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May 2008 Archives

May 3, 2008

Blue Bags Dumped

At last, Chicago is giving up on its failed Blue Bag recycling program. Since 1995 the city has placed recyclables in blue garbage bags, which are collected with regular household garbage and only separated at garbage transfer stations.

After being compacted and mixed with waste there was often little usable material to recycle, but perhaps worse was that citizens had little faith that the materials were actually recycled, so that few participated in the program.

For the last year, several wards have been using separate blue bins to collect recyclables, a system which will eventually be rolled out across the entire city in the next year or so when the budget allows. Until then Chicago will have no recycling program at all for most of its waste.

Chicago Tribune story.

Scrappers by the River


My photographs of Chicago scrapper trucks will be on view in the temporary Riverwalk Gallery next to the river at Wabash & Wacker from May 2-4. The gallery will be open Sat 11-10 and Sun 11-6.

May 16, 2008

Up The Yangtze - The Film

A few days ago I finally had the chance to see the film "Up the Yangtze" at the IFC film center. There were hardly a half dozen in the audience, which was a shame because the documentary was wonderful, a dramatic parable of change in modern China.

The film follows a young boy and girl who look for work on a luxury tour boat for Western tourists coasting the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River. For both, the boat represents an escape from the drudgery of everyday life on shore, an opportunity or springboard to a better life. But unlike Huck Finn's escape from stifling sivilization, here the opportunity is to learn English, to meet foreigners and learn from them, a lucky break at earning a modern living in the service industry and entry into the middle class.

The epic backdrop of their story is the closing of the Three Gorges Dam, which tamed the mighty Yangzte, and will bring electricity and modern living standards to much of the region. It is expected to provide fully 10% of China's electricity needs when fully filled. The tough cost is that the reservoir backed up behind the dam has forced the relocation of nearly 2 million residents, inundated countless archaeological sites of China's earliest peoples, and flooded the best flat agricultural land in a mountainous region.

But in following this opportunity toward prosperity, those who live along the Yangtze cannot look back at the poverty of peasant farming and the old backbreaking work of pulling boats upstream against the rapids in the gorge. And if they want a chance to tour on those luxury boats someday as well as work on them, the river must change as well in order to align with the modern global service economy.

Up the Yangtze is playing in New York and cities in Canada, and is scheduled to be shown on POV on PBS in October.

May 18, 2008

Streets & San in the News

In the Sun Times: Yesterday the Chicago Streets and Sanitation Department unveiled a new boat to be used on the Chicago River. The Scavenger 2000 is a 38-foot, one-person craft which features a bow which opens to become a floating vacuum cleaner, sucking in 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of water per minute. Trash is skimmed off and collected in a basket, while the water continues through a "decontamination chamber" which injects ozone to kill bacteria and viruses, as well as breaking down odor-causing chemicals and pollutants. The hyper-oxygenated water is then ejected from the rear of the vessel.

While it will no doubt help improve the water quality in the river to some degree, what is really needed is a similar decontamination system where the bacteria enters the river: at the sewage treatment plants where wastewater is not fully disinfected. Chicago is one of the few major cities which does not disinfect its graywater before releasing it downstream. Paradoxically, the Water Reclamation District does not decontaminate its wastewater because the Chicago River is not considered clean enough to warrant it.

Without changes at the source, the river will still be too dangerous for human contact, no matter how many toy boats the city launches. Besides, the river is not some bathtub of dirty water to be scrubbed clean, it is a damaged but living and improving ecosystem. How many fish and beneficial organisms will be sucked through the disinfection chamber and killed along with the harmful ones? Instead of toy vacuum cleaners, a more advanced solution to cleansing the water would be a program to plant vegetation and wetlands along the banks of the river, to let the water sift and clean itself with sunlight and natural algae.

In other news, a short summary of the Streets and San Department appeared recently in WasteAge magazine.

May 20, 2008

Wildflowers along the Des Plaines

Last week the suburban Pioneer Press ran a whole series of articles about the Des Plaines River.

So I decided to take the Blue Line out to the nearest forest preserve to see the springtime wildflowers along the Des Plaines.

As soon as I entered Chevalier Woods I was met by a raccoon sitting in the midst of a garbage can in broad daylight. When I stopped to watch it humped reluctantly away, but then a whole crowd of white tailed deer gathered round expectantly. They were scraggy and half-molted into summer coats, but definitely not underfed. As I watched, a woman stepped out of a car with a jar of crackers and enticed a few nervous does to take a bite.

P5201516 copy

Hiking down a forest path I soon came to the sluggish little river. The Des Plaines has to be one of the least glamorous of all the rivers of America. Although its lower reaches had a dramatic part to play in history, its upper part is consigned to travel through suburban sprawl on the western edge of Chicago. From Salt Creek up to its source in southern Wisconsin it is a slow stream, with a drop of only six inches per mile. Its waters are murky with natural tannins and clay, but mostly tainted by runoff from parking lots and fertilized lawns, and fouled by stormwater overflows of sewage.

Picturesque Des Plaines

The original French name of the river, des Pleines, is thought to refer to its tendency to flood, like any river through flat country. But flooding has become more of its habit in the last decades as its basin is increasingly developed and paved over. The river once had wetlands to escape to when it rose, but many have been filled in, and the river constrained by levees, which only increase the speed and height of the water downstream.

Adding to its indignity, many of the forests in the preserves on its banks are in a shameful state. Large areas are overrun by invasive species such as buckthorn and garlic mustard, creating dense thickets of weedy brush that are of limited interest to wildlife and visitors alike.

Endless garlic mustard

Volunteer groups such as the North Branch Restoration Project have had some success in reestablishing native plants in some areas, but in other areas the invaders have taken over. Many of northern Illinois' native ecosystems were dependent on fire, both on the prairies and in the riparian woodlands, and years of fire suppression have only allowed the non-native plants to get the upper hand.


In wandering for several hours in the woods, I saw a countless tiny white flowers of the garlic mustard, but only a few other wildflowers. Some wood violets, a few stands of mayapple, and later on a single trillium and trout lily (neither blooming right now). There were wild onions which gave Chicago its name, but not many other discoveries. In comparison with the lush flowers and growth of other Illinois forests, this was a desert.


At least there were lots of animals and critters to see. Down by the river baby ducklings and goslings were peeping about. One short space of the trail was bouncing with baby grasshoppers hardly 1/4 inch long. And when I finally left, there was another of these attractive raccoons munching on croutons from some lost lunch dumped in the grass by the parking lot. It wasn't interested in the salad, but seemed to enjoy picking up the bread with its paws clumsily to take a bite.

Scavenging in broad daylight

May 22, 2008

Movable Bridges of the South Branch

Last Sunday I went on one of the tours put on for the city Great Places & Spaces architecture festival. As usual we arrived at 7am to join a block-long line of architecture fans waiting to sign up on the free tours. And as usual several of the most interesting tours filled up before we made our way up to the sign-up sheets.

But this tour sounded interesting, a trolley tour of movable bridges along the South Branch of the Chicago River, lead by structural engineer Joseph Abruzzo.


Chicago's flat terrain and multitude of railroads and streets intersecting with the small river have created an ideal place for experimentation in movable bridge technology. The city has more movable bridges than anywhere else in the world, of many types. Our 3-hour tour included stops at five bridges to show a wide variety.

Our first stop was on the grounds of a recycling yard where we could get a look at the Chicago Northwestern railroad swinging bridge, built in 1897 at the time of the construction of the Sanitary Canal. There are several of these turning bridges along this reach of the canal, all completed as the canal was excavated beneath them.

Swing Bridge

Next our guide took us to look beyond some brush at the corner of the recycling yard where we could glimpse a rare early type of lift bridge, the Rall Bascule Bridge over a freight slip off the river. Patented by Theodore Rall, this bridge features a large counterweight hidden between the tracks behind the pivot axle, and a linkage which pulls the bridge backwards as it lifts, thereby providing more clearance for boats. The overgrown weeds and rusty tracks indicated that its no longer used.

Rall Bascule Bridge

Next, we boarded the trolley again and headed upstream. We passed by the most spectacular bridges along the South Branch, the four matching Scherzer-type rolling bascules near Western Avenue, completed in 1910. But our next stop was to see the Paige Bascule bridge over Bubbly Creek. New construction along the creek will soon block off the limited view we had: the best place to see the bridge is from the Ashland Ave station on the Orange Line.

Paige Bascule

Our guide demonstrated the complex movements of this bridge using a cardboard mockup. The counterweight of the bridge is suspended horizontally above the roadbed just behind the pivot point. As the bridge lifts, the counterweight tilts downward, guided along gears rolling along the distinctive wavy rack of teeth on the struts of the bridge.

Paige Bascule

May 27, 2008

A Thousand Straws

In today's Chicago Tribune: Wisconsin becomes the fifth state to sign the Great Lakes Compact, a further step toward setting up a legal agreement between all states and provinces bordering the Great Lakes to preserve their 20% of the world's fresh water.

Most of the attention to the Great Lakes Compact focuses on possible future attempts by the sunbelt cities to siphon some of our abundant water, but as the article points out, in the near term, the implications of the compact involve cities that straddle the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds. Chicago has been grandfathered in the agreement and is allowed to siphon off Lake Michigan water and send it downstream into the Chicago & Illinois Rivers, but in other places the watershed boundaries must be strictly adhered to. Whether the Milwaukee suburbs of Waukesha and New Berlin are allowed to mix lake water and well water in their water systems will be the first test of the strength of the interstate agreement.

About May 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Down Chicago’s Drain in May 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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