When people think of the city of Chicago, probably the first thing that doesn’t come to mind is beaches. But miles and miles of sandy beaches are one of Chicago’s defining characteristics and one of its alluring amenities.
Of Chicago’s 30 miles of shoreline, 26 are public land, with 29 separate beaches stretching 15 miles in total.
I live two city blocks from a Lake Michigan beach, which is a central reason I chose to live in the far north Rogers Park neighborhood. I can walk to the beach. Every day. Year round.
As a tour guide, I love showing the lakefront to people visiting Chicago for the first time. Most marvel that the lake seems “just like an ocean.” And, including our very prominent river, Chicago has more water and boats than most visitors had ever imagined. One might be surprised to learn that Chicago has the largest municipal harbor system, with nine yacht marinas.
We Chicagoans take our beaches more or less for granted. But free, clean, public beaches were not the case a century ago. Reading a bit of the history of Chicago’s beaches was quite eye-opening: many people fought for many years simply to have public beaches.
The earliest beaches were owned by hotels and private clubs. The first city beach opened at Lincoln Park in 1895, due to the efforts of the Free Bath and Sanitary League. They believed that the working class and the poor should have access to clean bathing beaches.
In the early decades of the 20th century, women’s groups and reformers successfully persuaded the city to create and maintain more beach land for the public good.
But while Chicago’s beaches were plentiful and secure for the future, they were the site of more battles to come: from the morality concerns over proper “bathing” wear that went on into the 1960s…
…to the start of the deadly 1919 race riots, which began with the death of a black youth on a segregated southside beach.
Fortunately today, we can wear whatever we want, swim wherever we want, and the beaches are generally safe and clean.
But on hot, humid summer days, perhaps the biggest challenge we face is simply finding a spot: