By Nicole Girten
The water levels in Lake Michigan have risen 6 feet since 2013, and the Army Corps of Engineers predicts the water level will continue to rise in 2020. In early February, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a state disaster proclamation, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared a local disaster in response to damage sustained along the coast mid-January. The North Side Chicago community of Edgewater directly borders the lake and is bearing significant consequences from the rising lake levels. In an interview, Robert Remer, the longtime president of the Edgewater Historical Society, contextualizes the history of the ecology on the Edgewater shore and how we got to the present day.
The neighborhood of Edgewater now directly borders Lake Michigan, but that wasn’t always true, was it?
When the Pottawatomie tribe was here, they only had seasonal villages along the lake so they could harvest wild rice and things like that. This is because in the wintertime, the water was not a nice place to live. Because of the changing water levels and the waves, you didn’t want to build a permanent home right near the water. Their main cities were by the Fox River and Des Plaines, which both run west of the city of Chicago and flow south to eventually connect to the Mississippi River. The average person in Edgewater now is probably 500 feet from the water. People in Edgewater have a unique physical closeness to the water more than any other community in the city of Chicago. It’s so much a part of the consciousness of people in Edgewater.
People started major developments on this land in the early 1900s, including lakefront resorts and motels along Sheridan Road. Was there any pushback among residents who wanted to protect that land?
In the early 1900s, people started enjoying leisure time. They tried to be a leisure destination like Florida, but they had community activists coming out and saying, “Don’t take away our beaches!” In the 1970s, I was president of the Community Council, an organization that formed to bring together business leaders, elected officials and constituents to discuss local issues in Edgewater. We organized with some elected officials and made my dog the mascot. We marched up to what is now Berger Park. We raised funds through donations and grants and saved the buildings. This was one of our ten commandments “Thou Shall Not Mess with our Lakefront.”
The lake has a history of rising and falling water levels over the decades. How worried is the community about the current rise?
The water level rise peaked in November of 1986 and that really got people freaked out. Sheridan Road was being flooded and the high-rise basements were being flooded. The Army Corps of Engineers came to the rescue with riprap rock and boulders to armor the shoreline. The current thinking is to build bicycle paths and walking paths, the whole kit and caboodle. The current water level rise was sudden. The lake goes up and down, but the uptick was so fast everybody got really scared, thinking, “Is it going to peak like it did last time or is it going to keep going up?”
One of the exhibits at the Historical Society, “High Water and Hell,” goes through the history of water level rise in Edgewater: from the building of the high rises in the 1960s, when the water was low, to the peak of the water level increase in 1986. It also addresses present concerns as water levels are nearing this peak again. What inspired the exhibit?
We want to let the public know what the history of the water level rise and fall has been in the current context of the water level rise. The water level 2,000 years ago was so low you had forests growing at what is now the bottom of the lake. So it’s been that high and low. Now it probably won’t happen again to that degree. But historically, that has happened.
What do you most enjoy about the unique nature of Chicago’s lakefront as it pertains to the almost uninterrupted parkland along the coast?
It distinguishes Chicago from so many other cities in terms of the importance of the lakefront as part of our definition.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.