Chicago’s last ‘harbor boss’ Robert Nelson recalls fending off bribes, angry politicians and the VERY CORRUPT CHICAGO WAY!!!!
With his snow-white beard, blue eyes and blue-gray sweater to keep off the chill, Robert Nelson looks like an old sea captain.
And he has some stormy tales to tell.
Nelson, 76, a lifelong sailor, former university chaplain and peace activist, served as Chicago’s last “harbor boss,” a position formally called “director of Harbors and Marine Services.”
When Nelson came into the job under Mayor Harold Washington in March 1987, his predecessor, Gerald Pfeiffer, was under investigation by the FBI. There was broken glass on Nelson’s office floor where officers had smashed their way in. Pfeiffer eventually went to federal prison, as did the three men who came before him.
In Nelson’s first two weeks on the job, “I faced angry boaters, who demanded to see me about their boat slip applications, harbor contractors with unpaid bills, lawsuit over slip assignments and nervous staff members begging to keep their jobs,” he wrote in his new book, “Dirty Waters,” published by the University of Chicago Press.
Nelson, who worked under three mayors between 1987 and 1993, tells how he helped bring reforms and innovations to a notoriously corrupt branch of Chicago government. It also opens up a world many landlubber Chicagoans never know. Lake Michigan is more than just a nice part of our view and a place to cool off on a hot day — it is a working inland sea, used by fishermen and commercial and pleasure boaters fighting for limited space.