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Dirty Waters

Confessions of Chicago’s Last Harbor Boss

In 1987, the city of Chicago hired a former radical college chaplain to clean up rampant corruption on the waterfront. R. J. Nelson thought he was used to the darker side of the law—he had been followed by federal agents and wiretapped due to his antiwar stances in the sixties—but nothing could prepare him for the wretched bog that constituted the world of a Harbor Boss.

Director of Harbors and Marine Services was a position so mired in corruption that its previous four directors ended up in federal prison. Nelson inherited angry constituents, prying journalists, shell-shocked employees, and a tobacco-stained office still bearing a busted door that had been smashed in by the FBI. Undeterred, Nelson made it his personal mission to become a “pneumacrat,” a public servant who, for the common good, always follows the spirit—if not always the letter—of the law.

Dirty Waters is a wry, no-holds-barred memoir of Nelson’s time controlling some of the city’s most beautiful spots while facing some of its ugliest traditions. A guide like no other, Nelson takes us through Chicago’s beloved “blue spaces” and deep into the city’s political morass. He reveals the different moralities underlining three mayoral administrations, from Harold Washington to Richard M. Daley, and navigates us through the gritty mechanisms of the Chicago machine. He also deciphers the sometimes insular world of boaters and their fraught relationship with their land-based neighbors.

Ultimately, Dirty Waters is a tale of morality, of what it takes to be a force for good in the world and what struggles come from trying to stay ethically afloat in a sea of corruption. 

304 pages | 16 halftones, 6 maps | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Chicago Visions and Revisions

Chicago and Illinois

History: Urban History

Philosophy: Ethics

Political Science: Urban Politics


“Is it the water in Lake Michigan that makes Chicago such a politically corrupt city? That might sound like an outlandish theory, but R. J. Nelson’s Dirty Waters: Confessions of Chicago’s Last Harbor Boss makes a compelling case. . . . There’s a certain Chicagoness to Nelson’s storytelling that’s highly entertaining—the book reads like a series of anecdotes being told by a lifelong resident of the city.”

Chicago Reader


Library Journal

Dirty Waters is a revealing insider’s tale of a Harold Washington–era reformer battling for change. It tells the stories behind the headlines of the ‘Last Harbor Boss’ of the Chicago Park District. It is written for those who want to know how government really works and how a former protestor, college chaplain, and college administrator opened up the green space and blue space of Chicago and made a cumbersome bureaucracy work for us. Students, scholars, and citizens will read it avidly and celebrate the often unsung heroes of reform.”

Dick Simpson, professor of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago alderman

Dirty Waters is an insider’s account of what has become known as the ‘Chicago Way,’ the corruption at the very heart of the city’s political machine. This book is an honest, fascinating, and often startling story of how politics, bribery, and just plain ineptitude often plagued the ‘City that Works.’”

Dominic A. Pacyga, author of Slaughterhouse: Chicago's Union Stock Yard and the World It Made

“A joy to read. Nelson’s achievements are undeniable, detailed with good if rough humor. He declared war on the age-old system of gratuities and outright bribes that had maintained the Harbor’s operations in harmony with the citywide culture of ‘where’s mine?’ The results of this campaign are recounted in a feisty, highly entertaining fashion.”

James T. Fisher, Fordham University

Table of Contents

List of Figures

Dawn City
Harbors as Neighborhoods
Harbor Rats
A Boat Slip and Fall
Feet Wet
Rainbows and Riots
April Fools
Harbor Fire
Sand Traps
Moving on Up
Fog Bowl
Paul McCartney
Golf Dome from Hell
“Lakefront’s Small Wonder”
A Coast Guard Station Restored
A Reporter Falls Overboard
Tagline Contest
Daley’s Underground River
A Tale of Two Conventions
From Malcolm X to Mohammed Ali
So Sad, Too Bad
Filan Report
Basement Dreams


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