A genre popular in the 19th Century. I’m bringing it back.
Late one June morning I rolled out of bed in the black tank that is my second skin, pulled on some thrift-store jeans and Merrills (me! in hiking shoes!), brushed my teeth, put on black eyeshadow and sunglasses, got a to-go cappuccino and headed to Montrose Point. And it occurred to me then that regardless how depressed, suicidal, forlorn, panicked, ill or otherwise stricken I feel, I can always manage to get to Montrose Point for a stroll, or walk, or hike or just to lie in the sun and read and write and watch.
Recently, one of my Russian readers asked if I live here. I do. “I wanna see zees beek beeldings, your beek beeldings,” a friend visiting from Paris once insisted. Yes, we have big, big buildings. But Chicago, though notorious for segregating its citizens, has managed to integrate its Industrial Revolution decay and grime with oases of nature and tranquility, to balance the yang of its tall structures and hard edges with the yin of verdant parks and a lapping waterfront. Our skyline of concrete and steel edifice is dramatically underlined by what is possibly the best front yard on the planet, “forever open, clear and free”. By law. For what “law” means in Chicago. Which isn’t much. Which makes its continued existence all the more incredible.
I live north of downtown in a neighborhood west enough to be safe and quiet but east enough to be relevant. Between me and the lake lies a quintessentially dangerous and colorful inner-city neighborhood known for its crime, mental patients, drugs, deteriorating Jazz-age facades, an openly gay alderman and the invention of poetry reading as contact sport. Between Uptown and the lake lies a talon-shaped slice of heaven.
My trek often begins at the northwest base of the park where the beach shoulders Lake Shore Drive and, in the warmer months, involves traipsing through the shallow water, petting other people’s dogs, tripping over other people’s children, and fantasizing of stealing away in a kayak all the way out to the Atlantic ocean. In the colder months, I just sit and let the wind smack sense into me. After the blizzard this year, the beach was lined with massive freak sand-ice glaciers; it looked lunar. A strange day…
Montrose beach is Chicago’s largest beach. It is located in Uptown. It also houses the most parking of any beach in Chicago. It is one of few beaches patrons may launch non-motorized watercraft, such as kayaks and catamarans into Lake Michigan. It also has one of only two dog beaches in the Chicago Park District, making it a popular beach for dog lovers. In the fenced off dog-friendly section at the north end of the beach leashless dogs are permitted once on the sand. Montrose beach hosts the Junior Guard regional championships, the annual Beach Soccer Festival, and numerous runs and walks for various charities. The beach house on the south-end of the beach was designed by E.V. Buchsbaum, it was modeled after the North Avenue Beach House, and looks like a lake steamer. Unfortunately, in the 1950s, the east wing of the beach house burned in a fire, which was not rebuilt. The beach house was recently remodeled with a 3,000 square foot patio deck, it will house only the third full service restaurant, named “The Dock at Montrose Beach”, at a Chicago beach after Oak Street Beachstro and North Avenue’s Castaways. It is part of the Park District’s plan to add “more upscale concessions to the lakefront”. Due to budget constraints Chicago eliminated the traditional July 3 fireworks in Grant Park, instead opting for a down-scaled fireworks displays in three different locations in Chicago on the 4th of July, the north side display will now be held at Montrose Beach every year.
That’s not true. Rahm cancelled the fireworks this year. All of them. He’s the Grinch who stole fireworks. I love fireworks. They remind me of my mother who died tragically of cancer, because she loved fireworks. I never did, but now they remind me of her. And Rahm has taken that away from me. My dead mother is waiting in hell to thank you personally, Mayor Emanuel.
Conventionally the beaches nearest downtown, Oak Street and North Avenue beaches, have been considered the sun and sand destination points for residents who actually seek out that kind of thing. The rest of us yahoos who are honest with ourselves about where we live, which is not Miami or LA, just go to the neighborhood beach, largely out of a sense of obligation. “Shame not to take advantage of this weather; we get so few nice days like this…” But according to a recent poll, my neighborhood beach is the best one in Chicago. They’ve cleaned up the trash, added pretty blue chaise lounges with umbrellas, a patio bar/restaurant, pretty blue recycling containers, pretty security and lifeguards. Even the kayak rentals and volleyball courts that have always been there no longer look so post-apocalyptic. There is also a popular section just for dogs. Pretty dogs. On my latest pilgrimage to Montrose beach (previously called Wilson Ave. beach when it was covered with used syringes and invasive zebra mussel shells, and while it actually remains located nearest Wilson Ave., Montrose, the name of the street on the opposite side of the park, is, well, prettier…) I half expected to spy the cast of Baywatch running in slow motion across the shore. Somehow neighborhood yahoos have quickly adapted to their new beachfront. High-tops and Doritos bags have been exchanged for sarongs and Nalgene bottles. I’m afraid to ask what they did with the poor people, or when Rahm will begin charging admission. Or cancelling summer.
As the beach extends out toward the lake proper, away from the buzz of the city, there is a protected dunes area. I love the dunes because they remind me of Cape Cod. Except it is really just one dune, a small dune. But it a legitimate dune. I think. It seems very out of place, fragile and desperate and terribly lonely, all roped off. From here on out, there is a lot of protected nature area. Yahoos, return to the beach. That volleyball game won’t play itself. Nature lovers, bird watchers and those of you whose souls have not been complete destroyed by city life and political corruption, proceed.
Past the dune, you may venture left out to a pier where the proles who made it past the natural beauty of the dune without suffering a broken heart go to fish. For what? What can you eat that comes from this lake? Maybe they throw everything back in. I’ve never understood that. People say it is relaxing to fish. When I think, “relaxing,” I don’t think “locking a giant metal hook into some innocent creature’s face, yanking it out of its habitat, watching it gasp for air and bleed, then releasing it back into the sea without a complimentary Xanax for its shock.” But I am “overly sentimental.”
I made that up. I don’t actually know what it’s called. Anyway, if you are wise, walking east from the beachfront you will steer right and stroll, run, bike or stalk people along the new concrete esplanade that lines a good part of the lakefront. If you do this, the view directly ahead will play tricks with your mind, and you will forget that you are in the landlocked American Midwest. It’s worth the hike out there for that alone. You can’t see to the other side of the lake. It’s a Great Lake. You know how when you are being taught meditation they tell you to clear your mind and think of nothing, but you can’t? Here you can do that. The tableau changes as frequently and dramatically as the Chicago weather. Some days there are no waves; some days they crash violently against the lakefront path, threatening to carry passersby out to sea. Some days the lake is navy blue and the clouds and sailboats and gulls are chalk white. Some days it looks positively Caribbean. Early in the mornings diamonds dance on the water’s the surface while the sky is pale and harsh, blinding commuters who already resent having their eyes open at this hour anyway. At dawn, you can watch the sun rise from the lake as if the city were birthing some neon deity from its watery womb. I’m always struck by how well-defined the sun is and how swiftly the planet is rotating at sunrise. But my favorite time is when the air is cool and the water a silver-sage color, separated from a dark periwinkle sky by bright sea green horizon. Everything is thrown into intense focus, like a Monet on acid. Winter months turn it the scene into a grainy black and white photograph. Only the blind could be bored here.
Continuing along the walkway south, around the outer edge of the park, the dramatic skyline appears. I have lived here for over a decade and every single time I round that bend and see that city, I stop for a second to take it all in. Serious tourists ooh and awe and take pictures while locals nod and smile at each other, acknowledging our shared good fortune. There is really nothing quite like it.
If the audacity of Great Lakes and skyscrapers doesn’t do it for you, bust out the bug spray and head into the…
Migratory Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary and Protected Nature Area:
Located in Lincoln Park, Montrose Point is a 15-acre bird sanctuary that attracts tens of thousands of migratory birds of more than 300 different species. They stop here for rest, food and shelter. East of the bathhouse is “The Magic Hedge”, a 150 yard stretch of shrubs and several trees, so-called because it attracts a curiously high number of migratory birds. Important migrants include most species of Warblers seen in the Chicago area, Thrushes, Sparrows, Purple Martins, Woodpeckers and many others. Nesters include Common Yellowthroats, Catbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, Mourning Doves, and Brown Thrashers.
While Mayor Daley played mini-monarch replicating the highly designed public gardens of France in the medians of downtown streets, the protected nature area at Montrose Point offers no such homage to civilized aesthetics. It is a riot of wildflowers and what look like weeds but are probably Very Important Nearly Extinct Weeds that used to thrive in the swamp that was Chicago before we came and beelt zees beeg beeldings. Birds. Butterflies. Trees. You’re not impressed. This is the same flora and fauna found by the railroadtracks on the edge of the town you came from. Where kids went missing. You know? The place about which your mother would demand, “What do you want to go there for? What’s there? You know that’s where the Davies kid went missing? I better never catch you there mister!” but you went there anyway to smoke pot and because the mall made you want to kill yourself.
Seems like a lot of kids could go missing in this protected nature area, with its ill-defined trails and looming important weeds and shadowy undergrowth. But they don’t. In the city, we do not fear the anarchy of nature, we do not live in constant need of proving ourselves civilized. We are surrounded by concrete and iron and openly crazy people offering to sell us Vicodin and themselves. If you want to kill a kid, there are plenty of neighborhoods where you can do that right out in the light of day. Birds and butterflies and wildflowers and shrubs seem pretty damn harmless here. Unless you have allergies, in which case it’s a deathtrap.
Whether you meander along the magnificent waterfront or hike through the undergrowth in search of the “magical hedge,” you will eventually arrive at Montrose Harbor. This is when you realize you have been walking for an hour and you are at the halfway point. There is no shortcut home, only to walk all the way back around the inner harbor in the opposite direction and back through the park. There should be a shortcut, but then sailboats could not get in and out, and then it would not be a harbor, and you came to see a harbor, so you are screwed.
The Chicago Park District’s 9 lakefront harbors stretch from Lincoln Park in the northern part of the city to Jackson Park in the south. With accommodations for more than 5,000 boats, the Chicago Park District Harbors constitute the nation’s largest municipal harbor system and feature state-of-the-art floating docks, moorings, star docks, fuel facilities and other amenities for Chicago boaters and their guests.
The nation’s largest municipal harbor system? In Illinois? Who knew…? Sometimes Chicago just makes shit like that up because deep inside we will never be New York or San Francisco. Even deeper inside, however, we’ve no desire to be. We want to just be us, but for everyone to love our city as much as we do because it actually is the greatest city in America.
I grew up along the Mississippi in Mark Twain land. There were boats, but they were flat and ugly rusty barges and garish casinos lazing along the banks like sucker fish, inhaling what was left of humanity after bad genes and a bad economy had chewed it up and spat it out. The first time I went to Cape Cod I was enchanted by the sea-faring vessels that gleamed white against the blue sea, and the white sea birds that swooped around between the rocking waves and the lilting boats, and the people lounging aboard them, also in blue and white, their deck-shoes unironic, their tanned flesh not borne of labor, their faces expressing the confidence of people who have reasonable expectations of happiness and no fear of a god watching their every move, which might force them to be fake kind to complete strangers who are probably assholes like themselves for all they know. It was so relaxing! And the gentle cling and clang of the boat masts created an angelic chorus that said, god or no, this is heaven. You’re obviously lost.
So Montrose Harbor reminds me a little of that.
Well, the boats and the water part. The regulars here, however, probably do fear God or at least some higher authority since they’re mostly from Catholic or Communist nations, and reasonable expectations of happiness have been replaced with reasonable expectations of basic human rights and meals. They are kind to complete strangers because they are rootless and must rely on the reach of their branches instead. The inner harbor is a miniature United Nations, with everyone in national dress, semi-circle formation, many in headphones. The former Eastern Bloc slash Soviet Union is wildly overrepresented (so they should be happy about that at least.) Some are still doing the Adidas track suit and bored pregnant supermodelesque girlfriend at their side thing too. Former residents of Mexico, Puerto Rico and other neighbors to our south are also major players at this conference. Men bring their little boys to fish, but once puberty arrives they are more likely to cast their bait among the roving gangs of of their coy and slightly dressed female peers. Elderly Russian couples speedwalk past it all. They aren’t fishing. Did they come to America to fish in a city harbor? I don’t think so. Look at their nice walking shoes. Do they look like they need to fish in a city harbor? No. He has an iPhone, which, as he’s with the wife, seems to serve as an “avoid communication” device. She doesn’t notice he’s not listening. It doesn’t matter. At least they are not reduced to fishing in the city harbor. There are always German tourists. Always. I have no explanation for this. And frequently a spoiled French toddler is busy tormenting waterfowl. I don’t know if it is his mother or nanny who implores him to stop in a voice meant more for scornful onlookers than the child. There are old Chinese ladies who sleep on a blanket under a shade tree. There are native Chicagoans with their beer bellies, sunburns, too frequent laughs and stances that makes you wonder if they didn’t just grow right up out of this concrete path, like man trees. There are yuppies and hippies and dog walkers and gay couples and homeless and young lovers and winos and city workers on break and you think, oh hell, Chicago is perfectly capable of democracy.
When people complain about City Hall, I want to tell them to shut up and go to Montrose Harbor. You should not be thinking about “forever open, clear and free” only when writing angry letters to your representatives.
After hearing my ode to the Montrose Point, a friend suggested that I am a nature person. No. I don’t like bugs and dirt and sunshine. I don’t like exercise. I don’t like tourism. I don’t like an “active lifestyle.” I can buy flowers at the grocery. I don’t even like other people without being given a good reason why I should. I do love that lake. I’d go crazy if I didn’t live near a large body of water. Crazier. And a little cardio and fresh air never killed anyone. But mostly, I am just filled with wonder that such a place can exist among men. It honors what is best in us and in the world. It’s precious. It doesn’t entirely restore my faith in humanity, but it gets me through the rest of the day, starting with the long walk back home.