The River Speaks

Listen to the river

Click on the branch icons in the map below to hear each branch of the Chicago River speak candidly about their personal experience and to learn firsthand from the water about what life is like.

Who is the river?

  • Lawrence Avenue, North Branch courtesy of MWRD
    Lawrence Avenue, North Branch courtesy of MWRD

The Chicago River once flowed gently into Lake Michigan, meandering through a spongy wetland that sprouted the shikaakwa, the pungent wild garlic rooted in the city’s name. The river’s two natural branches met at a middle that was destined to become downtown and to forever divide the city into north and south sides. A coastal river, the little Chicago turned through a freshwater slough disconnected from the prairie to the southwest. But city leaders and their engineers cut a canal through wetlands and prairie to force the Chicago to meet the Mississippi. As a result, the lazy creek has a history of hyperbole: It is the first river to have its flow reversed by an industrial system of pumps and locks. It fuses via its canal the distinct Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds like freeways for barge traffic. It serves as the world’s biggest toilet by flushing Chicagoland’s waste and rain all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The pre-industrial span of the Chicago River included North and South Branches and a Main Stem. In the name of flushing the metropolis and allowing for the circulation of commodities, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was forged in 1900. Its perceived success led to the North Shore Channel that drains upscale suburbs and later to the artery for heavy industry, the Cal-Sag Channel to the south. Because it is, technically, a different river, we don’t represent the Cal-Sag Channel here but hope to in a later stage of the project.

Part of reversing the river entailed designating a set of boundaries and labels. These include an Upper North Branch, North Branch and South Branch. Arbitrary boundaries like these become weaponized to allocate benefits and burdens along race and class lines. Just as these arbitrary boundaries are used to determine where and for whom investment and disinvestment happens, they also inform how data is presented and shared. We recognize that Chicago and the river are surrounded by people and neighborhoods that are fluid and do not adhere to community area borders. In compiling data for this project, we are somewhat constrained by these boundaries while we also seek to expose how the city’s manufactured divisions reinforce slow violence.

Informed by Indigenous thought, a new movement is underway that relates to water not as a ‘what’ but as a ‘who.’ This movement recognizes the personhood of rivers and other water bodies, seeing them as holders of rights and living beings in relationship with others. Water is not passive or something to be pressed into human service, but a living person deserving of reciprocal relationships and respect. If a body of water is abused or has its rights violated, then the idea follows that there should be legal and political action. This principle, for example, inspired the Lake Erie Bill of Rights responding to its abuse by runoff from industrial agriculture. In Western thought, the personhood of water represents a new concept. It seems less radical, however, when viewed alongside the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United that defined private corporations as people with unfettered freedom of speech and political influence. We focus on the human elements of the waterway system in our map of Chicago Community Areas and in the audio vignettes in which the various legs of the river speak as people.

The flow of slow violence

Slow violence shapes the river and its communities.

Since the founding of the city, the Chicago River has been a tool used by industrialists and capitalists to make money. Chicago area waters always enabled traders to transport raw materials and goods from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains, but prioritizing commercial use has a detrimental effect on the people who live near the river. First, upon the native Indigenous tribes who were forced off their land, then, once the city grew, upon the people of color who built communities near the river. Industrialization slowly degraded the environment and diminished the quality of life for nearby residents. This slow violence inflicted upon people near the river occurred gradually, over generations.

Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, defines slow violence as “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight; a delayed destruction often dispersed across time and space.” It is “violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries,” he adds. Slow violence “exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.” In other words, Nixon argues that slow violence contains the long-term effects that erode the quality of life, particularly for the “poor and disempowered,” far beyond the moment of infliction that captures our attention right before we are shocked by the next occurrence. As a result, Nixon outlines that “one of the major challenges of our age is how to adjust our rapidly eroding attention spans to the slow erosions of environmental justice.”

Although we use Nixon’s concept of slow violence, we seek to amend its shortcomings. Slow violence doesn’t occur out of sight. It is very visible to those who are impacted the most – from the moment of infliction and beyond. As such, we consider Thom Davies’ Slow violence and toxic geographies: ‘Out of sight’ to whom?, which pushes back “against framings of toxic landscapes as entirely invisible to the people they impact instead of accepting the standard definition of slow violence as ‘out of sight.’”

Additionally, we push back against the concept that describes those who are mostly impacted by slow violence as being “disempowered.”

In fact, it is mostly through the labor and activism of those who carry its burden that acts of slow violence are brought into mainstream awareness.

We see this, for example, in the work of residents in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood who sounded the alarms and organized in response to the negligent demolition of a coal plant that they had shut down in the name of self-protection. 

We also acknowledge that acts of slow violence do not happen in isolation. Davies “emphasizes the intimate connections between structural and slow forms of harm, arguing that structural inequality can mutate into noxious instances of slow violence.” Slow violence is built into industrial and economic systems to send pollutants and inflict harm on the same people again and again. The weapons of slow violence are embedded in processes of planning, engineering and even cleanup, and look to knock down local opposition and exercises of self-determination.

Weapons of slow violence

Building upon Nixon’s and Davies’ works, we examine communities along the Chicago River and delineate the weapons of slow violence that are deployed against them. Poorly maintained infrastructure (e.g. lead pipes), housing developments in flood plains, municipal zoning codes that concentrate industrial activity along the river, and water shut- offs are all examples of weapons of slow violence. When these are wielded against communities, the effects ripple: economic disinvestment, closed schools, closed public housing, food deserts, lack of green space, prevalence of chronic health conditions and pollution. Slow violence displaces people, disrupts familial and social networks, places the burden on those most impacted, affects mostly Black and brown populations and results from wider, systemic ailments.

The deployment of the weapons of slow violence is strategic, targeted, premeditated and intentional. They are not random nor are their ripple effects unintentional. Slow violence creates disparities of wealth, health and education by conferring benefits on some and burdens on others.  

Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with fast violence, which is sensationalized and media-sexy. There is almost always a perpetrator on one end and a victim/survivor on the other, and the lines that identify, define and connect the two are often clearly outlined for consumption. We are bombarded with acts of fast violence every day via local news outlets, through neighbors, family and friends, or through firsthand experience. In acts of slow violence, it’s not always clear who the perpetrators are. In fact, some people may not recognize that slow violence is occurring at all because for far too many, concentrated industrial corridors, toxic waste sites, etc. have always been part of a daily reality. As a result, although both types of violence are consequential, it can be argued that slow violence is far more detrimental due to its obscure nature.

The branches of the Chicago River

Sanitary and Ship Canal
Reflective river with industrial operations lining the shore.
Industrial operations line the river between Western and California Avenues. (Photo/© Matthew Kaplan Photography)

Amid the city that works, the failure of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal disguises itself as a canal that also works. However, the canal only appears to perform its function successfully. Opening with a blast of dynamite on the eve of 1900,  the canal redirected the Chicago River south, offshoring the city’s waste for the benefit of an expanding metropolis. Now, over a hundred years later, the canal swells with industrial runoff, waste and invasive species as it conducts water from the mouth of Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is often considered an engineering marvel, enjoying its status as an emblem of the modernized world. We aren’t supposed to see the canal’s failures. Instead, private industries transferring freight along the canal direct us to continue marveling at engineered solutions even as the canal bloats with pollution and its infrastructure crumbles.

Listen to the Sanitary and Ship Canal, view a transcript of this recording, and read an artist statement by the voice actor for this branch.

South Branch
Person in the foreground standing in front of a gray-blue river with the skyline in the background.
Angel de Jesus Leon looking out at the river where the South Branch flows into the Sanitary and Ship Canal, August 2020. (Photo/Citlalli Trujillo)

As readers of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle know, this branch is the birthplace of slow violence in Chicago. But the violence is hardly confined to the past. A century of meatpacking and heavy industrial pollution gave rise to the infamously-contaminated Bubbly Creek.  This damage remains, mixed with ongoing pollution like that from the MAT Asphalt plant in McKinley Park. The river itself and many communities along it have also become contested spaces in recent decades, as the city and real estate developers have been extending their luxury developments south of the loop and utilizing various weapons of slow violence to push and price out communities of color through gentrification. At the same time, four communities along the South Branch – Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Fuller Park and New City/Back of the Yards – are among the top 10 Chicago Community Areas with the highest water shut off rates in the city.

Listen to the South Branch, view a transcript of this recording and read an artist statement by the voice actor for this branch.

Main Stem
Boat harbor and park on the river with skyscrapers in the background.
Harbor on the river, July 2020. (Photo/Tristen Ortiz)

The Main Stem is the glistening jewel of the Chicago Area Waterway System, the payoff that justifies its chronic deficiencies and the party at the end of the pipe.  Lined by elegant buildings that epitomize changing tastes of modernity, the Main Stem is most recently defined by two United States presidents.  Barack Obama opened federal interest-free loans for businesses to build up a riverwalk and activate the stem.  Before the outbreak of pandemic, Chicago Riverwalk businesses had already paid off their loans and begun to contribute revenue to the city.  Opposite stands the overleveraged Trump Tower with gaping vacancies, unpaid taxes and 20 million gallons of pollution per day poured into Main Stem waters.

Listen to the Main Stem, view a transcript of this recording and read an artist statement by the voice actor for this branch.

North Branch
Raised pedestrian trail over the river with Lathrop Homes in the background.
Newly-installed pedestrian trail under Diversey Avenue next to Lathrop Homes, a remodeled Chicago Housing Authority complex whose affordable units were decreased with the renovation, August 2020. (Photo/Erika Chavez)

Aspirations of luxury blend with commercial utility along the North Branch. Curving from the downtown junction at Wolf Point, this branch hosts glassy condominiums and exclusive clubs on its banks.  Soon enough, tire shops, bus lots and concrete factories appear alongside urban amenities. The North Branch’s Goose Island remembers eras of heavy industry in its polluted soils even as Lincoln Yards,  a publicly-funded playground for the well-to-do, sprouts from them. Upstream at Lathrop Homes, the Related Corporation has reduced available public housing by rehabbing brick buildings as affordable, as well as upmarket units. Quoted in the Chicago Reader, longtime resident J.L. Gross describes his community as eviscerated by structures like a boathouse designed “for white people.” In its upper reaches, the North Branch opens into leafy parks and private docks offering homeowners an urban oasis. That is, until combined sewers overflow into the river.

Listen to the North Branch, view a transcript of this recording and read an artist statement by the voice actor for this branch.

Upper North Branch
Shallow river with trees on both sides and a pedestrian trail alongside it.
View of the river from Cicero Ave., August 2020. (Photo/Becky Lyons)

This winding waterway, flanked along most of its borders by woods and walking trails, calls back to the river’s past while offering views of its potential future. As a narrower and shallower branch which flows down through the northwest suburbs and northwest side neighborhoods of Chicago before mingling with the North Branch, the Upper North Branch is the least manipulated section of the river. While other branches have been shaped by the city, the barge industry and unabashed capitalist growth, the Upper North Branch’s smaller stature and distance from the canals enable it to preserve the wildness and memories of the river basin. It has had some work done though, including a new sewer tunnel built in Jefferson Park in 2014 that connects with the Deep Tunnel, diverting flood waters from the basements of single family homes into the endless, but not bottomless, engineering project. The communities surrounding the Upper North Branch range from Indigenous peoples rooted in places like Albany Park and North Park to bastions of whiteness fortifying themselves in places like Forest Glen and Norwood Park.

Listen to the Upper North Branch, view a transcript of this recording and read an artist statement by the voice actor for this branch.

North Shore Channel
A pedestrian trail on the left, the river on the right, and native plantings in between.
An old pedestrian trail lined with new native plantings placed along the river bank, August 2020. (Photo/Becky Lyons)

This branch of the Chicago River is lined with natural green spaces and parks, and boasts a trail that runs along most of its length. The Lincoln Village Pedestrian Bridge, built by the Chicago Department of Transportation with financial assistance from the federal government, provides a continuous bike and pedestrian trail that encourages movement up to the North Shore suburb of Wilmette and back. Access to this wealthy suburb is the least it can provide given that the channel carries heavily treated wastewater from the north shore suburbs down through Chicago. There are no areas of concentrated industrial corridors along this branch. Between 2007 and 2018, the Chicago Community Areas bordering the North Shore Channel branch experienced the least number of water shut-offs in Chicago. Although it seems that this branch is serene, green and clean, all is not well. You only have to move away from the banks, into the surrounding communities and beneath the pavement to find out. In Chicago, single family homes and two-flats built before 1986 are most likely to be connected to a lead service line, which are in high concentration along this channel.

Listen to the North Shore Channel, view a transcript of this recording and read an artist statement by the voice actor for this branch.

Is the Chicago River a person?

Environmental personhood establishes two things: it grants legal standing and recognition. A river with legal rights may access the courts as a plaintiff. A river that is a being counts as  a full person, “indivisible and whole,” who may not be arbitrarily divided in the name of property or exploitation.  

When recognized as a being, a river shares equal standing with humans and, as such, may rule over itself and be in relationship with others. In other words, according to Gwendolyn Gordon, extending legal standing to nonhuman entities means that we no longer think of nature as merely a resource to be exploited by profit making or to be managed for its beauty or sustainability as an environmentalist might do. Rather, personhood grants nature jurisdiction over itself and is no longer human-centered.  

The idea of river personhood raises many questions. What is the river? Is it defined by its banks or does it include plant life, sediments and other living beings that depend on it? What happens when it overflows? What’s in its best interest? How and when is it harmed? How is a person understood and defined? And ultimately, is the human the best point of reference? When considering these questions, we can draw on parallels such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that corporations are persons with rights of free speech.

We draw on this concept because it reframes how we think about  water. The reconception is a framework for how to nurture a mutualistic, symbiotic relationship with the water. When we nurture an emotional connection to the natural environment , we tend to care more about it. Giving the river personhood allows us to bond more tightly and thereby feel  a sense of collective stewardship of  this shared life source.

Additional resources

Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene by Alejandro Frid
Environmental Personhood by Gwendolyn Gordon
Lake Erie Bill of Rights Thrown a Lifeline
Should Rivers Have Same Legal Rights As Humans? A Growing Number Of Voices Say Yes

The creative process

The characters of the river came about because we wanted to highlight the personalities and archetypes that emerge from the Chicago River. There are many structural systems at place that dictate how the river is used. These archetypes represent the players involved with maintaining the status quo and those that actively fight for a more holistic, sustainable waterway. We developed the particular characters of each river branch based on its history, contemporary use and communities that live alongside it.