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EDITORIAL: Bubbly Creek and other festering challenges of Chicago

The South Branch of the Chicago River; Bubbly Creek, the south fork of this branch, flows south from this point, on the right. | File photo

At some point, Bubbly Creek became more than a minor offshoot of the Chicago River.

It became a metaphor for all the exploitation and destruction involved in the making of Chicago — for all the ugly trade-offs our city has ever made. The fascination of Bubbly Creek for generations of Chicagoans, most of whom have never actually looked upon it, is in its brutal history, which seems so very Chicago.

That being the case, the recent news that Bubbly Creek might finally be in for a real clean-up — an open sewer made green again — could not have been better timed.


As we head into the new year, Chicago remains beset by big problems. But if our town can finally set things right for Bubbly Creek, more than 150 years after the lords of the stockyards started throwing dead cows and pigs in there, maybe anything is possible.

Tanveer Ali/Sun-Times.
Tanveer Ali/Sun-Times.

As reported by Adam Thorp of the Sun-Times on Friday, a major Bubbly Creek restoration project is back on track. Federal legislation passed in late October instructs the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reach an understanding as to who’s in charge, after more than a decade of bureaucratic conflicts, and find a way to get going on Bubbly Creek.

At the same time, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is considering renewing a permit that allows Chicago to continue flushing its sanitary sewage into the Chicago River. The state EPA should demand stricter environmental rules in return.

And the state Industrial Pollution Board, which now rates Bubbly Creek as acceptable for industrial uses, could revise that rating, restricting the creek to cleaner uses, given all the fishermen and kayakers now to be found there.

We admit to a little cognitive dissonance at the idea that anybody would fish or kayak on Bubbly Creek, even now. But there you have it.

It was Upton Sinclair’s classic 1904 novel “The Jungle,” an expose of Chicago’s meatpacking industry, that put Bubbly Creek on our local map of horrors.

“The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name,” Sinclair wrote. “It is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily.”

Video by Brian Ernst

Sinclair’s novel remains required reading in Chicago classrooms, and no wonder. Not only did he get a lot of things right about old Chicago — the environmental destruction, the avarice of the rich, the exploitation of working people, the bullying of immigrants, and the corrupt ways of local politicians — but much of that goes on even to this day.

In “The Jungle,” Sinclair writes that downtown do-gooders wanted the meatpackers to pave over fetid Bubbly Creek, but the “Democratic boss” of the ward — in the service of the packers and not the people — nixed any such plan. Today, we might call that “aldermanic prerogative.”

Then and now, it has always been a matter of who runs Chicago.

“The problem remains one of political inaction and timidity — mayors and councils through the years avoiding spending, and possible taxing, on social and civic necessities, especially in neighborhoods versus central area,” Don Rose, the long-time political consultant, told us. “They always find other priorities.”

And so the fight for a fairer shake goes on.

In 2018, this editorial page fought many of the same battles Sinclair fought in his day. We argued for better pay and job security for gig-economy workers. We argued for doing more to clean up the Chicago River and for protecting Lake Michigan. We argued in defense of immigrants. We argued for political reforms, better policing and cleaner government.

And we’ll keep fighting those battles, among many others, in 2019.

Like so many Chicagoans, we read “The Jungle” at a young and impressionable age and continue to find inspiration in it.

As it happens, we recently asked all the candidates for mayor to pick a favorite Chicago book. We’ll post and publish their responses, in full, in our New Year’s Day editorial.

What book did they choose most often?

“The Jungle.”

Because nobody can ever forget Bubbly Creek.

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