Starting With Zero

Twenty years ago this week, I commenced my studies at the University of Chicago as a first-year in the College. After ten days of placement exams, group discussions about Plato’s dialogues, and monumental speeches in Rockefeller Chapel, I arrived for my first class in Cobb Hall at the unseemly hour of 8:30AM.

The formal title of the course was “Fundamental Mathematics”. Around the quad it was risibly referred to as “Fun Math”. The formal course description noted that “this two-course sequence covers basic precalculus topics.” Additionally, it was a type of  “two-for-one” offering. That’s right: two quarters worth of instruction for one solo credit. How charming.

As I wandered into Cobb 105, I thought back to the previous academic year at James A. Garfield High School in Seattle. Through a hole in the Seattle Public School system’s educational fabric, I had managed to escape the second semester of supposedly “required” math instruction for all seniors. That fall semester I had a math course that should have been titled “Conversations With a Guy From New Jersey About Classic Chassis”. We mostly talked about cars, hemis, New Jersey-style hot dogs, and University of Washington football. I imagine this young math educator’s instructional style would result in many more children left behind today, particularly when one considers the aggressive focus on testing.

Nine months without math instruction left me woefully underprepared for the mathematics placement exam at the University of Chicago. I left half of the questions blank and I’m fairly certain that I thought delta-epsilon proofs were something that happened at an institution with a larger Greek system. After I brought up my exam after 45 minutes, I knew I would be in for something special in terms of math instruction amidst these august ivy-covered walls.

Sitting down in the classroom, it was clear that no one else was exactly thrilled to be there. As cliche as it sounds, a clutch of football players (yes, UofC has football) took up some prime corner real estate in the tiny room, a couple of proto-hipsters affected disaffection in the corner and the rest of us just looked on gamely, waiting for class to begin.

The instructor, a tall ruddy faced Scotsman, wandered in and greeted us with a exuberant “Welcome to college and to the University of Chicago!” Oh, things were looking up already. He continued: “Can anyone tell me the importance of zero?”

So it began.

Trains, Planes, Automobiles and More: Talking about “Terminal Town” with Joseph Schwieterman

imageThe Illinois Central’s Illini departs Central Station for Carbondale in 1971
                              (Photographer: George Hamlin)

I’ve spent many hours in bus terminals, railroad stations, and airports examining their architecture, art, design, and general appearance. It was with great pleasure that I learned of a new work exploring the history of Chicago’s contributions in this area of human endeavor by Professor Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University. “Terminal Town: An Illustrated Guide to Chicago’s Airports, Bus Depots, Train Stations, and Steamship Landings, 1939-Present” delivers a thoughtful look at this key aspect of Chicagoland’s infrastructure in a way that is thoughtful, chatty, and informative.

What was the impetus for this project?

The demolition of many landmarks, like LaSalle Street Station, North Western Terminal, and the city’s two bus depots, had a profound effect after I moved to Chicago in 1981. I couldn’t understand why such little initiative was taken to save them. Walking through an almost deserted Midway Airport also had an imprint on me. These memories and others—like working at United Airlines when it opened the all-new Terminal 1 in 1987—left me with a strong desire to showcase our magnificent terminal system.


 Main Waiting Room, North Western Terminal as it appeared in November 1981
                                   (Photographer: Craig Blushke)

The photography in the book is magnificent. Can you tell us about combing through various archives to get the perfect image for each transit hub? Any surprises along the way?

Thank you! I switched to a color book after seeing how was lost when those classic photos were printed in B&W. We can be grateful for those went out to capture those images before it was too late. It’s a shame, though, that so few good pictures were taken inside stations. I’ve never found good shots from inside Englewood Union Station or Trailways Station. If somebody has them, please call!

Do you have a favorite transit hub in Chicago for people watching? Or in terms of user friendliness and the like?

You have to admire Skidmore, Owing and Merrill’s redesign of old Randolph Street Station, a damp and dingy place once likened to a bomb shelter. SOM transformed it into the “luminous and cloud-like space” that is today’s Millennium Station. I sometimes gaze out through the curved glass at Starbucks there to watch commuters scurry to Metra and South Shore trains. The architects “took a lemon and made lemonade”.

I remember visiting Union Station for the first time in 1990 as a teenager passing through on my way to Virginia. It’s come a long way, but what does it need in terms of amenities or possible service extensions to improve the facility?

Fixing Union Station has become the rallying cry for thousands of civic leaders and rail-passenger advocate. We need to give Amtrak passengers a better experience, allow Metra to expand rush-hour service, and make is possible for trains to run through our city without the need for everyone to make connections. I can’t think of another terminal in the country that is high priority for improvement. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association rightfully likens its importance to that of a resurgent Midway Airport.


Midway Airport terminal building

Thinking about Union Station, I’m reminded of its appearance in “The Untouchables”. Do you have a favorite Chicago transit hub on film or TV moment?

I really like the Blues Brothers scene where Elwood and Jake drive down Randolph St. with the giant blinking Trailways Bus Station marquee in full view. This scene shows the fading glory of a strip that was once called “Chicago’s Times Square”. The Chicago Greyhound Station looms in the distance. I also like the Home Alone scene where the McCallister family runs through O’Hare without their son. It reminds me of my days as a standby passenger.


Trailways Bus Station, May 1986
                                    (Photographer: Mel Bernero)

Many of the places you write about have been demolished or dramatically transformed. Which one of these would you have liked to have visited in person and why?

I kick myself for not getting even a glimpse of Central Station, which came down in 1974. I came to Chicago many times as high school kid but don’t remember seeing it. Also, in 1989, I got lazy and never came downtown to get photos to the giant Greyhound Station being torn down. Nobody else apparently did that either.

I’m going to put you on the spot here: What’s your favorite CTA station and why?

The Clinton Green Line Stop! On the east end of the platform, you can look out over the tracks at Ogilvie Transportation Center and watch trains come out of Union Station on the former Milwaukee Road. You can even look down to the “L” track toward the Lake/Wells interlocking (crossing). There is a lot of “wow factor” at that spot.

What are the three top transit priorities for Chicago(land) over the next two decades?

The lack of connectivity between our commuter-rail system and rapid transit lines borders on the absurd. God knows how many transit trips are abandoned by those unwilling to schlep from one station to the next to make a connection. I live south of the city and regularly need to get up to Northwestern University, which is way north. The lengthy walk from Millennium Station to Ogilvie tests my patience—and endurance. Maybe I need to get a Divvy plan! When I was in Berlin two months ago, I marveled at the synergy of its giant centralized hub.

What’s a song that would be good to listen to on a South Shore train headed from Randolph Station down to Michigan City?

The song “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” is of course a little stereotypical, referring to the South Side as the “baddest part of town”, but it is a classic. But nothing captures the romance of riding on the Illinois Central line that those trains use better than Arlo Guthrie’s rendition of Steve Goodman’s City of New Orleans. I once tried to learn it on the piano but could never master it. After the train switches onto the South Shore Line at Kensington Jct., and heads toward Gary, Indiana, perhaps Michael Jackson’s Thriller is in order!

As a side note, you can also learn more about the book via this website created to provide additional information about the work and transit-related events around Chicago.

Touching Down

We landed at Midway, right on time.

Sun down, Seattle behind me.

As I stepped off the plane, I thought “Wow. It’s a bit like a more charming Greyhound station”

That was 20 years ago, long before Midway got good and gussied up.

It was warm in the terminal and I had my second thought. “Did someone forget to turn on the A/C?” Admittedly, I was wearing a heavy, dusty grey, warm weather coat. Late September, so I thought it would be cold on the banks of Lake Michigan.

Sighing, I turned my head and caught a glimpse of Mayor Richard M. Daley in photographic form. On that dingy yellow wall, he seemed quite young and his tilt seemed to indicate a curious aesthetic decision for such a formal civic portrait.

Perhaps he knew about the A/C problem here? No, he could not be bothered with these details in this distant corner of the city.

A blur of bags on a geriatric carousel passed by. I picked mine up and scuttled off to a waiting Yellow Cab.

The cab driver had a warm face and after some directional directions & personal background he opined up: “Land of flannels and Nirvana. I’ve been there, I’ve been there. Good place, long plane trip. Why did you come out here? Cold weather. Long. Snowy.”

I gave what would become a standard patter over the coming weeks, relating the financial aid package at the University of Chicago, my love of big old sprawling cities, and my desire to explore.

"UofC gives out money huh? Couldn’t have afforded it myself. Went to Circle campus. Lots of concrete and named after the place where two freeways bump into each other. Weird, right?"

Yes, it was, but how could I know this? I pumped my head up and down, indicating general agreement.

We were at the Blackstone now and the cab slid up in front of the main entrance on Balbo  A few bills went up front and the cabbie said “Kid, check out the Jazz Showcase. To your left, off the lobby. Perfect way to meet Chicago”

Jazz and a showcase? Yes, thank you.

First it was up to my room at this grand pile which was home to the smoke-filled rooms of the 1920 Republication Convention. Cough, cough and a bunch of old men put up Warren G. Harding for possible elevation to the highest office in the land.

After a brief discussion with front desk, I went to the elevator and found a man there waiting to take my bags. He was a man in the sense that he was older than me by three or four years.

"Welcome to the Blackstone", he said. "Let’s get those bags and get you up to your room."

Up I went, burdened down by overpacked bags and a mind that felt the same.

The first night of four years that became twenty had begun.

The Fine Arts Building, a Fiery Preacher & More

                         Billy Sunday laughs

Old photographs have always sent me in search a long-gone building, a forgotten graveyard, and the homes of the rich and infamous (I’m looking at you, Al Capone)

I recently combed through the online Chicago Daily News photo archive to craft a tour of Chicago that would take curious parties by the Fine Arts Building, the former Bush Temple of Music, and a fine cocktail lounge named after the legendary preacher Billy Sunday.

Go on and take a look at this brief tour and I imagine you’ll be digging through the Daily News archives soon enough for your own journey around Chicago.


Dear Robert Loerzel: How Do You Tweet?

What’s the goal/mission of your organization’s Twitter feed?

My Twitter feed, @robertloerzel, doesn’t represent an organization — it’s just me! As a freelance journalist, sometimes I tweet or retweet links for media outlets I’ve done work for (Crain’s Chicago Business, the Chicago Tribune and WBEZ, among others). But I’m not getting paid to tweet. A few of my tweets are self-promotional, giving people links to stories I’ve written or photos and blog posts from my own website,, which is mostly concert photos and reviews.

But I also retweet a lot of other stuff — some people would probably say I retweet too much, but I can’t help myself. And so, what is the goal or mission? It’s mostly just trying to share what I find interesting, important, amusing or appalling in the world around us.

What are your other responsibilities?

As I mentioned, I’m a freelancer. My work is a mix of reporting, writing, arts criticism, copy editing and photography for a variety of media outlets, and I’ve written one book, “Alchemy of Bones: Chicago’s Luetgert Murder Case of 1897” and I’ve been working on another book for the past 11 years. I also run a couple of other Twitter feeds: @midlandauthors, the feed for the Society of Midland Authors, a nonprofit organization for Midwestern authors where I currently serve as vice president; and @new_in_chicago, an account dedicated to promoting the weekly “New in Chicago” column that I write for the Crain’s Chicago Business website.

What’s the mix of tweets you like to send out on any given day?

I don’t plan out any particular mix of tweets for a day. It’s basically whatever grabs my attention as I look over the tweets coming in from the many, many accounts I am following (5,907 as of this moment). On some semi-conscious level, I do try to maintain a certain balance of different subjects in my tweets and retweets. On a given day, my Twitter feed will probably include some Chicago news as well as national and world news, quirky stories from random corners of the planet, articles about journalism and the media, cool pictures, historical tidbits, indie rock news, stuff about literature, art and movies, plus things I’ve seen or overheard on the streets of Chicago. When there’s a big breaking news story, I might go into mega-retweeting mode and put out a lot of updates on a situation — I did that during the manhunt after the Boston Marathon bombing, and when tornadoes were hitting downstate Illinois, just to mention a couple of examples. I retweeted so much during the tornadoes that Twitter suspended my account for a few hours! Amid all of this stuff, I also reply to other people’s tweets, including friends I know in real life as well as people whose tweets I find interesting or worthy of a smart-alecky response or some praise. I’m not a huge sports fan, so I don’t tweet all that much about sports, unless I find something especially interesting or amusing — and I don’t watch reality TV shows, so you won’t see a lot of tweets about that, either.

How do you interact with other organizations in (or outside) of your field?

Interaction is such an important part of having a good presence on Twitter. For me, it’s mostly retweeting other people’s most interesting updates, crediting other people for their tweets and having mini-conversations with them on Twitter.

What’s the most valuable aspect of Twitter for you?

I don’t know how much Twitter benefits me professionally. I know that some other journalists notice my tweets, though that doesn’t necessarily translate into me getting any work as a result of it. (There’s at least one time that happened, when the Chicago Reader asked me to cover something I’d tweeted about.) I just think of Twitter as an important part of how I interact with the world around me and keep track of what’s going on. It’s not unusual for me to find out about a concert, play or film via Twitter, enriching my cultural experiences. And it keeps me informed about news in a lot of far-flung areas, which is helpful in my line of work.

What types of social media software do you use to manage your Twitter account?

I switch back and forth between Tweetdeck, the Twitter website and the Twitter app on a variety of devices: my home iMac, a MacBook Air, an iPad, an Android phone and newsroom PCs. What I’m using at any given moment affects how I see Twitter and how I tweet. My favorite interface is using Tweetdeck on my iMac, where I can see several columns at once: notifications of people retweeting my tweets and replying to me; a list that I keep private of 400 or see Chicago friends and major Chicago-related news accounts; the general Twitter feed of nearly 6,000 accounts that I’m following, which scrolls past quickly like a ticker tape; and the columns for my other accounts, @new_in_chicago and @midlandauthors.

Have you ever had any new and compelling partnerships come together via Twitter?

No real partnerships — unless you count things like people asking to use my concert photos, which happens from time to time.

How you respond to critics/complainers on Twitter?

I don’t get complaints all that often. I try to avoid tweeting links to any news stories with questionable accuracy or sourcing, but on a few occasions I slipped and posted a hoax from some other source. That usually prompts someone else to point the problem. When that happens, I’m glad to address the controversy with a follow-up tweet or delete a previous RT, if that’s appropriate. Sometimes, a tweet will prompt a political discussion. I don’t generally spend a lot of time on Twitter debating issues. I retweet some counterpoint tweets as a matter of fairness. Other times, I find it’s better simply to ignore these rejoinders. Once in a while, people question why I’m tweeting so much about a particular topic. (“Why so much about Rob Ford?”) There isn’t much to say in response to that other than: Hey, I find this stuff interesting. If you don’t, feel free to ignore it.

Do you ever sponsor any special events (Tweet-chats, etc) to get a bit of buzz going around?

Never done it. Maybe I will someday.

What are your go-to-Twitter feeds in your field? For fun? For Chicago goings-on?

For staying up on Chicago news and goings-on, I especially like these Twitter accounts. I’m leaving out institutional Twitter feeds for news organizations and focusing just on the individuals here. I’m also leaving out the many great Twitter feeds I follow from beyond Chicago. (And I’m sure I’m leaving out some great people!) But here goes, in no particular order: @craignewman, @walldo, @peternickeas, @ourmaninchicago, @RogersParkMan, @calumet412, @ErinMeyer1, @NinaMetzNews, @pkmonaghan, @dmihalopoulos, @mikelansu, @marklebien, @raypride, @MisterJayEm, @RobertFeder, @AnnDwyer_Crains, @jesshopp,  @thomasfrisbie, @SennettReport, @zoegalland, @AGarciaPhoto, @stevevance, @4danlopez, @BeachwoodReport, @JoshatNRDC, @imLeor, @LynnBecker, @emmillerwrites, @mickeyd1971, @marcusleshock, @RiotFest, @natashakorecki, @dhinkel, @pang, @BrianBernardoni, @superanne, @whet, @samarov, @bellwak, @romenesko, @timhorsburgh, @tracyswartz, @kdc, @TedMcClelland, @schlikerman, @dansinker, @me3dia … oh, and some guy who calls himself @theurbanologist.

How does you cover your feed? 24 hours a day? Weekends? Holidays?

As I said, this Twitter feed is just me, no company, no pay. I try to keep an eye on how much time I’m spending on it. You’ll notice some long gaps when I don’t tweet much, which probably means I’m ensconced in some other work for a while. Or sleeping. (Yes, I do sleep.)

Any “aha” moments in your Twitter usage? Great revelations? “Uh oh” moments?

I’m having trouble thinking of any specific “aha” or “uh oh” moments, but I recall discovering early on in my use of Twitter how fascinating and useful it is to use Twitter to monitor breaking news from your city and all over the world. And when I’m interested in a particular story, I sometimes search Twitter for what people are saying about it, which often leads to great comments and links from people I never would have encountered otherwise.

If you have more than one person responsible for your Twitter account, how do you keep the voice & tone consistent?

It’s just me. Even though it’s just one person, keeping the voice and tone consistent may still be an issue. If I’ve been retweeting news from a tragic or disturbing news event, I’ll probably hold off on saying anything lighthearted on a different subject. But sometimes, these sorts of jarring juxtapositions happen. I feel like that’s a reflection of how our lives and our world are filled with these contrasts.

Who would you like to see interviewed next for this feature?

Well, any of the people I mentioned earlier would be great. How about @robertfeder? I like the way he puts out multiple tweets on the same topic, promoting a news item from several different angles.

How does your organization promote your Twitter feed throughout your industry?

I don’t really promote it all — other than including an occasional link from my blog to my Twitter feed. Tweeting itself is a form of promotion, I suppose.