Patrick T. Reardon, a regular contributor to Third Coast Review, recently released his new book, The Loop: The “L” Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press). More than a history of the elevated tracks surrounding the downtown area, The Loop explores how the noisy, ungainly, and most unlovely structure served as both a catalyst and unifying force, turning Chicago into the metropolis it is today.
I interviewed Reardon about his new book below. He and Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist Julia Keller will participate in a virtual book launch and conversation, sponsored by City Lit Bookstore, tonight at 6:30 p.m. The event can be viewed here.
Tell me about yourself and your career.
Well, I grew up in Chicago, out in Austin on the West Side, in the 1950s and 1960s. When my friends and I were 11 or so, we’d walk up Laramie Avenue to Lake Street, get on the ‘L’ and head downtown to goof around in the Loop. It was a kind of playground for us and for a lot of other kids our age. We went to the arcade on Randolph Street. We went up to the skydeck at the Prudential Building. We ate at Wimpy’s, the hamburger place. This was before McDonald’s was everywhere.
In any case, I ended up as a reporter at the Tribune, covering a wide swath of urban issues, including demographics, race, neighborhoods, housing, schools, politics, the landscape, the city-suburban interconnectedness, planning, history and development. They were all very much interwoven. Some of this coverage took the form of in-depth investigations in which a team of us reporters would spend six months or more researching a topic, such as public housing, and produce a host of stories, essentially a small book. In fact, a couple books resulted from this work.
Meanwhile, I was also writing a lot of feature stories and book reviews. For the last half of my career, I did most of my writing for the Tempo section, now A&E, and the Tribune magazine, including urban affair sorts of stories. My area of coverage for Tempo was the book industry. This gave me the opportunity to meet and interview some great writers, such as Patrick O’Brien, P.D. James, Richard Russo, and my hero Robert Caro who wrote The Power Broker, the story of the impact Robert Moses had on New York City and the best book ever written about an American city.
What magic do the “L” tracks hold that inspired you to write a whole book about them?
It’s odd. I don’t think I ever wrote anything about public transit at the Tribune, certainly nothing in-depth. Even in 2004, when Tempo spent a week filling the section with stories about the Loop, they were about the downtown, not the elevated Loop. However, in the opening story, I discussed the question of where the Loop nickname came for downtown.
Like most native Chicagoans, I grew up knowing—knowing—that the downtown got its name from the elevated structure. But, in recent decades, historians had been wont to lecture us that we were all wet. The name, they said, came from a cable car loop back in 1882 (or maybe several cable car loops). For the story I was doing, I quoted Bruce Moffat, the guy who knows more about Chicago’s elevated railroad system than anyone, saying that, as far as he knew, the name came from the ‘L’ Loop. But, in the short time I had to write the story for the paper, there was no way to be sure. It’s very hard to prove a negative—that it wasn’t the cable car loops.
However, a few years later, I was researching a book I planned to write about the history of Chicago, told through the stories of interesting individuals. A key question that I knew I wanted to answer was about this nickname. So, I gritted my teeth and began reading what turned out to be thousands of newspaper stories that had run in the Tribune and elsewhere. Sure enough, I was able to prove that the nickname didn’t come until after the 1897 completion of the elevated Loop.
But I also realized that there was more here than just a fun fact. The more I looked, the more I recognized that the nickname happened because of the significance of the elevated structure. That was a story that had never been told, and I wanted to tell it.
Tell us about Charles T. Yerkes. His reputation hasn’t improved much over the years, but how much is the Devil due?
Yerkes was demonized in his own time—for two years, there was constant talk about lynching him—and he has been treated by Chicago historians as the Devil Incarnate ever since. He’s been called “a corpulent plunderer” and “a five-star, aged-in-oak, 100-proof bastard,” and Harold Ickes, a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s Cabinet, likened him to three WWII enemy leaders: Benito Mussolini, Emperor Hirohito, and Adolph Hitler.
He was criticized for being a corrupt businessman who paid bribes. Well, so were a lot of people in that time. The Grey Wolves of the City Council were getting paid off by seemingly everyone doing business in the city. The thing was, as Mayor Carter Harrison II later wrote, Yerkes wasn’t liked because he was so much better at this corruption thing than the rookies in Chicago.
What’s been missed is that Yerkes was also a visionary urban planner who, by force of will and shrewdness, brought about the creation of the elevated Loop, thereby linking the city’s transportation network and anchoring the downtown in a way that it became the center that held together the many, many disparate and often feuding parts of Chicago. Then, he went to London and did the same thing, bring to fruition an expansion of the Tube system that would never have occurred without him. Fascinating guy—and he was one of the premier American art collectors of his era.
John Alexander Low Waddell, the engineer of the elevated Loop tracks, is a lesser-known figure in the Loop’s history. What’s your take on Waddell?
Like Yerkes, Waddell was a huge personality. But, unlike him, he’s been virtually unknown to Chicago history.
He loved to wear a tuxedo with all of his foreign decorations on his chest and his hair and mustache curled like someone out of the Wizard of Oz. Such ego would be laughable, except he was a turn-of-the-century engineering genius who designed more than 1,000 bridges and other structures around the world. He’s still honored by civil engineers as a seminal figure in their field. At least 13 of his structures are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. By far, the most important of his structures is the elevated Loop, but, when he died, none of his obits mentioned it. Even engineers today who write glowingly about his career don’t seem to know about his design of the Loop.
The CTA engineering staff know about him, though. They check his designs an average of at least once a day. They know the refinements he introduced into the construction of an elevated railroad structure, even down to the rivets. And they say that, today, 123 years after Waddell designed the elevated Loop, 75 percent of it is still in place. That’s a pretty enviable record for any engineer.
You address misconceptions about the origin of the name and how several writers and historians mistakenly say “the Loop” came from the original trolley car set-up. Can you talk about that?
It’s not just some writers. It’s dozens of writers. Historians love to correct the public’s misconceptions. In this case, however, they’ve been barking up the wrong tree. In fact, it’s gotten to be such an article of faith that, often, a historian won’t even indicate the source of this “fact.” And those who do provide sources—well, you find that they don’t prove anything.
If you look at thousands of newspaper stories in the 1890s and 1910s as well as contemporary novels and other books, you find that no one called the downtown the Loop until the early years of the 20th century. And it happened because the elevated Loop was such a looming presence in the downtown and such an important presence.
The process that occurred was akin to the way the Rodin statue got to be named The Kiss. That isn’t what the sculptor wanted to call it. But everyone who looked at it started calling it that. They didn’t get together and decide. They just did it. The same is true with the Bean in Millennium Park.
Between 1897 and 1912, people responded to this giant rectangle of tracks in their midst and began using it as a landmark. So, they said something was “within the district marked off by the Union Loop,” and later they said it was “lying within the Union elevated Loop,” and later “within the loop.” Then, it just got easier to say that something was in the “loop district.” And, finally, a little more than a decade after the elevated Loop was built, people were talking about the downtown as “the Loop.”
This quote from Mayor Carter Harrison stuck with me: “The World’s Fair is a mighty object lesson, but, my friends, come out of this White City, come out of these walls into our black city. When we get there, we will find that there is an object lesson even greater than the World’s Fair.” You note the irony of that statement. Care to expand on that?
That was the first Mayor Harrison, the father of the one who had a lot of dealings with Yerkes. And, a few hours after giving this speech, he was assassinated in his home by a crazy immigrant from Ireland.
Harrison was proud of what he called “our black city” because of its great economic drive and business energy. But the phrase also brings to mind a very negative image of Chicago’s soot-covered buildings and the huge disparity between the lives of its rich and poor. In fact, many Chicagoans scraped by while living in crowded, rat-infested hovels, at the mercy of the powers-that-be, as Upton Sinclair detailed in his novel The Jungle.
The thing is that Chicago was a city of divisions, enterprising and violent, filled with tensions between the different ethnic groups and racial groups, between religious groups, between those with jobs and those without jobs. These divisions were exacerbated by the physical nature of the city. Not only did Chicago sit on the continental divide, but it was born divided into three parts. The Chicago River was the reason for these divisions.
The fear in such a situation is that things will get out of hand and descend into chaos. What happened, though, was that the elevated Loop provided a center for all Chicagoans, the center that held everything together. Everyone in the city felt comfortable in their own neighborhood. But they also felt comfortable in the Loop, the downtown, where so much of the life of the city was focused and where so many people of all sorts came to work, shop, and run errands. The Loop became everyone’s second neighborhood.
For a long time, almost since its beginnings, there were calls to tear down the tracks. When were they most in peril, and what might the Loop have looked like if the critics had succeeded in demolishing them?
There was a moment in the first few days of 1974, when the Loop was hours away from being dismantled. What happened was that the first Mayor Daley planned to take down the part of the Loop structure over Wells Street, probably overnight. Remember when we woke up one morning and found out that his son, the mayor at the time, had had huge Xs carved into the runways of Meigs Field? The father was going to do that sort of unilateral move, but Paul Gapp, a Tribune reporter, got wind of this and put it in the paper. Daley’s idea had been to start dismantling the elevated structure as a way to force the federal government to come up with money for two new subway lines under the downtown. He wanted to do it in secret, not after a public debate.
By 1978, Mayor Michael Bilandic, Daley’s successor, was talking about taking down two of the Loop’s four legs, again in an effort to put the federal government on the hot seat. The Loop would have been turned, ironically, into an L. CTA officials were aghast at this idea, knowing it would cause chaos until and unless at least one of the subways could be built.
Luckily, architect Harry Weese went to bat for the Loop with a public relations campaign that kept anything from being done just long enough until early the next year when Jane Byrne upset Bilandic. Then, as the new mayor, she decided to refurbish the Loop instead of razing it.
In conclusion, is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I’d asked?
Did you know the elevated Loop might have had a different name? Ever since the cable car companies started using loops as a way to turn around their trains, the word “loop” was employed for lots of other ideas, such as a bicycle loop and a pedestrian loop. So, when Chicagoans were talking about creating a way for trains to come into the downtown and go back to where they started, the talk was about creating an elevated Loop, a Union Loop.
For some, though, “loop” wasn’t good enough. There was a strange push to call this structure a “parallelogram.” There was even one guy who referred to it as a “quadrilateral.” I was never able to figure out what the point was, and the idea came to nothing.
But, if there had been a Union Quadrilateral, would the downtown have been called the Quadrilateral? Maybe in an alternate universe.