Every city has its icons, universally recognizable as a symbol of its metropolitan host. For Greg Borzo, author of “The Chicago L,” that symbol in the city of big shoulders is the elevated railway that has shuttled more than 10 billion passengers since its construction.
“The el says Chicago like nothing else,” Borzo said, “It’s our Eiffel Tower.”
Borzo’s fascination with our signature transit system fueled the writing of his new book, and on July 22 at 2 p.m. Borzo will be in town for a book signing on Madison Street.
Earlier this month Forest Park celebrated the 50th anniversary of the poorly coordinated closing of an el stop that left some 6,000 passengers stranded in the village.
Few communities have been impacted by public transit like Forest Park, Borzo said.
“The extension of the el lines to Forest Park coincided with the incorporation of the town in 1905,” Borzo said. “The village resisted it initially. But now, big city access is part of the very character of Forest Park.”
Borzo is the media manager for Science at the Field Museum and was born in Chicago, only one block from an el line. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to Des Moines, Iowa. Borzo couldn’t wait to get back to Chicago. After graduating from Grinnell College with a degree in anthropology, he returned to Chicago to obtain his journalism degree from Northwestern University.
During the next 30 years, Borzo rode the el daily.
“I don’t like cars. I like the social interaction inside an el car,” Borzo said. “You see the whole gamut of society from doctors and lawyers to the homeless. It’s very democratic.”
Being a regular rider had its social benefits.
“Once I discovered the person next to me was reading the same book and that led me to joining her book club.”
What really hooked Borzo, though, was taking an historic tour of the el sponsored by the Chicago History Museum. In fact, Borzo became a tour guide himself. That’s when he discovered that a book had never been written on the history of the el.
For three years, Borzo conducted research and gathered vintage photos from the Chicago Transit Authority’s own archives.
“I went through 10,000 photos and selected several hundred,” Borzo said. “I used 250 for the book but I could have added another 300.”
He invested a good deal of money in the book, commissioning a one-of-a-kind map showing all of the el’s existing and abandoned lines. This includes the el line that once ran from Forest Park to Maywood and Westchester.
“The Chicago Aurora Elgin shut down on July 3, 1957, at 12:15 p.m., stranding 6,000 riders in Forest Park,” Borzo said. “If we only had that line today, we could get more cars off the road.”
Over the years, the el has had a remarkable safety record. It has carried more than 10 billion passengers and suffered only one horrific accident, when a Green Line train plunged to the ground at Lake and Wabash in 1977, killing 11.
Borzo said these should be the glory days for the el, what with high gas prices, traffic congestion and concerns about the environment.
“The el is used as a political football, instead of being properly funded,” Borzo said. “No other city has an elevated system like ours. It crisscrosses the city, it creates ‘The Loop.’ It’s a cultural icon, a historic treasure. We need more tracks, more trains and more stations. The el is a great benefit to the city but it has to be subsidized.”