Feb 1, 2021
Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago river 120 years ago. Instead of flowing into Lake Michigan, it now flows away, eventually joining the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. This massive engineering project was done to prevent sewer water from contaminating the drinking water the city gets from the lake.
Chicago also has some very old buildings that seem to have been built when the level of the streets was much lower than it is now. That’s because the streets were raised to allow for the construction of underground sewers. When this project was started in the 1850s, hundreds of workers using hand-jacks raised the level of the already massive buildings downtown.
Looking out at Lake Michigan from the city you will notice what look like floating islands. These are actually water cribs, built to allow the city to pipe in the cleaner water from further out in the lake, which is not as polluted by runoff from Chicago’s streets.
All of this work was done after the discovery that human waste spreads cholera. So Chicago—and other cities—spent the money, and hired the thousands of people it took to pipe in clean water and solve this public health crisis.
That was when capitalism was still in its growing phase. More than 100 years after all these projects were finished, the response to COVID shows capitalism unwilling or unable to do even the basics to protect the population. A sign of a system that has outlived its time.