I love “Lost Buildings.”

This book/DVD combo is some sort of mind-blowing intersection of many things that interest me and about which I am passionate. Somehow NPR’s This American Life, the work of Chris Ware, local history, a movie, a well-designed book, and yes, actual lost buildings all conspired to arrive shrink-wrapped in a box on my doorstep one day. When I first found out about it, I wanted to call somebody up and talk excitedly at an inappropriate volume and at too-great length, but I had nobody to call who might understand and who would have been awake at 2 AM (prime book-nerding time, if you ask me). Well! Now I have a blog where I can use caps and exclamation points to convey to you the AMAZING EXCELLENCE OF LOST BUILDINGS!!!

Actually, it is difficult to explain its wonderfulness here. The saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” so here are just a few images to help convey something more than I might be able to just now.

Chris Ware does vertical as only he can do.


A non-Ware spread.

DVD still.


Having still failed to do the project justice, I’ll recommend that anybody who can get their hands on a copy, even for a short time, watch and read Lost Buildings.


I love Sandburg’s Chicago Poems.

Everybody knows the famous “city of the big shoulders” poem. What you may not know is that Carl Sandburg wrote not just a poem, but an entire book of poems, about this city. A defining work of the Chicago Renaissance, the book is a perfect example of what literary scholars now call modern poetry. Concerned with the people and places he saw every day rather than mythology and other classical topics, Sandburg and other poets of the Chicago Renaissance wrote about the particular scenery, dialects, smells, and characters they encountered on the city streets. Chicago Poems is more than a pleasure to read as a book of poetry; it is a document of what Chicago was like in 1916. The poems have a delightfully populist bent to them, and some are even political, but there are also poems that are just plain fun.

Rather than overrun this blog with poetry, I’ll just post two that I think are often overlooked and that are particular favorites of mine.

The first, “To Beachey, 1912,” describes a flight of Lincoln Beachey, widely considered America’s first great stunt pilot. Beachey set an altitude record in Grant Park during August of 1911, according to The Chicago Daily News Almanac and Year Book. About 75,000 people sat in bleachers along the lakeshore to watch him (and others) at the  1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet, and Sandburg may have been among them. Sandburg may have also watched Beachey fly at the 1912 International Aviation Meet, where Beachey dressed in comical drag and performed numerous stunts as “Madam Lavasseur.”

Source: aerodacious.com

Enough exposition! Here is the poem:

RIDING against the east,
A veering, steady shadow
Purrs the motor-call
Of the man-bird
Ready with the death-laughter
In his throat
And in his heart always
The love of the big blue beyond.

Only a man,
A far fleck of shadow on the east
Sitting at ease
With his hands on a wheel
And around him the large gray wings.
Hold him, great soft wings,
Keep and deal kindly, O wings,
With the cool, calm shadow at the wheel.

The other poem is “Clark Street Bridge.” In it, Sandburg describes the site of the  Eastland disaster. Beautiful and haunting, its lyricism is as striking as its imagery. Interestingly, the bridge Sandburg would have crossed while going from River North to the Loop was the second bridge at this location–the bridge there today was completed in 1929, and the first one saw Chicago’s first civil disturbance, a beer riot, unfold. Still, I think these evocative words can yet catch in the hearts of those walking through the city on a misty, lonesome night.

DUST of the feet
And dust of the wheels,
Wagons and people going,
All day feet and wheels.

Now. . .
. . Only stars and mist
A lonely policeman,
Two cabaret dancers,
Stars and mist again,
No more feet or wheels,
No more dust and wagons.

     Voices of dollars
And drops of blood
. . . . .
Voices of broken hearts,
. . Voices singing, singing,
. . Silver voices, singing,
Softer than the stars,
Softer than the mist.

You can read the rest of Sandburg’s Chicago Poems right here, if you like.

I love film writing.

When every city now boasts a plethora of film critics, ranging from newspaper journalists to bloggers and trade journal writers, it may not seem that film writing has any special connection to Chicago. Historically speaking, however, film criticism was born and raised in the Windy City.

In 1914, the Chicago Tribune ran the first motion picture review column, written by journalism’s first official film critic, Jack Lawson. According to A Million And One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture, his career as a movie critic was short lived, as he died in an accident at the Chicago Press Club (?!?) shortly after the inception of the column. He was succeeded by the popular and influential Kitty Kelly (a pseudonym for Audrie Alspaugh, who later moved to the Chicago Examiner) and then Mae Tinee (originally the pseudonym of Frances Smith, but later of many others). By 1925, there were 400 film critics writing for American newspapers.

Mae wrote many positive reviews of Louise Brooks movies.

One cannot discuss film criticism without mentioning the late, great Roger Ebert, who was not only a great Chicagoan but a hugely influential film writer on an international scale. The New York Times eulogized him as the first film writer to become a multi-media brand. In 1975, Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, marking Chicago as the city where he made the world take film writing seriously.

There are, of course, still movie critics in Chicago. Indeed, the Chicago Film Critics Association has over 60 members and mounts a film festival each year. Among their ranks are the podcasters of Filmspotting and the insightful film writer Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

I love Drunk History.

This TV show combines two things I enjoy–learning about history and laughing at drunk people. Here is the episode about Chicago.

With so much fascinating history here, I was a little disappointed that one of the segments was about Al Capone. Had I been on the show, I would have chosen to drunkenly ramble about the first open heart surgery (performed in Chicago by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams in 1893. one of the first African-Americans to graduate from an American medical school), the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction (at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942), or the tale of the smoke-filled room (in the Blackstone Hotel, where Warren G. Harding was allegedly rigged to be the Republican candidate for president in 1920). Still, it’s a good episode with some beautiful shots of the city.

Here is a lovely quote.

“The intersection of Michigan and Wacker, I found out, isn’t just a corner, it’s a vortex. The deeper I dug into the history of Chicago and its relationship to the history of the country, the more crowded the ghost traffic jam clogging up the Michigan Avenue Bridge got.”

–Sarah Vowell, Michigan and Wacker

Listen to the whole essay here.