City dwellers have taken advantage of Lake Michigan’s beaches since the 19th century, though many of them were first developed by private clubs or hotels. This 1960 image from the Chicago History Museum’s photo archive (much of which is now available at images.chicagohistory.org) shows Oak Street Beach crowded with bathers, towels, beach chairs and bicycles. Yet the photo also hints at an unspoken reality behind the phrase public use in the ’60s and prior: The beaches were unofficially segregated. In fact, one of the city’s deadliest race riots erupted in 1919, when a black teenager drifted across an invisible line into a “white” section of the lake at 29th Street and was killed by white beachgoers; by the time the violence subsided a week later, 38 people were dead and 500 injured.
Today, the city views above Oak Street Beach are dominated by the iconic skyscraper formerly known as the John Hancock Center, begun in 1965 and completed in 1970, and the bustling Lakefront Trail, first designated as a bicycle path in 1963 and now offering perfect shoreline views. These new landmarks were accompanied by another change that came to the city’s beaches: The invisible racial lines began to fade in 1960, when civil rights activists applied the sit-in protest model to “wade-ins” at the shore. Now, commuters on Lake Shore Drive can ogle throngs of Chicagoans of all ethnicities playing beach volleyball in the shadow of the Hancock—though the different proposals to straighten the drive’s infamous S-curve could entirely displace Oak Street Beach in the years to come.