Good time to add to Chicago knowledge

Adding to my Chicago knowledge has been a fun diversion during isolation and a useful activity for a Chicago Greeter.

I wish I’d taken notes while watching nine of Geoffrey Baer’s Chicago tours. His more than three dozen programs are available on the WTTW website.

I did note new facts learned from Chicago Days: 150 Defining Moments in the Life of a Great City, published by the Chicago Tribune for its 150th anniversary in 1997. Perhaps some of the following examples from the book will be new to others as well.

• Chicago engineer Octave Chanute, builder of railroads and designer of the Union Stockyards, was an inspiration for the Wright Brothers. Wilbur Wright wrote Chanute after reading about the latter’s experiments with biplane gliders at Miller Beach in northwest Indiana. They kept up a correspondence, and Chanute was invited to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 to watch the Wright Brothers’ first attempt at powered flight.

• Chicago medical firsts include the first diagnosis of a heart attack (1912), successful open-heart surgery (1913), blood bank (1937), and liver transplant (1989).

• Market Square in Lake Forest, opened in 1916, was the first suburban planned shopping center in the country. Real estate investor Arthur T. Aldis hired architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, who lived in Lake Forest, to design the development. In the shape of a U facing the train station, the center had shops at street level and offices and apartments above. Market Square was decades ahead of its time as a shopping center planned, built, and run as a unit.

• While storied Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick was “starched and formal” and Republican, his cousin Joseph Medill Patterson was a one-time socialist with a sense of humor and an instinct for the common person’s tastes. In 1917 Patterson, then Tribune coeditor, introduced the comic strip The Gumps, and it entertained newspaper readers across the country for the next 42 years. Patterson often wrote story lines for The Gumps. He left Chicago in 1925 to run the New York Daily News.

• The idea for the first Major League Baseball All-Star Game came from Mayor Edward J. Kelly, who wanted an adjunct event to the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1933. Kelly passed the idea by Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, who committed the Tribune to underwriting the game, its sports department to tabulating fans’ votes to select the players, and sportswriter Arch Ward to getting American and National League offices and team owners to buy in. On July 6, 1933, before 47,595 fans at Comiskey Park, the American League won 4-2, with Babe Ruth hitting the first home run in All-Star history.

• Streetcars ran for 99 years until they were retired in 1958, and most city residents were no more than a quarter mile from a line.

• The first large-scale experimental cellphone system was built in the Chicago area in the late 1970s. In 1983 Bell Telephone’s local successor, Ameritech, received government permission to convert the experimental system into a commercial one. Chicago corporation Motorola was the original leader in cellphone production as what was expected to be a niche market for the wealthy became a fixture in American life.



In his latest tour, Chicago by ‘L,’ Baer insists that ours are ‘L’ trains. I was interested then to see that Ron Grossman wrote “el” in a Chicago Days piece.

The spelling of the city’s railway system is a topic on which numerous people and publications have weighed in over the years.

The CTA says that materials from the early days of the more than 120-year-old system use ‘L’ (with single quotation marks). The CTA website calls ‘L’ a “now-official name originally short for ‘elevated.’” That suggests to me that the CTA decided to declare officialness not so long ago because people were writing something else.

Chicago Tribune style must have favored “el” when Grossman wrote “el” in the 1997 Chicago Days, although the paper’s more recent stylebook goes along with the CTA’s usage. In response to an email, Grossman, a Chicago native and still a Tribune writer, said, “I think [preference] depends on what you grew up with. In the elevated’s posters of my youth it was always el.”

El was the spelling for Chicago writers James T. Farrell and Nelson Algren, although Algren capitalized it and Farrell did not.

Bill Savage of the Northwestern University English department, a scholar of Chicago literature and history, told Chicago magazine in 2019 that he follows Algren’s and Farrell’s lead. “Folk usage trumps officially designated discourse for me every time,” he explained.

Chicago magazine also noted that El, with no quotation marks, is the spelling of contemporary authors Audrey Niffenegger in The Time Traveler’s Wife and Rebecca Makkai in The Great Believers.

TimeOut magazine’s stylebook favors El, and the Chicago Sun-Times dumps the quotation marks, even though editorial style generally follows an organization’s official name. A board game released in 2019, “EL: The Chicago Transit Adventure,” put print publications that use L or ‘L’ in the awkward situation of using two spellings in the same article.

Because I wasn’t aware that the CTA deems ‘L’ official, I’ve been using el. I think ‘L’ is confusing. What it stands for isn’t obvious, as el is. Tourists familiar with the transit system in other cities, like New York, might think that it designates a train line.

But now that I know the CTA’s position, I don’t feel right using el. Over my editing career I came across many official names that I thought confusing, silly, or awkward. The State University of New York system changed its branches to University at [location]. Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism became Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, for some reason omitting “and.” I left formal names alone.

I’d like to argue that el isn’t a formal name but a nickname, but the CTA says ‘L’ is an official nickname.

I don’t know what I’ll do the next time I refer to the city’s railway system in writing. Sometimes editors find a way to write around a wording they dislike, but I can’t think of a write-around other than “the train,” which doesn’t sound like it comes from a Chicago insider.



“Trump characterized [reopening the economy] as the biggest decision of his presidency. It’s a big one, to be sure. But he already made the biggest decision of his presidency when he refused to take the coming pandemic seriously and failed to take necessary steps to respond effectively and protect American lives. Every day since then has meant one bad decision after another.”
— Heather Digby Parton, Salon


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  • Thanks for the fun lesson! I like to joke with out-of-towners that we use L for elevated because we don't care much about spelling.

  • I wonder whether the choice of ‘L’ was made by a single person in the 1890s, and we're still living with it because the CTA hasn't wanted to rethink it.

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