Backward River Festival presents a celebration of water, art, activism

The Backward River Festival
The Backward River Festival: Reclaiming the Chicago River is presented by the University of Illinois Chicago’s Freshwater Lab. Image credit: Jose Rosa

From new parks and riverwalks to large warehouses and residential developments, many changes are taking place along the Chicago River.

What do these transformations mean for Chicago’s communities? Who bears the burden and who benefits? In Chicago, a resident’s experience with the river can often depend on where they live.

The Backward River Festival: Reclaiming the Chicago River, a two-day outdoor event presented by the University of Illinois Chicago’s Freshwater Lab, will bring together artists, environmental justice advocates, local residents and community organizers to examine these questions and reflect on the river’s current condition and future.

The festival, scheduled Oct. 16-17 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., will feature water-related activities, music, panel discussions, art, food and a community expo outside of the Eleanor Street Boathouse at Park 571, 2828 S. Eleanor St. Admission is free and open to the public.

Family-friendly festival activities include canoeing with Friends of the Chicago River; catch and release fishing, aquatic ecosystem and urban river education with Shedd Aquarium; making seed bombs, which are native plant seeds and mushroom compost packed in clay, with Urban Rivers; a participatory mapping workshop; and panel discussions and live performances on the mainstage hosted by Ricardo Gamboa of The Hoodoisie, an online news program focused on Chicago community activism.

More information and the full schedule of festival events are available online.

The festival is an opportunity for the public, particularly residents in communities surrounding the South Branch and the Sanitary and Ship Canal, to connect to the river and each other through curated activities and engaging art installations, according to Rachel Havrelock, founder and director of The Freshwater Lab, a humanities and social science initiative focused on environmental justice and water issues in the Great Lakes region.

“Chicago waterfronts are key sites of change. For the most part, decisions on investment and development are being made outside the community, but the impacts are significant. We’re convening this festival for people to engage in these changes and have it reflect what they want in their river and their city in the future,” Havrelock said.  

The festival’s name is inspired by “The Backward River,” the lab’s multimedia project featuring UIC student-created narratives, visuals, podcasts and audio vignettes that examine the history, issues, and future of the Chicago River. Many of these contributions can be experienced at the festival.

Like the festival, Havrelock said, the “The Backward River” project amplifies local social and environmental issues in creative and accessible ways. 

“All Chicagoans are impacted by climate change and water issues, so the festival, in tandem with the project, is an excellent opportunity and fun approach to present and engage in culture and environmental matters with the general public. They also help to amplify the local voices that aren’t always heard from, particularly as it relates to the environment,” she said.

Support for the festival is provided by a University of Illinois Presidential Initiative Grant in the Arts and Humanities.

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