Biggest and Best!

Biggest and Best!

By Patrick F. Cannon

In the early 1970s, I did a stint as director of public information for the City of Chicago’s Department of Public Works, which is responsible for building public stuff in the city. Its two main bureaus were architecture and engineering. It didn’t take me long on the job to realize that Chicago was home to the biggest and best of a lot of things.

            For example, it has the largest water treatment plant in the world, the James W. Jardine, which is next to Navy Pier on the lakefront. It’s a truly amazing place; alas, fears of a terrorist attack after 9/11 has closed it to the public. By the way, a second Chicago water treatment plant on the South Side is the 8th largest.

            Although it’s loathe to admit it processes sewage, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation (!) District is the largest such system in the country, handling the unmentionables of more than 10 million people in the greater Chicago area. The part of it that I was most involved with was the so-called deep tunnel project, one of the largest public works projects in US history.

While it won’t be fully completed until 2029, its vast system of deep tunnels and reservoirs are designed to eliminate the flooding that occurs after a heavy rainfall; and the discharge of sewage into the lake that sometimes results because Chicago has a combined sewer system (instead of separate systems for rainwater and sewage).

            In my day, we had a neat model to explain it all to the public. Looking something like an ant farm, it simulated what the new system would do in a heavy rain. After plugging it in, and flipping the switch, the rain would pour down into the sewers, thence to the vast subterranean tunnels (I actually went down in one once – it was 30 feet in diameter!), where it could be stored until it could be conveyed to the treatment plant. It gurgled and whooshed to everyone’s astonishment.

            It has since been eclipsed, but I was present for the construction of the world’s largest parking garage, located at O’Hare International, then the busiest airport in the world (it now goes back and forth with Atlanta’s). The garage has no less than 9,000 parking spaces, and woe betide the returning parker who has forgotten to write down the location of his or her spot!

            Although it wasn’t dedicated until shortly after I left city employment, the Sears Tower had been topped out and would be the world’s tallest building for many years. And although I haven’t been able to fully confirm it, I believe Chicago’s 26-mile coastline is the longest of any city set aside for purely public use.

            With 37, Chicago also has the most movable bridges of any city in the world. I once did a booklet on the bridges with the chief bridge engineer, Lou Koncza (he later became the city’s chief engineer). Born in Poland, Lou was a courtly gentleman, always immaculately dressed, whose enthusiasm for his bridges was infectious. Working with him was a highpoint of my tenure with the city. I wish I’d saved a copy of the booklet. By the way, when I moved back to Chicago in 1956, an occasional freighter still plied the river. Now, the only time the bridges are raised is when sailboats enter the lake in the Spring and return in the Fall.

            By the way, on some days you might get blown over by the wind crossing one of those bridges. Although it turns out we’re not really the windiest city in the world, today’s wind and rain might make you think we are. Actually, as you history buffs know, we got the name “Windy City” from the politicians and blowhards who extolled our virtues when boosting Chicago to host the 1893 World’s Fair. We did get the fair, to the consternation of our jealous friends in New York!

            Finally, before you get bored out of your minds, I was reminded at a family gathering last week that Western Avenue, at 23.5 miles, is the longest street in any city in America. Although I’ve never driven the entire length at one time, I have driven all of it at one time or another. Oh, and I once had an apartment bedroom that overlooked it, and lived in another just a block away. It could be loud, but there were several fine Italian restaurants within walking distance. Of course, they were the greatest!

Copyright 2023, Patrick F. Cannon

One thought on “Biggest and Best!

  1. My name is Ozymandias…..

    Alas, how the mighty have fallen. Chicago, once the nation’s second largest city dropped to third place some decades ago, prompting some wag to point out, if New York was the Big Apple, Chicago was Small Potatoes.

    The former city of big shoulders has been steadily losing population. In the last count I could find, the borough of Brooklyn at 2.7 million residents is edging out Chicago at 2.69. The Irish mafia that ran the city for better or worse is gone, now replaced by dithering figures like Lightfoot and Preckwinkle and controlled by turf-minded public service unions. True, New York is also losing people and in decline, sustained only by its financial and cultural centers. The future is elsewhere: Texas, Arizona, Florida.

    Ancient Rome is gone but it’s astounding how much of the city’s physical structure remains. What will be left of Chicago’s infrastructure as time takes its toll? I used to like Chicago, but Wrigley Field ain’t no Colosseum.


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