CHICAGO — For anyone who is planning on taking an architectural tour on the Chicago River, there is a good chance you might encounter the Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner.
Dr. Allison Arwady leads the river tours. It’s a volunteer position, born out of a love for our city and its architecture and the sense of problem-solving Chicago has adopted through the years.
Arwady said the history offers a sign of hope as we make our way to the other side of the pandemic.
On a recent evening, as the sun began to set over Chicago, WGN’s Medical Watch tagged along as a group of mostly tourists took in the sights with Chicago’s commander of all things Covid.
“Ninety percent of the people on the boat have absolutely no idea who I am and I love that,” she said. “It’s actually one of the most anonymous things I can do in the city. … And it is so different from my day job that it makes it feel kind of relaxing.”
When I’m leading one of these tours, I am not thinking about, ‘Is the mayor calling me?’ I am not thinking about the mess at work. For me I find things that I focus on actually to be pretty relaxing
Dr Allison Arwady, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner, docent
For four years, Arwady has worked as a docent.
“I have always loved architecture and history,” she said. “You have to apply to become a volunteer with the Chicago Architecture Center. And then there’s this big training process. … They don’t care if you are an MD. They care if you are generally interested in architecture, you have a good memory, you care about Chicago.”
Arwady helped the city navigate the pandemic, but she also helps navigate tour groups through the city’s beautiful architecture.
“Even before Covid, one of the things I really like about the Chicago Architecture Center is they don’t say, ‘Here’s a tour, memorize it.’ There are certain core buildings that you have to talk about, but you can decide which stories you want to tell. So I have always had a public health spin on my river tour.”
Her current job set her volunteer gig off course as she was working night and day monitoring and managing the pandemic. But on the recent summer night’s 7:30 p.m. cruise, packed with interested ticket holders. She began:
One thing that for me, makes buildings come alive, is very often you can see in the buildings how the architects, the designers, the engineers, the lawyers, the bankers are solving problems.
It is no problem for this guide to memorize an hour and a half’s worth of information.
As part of the tour, Arwady, the advocate for Covid vaccines recalls the first city inoculation campaign, after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
“Everything that made the city the city was gone overnight. And 1 in 3 Chicagoans was left homeless by this fire,” she tells the group. “Although 300 people died in the fire, that next winter was actually our worst year for mortality. … There was so much disease spread and exposure and it’s actually one of the first times we successfully here in Chicago used vaccines that was a smallpox vaccine if you wanted to be in the barracks, requirement to help stop the spread of smallpox. Just such a defining moment for Chicago.”
Now as she reflects on the future post-pandemic, health advocate Dr. Arwady and Docent Allison hopes to build on past experiences.
“So lots of big conversations about, ‘What is the future of the city? How are we going to adapt?’” she said. “And when I do these river cruises it’s always a good reminder that Chicago and its architecture has always been sort of adapting and innovating and problem-solving.”
Arwady has already given about 50 boat tours and even more Chicago Architecture Center walking tours.
She couldn’t leave us after our interview without a reminder to stay safe as Covid numbers are on the rise.
But she says the good news is hospitalizations are not high and there is a new vaccine in the works to address Covid variants.
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