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Bill Kurtis’ past and present, from a riverbank

Updated: July 28, 2012 6:21AM



One of my favorite memories is sitting on the
Riverside Terrace at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok watching the Chao Phraya River. The river was my decompression zone when I was covering the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. Behind me the grand old dame whose guest list read like its own novel — Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming — helped its guests awake.

At 7 a.m. I’d take a table near the river to watch commuters riding tiny, fringe-topped canoes dodge huge galleon-shaped rice barges while the famous klongs (canals) began to fill up with floating markets. Now that is a river.

I’ve been looking for an equivalent ever since. So have San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis and Milwaukee — cities that have tried to create their own river experience.

And then one morning looking down from the Wrigley Building, I saw Bangkok all over again. The Chicago River was teeming with traffic.

Water taxis dodged large tourist boats, which were stacked double-decker for architectural tours. River cruise ships berthed where there were once schooners tied up, having sailed the Great Lakes with the commerce that made Chicago the fastest-growing frontier city in the country. Yes, we reversed it when it got too foul, but we didn’t stop there: Deep tunnel helped clean it up. So did environmental work along the banks. The color of the water today is translucent green.

We take it for granted, but it’s
still the artery of the city brought back to life.

Give me a summer morning at 7 and a riverside table at any one of the major restaurants that have sprouted along the riverbank, and I’ll tell you about the river in Bangkok that looked a lot like, well, a lot like the great Chicago River of today.

Bill Kurtis donated his $1,000 fee for writing this column to Friends of the Chicago River (chicagoriver.org); he served on the nonprofit’s gala committee for a fund-raiser June 6.



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