Calling Nancy Drew | Essay | Chicago Reader

Calling Nancy Drew 

Witnesses say the city built steps on the plaza where the Vietnam veterans memorial is now under construction, then tore them out. The city's response: Did not.

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For the past two years Greg Summers, who lives on the 52nd floor of one of the Marina City towers, has been watching the on-again, off-again construction project on the other side of the Chicago River. Last month he noticed something strange. "I watched them destroy the very thing I saw them construct over a year ago," he says. "You hear about make-work projects in Chicago, but it's a little startling to see one going on right outside your window."

Summers says he first saw crews working on the lower riverfront plaza just west of the Wabash bridge in the summer of 2003, soon after he moved into his condo. He says they built a 20-foot-long curving arc of four concrete steps topped by a flat area and a wall that backed up against Lower Wacker Drive. "It looked to me like the stairs were almost like ornamentation," he says.

Late that fall the construction crews disappeared. "It got cold and there was no work--that was for the balance of 2003," says Summers. "They didn't work at all in 2004."

A few weeks ago the workers returned. "They pulled out their jackhammers and started demolishing the stairs," he says. "I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute--what's going on?' On one level it's sort of funny. But on another level it's not funny. I'm a city of Chicago taxpayer--I'd like to know where my money's going."

Without realizing it, Summers was watching the latest twist in the strange saga of the city's Vietnam veterans memorial. The original memorial was a fountain that sat on a traffic island in the middle of Upper Wacker Drive. In September 2001, as part of the $200 million Wacker Drive reconstruction project, the city dismantled it and hauled the pieces away. Officials from the transportation department, which oversaw the project, assured Vietnam veterans that they would keep the memorial safe. They said they'd hired an archivist to inventory all the plaques, historical markers, and monuments along that section of Wacker, and they promised to return each to its proper place once construction was completed.

In July 2003, when I wrote a story on the memorial, the Wacker Drive construction had been completed for several months. Other monuments and plaques had been reinstalled, but not the Vietnam veterans memorial. City officials I talked to were unaware of the memorial's history. They didn't know that it had been dedicated at a 1982 Veterans Day ceremony, which, according to the Tribune, began with an invocation from Archbishop Joseph Bernardin and ended when Mayor Jane Byrne "placed in the fountain wall a time capsule containing the names of the Chicago-area servicemen who died in the war and a letter from President Reagan commending the city for remembering the war veterans." City officials didn't even know the time capsule existed until I told them about it, and they didn't know where it was. Two years later they're still looking for it. "We are making every effort we can to find the time capsule," says Brian Steele, a transportation department spokesman. "Its disappearance remains a mystery."

In any case, Steele says, the city has designed a new Vietnam veterans memorial, one that will occupy the same lower riverfront plaza where Summers has been watching crews work. The original plan was to finish the memorial in 2004, and Steele says work started in the summer of 2003, when crews cleared the site in preparation for construction. But he insists construction didn't begin until last month, because it took longer than expected to secure federal funding.

Steele says the new memorial, which will cost $4.3 million, will be worth the wait. "This will be one of our most attractive public spaces," he says. "It's scheduled to be completed in early November, in time for a Veterans Day recommissioning ceremony."

The memorial will consist of a wall with water running down it, emblems from each of the armed services, flags, a terraced lawn with paths that are accessible to the disabled, a sculpture featuring pieces of the old memorial--including the time capsule, if city officials can find it--and the engraved name of every Illinois soldier killed in action. "We have been working closely with veterans' groups on the design," says Steele. "The veterans of Chicago deserve a memorial that honors them."

So what were those concrete steps Summers says he saw workers build, then tear out?

Apparently, that's another mystery. I sent Steele a copy of an e-mail in which Summers clearly describes what the steps looked like and where they were. Steele wrote me back, "I'm not certain what your reader is referring to. The only stairs we built during the Wacker reconstruction are the existing ones at Wabash. They were built to accommodate the new Wabash plaza [on the riverfront]. We haven't removed any stairs that were installed at this location."

When I called Steele he was even more insistent. "There were no steps there--we have taken nothing out that we put in," he said. "We have always intended to do what we are doing. We have not changed our plans."

But a man who works in another building that overlooks the project, who asked that his name not be used, says he too saw the steps. He offers a description slightly different from Summers's. "There was a little, not a long, walk leading to a five- or seven-step platform with what could have been a pool on the top and a semicircle," he says. "It could have been a fountain or a planter or something like that. The crew that's there now just took it out."

I also talked to workers at the site, who said they were hauling away rubble from something another crew had recently demolished, though they didn't know what it was.

Summers stands by his story. "I know what I saw--and I saw them install those stairs, and then I saw them dismantle those steps," he says. "I don't know how much money it cost them to do all this, but there's definitely a screwup. They either changed their minds about what they wanted to do, or they misread the drawings. But one thing I know--those stairs were there, and now they're gone."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, courtesy City of Chicago Dept. of Transportation.

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