Cornell University Press

Joseph Kearney and Thomas Merrill on Chicago’s Public Waterfront

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We asked Joseph Kearney and Thomas Merrill three questions about their new book, Lakefront, and their research on the politics of urban resources.

1. What is your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

In 1897 an emissary travelled to Washington to ensure that the area of Chicago now known as Streeterville would not be handed over to a group of shady speculators with a novel legal claim. After receiving assurances from the brand-new presidential administration, he boarded a return train to Chicago. At a stop in Pennsylvania, he was stunned to see a Chicago newspaper announcing the transfer’s approval. The government land commissioner had authorized the transfer, and had leaked a copy to the speculators. Scandal ensued, but the original was still in an unopened envelope in Washington; after further machinations, it was rescinded.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

We did not investigate the circumstances surrounding the choice of the location in Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition—the famous 1893 World’s Fair—until well into the final research for the book. It turned out to be quite illuminating in terms of identifying the main antagonists over the future of the lakefront—the Illinois Central Railroad and the Michigan Avenue property owners. It would have been helpful to see this more clearly when we first started the research.

3. How do you wish you could change your field of study?

Legal archival material—such as statutes, ordinances, court opinions, and transcripts of trial records—are a great source of information that often clarifies what one finds from reading traditional correspondence and newspaper accounts. Historians of local government and the environment could very profitably make more use of such primary material than they often do today. Some of it is technical or abstruse, but it can usually be “translated” and communicated in a way that is clear.

Featured photo: North Avenue Beach, Chicago, US. Credit: Muzammil Soorma.

Cover image of Lakefront.
Read more about this book.

Joseph D. Kearney is Dean and Professor of Law at Marquette University. Thomas W. Merrill is the Charles Evans Hughes Professor of Law at Columbia University. Before entering academe, both authors clerked at the US Supreme Court and lived for many years in Chicago, where they practiced law and became captivated by the history of the city’s lakefront.

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