Backward River Festival

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Saturday, Oct. 16 and Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021
11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Come reclaim your water and foster a sense of joy and community through dance, music, food and connection.

Together we will uplift the voices and narratives of those whose lives and communities have been disrupted as private interests manipulate the river—even reversing its flow—to their will, and reimagine what’s possible in moving forward with the Chicago River.

Enjoy knowledge-sharing  and performances on the mainstage hosted by The Hoodoisie.

Connect to the river and each other through curated activities and engaging art installations.

Visit the community expo for meaningful exchanges with representatives from community-based organizations.

Join us as we bring to life The Backward River—a digital storytelling project from the Freshwater Lab at the University of Illinois Chicago that sheds light on who benefits from the Chicago River, who bears the burden and how differently it is experienced, depending on where you live in the city. This event is free and open to the public.

Graphic art by Jose Rosa

Spread the word

Bridgeport, Little Village, McKinley Park, Pilsen, Chinatown and SouthSide communities, stand up! #TheBackwardRiver

Bridgehouse Experience

A rendering depicting the exterior of the Cermak St. Brighouse and bridge in bright primary colors.

Tender House Project returns as a partner program of the Chicago Architecture Biennial and the inaugural Backward River Festival with cultural activations in two of Chicago’s historic bridgehouses. Tender House Project will activate the DuSable Bridge for the second iteration of Bridge Lift, featuring a musical performance in concert with the live sounds of the moving 101 year-old bascule bridge during the city’s scheduled bridge lifts. This rare performance will be viewable among the moving gears of the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum and the Chicago Riverwalk.

Lumpen Radio and Communities Amplified will premiere a series of live radio transmissions at the South Ashland Bridgehouse featuring stories from community organizations across Chicago’s 25th Ward. With the support of Public Media Institute, the broadcasts will be amplified during the Backward River Festival where people can tune-in and listen to the live broadcast of speeches, poetry & storytelling, music and discussions from community leaders, youth and stakeholders. In the evenings, the bridgehouse will symbolize a beacon of resident voices and the strong presence of the Chicago River through a curated selection of film projections created by Chicago artists. 

These programs are made possible through the amazing collaboration of Tender House Project, Public Media Institute, the UIC School of Art & Art History, Deep Time Chicago and the Freshwater Lab at UIC.

For a full program listing, visit

OVERFLOW: The Mississippi in every state imaginable

Jennifer Colten, Between the Levee and the River

In 2019, an extensive network of artists brought all their senses to the Mississippi River, paddling downstream in canoes, venturing up multiple tributaries, clambering over collapsing infrastructures, trudging across muddy banks and experiencing the river’s seasonal pulse. From the Headwaters in Minnesota to the Bird’s Foot Delta in New Orleans they set up five research hubs, delving deep into written and oral histories and creating works of all kinds, including guided tours, performances, pamphlets, lectures, shared meals and temporary shows for visitors and local inhabitants. Their concerns ranged across river ecologies, Indigenous, Black and settler-colonial histories, agriculture, urbanization, engineering, state and corporate violence, and the overflowing of liberation struggles that continue today. How to put all that into a single retrospective? They developed a collectively organized exhibition curating both existing and new works, gathering energy with an opening in Minneapolis, then setting out for further meanders downstream.

For details, visit:

Plan for your attendance

Safety and accessibility

To request special accommodations, submit questions or provide feedback, email

In accordance with University of Illinois Chicago, City of Chicago and CDC, masks are required at the Backward River Festival except when actively eating or drinking. We strongly encourage everyone to be fully vaccinated or have a negative COVID-19 test no more than 72 hours prior to attending.

Getting there

The Eleanor Boathouse at Park 571 is located at 2828 S. Eleanor St., Chicago, IL 60608. Limited street parking is available as well as a small parking lot adjacent to the park. The use of public transportation is encouraged where possible.

What to bring

  • Foldable chair or picnic blanket (limited priority seating will be available)
  • Filled reusable water bottle or hydration pack
  • Face mask
  • Umbrella (just in case!)
  • Snacks
  • Sunscreen
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Weather-appropriate clothing (comfortable layers and dancing shoes)
  • Your friends and family!

Notice of filming and photography

Photographers and/or news media may be present at this event.

By participating and being present during the event, you give the University of Illinois Chicago the right to use photographs or video/audio recordings taken of you during the event for educational or promotional purposes and for sharing with external news media.

If you do not wish to appear in photographs or be recorded, please avoid this area at this time or contact an event staff member or volunteer.

Freshwater Lab enjoys ongoing support from the The UIC Institute for the Humanities, as well as financial awards from Humanities Without Walls. The Backward River Festival is made possible with support of the  University of Illinois Presidential Initiative: Expanding the Impact of the Arts and the Humanities and our partners.
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