While exploring the Grant Park viaducts on my 2019 trip to Chicago, I discovered that they were connected to promenades leading to the lake. I decided to wend my way through Grant Park by strolling down one promenade to the lake and another back to Michigan Avenue and so on, weaving back and forth. It turns out that this is no longer an option.
On the 1920s map that inspired me to visit the viaducts, the only divider in Grant Park was the railroad tracks bridged by the viaducts. The rest of the park showed on the map as a vast open space where I assumed the promenades were designed for wealthy residents and visitors to take the air and see who else was in town (or perhaps that is just the influence of reading Jane Austen so much). While it didn’t matter to me who else was in town, strolling along the promenades seemed a nice way to take the air.
Whatever the original intent, today the promenades are chopped up by their modern antithesis – the multi-lane, high speed road. While there are several promenades spaced throughout the park, I only found one that had a protected pedestrian crossing over the many lanes of Columbus Drive. Clearly, this was the grand promenade. In addition to being the only one with a safe passage, past Columbus it featured an opulent water fountain.
Having already crossed a significant barrier, I assumed it would be a clear walk to the waterfront after that point. However, on the other side of the fountain, I found the even more formidable barrier of Lake Shore Drive, aka Route 41. All interest in continuing with my promenade evaporated even though the lights and crosswalks suggested the ability to cross safely. Instead, I spent some time admiring the fountain before returning to my hotel.
I was disappointed at discovering that the connection between the park and the lake was an optical illusion. Yet, it came as no surprise to find the lake front prioritized for cars. It is a recurring experience to find an urban waterfront cut off from the rest of the city by a major roadway barrier, or in this case two.
While poking around the map collection at Chicago’s Public Library, I discovered that the structures carrying roads over the railroad tracks in Grant Park are considered viaducts. The word viaduct brings to my mind a Roman structure soaring over a valley floor and conveying a flat road on top of towering stone arches. The Chicago “viaducts” do not fit that image. To me, they look like bridges with no striking difference between them and Chicago’s river bridges other than color and style of ornamentation. Both groups of structures have fairly flat roadbeds supported by piers. I am puzzled why one set of structures is called bridges and the other viaducts.
The main difference seems to be that the bridges are crossing a body of water while the viaducts are crossing an obstacle on land. This doesn’t feel like the answer, though. I’ve walked over 50 bridges in Pittsburgh, the majority of which are over land. Not one of these structures is called a viaduct. To help find clues to solve this puzzle, I looked up the definitions of bridge and viaduct.
Merriam-Webster’s definitions are not much help:
Viaduct: a long elevated roadway usually consisting of a series of short spans supported by arches, piers, or columns
Bridge: a structure carrying a pathway or roadway over a depression or obstacle
The Oxford English Dictionary has similar definitions:
Viaduct: an elevated structure consisting of a series of arches or spans, by means of which a railroad or road is carried over a valley, road, river, or marshy low-lying ground
Bridge: a structure forming or carrying a road, path, or (in later use) a railroad, etc., which spans a body of water, a roadway, a valley, or some other obstacle or gap, and allows a person or vehicle to pass unimpeded over or across it
Based on these definitions, the features that seem to distinguish a viaduct from a bridge are elevation and short spans. This still doesn’t help solve the question of why the Grant Park structures are viaducts and the Chicago River structures are bridges.
Next, I turned to “How to Read Bridges” by Edward Denison and Ian Stewart. The glossary defines viaduct as “a type of bridge over land formed by a series of small (usually arched) spans.” This definition seems to work best for the viaducts in Chicago. They are over land and have a series of spans, though the spans are not arched.
To further develop my understanding, I paged through the nine examples of viaducts in “How to Read Bridges.” All nine examples are elevated (such as the 330-foot high Goltzsch Viaduct and the 407-foot high Garabit Viaduct) and have multiple arches or piers (such as the 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, the 8-arch Wharncliffe Viaduct, and the 5-pier Busseau Sur Grusse Viaduct). All, but one, have no support system above the road deck. The exception is the Millau Viaduct, which uses a cable-stayed deck on top of seven piers that range from 253 feet to 800 feet tall. All, but one, are over land. The Garabit Viaduct spans the Truyère Valley and one-third of its length crosses the Truyère River. In another example, the approaches to the Cubzac-les-Ponts over the River Dordogne are considered viaducts, but it is a bridge that crosses the river.
I find myself again at a loss. While the definition in this book seems to work for the Chicago viaducts, the examples do not look like the Chicago structures. To help the Chicago viaducts fit in, I propose a new definition built from the three definitions and nine examples above:
Viaduct: an elevated roadway, supported by many arches or piers over land.
Yet, there are exceptions to every rule. The nine examples in “How to Read Bridges” include exceptions to the support system of the viaduct and to the obstacle spanned by a viaduct. Expanding upon this, the Chicago viaducts, which are supported by multiple piers over land, become the exception to the elevated part of the rule or definition.
My biggest take away is that it is no easier to define a viaduct than it is to define a bridge. In most cases, as with bridges, a viaduct is something you know when you see it, even if you cannot define it. However, sometimes it takes a label or a sign, such as the maps of Chicago’s viaducts and, prior to its restoration, the maps of Heth’s Run Bridge, to know what you are seeing.
Amid writing my posts about how the wealth gap manifests itself in the built environment and the morality of unequal economic investment in cities, I took another trip to Chicago. I spent most of my stay in the downtown areas within a mile of Grant Park. I love the old stone buildings, established green parks, ornate fountains, and modern glass skyscrapers with interesting architectural embellishments. Yet this trip, I felt hypocritical as I walked around soaking it all in. All these elements that I enjoy are the result of significant financial outlay that I know is not evenly distributed throughout the city. So where was my moral indignation at this display of deeply entrenched wealth unequally spread?
Chicago’s display of wealth isn’t gaudy like Tijuana or Las Vegas. The message I absorb in places like those with their flashing lights is “come on in, so we can suck all the money out of your pockets.” Chicago businesses identified their presence on the street with regular signs leaving it up to the passers to decide whether to engage.
One bar did add a layer of enticement to their sidewalk advertising. I was searching for a place for dinner, with this bar in mind as the one that looked most appealing from Google maps. I was looking around to see if there were any other better options. The smell of the burgers from this first bar convinced me that it was the best option in that vicinity. It was only after I had sat down and ordered that I realized the smell wasn’t coming from the open window, but rather it came from pipes pumping the kitchen smells to the sidewalk. Still it was a subtle inducement and unlike flashing lights it did not have a nefarious undertone.
By pumping out the smell to the sidewalk, it also felt indiscriminate. Anyone passing was invited to enjoy. This was unlike my experience in Cardiff where if I couldn’t afford the items in the business, I felt I shouldn’t be walking past in the public space. I never felt like I didn’t belong in Chicago. There were economic barriers to certain experiences, but those places that I encountered still did not feel exclusionary. One example is the lounge on the 96th floor of Chicago’s Hancock Building. The stunning views are only accessible to those who can afford a $17 cocktail, but those who can afford one only once in a blue moon were just as welcome as those who can afford one or more every night.
In Chicago, I never saw that strong line, as in Tijuana and Cardiff, that divided those with and those without financial resources. Everywhere I went, there was a mix of people with different economic statuses, skin colors, and first languages. This diversity gave me the feeling that anyone is welcome to enjoy the well-maintained investment in public spaces with or without hitting a minimum financial threshold.