Tuesday, June 16, 2009

No Ocean, but Chicago Moves to Legalize Surfing

The Windy City is one of America's sports meccas: home to the Bears and the Bulls, the Sox and the Cubs, and, Chicagoans are only recently willing to admit, the Blackhawks. But can it become Surf City, U.S.A.?

This week, Chicago Park District's governing board empowered the city superintendent to lift a decades-old ban on the use of flotation devices like boogie boards on the city's waterways. (The ordinance was established to prevent accidental drownings; government officials were chiefly concerned about liability and the prospect that novice swimmers, imitating highly skilled surfers, might leap into Lake Michigan, especially in harsh winter conditions.) The move will effectively legalize surfing in the heart of the Midwest and make Chicago an unlikely beachfront in the war to extend surfing's influence across the country.

At first, the idea of surfers riding waves within view of Chicago's iconic skyline may seem bizarre. But this city has long had robust beaches. This spring, Chicago opened its newest beach, on the South Side, and a former resident of the South Side — the city's favorite adopted son, Hawaiian-born President Barack Obama — is a surfer, although it's hard to imagine him ever taking to the shores of Lake Michigan. The city's beaches have more than a century's worth of history. In the 1890s, a group of prominent Chicagoans, including doctors and businessmen, lobbied for the creation of public beaches along Lake Michigan, in part so working-class residents would have access to clean bathing water. In 1913 the beaches became the site of controversy when women's rights activists used them to protest the legally mandated but voluminous "swimming costumes" — one woman stripped down to her bloomers to swim because it was impossible, she said, to swim in the required skirt. A judge ruled that her attire was not indecent.

Surfing, for its part, is not an alien sport to Chicagoans. At Ryan Gerard's Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Mich., many of his growing base of customers make the 90-minute drive from Chicago to purchase their gear. "There's no reason we shouldn't be allowed to surf," Gerard says. "We see ourselves as an asset to local communities." But given the risk of being ticketed and fined $500, Chicago surfers have typically gone elsewhere in the Great Lakes, the world's largest body of fresh water. Still, aficionados continued to sneak into the water, and after one ticket too many, a group of surfers last December sent Chicago's Park District a proposal asking that surfing be allowed at four of the city's beaches during the traditional beach season, Memorial Day to Labor Day, as well as year-round at a fifth beach.

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