The Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakefront is a grassroots coalition to remove Lakeshore Drive from Grant Park, and eventually the entire Chicago shoreline.

Walk, don’t drive.

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A quixotic grassroots group pushes for the unpaving of Lake Shore Drive

by Lydialyle Gibson, Chicago Journal, March 15, 2001

Early last spring, it seemed like a crazy, quixotic idea, even to the fervent bicycle activists who dreamed it up. But the more they thought about it and talked about it and told their friends, even dabbled in a little research, the more the idea began to take on feasibility, weight, hope.

As cyclist Gareth Newfield said, "Why should it be normal to have an eight-lane highway through a park? Why should cars be in the park at all?"

And that’s how the Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakefront was hatched. To many, it still seems crazy and quixotic. A grassroots movement of 50 or so volunteers, the Campaign seeks to depave the section of Lake Shore Drive that bisects Grant Park and reroute its traffic to the Kennedy, the Dan Ryan and to downtown streets. Since last year, campaigners have been distributing flyers, hawking petitions at lakeside crosswalks, and testifying at public meetings to drum up popular support for their plan. And according to Michael Burton, the Campaign’s unofficial organizer, it’s working, at least slightly. Moreover, the general head-scratching over Grant Park goings-on down on McFetridge Drive, Burton said, presents the perfect opportunity for discussing the merits of Lake Shore Drive’s at least partial elimination.

"It’s really cool when you talk to people about the idea," Burton said. "It captures people, makes them think big."

Burton said he doesn’t know how much the process of removing and rerouting Lake Shore Drive would cost, but he and a few others have been spending a lot of time in the last year making people think big, gathering hundreds of signatures for a petition bound for Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office. And Burton said campaigners introducing Lake Shore Drive’s removal to new audiences usually get one of two responses.

"It’s either amazement, like, "Wow, that’s amazing!" or people say "Well, I like to drive my car on that," Burton said. "But it’s a lot different to experience the park through your windshield than under your feet. It’s like the difference between watching TV and being there. People should go down and listen to the waves instead of listening to cars idle."

"The problem is that people don’t think about the fact that it’s so hard to get to the lake," said campaigner Julie Dworkin. "Until you start talking with them, they don’t realize."

According to Burton, he and his comrades were surprised at how little convincing most people needed. In part, that was what spurred them to testify at meetings about Grant Park and to write letters to the Park District and the city. So far, though, they have gotten no official reply.

But campaigners do have support, apparently, from the Friends of the Park. At last year’s annual meeting, Kathy Schubert, a friend of Burton’s, gingerly floated the idea of Lake Shore Drive’s depavement to Friends of the Park members, expecting the worst.

"I was thinking, ‘Boy, these people are never going to stand for it, they’re going to laugh me out of the room.’" Schubert said. "But they were very respectful…Mike and his friends have some wild ideas, and so I thought at first this was one of them."

According to Burton, though, members of the group have been getting surprises like that for a year.

"At first we felt like we were waving swords at windmills," he said. "But when we talked to people it was surprising how quickly people got it--‘Hey, how the hell did this happen? We’re much farther ahead than we ever thought we would be. People are talking."

But not, apparently, the folks down at the Park District. According to John Henderson, manager of planning and development for the Park District, the Campaign hasn’t yet shown up on his radar.

"I’m not aware of anything," he said. "But I wouldn’t be surprised if that group came to the next [Grant Park Framework Plan Steering Committee] meeting."

Henderson added, that on the surface of it, depaving Lake Shore Drive sounded like a serious long shot.

"Because it’s a federal highway, there would be major problems," Henderson said. "I haven’t heard of any attempts to garner support from the Park District, which would probably be futile anyway."

Henderson added that the city’s Department of Transportation would frown on the idea of depaving Lake Shore Drive, too.

A member of the steering committee, president of the Grant Park Advisory Council, and a steadfast advocate of more walking and less driving, Bob O’Neill said he was dimly aware of the Campaign’s efforts. And although he acknowledged the noble intentions of depaving Lake Shore Drive, he said he couldn’t quite see how it might successfully work. "As much as I am for pro-pedestrian design and parks, I can’t imagine how they’d re-route it," he said. "The closest would be the Kennedy and 94, but you’d still have to put a highway downtown."

Certainly, suggestions for making Grant Park "park dominant" and pedestrian-friendly surface at every steering committee meeting, and precedents for submerging highways and reclaiming greenspace exist in other cities, O’Neill said. "That’s what they did at the Museum Campus," he said. "But we have not discussed narrowing the streets. There have to be certain realities."

But according to Newfield, it all just depends on how much people really care. Tallying 19 lanes of roadway through the park --eight belong to lake Shore Drive, six to Columbus Drive and three to the north-bound half of Michigan Avenue--Newfield said Grant Park is little more than "glorified median." If making the park Chicago’s front yard is truly a priority, then doing without Lake Shore Drive will be less of a hardship, he said.

"We take for granted the things that we’re going to put up with," he said, including an "unsated desire" for roads that just yield more traffic and more roads.

"People are starting to realize all over the country that they can’t build their way out of traffic, not with roads," Newfield said.

Overwhelmingly, the Campaign’s volunteers are cyclists who participate in Chicago Critical Mass, a bike advocacy entity so loosely formulated that even the term "group" implies too much organization. Critical Mass’ only concrete element is the monthly bike ride that launches from Daley Plaza and pedals through the city, whither the majority chooses by way of applause. But Critical Mass also provides a network of social activism--much of it bicycle-, pedestrian-, and serendipitously environmentally oriented. Burton and Newfield can’t talk about Lake Shore Drive without straying in their outrage to the Soldier Field renovation plans, or their vision of a city-wide system of bike paths, or their wish for a few city-designated streets dominated by bicycles.

The city’s Plan Commission today will take up the issue of whether or not to approve a renovation plan for Soldier Field that includes building a new roadway through the museum campus in order to accommodate cars headed toward the stadium.

"The Campaign is much more than just removing lake Shore Drive," Newfield said. "It’s part of a whole process , and other parts might happen first. Like improving public transit and encouraging pedestrian-friendly businesses. It’s quite a large thing. There should parts of our lives where cars don’t encroach."

In the end, although Burton and his fellow campaigners seem to believe in the possibility that one day Lake Shore Drive could be dug out from Monroe to the Museum Campus, they acknowledge that their hardest task lies in convincing others that depaving the "superhighway" is possible, if not in convincing them that it’s right.

"Most people like the idea, but they think it’s kind of abstract," Newfield said. "Like, ‘it’s a nice idea, but it’s so improbable.’ Our work is in getting people to believe that it could happen, not that it should happen."