Review: The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago, by Patrick T. Reardon

The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks that Shaped and Saved Chicago by Patrick T. Reardon Southern Illinois University Press

Reviewed by Mary Wisniewski 

There are lovelier and more prestigious symbols of Chicago than the Loop “L”.

The lake and the “Bean”; the Art Institute and the Willis Tower; and the John Hancock Center and the Magnificent Mile, for example.

But now that the stockyards are gone, nothing literally screams “Chicago” like the Loop “L,” with its CTA cars rumbling 20 feet overhead. If you’re setting a novel or movie in Chicago, the Loop is a must-have.

Historian, poet, Third Coast Review contributor, and former Chicago Tribune reporter Patrick T. Reardon wrote a new book celebrating the Loop's essential place in the city’s history. A two-mile-long rectangle of wood and steel, the “L” is far from glamorous, consistently noisy and casting sharp, black shadows onto Lake, Van Buren, and Wells Streets, and Wabash Avenue, leaving them in a perpetual film-noir gloom.

But in The Loop: the ‘L’ Tracks that Shaped and Saved Chicago, Reardon persuasively argues that the structure is a miracle of design, creating and preserving Chicago’s Loop even as other cities' downtown areas faded. Likewise, it united a divided metropolis. Downtown Chicago is everybody’s second neighborhood, and the “L” made that happen. In simple and memorable prose, Reardon describes the Loop as “the place where Chicago is most Chicago.”

This could have been a dry book about infrastructure, but Reardon keeps it lively with descriptions of the history and the characters behind the Loop's development. He kicks it off with a party—New Year’s Eve in 1911. Thousands of well-lubricated revelers crowded on State Street in nine-degree weather, watching the Marshall Field and Co. clocks tick down to midnight. A Tribune story about the celebration calls the central business district the loop, instead of downtown, showing how the term entered the city’s vocabulary in the 14 years since the elevated rectangle’s construction.

Reardon goes back further, before the Loop was built, to show the tangled mess that was the city’s transportation system. Private railway companies built cable car systems, that were slow, broke down often, and mixed dangerously with private vehicles, bicycles, and foot traffic. Without traffic lights, downtown streets were “often clotted together in an unmoving logjam.” In the 1880s, a Chicago resident was killed by a train nearly every day.

Author Patrick T. Reardon

The Loop was developed to lift train traffic above the streets, but it wasn’t an easy sell for property owners, who didn’t like the idea of trains rumbling past their second-floor windows. The Loop was also created by one of Chicago’s premier rascals, Charles Tyson Yerkes, a railroad tycoon portrayed in Reardon’s book as a Gilded Age anti-hero. Reardon gives Yerkes credit for pushing through an innovation allowing private elevated trains to enter downtown—rather than dropping off passengers at the outskirts—and connect with different lines. Yerkes’ antics to build the Union Loop included bribing politicians and business owners, and planting false stories in newspapers about where the tracks would run, thus confusing the opposition. Perhaps his boldest move was tearing up Wabash in the middle of the night before property owners could stop him—a 19th century precursor to the bulldozing of Meigs Field.

Reardon agrees that Yerkes was certainly corrupt, but “so were many of the city’s most prominent politicians and business leaders. It was just that he was so much better at it.” There are no statues of Yerkes in the city, but the Loop is his lasting monument. Property values in the “magic circle” shot up over the decades. The Loop “L” helped Chicago preserve a thriving downtown even as downtown areas in other cities moved around, were divided, or almost disappeared with the rise of suburbs. In Chicago, the Loop “tightly focused the pulsing heartbeat of the city,” allowing the center to hold.

Reardon’s second Loop hero is its engineer, internationally renowned bridge builder John Alexander Low Waddell. He thought other elevated structures lacked adequate bracing and enough rivets, causing them to wobble, and designed the four corners of the Loop to absorb stresses. Reardon provides a fun description of the Loop’s construction. Steel rivets were heated “to incandescence” at street level and tossed to a worker high on the structure. The worker caught it with a funnel-like metal container or a thick glove like a catcher’s mitt. The red-hot piece was then inserted through prepared holes into steel plates. The genius of the design and construction is evident today. After 123 years, 75 percent of the original structure is still in place.

The third hero of the story is Mayor Jane Byrne. The “L” was nearly demolished under Mayor Richard J. Daley, who wanted to replace it with subways and spark new development. An unspoken motive was to make it harder for Black residents to come downtown. It makes grim reading, to learn how close the city was to tearing down the Loop. Demolition discussions continued after Daley’s death, but Byrne put the kibosh on the idea in 1979, and the Loop “L” was saved.

Reardon’s book comes out at a time when fewer of us are downtown, because of the pandemic, and is a reminder of what pure fun it is to ride on a system built when William McKinley was president. Chicago is lucky to have what Nelson Algren described as the “dark girders of the L” looming over the Loop’s “shadowed canyons.” Reardon’s book shows the importance of building and preserving public transit, especially now, when the burning of fossil fuels is threatening the planet's health.

  The Loop: the ‘L’ Tracks that Shaped and Saved Chicago is available at most bookstores and through the publisher's website.  

Mary Wisniewski is a former Chicago Tribune transportation reporter and the author of the award-winning 2017 biography, Algren: A Life.

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