Chicago history in small doses

Being a Chicago Greeter and curious about where I live, I regularly try to learn more about the city. A recently published book, Greg Borzo’s A History Lover’s Guide to Chicago, is a treasure trove of information.

If you’re not into reading history, don’t be turned off by that word in the title. A History Lover’s Guide to Chicago is not a continuous narrative but a collection of topical briefs arranged in 13 thematic chapters. It’s a book readers might keep on a coffee table or in the bathroom to read one snippet at a time. 

Thanks to an index, A History Lover’s Guide to Chicago can also be a reference book — which is reason to buy it instead of having to return a library copy. Not that Borzo claims to be comprehensive. He told reporters that he had to prune material while choosing to include overlooked subjects.

The History Press asked Borzo to write the book as part of a series of such guides to US cities. Borzo wrote previous books about the city’s fountains, bike trails, the “L,” and lost restaurants. A member of the Chicago Tour-Guide Professional Association, the Chicago native leads walking, bike, and bus tours of the city for various organizations. 

There are details in A History Lover’s Guide to Chicago that Chicago buffs already know but also much that was new to me. Here are some examples that particularly interested me.

• Grain elevators were “perfected” in Chicago and were as vital to the nation’s food supply as the stockyards. As tall as 15 stories, they stored 12 million bushels of grain by 1871 and 32 million by 1892. 

• Sixty-five thousand Native Americans from 140 tribes live in Chicagoland.

• During the Cold War four Nike missile sites defended the region against potential attacks from Soviet long-range bombers. 

• The building at Fullerton Avenue that houses the Theater on the Lake was originally a sanitarium for sick and needy children. 

• Chicago’s first flag, designed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, featured a Y (for the Chicago River and its branches) against a burnt red background that celebrated the importance of terra cotta in the city’s buildings.

• Chicago’s first outdoor art fair was the 57th Street Art Fair in Hyde Park, started in 1948 and still happening on a much bigger scale.

• Original plans were to bury Civil War general John Logan in the mound beneath his statue in Grant Park. Instead, he was buried in Washington, DC.

• Many people who lost their homes during the Great Depression lived in houseboats on the river.

• Objections to quotas for Jewish, African American, immigrant, and women students led the Central YMCA College president and many faculty, staff, and students to found Thomas Jefferson College in 1945. It became Roosevelt University.

• Chicago’s distinctive brand of softball is celebrated in the Chicago Sixteen-Inch Softball Hall of Fame in Forest Park.

• Of the commercial buildings of no more than five stories that were put up immediately after the 1871 Chicago Fire, only about 20 remain.

• The only park named for Montgomery Ward, who bankrolled a fight to keep buildings off the downtown lakefront, is not on the lakefront. It’s a small park at 630 North Kingsbury Street.

• People opposed to locating a water filtration plant on the lakefront were mollified by promises of amenities at adjacent Olive Park that never materialized. They were told that the park at Ohio Street would have softball diamonds, tennis courts, and illuminated fountains. 

• The Three Arts Club was founded in 1912 by prominent women, including Jane Addams, as “an alternative to the naughty temptations” of bohemian Towertown on the Near North Side. Its building at 1600 North Dearborn Street provided a shelter where women pursued the arts. It housed an estimated 13,000 women over 90 years.

• Legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow successfully defended the steamship company and the ship’s captain and engineer when they were indicted following the 1915 SS Eastland disaster. The ship rolled over in the Chicago River, killing 844 people.

• The Loop “L” tracks have been threatened with demolition several times. (Especially good to know because it corrects what I’ve been telling Chicago Greeter visitors. I’ve said that the elevated tracks are too much a symbol of Chicago to be torn down.)

Borzo told the Northwest Indiana Times that, thinking himself already well-informed about Chicago, he hadn’t expected to learn as much as he did in researching the book. Whether or not one considers oneself well-informed about Chicago, A History Lover’s Guide to Chicago is likely to offer discoveries.

Filed under: Chicago, Reading, Uncategorized

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  • Thank you for introducing another good book. This does sound like a good handbook for "What do I say when visitors come" or "Who do I ask: times. I grew up near one of what people just called 'the Nike site," and it was just treated like a cross between "It's a secret" and "None of our business." I don't remember being worried by it.

  • Like you, native Chicagoans probably know more of these details than transplants like me, even though I've lived here almost 33 years.

  • In reply to Marianne Goss:

    Thank you for your confidence, but I'm a native suburbanite! I did grow up talking about Chicago as "the city" until I went to Valparaiso University, where I was asked "Which one?"

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