Sanitary and Ship Canal

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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.

En medio de la ciudad que funciona, lela falla del Canal Sanitario y de Navegación de Chicago se disfraza como un canal que también funciona a pesar de que tiene muchas fallas. Sin embargo, el canal solo parece realizar su función con éxito. Abriéndose con una explosión de dinamita en la víspera de 1900, el canal redirigió el río Chicago hacia el sur, deslocalizando los desechos humanos de la ciudad en beneficio de una metrópolis en expansión.

Ahora, más de cien años después, el canal se hincha con la escorrentía industrial, los desechos y las especies invasoras a medida que conduce el agua desde la desembocadura del lago Michigan hasta el golfo de México. Sin embargo, el Canal Sanitario y de Navegación de Chicago a menudo se considera una maravilla de la ingeniería, y disfruta de su condición de emblema del mundo modernizado. No se supone que veamos las fallas del canal. En cambio, las industrias privadas que transfieren carga a lo largo del canal nos dirigen a continuar maravillándonos con las soluciones diseñadas incluso cuando el canal se llena de contaminación y su infraestructura se desmorona.

  • Old pedestrian path next to the river with industrial facilities on the opposite shore.
Character of the Sanitary and Ship Canal

The Sanitary and Ship Canal is portrayed as a rapacious capitalist who will stop at nothing to make money. Such hubris is what propelled city leaders to undergo this engineering project. They did not consider the environmental impacts of artificially breaching the continental divide that separates the Great Lakes watershed from the Mississippi River watershed. They also did not consider pollution impacts upon marginalized communities who lived near the waterway. They were only motivated by a voracious appetite for capital, much like the opportunistic industrial elite.

Personaje del Buque y Canal Sanitario

El Sanitary and Ship Canal es retratado como un capitalista rapaz que no se detendrá ante nada para ganar dinero. Tal arrogancia es lo que impulsó a los líderes de la ciudad a someterse a este proyecto de ingeniería. No consideraron los impactos ambientales de romper artificialmente la división continental que separa la cuenca de los Grandes Lagos de la cuenca del río Mississippi. Tampoco consideraron los impactos de la contaminación en las comunidades marginadas que vivían cerca de la vía fluvial. Solo estaban motivados por un apetito voraz por el capital, al igual que la élite industrial oportunista.

From the actor

This project was enticing to me first and foremost because I think it’s a really smart idea! Utilizing narrative monologues delivered through vocal performance to help people learn about the Chicago Area Waterway System is a concept I can definitely get behind. Secondly, I’ve been wanting to do more voiceover work and this was an amazing way to help sharpen my skills, especially since it allowed me to take on a colorful character. It was a lot of fun and I’m thankful for the opportunity!

For more of Ross, visit his YouTube and Instagram.

Ross Compton
Transcript of recording

I am the Sanitary and Ship Canal. My name ends in “canal” because I just so happen to come from a great lineage of canals. Humble beginnings such as the canals of Amsterdam and Venice to the magnificent marvel that is the Panama Canal.

You could say I aspired to be like them. As you have seen, I have blazed my own trail to transform Chicago from swamp prairie into a boomtown. I make Chicago matter. Not the main stem, not the north branch, and especially not the south branch– the most ungrateful branch of this city. They spout off about my existence as one of irreparable harm as if I have tainted this city with greed and gluttony. That I’m allowed to be a massive public health risk and affect the neighborhoods around me. I say they’re often hyperbolic. Now, I do recognize my work and my position in this river is… intimidating and difficult to embrace. I see you and I hear you. But I must say,  if the south branch chose to embrace their numerous industrial corridors they would realize how important they were instead of going on about human rights violations.

If only the  branches understood their worth. That’s the problem with a lot of the branches–except main stem. Though he may be a milksop, he gets the job done. Presenting the city as pretty and posh. Unlike the stem I have to get my hands dirty to ensure this city runs. You see, I do my own sewage. The ships that sail on me are ships I know. I make it my business to see that every ship and turd flows through me to the Des Plaines. I do not botch my reversal flow as I merge with my business partner, the Cal-Sag Channel. What I am trying to say is I’m fixed like no other branch or channel in this river. I get my hands dirty to make sure this city is held up by my oil drenched hands even if it means picking off a couple of undesirables. I may be capitalist but I’m a staunch believer in Utilitarianism.

Del actor

I grew up in the Lathrop Homes projects on the North side at the intersections of Damen, Diversey and Clybourn – the Chicago River ran right along side the projects. My fondest memories were when the river would swallow our baseballs after a foul ball or a bad throw/catch and we’d watch as our beloved ball would float downstream and end the game until another day or, if we were lucky, somebody would buy another ball. Of course there was the pollution as well…ahh, it takes me back. My gratitude and thanks to Anish and the team at the Freshwater Lab for the opportunity to be a part of this thought-provoking and important project. It was an honor to do the Spanish voice over of the Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Jose Berrios
Transcripción de grabación

Yo soy el Canal Sanitario y de Navegación. Mi nombre empieza con “canal” porque, casualmente, mi origen proviene de un gran linaje de canales. De comienzos humildes como los canales de Ámsterdam y Venecia, a la maravilla que es el Canal de Panamá. 

Se podría decir que yo aspiraba a ser como ellos. Como han visto, he trazado mi propio sendero para transformar Chicago de una pradera pantanosa, en una ciudad próspera. Yo hago que Chicago sea importante; no el río principal, no el brazo norte, y especialmente no el brazo sur, el brazo más desagradecido de esta ciudad. Critican que mi existencia es de un daño irreparable, como si hubiera manchado esta ciudad con codicia y glotonería.  Que se me permite ser un riesgo grave para la salud pública y afectar los vecindarios que me rodean. Creo que exageran. Pero reconozco que mi trabajo y mi posición en este río son… intimidantes y difíciles de aceptar. Te veo y te escucho. Pero debo decir que, si el brazo sur aceptara sus numerosos corredores industriales, se darían cuenta de lo importantes que son, en lugar de seguir hablando de violaciones de derechos humanos.

Si tan sólo los brazos entendieran su valor. Ese es el problema con muchos de los brazos, excepto el río principal. Aunque sea indeciso, cumple el trabajo de presentar la ciudad bonita y elegante. A diferencia del río principal, tengo que ensuciarme las manos para asegurarme de que esta ciudad funcione. Saben… yo hago mis propias aguas residuales. Los barcos que navegan sobre mí son barcos que yo conozco. Me encargo de que todos los barcos fluyan a través de mí hasta el río Des Plaines. No arruino mi flujo inverso al fusionarme con mi socio comercial, el Canal Cal-Sag. Lo que estoy tratando de decir es que estoy fijo como ningún otro brazo o canal en este río. Me ensucio las manos para asegurarme de que esta ciudad esté sostenida por mis manos empapadas de aceite, aún si eso significa tener que recoger un par de cosas indeseables. Puedo ser capitalista, pero soy un firme creyente en el utilitarismo.


Written by Tristen Ortiz
Produced by Anish Tailor
Performed in English by Ross Compton
Performed in Spanish by Jose Berrios, with translation assistance from Cristina Radevski
Story by Tristen Ortiz and Anish Tailor

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