Downtown Chicago’s DuSable Park Closer to Becoming a Reality

For decades people have looked at the verdant peninsula of land sandwiched between the Chicago River and Ogden Slip and wondered how such a prime location escaped development, and wouldn’t it make a simply lovely park?  The answer to both questions is simple: Radiation.

The four-acre plot, bounded on three sides by water and the fourth by Lake Shore Drive is officially known on city charts as “Jean Baptiste Pointe.”  It’s one of so many locations in Streeterville and adjacent neighborhoods polluted with radioactive thorium.  It was done by the Lindsay Light Company back in the days when dumping industrial waste in the middle of a busy factory and warehouse district wasn’t seen as a problem.

Future DuSable Park. "That's some prime real estate there, Lou." (via Apple Maps)

“That’s some prime real estate there, Lou.” (via Apple Maps)

Today we know better, and when any big construction project in the area starts, one of the first things done is to test for thorium and clean the stuff up.  Sodium iodine probes, giant radioactive dirt totes, and scary white environmental suits cost money, adding to the cost of any project before it even gets off the ground.  Which is a big reason that particular chunk of land is in the state it’s in.  As Mr. Harvey used to say, “…and now you know [dramatic pause] the rest of the story.”

In fact, even the Navy Pier Flyover, which is soon to help cyclists and pedestrians fly over the future DuSable Park site, triggered an extensive search for gamma radiation.  If you enjoyed high school science, you may get a kick from reading this EPA PDF about what was found.

Today the story continues because of an announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency that it’s funneling almost seven million dollars to the Chicago Park District so that it can continue remediating the site.  The land belongs to the District, which has long wanted to convert the property at 401 North Lake Shore Drive into a proper park, named after the Haitian many consider the father of Chicago.

This is the second check the E.P.A.’s written for the project.  Back in 2012, it gave the District a quarter million to get the party started, and so far 115 cubic yards of contaminated dirt have been quarantined.

In case you’re wondering if the seven million new dollars for this project are Your Tax Dollars At Work™, not exactly.  It comes from Anadarko Petroleum, the massive Texas energy company that most people outside of Houston have never heard of, and they’re OK with that.  Anadarko ate Kerr-McGee in 2006.  Kerr-McGee bought Lindsay Light’s facilities in the 1960’s, 30 years after Lindsay went out of business.

And if you’re a suburban parent with teen-agers who think of themselves as super cool urban explorers, have a chat with them about the dangers of drinking beer and making out on top of stacks of radioactive dirt totes thinking they’re king of the world.  The fences are there for a reason, kids.

Location: 401 North Lake Shore Drive, Streeterville

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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