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On Chicago’s South Side, neighbors fight to keep Lake Michigan at bay
Photo by Siri Chilukuri/Grist

On Chicago’s South Side, Neighbors Fight to Keep Lake Michigan at Bay

Jera Slaughter looks at her backyard with pride, pointing out every feature and explaining how it came to be. The landscaping committee in her apartment building takes such things seriously. But unlike homeowners who might discuss their prized plants or custom decking, Slaughter is describing a beach, one covered in large concrete blocks, gravel, and a small sliver of sandy shoreline that overlooks Lake Michigan. It’s a view worthy of a grand apartment building built on Chicago’s South Side in the 1920s and deemed a national historic landmark.

But repeated flooding has over the years radically remade the private beach. Slaughter has lived in the Windy City long enough to remember when it extended 300 feet. Now it barely reaches 50. Her neighborhood might not be the first place anyone would think of when it comes to climate-related flooding, but Slaughter and her neighbors have been witnesses to a rapid erosion of their beloved shoreline.

“Out there where that pillar is,” she said, pointing to a post about 500 feet away, “that was our sandy beach. The erosion has eaten it away and left us with this. We tried one year to re-sand it. We bought sand and flew it in. But by the end of the season, there was no sand left.”

Recent years have seen high lake levels flood parking garages and apartments, wash out beaches, and even cause massive sinkholes. It’s a growing hazard, one that Slaughter has been desperately fighting for years.

“All things considered, this is our home,” she said.

Lake Michigan has long tried to take back the land on its shores. But climate change has increased the amount of ground lost to increasingly variable lake levels and ever more intense storms. What was once a tedious but manageable issue is now a crisis. The problem became particularly acute in early 2020 when a storm wreaked havoc on the neighborhood, severely damaging homes, flooding streets, and spurring neighbors to demand that City Hall support a $5 million plan to hold back the water.

“We need to be prepared for higher lake levels,” said Charles Shabica, a geologist and professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University.

Though Shabica says the erosion in the Great Lakes region won’t be on par with what rising seas will bring to coastal regions, he still notes it’s an issue that Chicago must prepare for.

“We’ll see climate impacts, but I think we can accommodate them,” said Shabica.

Beyond flooding homes, that epic storm opened sinkholes and washed out certain beaches, leaving them eroded and largely unusable. But the people of South Shore refused to give in easily. In the wake of Lake Michigan’s encroaching water, residents have organized their neighbors and prompted solutions by creating a voice so loud that politicians, engineers, and bureaucrats took heed. In 2022, state Representative Curtis Tarver II helped secure $5 million from the state of Illinois to help solve the issue.

“For some odd reason, and I tend to believe it is the demographics of the individuals who live in that area, it has not been a priority, for the city, the state, or the [federal government],” Tarver said.

After years of tireless work, folks in this community have convinced the city to study the problem of lakeside erosion to see how bad this damage from climate change will be — and how fast they can fix it.

Slaughter founded the South Side Lakefront Erosion Task Force alongside Juliet Dervin and Sharon Louis in 2019 after a few particularly harsh fall storms caused heavy flooding in the area.

Chicagoans in the predominantly Black and middle-class South Shore had noticed the inequitable treatment of city shoreline restoration projects. Beaches in the overwhelmingly white and affluent North Side neighborhoods received more media coverage of the problem, faster fixes, and better upkeep, according to the group. This disparity occurred despite the fact that South Side beaches have no natural barriers to the lake’s waves and tides, placing them at greater risk of erosion.

“We were watching the news coverage [of] what was happening up north as if we weren’t getting hit with water on the south end of the city,” said Louis.

The threat is undeniable to Leroy Newsom, who has lived in his South Side apartment for 12 years. Despite the fact that another building stands between his home and the lake, he and his neighbors often experience flooding. The white paint in the lobby is mottled with spackle from earlier repairs. During particularly intense deluges, the entryway can become unnavigable. A large storm hit the city on the first weekend in July, inundating several parts of the city and suburbs.

“When we get a rainstorm like we did before, it floods,” he said.

Newsom lives on an upper floor and has not had to deal with the particulars of cleaning up after flooding, but he has noticed it is a persistent issue in the neighborhood.

Louis, Dervin, and Slaughter have spent countless hours tirelessly knocking on doors and even setting up shop near the local grocery store to teach their neighbors about lake-related flooding. They wanted to mobilize people so they could direct attention and money toward solving the issue. They also researched the slew of solutions available to stem the tide of the lake.

“People were making disaster plans, like, ‘What if something happens, this is what we’re gonna do’. And we were looking for mitigation plans, you know. Let’s get out in front of this,” said Louis.

Solutions can look different depending upon the area, but most on the South Side mirror the tools engineers have used for years to keep the lake at bay elsewhere. What makes these approaches a challenge is how exposed the community is to Lake Michigan in contrast to other neighborhoods.

“South Shore is uniquely vulnerable,” said Malcolm Mossman of the Delta Institute, a nonprofit focusing on environmental issues in the Midwest. “It’s had a lot of impacts over the last century, plus, certain sections of it have even been washed out.”

The shoreline throughout the city is dotted with concrete steps, or revetements, and piers that extend into the lake to prevent waves from slamming into beaches. It also has breakwaters, which run parallel to the shoreline and are considered one of the best defenses against an increasingly active Lake Michigan.

“The best solution that we’ve learned are the shore parallel breakwaters,” said Shabica. “And we make them out of rocks large enough that the waves can’t throw them around. And the really cool part is it makes wonderful fish habitat and wildlife habitat. So we’re really improving the ecosystem, as well as making the shoreline inland a lot less vulnerable.”

Shabica also mentions that this isn’t a new solution. The Museum Campus portion of the city, which extends into the lake and includes the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium, used to be an island before engineers decided to connect it to the shoreline in 1938.

The main component of the plan to help reduce repeated flooding in the neighborhood is to install a breakwater around 73rd Street using the funding Tarver helped earmark for the issue, according to Task Force co-founder Juliet Dervin. This solution would help prevent the types of waves and flooding that damage streets, most notably South Shore Drive, which is the extension of DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Past damage to the streets has rerouted city buses that run along South Shore Drive and interrupted the flow of traffic.

One local resident installed a private breakwater at her own expense following the 2020 storm, just a few blocks from Slaughter’s house, and it has tempered some effects of intense storms and flooding. But since this breakwater is smaller, surrounding areas are still vulnerable. Breakwaters can range from a few hundred thousand dollars to millions of dollars, depending on size and other factors.

Despite funding now being allocated to fix the issue and government attention squarely focused on lakefront-related flooding there are still hurdles to overcome.

Both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Chicago Park District are in the middle of a three-year assessment of the shoreline to determine appropriate fixes for each area. The study will finish in 2025, decades after the last study of this kind was conducted in the early 1990s. This gives Slaughter pause.

“If I tell you this continuous erosion has been going on for such a long time, then you would have to know, they have looked into it and studied it from A to Z,” she said. “What do you mean, you don’t have enough statistics? We’ve done flyovers and all kinds of things. People who’ve been here filming it, when the water jumps up to the top of the building, they’ve seen it slam into things.”

For her, the damage has been clear but the prolonged period of inaction and lack of attention from outside groups means a shorter window to implement fixes. Slaughter sees this as a fundamental flaw in how we approach issues stemming from the climate crisis.

“The philosophy,” she said, “is repair, not prevent.”

This story was updated to give the correct year in which $5 million was secured from the state of Illinois to address the erosion.

This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Borderless, Ensia, Planet Detroit, Sahan Journal, and Wisconsin Watch, as well as the Guardian and Inside Climate News. The project was supported by the Joyce Foundation. 

 

Siri Chilukuri is a journalist based in Chicago who covers culture, labor, and climate change. She’s a 2023-2024 Grist Fellow in Environmental Justice.

Co-published with Grist.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Siri Chilukuri is a journalist based in Chicago who covers culture, labor, and climate change. She's a 2023-2024 Grist Fellow in Environmental Justice.

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