and continuously mined until 1970.

    Soon after its closing, this huge put in the middle of Chicago's urban fabric played a new role in the life of the city as a municipal landfill. The once 380 foot deep hole has been filled almost to grade, leaving little evidence of the once massive quarry walls full of ancient fossils.

    Stearns Quarry will now evolve into a vibrant urban park, tying this isolated and animalistic feature back into the heart of Bridgeport by expanding its existing community park. Landfill leachate is remediated on site in a series of treatment gardens, combining economic sense and environmental education. Resculpting of fill material unearths ancient geological and mining history while climbing skyward, creating a unique topography of depth and height in the otherwise flat Chicago landscape."

  • rob
  • May 1, 2009 at 3:10:00 PM CDT
  • Here's a google maps link to Stearns Quarry.

  • Georgia
  • May 2, 2009 at 4:56:00 PM CDT
  • Absolutely fascinating! A must do for Berkeley//East Bay. I always gaze at the EBMUD sewage plant as I drive into Oakland from the Bay Bridge.

    Deep Tunnel Project and stormwater storage: what about permeable landscapes?

  • michael earley
  • February 18, 2010 at 1:54:00 PM CST
  • I was there when this photo was shot. The two guys in the photo are the project manager and the assistant manager whose name was Joe something. I had so many great photos of the tunnel and now they are gone.This shot is unusual because it is shot from the back side of the boring machine and the trailing floor, tracks, water lines and ventilation are gone.The tunnel was just finished everything pulled out and the machine would then be walked forward and dismantled to be removed from the next main shaft.

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