Dirty Waters: Confessions of Chicago's Last Harbor Boss

Dirty Waters: Confessions of Chicago's Last Harbor Boss

by R. J. Nelson

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In 1987, the city of Chicago hired a former radical college chaplain to clean up rampant corruption on the waterfront. R. J. Nelson thought he was used to the darker side of the law—he had been followed by federal agents and wiretapped due to his antiwar stances in the sixties—but nothing could prepare him for the wretched bog that constituted the world of a Harbor Boss.

Director of Harbors and Marine Services was a position so mired in corruption that its previous four directors ended up in federal prison. Nelson inherited angry constituents, prying journalists, shell-shocked employees, and a tobacco-stained office still bearing a busted door that had been smashed in by the FBI. Undeterred, Nelson made it his personal mission to become a “pneumacrat,” a public servant who, for the common good, always follows the spirit—if not always the letter—of the law.

Dirty Waters is a wry, no-holds-barred memoir of Nelson’s time controlling some of the city’s most beautiful spots while facing some of its ugliest traditions. A guide like no other, Nelson takes us through Chicago’s beloved “blue spaces” and deep into the city’s political morass. He reveals the different moralities underlining three mayoral administrations, from Harold Washington to Richard M. Daley, and navigates us through the gritty mechanisms of the Chicago machine. He also deciphers the sometimes insular world of boaters and their fraught relationship with their land-based neighbors.

Ultimately, Dirty Waters is a tale of morality, of what it takes to be a force for good in the world and what struggles come from trying to stay ethically afloat in a sea of corruption. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226334523
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/31/2016
Series: Chicago Visions and Revisions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

R. J. Nelson is a former Superintendent of Special Services and Director of Harbors and Marine Services for the Chicago Park District, positions he held from 1987 to 1994. He is also the retired CEO of the Hammond Indiana Port Authority. His other positions included vice president of Grebe Shipyard in Chicago, administrator at the University of Chicago, and chaplain at Cornell University. He lives in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

Dirty Waters

Confessions of Chicago's Last Harbor Boss

By R. J. Nelson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-33452-3


Dawn City

March 23, 1987.

People asked me how a former college chaplain landed the job of director of harbors and marine services for the Chicago Park District, a position so mired in corruption that the last four directors before me went to federal prison. I jokingly said that in my interview when asked what denomination I served, I answered, "tens and twenties mostly," and was hired on the spot. In truth the only qualification essential for this job was a sense of humor, especially irony.

Only ten days on the job, I was besieged and exhausted: I faced angry boaters who demanded to see me about their boat slip applications, harbor contractors with unpaid bills, lawsuits over slip assignments, and nervous staff members begging to keep their jobs. The Tribune, Sun-Times, and Channel Seven News, armed with Freedom of Information Act requests, copied files all week, chasing various stories of harbor corruption. FBI agents showed up every other day, opened file cabinets, and asked questions. They scared the hell out of me. In the sixties at Cornell, they investigated me for my antiwar activities, followed me everywhere, demanded to see my draft card, tapped my phone, and assembled a thick file on me, some of which is still classified, all of which got me fired. But this time around a generation later, they zeroed in on my predecessor, Gerald Pfeiffer. They were polite and asked for my help with records. I helped them.

The marine director's office was huge, with a double-wide window overlooking Soldier Field Stadium. The walls and ceiling were dirty and stained from years of chain-smoking. The florescent light fixtures were yellowed, and the threadbare carpet smelled of ground-in dirt from years of foot traffic. The broken glass in the office door, where the FBI officers smashed their way in, was still covered with plywood. A large safe in one corner could not be opened, because only Gerald Pfeiffer knew the combination. His fifty-gallon aquarium still bubbled away on one long wall. Dozens of tropical fish stared down at me. A cheap armoire in another corner was filled with Cook County sheriff uniforms. Pfeiffer used his clout to get appointed a deputy sheriff, a common perk for pols that allowed him to carry a gun and make arrests. With a .357 magnum on his hip, he often made surprise visits to the harbors looking for harbor rule violators to intimidate and punish.

About nine thirty in the morning, my secretary knocked on my door. "Luke Cosme, one of the lakefront engineers, is here to see you." He entered tentatively, peering around, carrying two thick, rolled-up sets of blueprints against his chest like an archaeologist carrying the Dead Sea scrolls. Luke — old school, way past retirement, with thick silver hair, and almost British in manner — wore a dark-blue pinstriped suit with a white handkerchief, a perfectly knotted striped tie, a light-blue shirt that looked new, and polished wing-tip shoes that lifted and set down in measured, short steps as he approached my desk.

"Do you know I have not been allowed in this office for ten years?" he said, shaking his head. "Your predecessor never once asked for our engineering opinion on anything in the harbors. When he wanted something, like specifications for that star dock contract that got him into trouble, for instance, he would gather us together in a conference room and dictate the specs he wanted. That was it."

I realized Luke was one of those lifers my father told me to look for wherever I worked, an elder whose knowledge and expertise were critical. And here he came looking for me.

"Worst of all, Mr. Pfeiffer always carried a gun," Luke continued.

"I knew he carried a gun in the harbors ... but to meetings here?"

"Yes, and he would take off his suit coat so we could see the chrome barrel and bone handles. So intimidating, no one dared question him." Luke paused to look over my newly decorated office. He walked over to two enlarged photos of icebergs I had taken while sailing off the coast of Labrador four years ago with Tom Leonard, my former boss at Grebe Shipyard.

"What size was the iceberg?" he asked, as an engineer naturally would.

"About twice the size of Soldier Field Stadium, maybe three times as high." Luke was especially fascinated when told the berg was floating close to where the Titanic went down.

"The locals thought we were crazy to sail so close. See how the cone-shaped top is starting to crack? Icebergs shaped like that tend to split in two and create forty- to fifty-foot tidal waves. If that had happened, our forty-foot sailboat wouldn't have stood a chance. When fishermen see those cracked bergs, they get the hell away.

"One day sailing along in such dense fog, we couldn't even see the bow of the boat. Captain Leonard was down in the cabin hunched over the radar screen while I steered. Suddenly the steady wind stopped and the sails went limp. I told him I thought we must be next to an iceberg, but he scoffed: 'there's no berg on the radar screen.' We didn't know then that small radars don't pick up ice very well if at all.

"We argued a little. I had carefully read the Canadian government's maritime guide book, Navigation through Ice, which Tom had placed on a shelf next to the ship-to-shore radio. One chapter described a phenomenon called 'ice blink,' a yellowish glow high in the fog caused by the sun's rays bouncing off the top of an iceberg. The book warns that when you see ice blink, the berg is right on top of you."

"Ice blink. I've never heard of such a thing, but I'm not a sailor," said Luke.

"Well, I recognized it and yelled down to Tom. He ignored me and stayed glued to the blank radar scope. Suddenly we were bombarded by falling chunks of ice like ice-cube trays opened upside down. Out of the fog no more than fifty feet away, the berg appeared, a white cliff of ice towering over our masts making tinkling sounds, like glass wind chimes, as shards of thousand-year-old ice showered the deck. 'Ice berg off the port beam,' I shouted, turning on the engine, pushing the throttle to full, and spinning the wheel to head the boat away from the berg. Captain Tom rushed up the companionway, saw the gigantic berg, and froze. We had no idea how big it was or whether it formed a horseshoe trap around us, in which case we would surely collide, so I eased back on the throttle. Tom took the helm and sent me to the bow. I grabbed a handheld air horn and wedged myself into the bow pulpit looking pointlessly into the thickest fog I had ever seen. I pressed the air-horn button once, then twice, then twice again, listening for an echo off the ice. An immediate echo meant imminent collision. My heart pounded as I pressed the horn again. No echo, thank God. We were angling away from the berg. Within minutes the fog shroud around the berg cleared; the sun brightened, and we could see the forbidding granite Labrador coast. Behind us the floating ghostlike mountain of ice slogged off to the south, as I snapped pictures."

Luke nodded in rapt attention. "That's quite a story. I read in the Sun Times that you sailed across the Atlantic, too."

Landlubbers, especially Midwesterners like Luke, are always impressed by tales of sailing across the Atlantic. While I didn't tell him, my voyage was to navigate through a midlife crisis. I put out to sea to cross an ocean of the past and sort out my future.

"Yes, with a couple of guys. But enough sea stories, Mr. Cosme; what can I do for you?"

"First, everyone calls me Luke. I thought you might like to see the plans for the Shedd Aquarium expansion and its big new seawall. It sticks out quite a ways into Monroe Harbor."

Luke unrolled the blueprints on top of my new round conference table and thumbed through to the scale drawings of the seawall. It was massive, ten feet off the water and made of reinforced concrete facing northeast, the direction of the worst Lake Michigan storms. The wall was concave like a snowplow blade, designed to scoop up waves and throw them back on themselves. I asked Luke if the Shedd engineers expected a tsunami to hit Chicago. He chuckled and reminded me that the lake just recorded its highest level ever; storm waves flooded Lake Shore Drive. The Chicago Yacht Club stuffed table linens under its doors to stop water from surging in. Glass windows on apartment buildings on Sheridan Road were smashed in. When Mayor Washington appeared at a news conference on the second floor balcony of one of those buildings to announce the creation of a "Shoreline Protection Commission," he and all the other dignitaries present were doused by spray from huge waves, all caught on tape for the evening news. The lake had been rising for several years. All the boat slips built permanently on pilings had to be retrofitted with riser platforms in order for boaters to get to their boats without boots.

"This is serious. Our lakefront facilities were not designed for such high water levels," Luke said authoritatively. I told him not to worry, that the day after I was hired lake levels started to recede.

With a high-pitched chuckle, Luke returned to the plans. In addition to the concave design, the engineers decided to dump tons of armor stones in the water in front of it to break up the waves before they hit. Unfortunately, they would encroach on the already narrow south entrance to Monroe Harbor. Boats trying to get in during storms or with motor trouble in calm weather would drift onto these boulders.

"Luke, obviously no boaters were involved in this design. How much time do we have to suggest changes?"

"Without discussion your predecessor signed off on the plans last year," he said dolefully. "The bids have already been awarded."

"There are no places for boats to tie up, only piles of rocks. Didn't anyone think to have a nice place for visiting boats to tie up and take in the aquarium, and its sister museums, the planetarium, and the natural history museum — all on the edge of the largest harbor in the city?"

"Believe me," Luke answered apologetically, "I tried to get the aquarium's engineering firm to test their seawall design in our wave tank. If they had done so, we would have proved it didn't need to be so massive."

"We have a wave tank?" This seemed unlikely to me. Wave tanks are basically swimming pools with machines that simulate waves against scale models of structures. Some are huge and can be frozen to test the effects of ice on navigation buoys, or even scale-model oil rigs.

"Under Soldier Field, built during the Great Depression to test the new seawalls and permanent piers the federal government constructed along the lakefront. I was a young man then," he said wistfully, paraphrasing the famous quote from Daniel Burnham, "we made no small plans."

I asked Luke to show me the wave tank. He looked at his watch and suggested we go right away. His crew of surveyors were testing a model replacement of Casino Pier, the quarter-mile-long structure that protects the entrance to Jackson Park Harbor. The pier was originally built to mark the entrance to the canals of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Back then thousands of people strolled out onto the pier, but after a hundred years, it had deteriorated badly and was closed to public access.

Luke led me down the escalator to the basement and then through glass doors into an underground cave with steel roll-up doors at either end. This is where the commissioners, the general superintendent, and other big shots parked their cars. There were thirteen numbered spaces.

"Did you know that your predecessor was assigned space number 3 right behind General Superintendent Kelly and the board president?" We walked down a flight of stairs. At the bottom was an underground parking lot with 102 parking spaces assigned to various executives. My space was number 100, as far away from the stairs as you can get. Luke told me that it might take years to get a closer space, depending on how much clout I brought along. He paused with raised eyebrows waiting for me to disclose my political connections.

"You may not believe this, Luke — no one else does — but I have no clout. Absolutely none."

"Me neither," he said. "After forty-five years, I still have to park outside. I guess they want me close to the lake."

We continued to walk underneath the grandstands past numerous doors, some with glass panels marked in faded black letters indicating various trades: electrical, rigging, welding, carpentry, and mechanical. Other doors without glass were not marked; some were steel, some wood resembling weathered barn doors. These rooms were used for many different things to serve the downtown parks, and Luke knew them all.

"Soldier Field was built after World War I as an Olympic stadium with track and field, a soccer field in the center, and pageantry areas in the north end. The colonnades on both sides were designed to make it 'fit in' with the Field Museum next door. The south end of the seating area was designed as an amphitheater to mount classic Greek dramas behind a series of curtains, but was never used. Not too many Chicagoans interested in ancient Greek drama."

I listened carefully.

"During World War II the army installed rifle ranges, training facilities, and all sorts of offices down here. Top secret," Luke said holding his finger to his lips.

He led me down a long corridor with jail cells on both sides, where prisoners of war were occasionally held. At one time these cells were used during Bears games to hold drunks until the police hauled them off.

Somewhere beneath the fifty-yard line, Luke led me through a propped-open wooden door and then down four more stairs to a dirt floor. My glasses fogged up from extremely humid air that smelled swampy. We entered a large room with cinder-block walls painted navy gray that surrounded a shallow concrete pool the size of those at cheap motels, about ten by twenty feet. Solid two-foot-square timbers supported the ceiling under the stadium seating areas. These looked new, and Luke once again put his finger to his lips.

"See those cracks in the ceiling? The timbers are the only thing keeping the whole stadium from falling down. Those nice seating areas you see on television? Just a thin layer of latex concrete over the old crumbling concrete. The old stadium has to be replaced in ten or fifteen years. Don't worry. It's safe under here," he said, knocking for good luck on one of the heavy shoring timbers. The wave tank, illuminated by a grid of single-bulb porcelain fixtures, was full of dirty water about two feet deep. Three workers in park district uniforms and hip boots stood in the tank. From wooden bins along one wall, they picked various sized stones from quarter inch to half inch diameters, representing the armor and core stones at Casino Pier. The model pier angled across the pool at forty-five degrees and then turned back, forming a ninety-degree angle. In the far corner of the wave tank loomed a large motorized contraption with paddles and levers connected by camshafts.

"This is going to be noisy," Luke said as he reached into a rusty fuse box and threw a switch.

The wave machine started up, its paddles slapping water, undulating back and forth, created frothy waves chaotically at first, then in regular wavelengths.

"Watch how the machine simulates different height waves and frequencies," Luke shouted. Using a remote control box on a long cable with rows of lighted switches, he played with the controls. The machine groaned, changed paddle angles, and rhythmically pushed perfect model waves across the tank. As the waves became larger and more frequent, the surveyors took notes from gauges showing water depths at various points. Luke gradually pushed the machine to its limit. "These are the equivalent of twenty-five-footers," he said as two-footers crashed into the model seawall. Stones began to dislodge and tumble off their miniature piles. A breech opened up in the model, exciting the surveyors. As they focused a video camera on the widening breach, my ears felt like they were exploding. I tried to get Luke's attention to tell him I had seen enough, but he was lost in concentration.

The wave machine slapped furiously at the water until it strained beyond its limits and lurched off corroded mounting bolts. Shaft bearings squealed as paddles flew off the camshafts and flayed the water like a drowning man. The waves became irregular and washed over the sides of the tank. Luke dropped the remote and rushed to the fusebox while the surveyors sloshed their way to the wave machine. I backed away quickly and tripped as miniature waves washed over my ankles. My head slammed against one of the timbers. With a painful thud, I fell. Light fixtures dimmed and went black. My ears roared as if jammed with fire hoses. Semiconscious I heard a voice from the disabled wave machine hissing scratchy and high-pitched nonsense.


Excerpted from Dirty Waters by R. J. Nelson. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures

Dawn City
Harbors as Neighborhoods
Harbor Rats
A Boat Slip and Fall
Feet Wet
Rainbows and Riots
April Fools
Harbor Fire
Sand Traps
Moving on Up
Fog Bowl
Paul McCartney
Golf Dome from Hell
“Lakefront’s Small Wonder”
A Coast Guard Station Restored
A Reporter Falls Overboard
Tagline Contest
Daley’s Underground River
A Tale of Two Conventions
From Malcolm X to Mohammed Ali
So Sad, Too Bad
Filan Report
Basement Dreams


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