Move afoot to rename iconic highway after Chicago's first settler; but does it deserve $3 billion from D.C. for reconstruction?
Chicago’s 16 mile Lake Shore Drive, along with Route 66, is one of the most iconic highways in the United States.
Mention either and most people, especially Midwesterners, will immediately know what you’re talking about and both have been the subject of pop songs that describe their whimsical virtues, real or imagined.
Route 66 still exists but is now a secondary road long-ago usurped by the interstate highway system. Lake Shore Drive, officially U.S. Highway 41, remains a major north - south traffic artery in addition to its scenic virtues with Lake Michigan and Chicago’s skyline on opposing sides.
But change is in the air for Lake Shore Drive or, as locals refer to it - the Drive or LSD after the psychedelic hallucinogen.
How about Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Drive?
Chicago is on the cusp of renaming the Drive after DuSable, the Black man from Saint-Dominique, now Haiti, who is considered its first permanent non-indigenous settler in the late 1700’s.
A key city council committee voted recently to rename Lake Shore Drive after DuSable and the full council is expected to approve the change. This won’t be the first public recognition of DuSable. There’s a museum in his name and a park at the point where he is thought to have located. But renaming Lake Shore Drive after him is a game-changer. It will bring national attention to his legacy.
There’s still some Chicago-style political wrangling between the mayor, who isn’t quite onboard with the change yet, and the council to be resolved before Lake Shore Drive becomes DuSable Drive. Some names die hard. But it will likely happen.
And there’s potentially more brewing for Lake Shore Drive besides the name change that reflects history and changing values for the country’s 3rd largest city.
The Drive is a major highway in Chicago’s transport system that serves to make Chicago function, you know… the city that works. Chicago exceptionalism implies that other cities don’t.
And most importantly, it literally borders Lake Michigan with its record high lake levels that with increasing frequency, lap over the Drive. Toss in climate change with increased severe weather events - torrential rains and flooding - and that begs questions about the Drive’s future. Or it should.
If starting from scratch, you wouldn’t construct a highway bordering Lake Michigan today given climate uncertainties.
Now comes President Joe Biden with a climate plan that intersects with our critical need to update infrastructure including roads. Central to it is reducing greenhouse gas emissions that come from a lot of sources, but especially cars. Or more aptly named today, SUVs and pickup trucks.
Biden, congress willing, will have a couple of trillion dollars to implement his climate and infrastructure plan. When the federal government has that kind of money to dole out, the sharks start circling.
Entities everywhere are preparing to toss their pet projects into the funding hopper and that includes the Illinois and Chicago political intelligentsia, and guess what? They’re floating a $3 billion dollar reconstruction of North Lake Shore Drive. The section that runs from downtown past the Gold Coast to the city’s northern border which leads to affluent North Shore suburbs. The portion of the Drive from downtown to the South Side would not be part of the project.
Do we need to spend $3 billion on a highway do over when we’re about to de-emphasize driving, especially on roads that could be swamped by rising waters driven by climate change? And just for the record, there’s ample public transit that serves Chicago’s North side and those spiffy suburbs. If there’s a billion dollars to throw around, invest there. It’s time to ride the train folks, not drive solo in a $50,000 small tank-size vehicle.
Surely, with all of Chicago’s infrastructure issues, there’s a better way to blow through $3 billion. Modernize schools and increase medical facilities in long-disinvested areas in Chicago’s West and South sides. Build parks and after school facilities in those neighborhoods too. That’s infrastructure by Biden’s 2021 definition.
Biden’s big plans are in the blueprint stage right. They’ll be passed in some form after they go through the Washington political sausage-making process known as legislation.
Please, Washington political intelligentsia, spare us the $3 billion concrete escape route from downtown Chicago to cushy homes near nice schools in tidy, toney suburbs.
I suspect Jean Baptiste Point DuSable would appreciate that.
Chicago-based environmental journalist