Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Big Blue

When I was growing up on the southwest side, it took some effort to get to the beach. There was the Englewood L train (now called the Green Line), but just getting to the station required a lengthy bus ride, then another bus ride once I got downtown. There was also the Archer Express bus, but again, that route required multiple transfers. But it was worth it.

I think it's likely that my uncle's place, 40 miles across the water on the Michigan shore, that started my love affair with Lake Michigan. It was there I spent summer weekends in the woods and on the beach climbing sand dunes. After college, I returned to Chicago, and I think it's safe to say that every dwelling that I've occupied since has been, bit by bit, closer to the lake. The little bio blurb on this page says that I currently live a stone's throw away, but that's a slight exaggeration. It might be the case if I played center field for the White Sox, but I don't. Let's just say that there's room for improvement, both to my arm and distance to the lake. I'm already plotting my next move.

The lake defines Chicago. It gives the city shape and personality, and quite literally it gives it life. Daniel Burnham is generally credited with being the visionary that gave us the 22 or so miles of parkland that is our front lawn, but the idea goes back to 1836, just 3 years after the city's founding.

This past weekend was one of those perfect ones to be on the shore, with two amazing days of cloudless skies and warm temperatures. It was also the occasion of the Annual Air & Water Show. Although I'm generally wary of these explicitly designed tourist magnets, the truth is the show does draw a fair number of locals that might not otherwise come to the water. My usual approach is to get on my bike and take various lakefront paths (some designated, some not so much) south until it gets too crowded to ride any further. Then I get off the bike, find a taco or paleta cart, and just chill while the planes do their thing.

The Air & Water Show crowds, however, are the exception. Most weekends there is nothing special going on. Unless, of course, you count being on a beautiful lake shore on a beautiful day among special things. I do, as do many Chicagoans. And here's something else that I notice, almost without fail: By and large, the people enjoying Loyola Park, Foster Beach and the breakwater that shelters Montrose Harbor are almost entirely from the city's ethnic enclaves. South of Addison, there's a noticeable uptick in white folks, but I swear, all of those people are jogging.  This has long puzzled me, but then I started to think about the idea of the front lawn. Historically, in the days before air conditioning, people sat on their front porches, sipping a cool beverage, greeting neighbors. Gradually, though, we've moved away from those habits. The lake and the park serve as ways to remind us of who we used to be before technology changed our social structures. Our version of the outdoors became sidewalk patios of pricy eateries, not picnics in the park. The city's immigrant and African-American communities seem to be the last ones to resist this forward march, and I'm guessing that the inequities of economic distribution play a part in their resistance. The large number of family gatherings that I see every weekend along the lake attest to this, the joyful riot of sounds and smells carrying across the spaces between the folding tables, tents and grills.

I don't think I'm the only one that's noticed this disparity. The park district awarded a handful of liquor licenses a few years back in an effort to entice restauranteurs to open places on the lake, making it possible for people like me to enjoy an overpriced beer in sight of the water just as easily as on a sidewalk along Lincoln Avenue. And I'm grateful for it, as there is usually decent enough food to go along with the beer (although nothing near as good as the $2 tacos from Daniel's Mexican Food stand at Montrose Beach). At least I don't have to smuggle my beer in and consume it while keeping an eye out for the cops.

I get a little melancholy in August, knowing that this idyll is beginning to wind down for the season. Autumn brings its own lake front charms, but by then Daniel's and the cute cafes will be shuttered. The families will be back to work and school, the bike paths less congested.

But it will still be beautiful, and to people like me, irresistible.

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