Geoffrey Baer’s latest “learn about where you live” offering, “Chicago by ‘L’,” premieres Wednesday, March 4, at 7:30pm on WTTW. The 130-minute special is a fantastic voyage through the bloodstream of Chicago transit via the loud, ubiquitous public trains, which are sometimes “’L’-evated” and sometimes subterranean. You can’t spell (or have the) Loop, the heart of the city, without the El.
Chicago is called a city of neighborhoods, but they’re largely segregated and the show shares how several neighborhoods have transformed from mostly white to mostly African American when restrictive and racist housing covenants were repealed, and how, over and over, artists revitalize declining neighborhoods only to later be displaced by gentrification. Perhaps the El is the system that ultimately unites them. The neighborhoods are even more colorful than the squiggles on the map.
The network of Chicago Transit Authority trains provides a Disney Monorail-type tour of the Windy City, sparking and clattering over, under and around colleges, churches, communities, as well as historic innovations, like the interior metal skeletons and soaring vertical links of the world’s first skyscrapers on South Dearborn. During the program, we learn that El construction in and around buildings enabled some accidental historic preservation.
The El is the second biggest transit system in the United States, after New York, servicing three-quarters of a million riders every day via 200 miles of track and 145 stations, utilizing 1,500 rail cars and 32,000 security cameras. The network crosses Western Avenue, Chicago’s longest street, three times. The trains and tracks are co-stars in many blockbuster films like Running Scared, Code of Silence, The Fugitive, Risky Business and The Blues Brothers.
Viewers also briefly meet the voice behind the familiar “Doors Closing” and route announcements. Lee Crooks started recording them in 1998 with the direction to be “friendly, faceless and benign.” The iconic “voice of Chicago’s CTA” lives in Milwaukee.
In Baer’s special, the Chicago rainbow is refracted in this order: Purple, Yellow, Red, Pink, Blue, Green, Orange, Brown. He starts in Wilmette, the northernmost terminus, where the Northwestern Elevated Railroad reached in 1909, built on 1,000 lakefront acres originally owned by Pottawattamie Archange Ouilmette. The line crosses the channel where the flow of the Chicago River was reversed, and passes by the Baháʼí House of Worship.
Perhaps the Purple Line color was picked to match Northwestern University’s signature hue, pondered at the next stop of Evanston, named after John Evans, a friend of Abraham Lincoln. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s Frances Willard used to live in this formerly dry town, now home to several microbreweries, as well as the Actors Gymnasium, a premiere school for circus arts.
The Yellow Line, or Skokie Swift, is only two stops but can reach 90 mph on tracks laid in the 1920s to run to Milwaukee (a route that ended in 1963). Skokie means “swamp” in Pottawattamie, and is considered by some to be the Ellis Island of North Shore. Skokie also houses the CTA’s El repair shop, where technicians work on the current stock of 730 cars to keep them running for the expected 25-year lifespan.
Baer then boards the Red Line, headed into also-diverse Rogers Park, Andersonville and Edgewater, founded by Swedes, now full of arts and theaters, home to Vietnamese and LGBTQ+ communities plus Loyola University. In Uptown, see the marquees of the former Aragon and Riviera ballrooms, and the Green Mill jazz club. Disembark at Wilson, the former end of the line, to visit sprawling Graceland Cemetery and famous subterranean denizens Marshall Field, George Pullman, Daniel Burnham and Mies van der Rohe.
We join the above-mentioned captains of industry and architects underground in the next Red Line stretch, beneath Rush Street bars and the Chicago River to arrive at the longest platform in the world on State Street, with three separate stops, built from WPA funds and opened in 1943.
The train and TV show buzz through Chinatown, and the location of the ill-conceived public housing projects Stateway Gardens and Robert Taylor homes. The Red Line serves both of Chicago’s baseball teams, the Cubs at Wrigley Field in Lakeview and the White Sox in Armour Square, home of the first “exploding” scoreboard.
At 79th Street, Baer eats vegan ribs at Original Soul Vegetarian restaurant in Chatham, sees the Auburn Park lagoon, and hits the end of the line at 95th Street, where a new terminal opened in 2019.
Now Baer gets in the pink and onto the Pink Line at Ashland, one of the oldest stations, built in 1893, in the near west and near Union Park, one of the first integrated public parks, appropriately a center for organized labor, and home of the Pitchfork Music Fest. He passes the United Center, home to the Blackhawks, Bulls and major music concerts, then the former Cook County Hospital, setting for TV’s “ER,” a top teaching hospital that housed the world’s first blood bank, later replaced by Stroger Hospital. The 2012 Rush Medical Center is also nearby.
The 18th Street stop deposits Baer in the Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, replete with glorious murals and street art, with more art off the Damen stop, as well as the music venue Thalia Hall, “The Boulevards” (with a former speed limit of 8 mph) around Douglas Park, “K Town” (where all the streets have K names), and North Lawndale, where the synagogues built by Jews who left Maxwell Street now house Black churches.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved into Lawndale to focus attention on racist housing policies, and that neighborhood and the struggle for fair housing was a focus of Ta-Nehisi Coates seminal article “The Case for Reparations.”
Viewers see the former home of Western Electric in Cicero, which at one time made almost every telephone in America. More than 800 of their employees were killed in the Eastland Disaster, when a pleasure tour ship rolled over in the Chicago River, the deadliest in Great Lakes history.
“Chicago by ‘L’” then goes Blue in Forest Park and its famous cemeteries where 800,000 are buried, including those from the 1918 “Circus Train Wreck,” plus Haymarket anarchists and Emma Goldman.
Softball was invented here (Chicagoans still prefer the 16” size, Baer says), and the candies Lemonheads, Red Hots, and Boston Baked Beans are made here.
The Blue Line was the first train to run with the expressways, and we pass the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mayor Richard J. Daley oversaw campus construction in 1961, and many people and businesses were displaced, so now planners are working to humanize that design and connect to the neighborhood.
Viewers now see Little Italy, and Jane Addams Hull House, named for the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At the Loop, the Blue Line goes underground, curves under skyscrapers, under the Goodman Theatre (built to be soundproof against train noise), and Wolf Point, where three branches of the Chicago River converge. We hit Wicker Park, Forbes’ “Fourth Hippest US Neighborhood” in 2012. Wealthy Germans and Scandinavians moved there after the Great Fire to rebuild with stone, and were joined by Poles and Russians, who built public baths. Previously, Nelson Algren lived there, and now The 606 makes adaptive reuse of old elevated train tracks as a public greenway.
Next is also-hip Logan Square, home of the 1918 Centennial monument and a 2012 restoration of the Logan Theatre. Watchers then journey to the just-restored Belmont Blue station, completed in 2019, then up the Kennedy Expressway, past Jefferson Park’s Polish community and Copernicus Center, and the area’s oldest house in Norwood Park, built in 1833 on the prairie.
The “entertainment suburb” of Rosemont, one-third of which is a highway exchange, is home to Allstate Arena, and the end of the line is O’Hare Airport, one of the world’s busiest, named for a World War II fighter pilot.
Baer now turns Green, starting at 63rd and Cottage Grove in Woodlawn, at one of the city’s oldest restaurants, Daley’s. The World’s Columbian Exposition, aka the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, brought customers to the restaurant and a building boom to the area. Lorraine Hansberry wrote and set A Raisin the Sun on the South Side, also home to the University of Chicago, Washington Park, Parkway Gardens, where Michelle Obama grew up, and Jackson Park, the future home of the Obama Presidential Center.
The Green Line—part of which, at one time, moved through Chicago’s alleys—crosses over the Red Line and the Dan Ryan Expressway in “a wedding cake of transportation,” by Kennedy-King College, Englewood and Bronzeville, also called “the Black Belt” when a half a million African Americans moved there during the Great Migration. Baer visits Boxville, an enclave of shipping containers for entrepreneurs who think outside of the box while within a box.
We see Mies van der Rohe and Helmut Jahn designs at the Illinois Institute of Technology before heading up to South Michigan Avenue, where car dealerships were invented, the city’s oldest residence Clarke House resides, and Columbia College teaches creative arts and media.
The show turns towards one of the world’s largest greenhouses, Garfield Park Conservatory, built in 1906 to look like a haystack, then to Austin, where a group is working to rebuild the community via housing renovations. The coordinator says, “Save one house, you save a block; you save two houses, you save a community.”
The Green Line ends in Oak Park, known for diversity, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, studio and 25 structures he designed including Unity Temple (which had a $25 million restoration in 2017), as the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, and the place where “saloons stopped and steeples began.”
Baer hops the Orange Line from Midway Airport, renamed after the World War II battle in 1959. Opened in 1993, the Orange was built on freight train rights-of-way in the middle of canals, railroads and highways in a city where 12% of the land is industrial. Along the way, Bridgeport offers a thriving art scene and progressive radio, plus Palmisano Park, a former quarry.
The Brown Line began in 1907, and traverses more diverse communities like Albany Park, where the 60625 zip code houses Persians, Koreans, Mexicans, Arabs, Orthodox Jews, Swedes, and more. This line tends to be on ground level, so street and train crossings are seen along with some docks along the North Branch of the Chicago River. The route moves east towards Lake Michigan via historically German Lincoln Square, where the Western stop displays a gift from the German government, a piece of the Berlin Wall.
The Montrose-Irving corridor sports “malt row,” including the Koval Distillery plus Dovetail and Half Acre breweries, more than any other metro area in the country. The Red Line runs alongside the Brown at Belmont, where we see hipsters and residents from Boystown, the oldest official gay neighborhood in the country. Nearby Illinois Masonic Hospital created the unique Unit 371, a center for terminally ill HIV patients during the pandemic.
The Fullerton stop divorces the brief Red/Brown alliance, where we see the giant mural of St. Vincent de Paul, comprising tiny student images on the side of a building, signifying the home of the largest Catholic University in the country, where a third of the attendees are the first in their families to attend college. We cross Diversey, named for a German-born Chicago brewer, and curve around St. Joseph’s Church, which refused to sell its property during track construction. We learn that River North was called Smoky Hollow when it was an industrial area.
The last Brown Line stop before the Loop is Merchandise Mart. Marshall Field built the 4.2 million sq.ft. Art Deco wholesale warehouse in 1930. With its newly shortened name, the Mart how houses design trade showrooms and offices, the 1871 tech incubator, and the ongoing outdoor Art on The Mart post-sunset digital projections, which can be viewed from the renovated River Walk.
The Loop would not be a loop without the El encasing a rectangular ribcage around the heart of the city. The busiest junction is at Lake and Wells, with 200 trains passing an hour. The concept was conceived (but not completed) by “gallant but perverted soul” Charles Tyson Yerkes in 1897, and renovated in 1988 because it would have been “too expensive to tear down.” A few of the many historical structures featured include the Metropolitan Correctional Center (1975); the newer but built to look older Harold Washington Library, named after the former mayor who was a voracious reader; Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre, a triumph by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler (with draftsman work by Frank Lloyd Wright); sprawling Millennium Park; and the Wit Hotel, designed by one of the OGs of Chicago architecture, Stanley Tigerman.
The El transports riders to history, and is history itself. Watch “Chicago by ‘L’” to enjoy the splendor that the CTA trains offer without having to actually sit next to a man-spreader. Recharge your Ventra card. Create your “I’ve been meaning to see that” to-do list. My spring and summer will include the Asia on Argyle night market, Graceland Cemetery, Chatham’s Original Soul Vegetarian restaurant, taking my dog to Palmisano Park, seeing the Berlin Wall piece on the way to my gym in Lincoln Square, and watching Art on The Mart while drinking a shot of Malört.
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