This month, we launched a new series at the Chicago Review of Books: a behind-the-scenes look at how Chicago inspires the writers who live and work here. We asked dozens of Chicago authors to tell us about one place, object, or event in the city that most inspires them. Click here to read the first in the series.
This week, our writer is Ethan Michaeli, author of The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, a captivating account of the Chicago Defender’s history and its undeniable impact—physical, social, and political—on the United States (click here for our interview with Michaeli back in February). Michaeli was a copy editor and investigative reporter at the Chicago Defender from 1991 to 1996.
The place in Chicago that inspires him most? The city’s iconic elevated trains.
Ethan Michaeli: The ‘L’ train inspires me. When I first got a private apartment during my years at the University of Chicago after having grown up in a suburb of Rochester, NY, one of the first lessons in urban living I absorbed was to avoid renting an apartment near the ‘L.’ More streetwise friends said that realtors would show me beautiful place near the train and say “You’ll get used to it,” but warned that the sound is maddening. Every conversation, every television show, would be interrupted every seven minutes. And so I have always lived a healthy distance from the train, thinking that I was a clever urbanite.
In doing research for my book on the Chicago Defender, however, I learned that the newspaper’s founder, Robert S. Abbott, saw the train very differently. He had grown up in rural Georgia without electricity or paved roads, a place in which the dark, quiet nights could be foreboding, and arrived in Chicago as the 19th Century turned into the 20th, just in time to see the steam trains replaced with electric cars.
Abbott would forever regard the relatively smooth sounds of the ‘L’ as the sounds of technology, civilization and progress, and he lived and worked within one block of the train for the rest of his life.
While I don’t think I could live that close, if I need to think about something or just take a break, I’ll walk or jog over to a spot under the ‘L’ and watch one or two trains go by. Something about seeing a group of strangers in an illuminated cylinder floating past is enough for me to get the proper perspective, and get back to work.
NONFICTION – HISTORY
The Defender by Ethan Michaeli
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
January 12, 2016