How has Chicago’s coastline changed over the decades?

The aerial photo on the left was taken in 1925, facing south over Chicago’s lakefront. The curvy stone breakwater being built into Lake Michigan foreshadows the photo below it, taken just a few years later in 1928. By then, the breakwater had been filled with earth and Chicago had a new lakefront park.

2 - Burnham Park landfill circa Apr 1925
Burnham Park landfill, 1925 (Courtesy of Chicago Park District)
3 - June_15_1928_Filling_Operations_south_lakefront_looking_north
Burnham Park landfill, 1928 (Courtesy of Chicago Park District)

This is just one of the surprising ways Chicago’s lakefront has changed over time. Did you know that Grant Park was once a disgusting lagoon filled with dead livestock and other debris? Or that the Gold Coast was once a sandbar filled with brothels and saloons? Or that we once sold the lakefront to a railroad company? Or that Richard J. Daley wanted to build an island in the lake 20-miles long? Chicago history is full of politics, surprises — and a lot of dirt.

I’ve been reporting this subject for WBEZ’s Curious City, and my story is finally out today. Check out the story here, the rest of the incredible photos here and an amazing collection of historic maps provided by The Newberry here. Other than coming away with a much better grasp of Chicago history, and a renewed appreciation for how complicated planning and development always is, one of  the best part for me was talking to the Chicago Tribune‘s architecture critic Blair Kamin, and to Lois Wille, who wrote the book Forever Open, Clear and Free. Both Kamin and Wille are Pulitzer Prize winners — and great interviewees.

I’ll also be on the Afternoon Shift with Rick Kogan today at 3:45 p.m. I’ll post the audio later, but tune in if you’re around! Miriam Reuter, the woman whose question spawned the story, will join us as well.

Update 12/13/12: If you missed it, here’s the audio from my appearance on The Afternoon Shift. Editor Shawn Allee described me afterwards as sounding “geeked.” I think he’s right!

Amplified Test 2 – Mavis Staples

Soul and gospel legend Mavis Staples has an album in the works with another Chicago home town hero, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. The two performed together at Lollapalooza; Staples later stopped by the station for a surprising duet with WBEZ’s Rob Wildeboer. (Did anyone else know he could tickle the ivories like that?!)

If you’re hankering for more Mavis before her new album comes out, check out this excellent conversation she had in 2008 with young people from the Chicago Freedom School.

Staples describes how in her youth there was an uneasy relationship between gospel and R & B; gospel artists who “crossed over” to singing the blues for a more secular, mainstream audience often felt the wrath of their churchgoing brethren.  (A subject explored in depth in another great Amplified event, Sinners in the Choir: The Black Church and the Devil’s Music.) Here, Staples describes her introduction to secular music during the summers she spent with family in Greenwood, Mississippi. It seduced her, but she never abandoned her gospel roots.


Click here for Mavis Staples’ full talk with the Chicago Freedom School. The event was held at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and was recorded by Chicago Amplified, a program of Chicago Public Media.

Featured music:

“O Day” by Bessie Jones, from “The Alan Lomax Collection: Southern Journey, Vol. 1 – Voices from the American South.”

“Since I Fell For You” by Nina Simone, from “The Soul of Nina Simone.”

Editor’s Note: The version of “Since I Fell For You” that Mavis Staples likely heard as a child in Mississippi was the 1947 version released by Annie Laurie with Paul Gayten and His Trio, which according to Wikipedia eventually reached #3 on the “Race Records” charts and #20 on the pop charts. I used the Nina Simone version from 1967 because I liked how it matched the cadence of Staples’ rendition during her talk. You can find the Annie Laurie version on iTunes, although I don’t think I can post it here in its entirety because of copyright issues.

Amplified Test 1 – Azhar Usman

Azhar Usman jokes that he looks like “that guy from LOST. Not the Indian one, the fat one!” The Chicago comedian uses humor to poke fun at racial stereotypes, referencing his own life as the child of Muslim immigrants growing up in mostly Jewish Skokie.

Usman recently did an extended set in front of an intimate audience at Chicago’s Th!nk Art Salon as part of their ongoing War & Peace exhibit.  Usman performs regularly alongside a Rabbi/comedian in a show they’ve dubbed the Laugh in Peace Tour.

The evening took a surprisingly deep and personal turn when Usman shared a story about learning to parent four young sons inquisitive beyond their age.


Click here to hear Usman’s entire set at the Th!nk Art Salon, recorded by Chicago Amplified.

News! It is exciting!

Roller Girl by Shauna Bittle


I just received word that WBEZ’s morning show 848 will be airing an interview I did this coming Monday, February 22. Woo! It is scheduled to air during Segment 1, so tune in between 9:05 and 9:20am if you’d like to hear it.

The piece is an excerpt of an interview I did with “Him” and “Her”, an anonymous couple who used to have a LOT of debt. They used credit cards to buy expensive things they didn’t need, like $200 rocking chairs and new stereo speakers, and took out student loans to pay for college.

Seven years into their relationship they realized they had never really talked about money. So even though they had almost $160,000 worth of debt between them, neither one of them knew how bad it was. When they finally sat down to figure it out, Her was the first to reveal just how badly she was in the hole. It was not pretty.

Him and Her write about getting out of the hole at their relationship finance blog Make Love, Not Debt. I originally interviewed them back in April of 2008, before they were debt-free. I’ll post the full interview here Monday, after the piece has aired.


My second exciting piece of news is that I have found a most excellent documentary photographer to collaborate with on this portrait project.  Shauna Bittle is a super talented photographer who I first met when she photographed the Third Coast Festival awards ceremony this year.

What sealed the deal for me was seeing this fantastic multimedia piece about Midwestern tent revivals. I can’t wait to work with her. We’re doing one final shoot at the barbershop and the surrounding neighborhood next week. Then we’ll wrap on that, and start scheduling shoots for the next portrait, on high schooler, Vocalo user and gay rights activist, Lohan Addict.