New Book—Lakefront: Public Trust and Private Rights in Chicago, by Joseph D. Kearney and Thomas W. Merrill

Post by Henry Smith

I have just read and greatly enjoyed this wonderful new book by Joe Kearney and Tom Merrill about the shaping of the Chicago Lakefront. Sometimes this shaping is literal (or littoral?), because Kearney and Merrill embed a highly expert and engagingly written history of the legal controversies surrounding the Lakefront with a social and even geographical account. Human activity impacted the actual Lakefront not just through landfill, over which some controversies, sometimes even violent ones, were fought, but even through efforts by various landowners to promote accretion. As the title reflects, a central part of the story is occupied by the public trust doctrine and the famous Illinois Central case of 1892, and Kearney and Merrill have done an incredible detective job to root out the story of how the Lakefront Act of 1869 (granting submerged lakefront land to the railroad) was passed. They investigate how much corruption was there, down to who ate dinner with whom on the night before passage!

What is especially impressive is how the various legal controversies interacted with each other in a semi-contingent way. While the authors maintain a wide lens—the characters involved range from Cap Streeter, to the Catholic Potawatomis, to Montgomery Ward and the well-heeled business elite on Michigan Avenue—the story, from railroad yards to museums to parks, is ultimately one of elites getting their way over other elites. They also draw measured lessons from this sweeping history about how the law is and is not important and how its ultimate effects on the common good are semi-predictable at best. This is a richly-textured history that will appeal to legal experts and laypeople alike. And for anyone who has lived in Chicago, it will make one appreciate the city in new ways. This is perfect summer reading, even if one can’t find one’s way to the beautiful beaches on the Chicago Lakefront to do it.

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