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Chicago, Illinois

 By Shane DuBowPhotographs by Nina Berman

When Chicago's elevated trains rattle the windows, Lincoln Park neighbors just smile at each other, wave to the commuters, and return to their flower boxes and upscale cafés.

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It seems so improbable, that a heavy urban rail line could feel so cozy and unharried, so curious and human, as if built more for neighborly voyeurism than transit. And yet, for a fare of just U.S. $1.50, a ride on one of the last of Chicago's elevated train lines grants these trackside views: a young woman in a pink bathrobe steaming espresso; a young man in trim khakis feeding a baby; a great many suits waiting on the platforms, digging into newspapers, checking on their Cubs; and then a long, slow blur of flower-box gardens and second-story decks, all passing so close that rider and resident might intimately converse—or even touch—were it not for the roar and rush of the "L." This is Chicago's most celebrated mode of transit, a 110-year-old relic whose enduring downtown run has helped revitalize the neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

You get used to the noise, John and Polly Kelly are telling me one afternoon, as the first tie-loosing commuters trickle into their trackside Webster Avenue pub. And indeed, a quick scan of the room, all aging sports photos and dark wood trim, reveals no one showing much aversion to the recurring din. One of the neighborhood's three train stops, at Armitage, lies two blocks south; another, at Fullerton, two blocks north. In a three-square-mile (eight-square-kilometer) zip code, that's a lot of stops. What you do here in between them, they say, whenever a train passes, is sip your beer, feel the vibrations, and think of what to say next.

"It's a good place for first dates," John says.

The story of how a few miles of old train line helped a tired neighborhood refill with cafés and cleaners, gyms and condos, landscaped yards and million-dollar homes goes like this: Out of the ash of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, at the edge of where city living stopped and North Side truck farming began, a village sprang up. Built largely of two-story Victorian buildings, it soon featured an elevated train line. Boom times followed. German and Irish families settled in. Gangster life flourished. The Depression dawned. Kelly's Pub, then called the L Tavern, opened after Prohibition, not far from where the FBI would gun down John Dillinger. Car culture came on. The suburbs thrived. The city crumbled. Rail travel declined.

It wasn't until that same car culture choked the highways that more and more young people began to settle in rail-rich Lincoln Park. The young singles, like the recent DePaul University grads who live above Kelly's and display an impressive collection of shot glasses in their den, come for the action, a tremendous concentration of bustling restaurants and post-frat bars. "It's like being in college except with money," is a refrain you hear a lot.

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Did You Know? 
Kelly's Pub, featured in our article about Lincoln Park, is popular not only with locals but with Hollywood as well. Scenes from the 1986 film "About Last Night," starring Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, James Belushi, and Elizabeth Perkins, were filmed in the pub. In one scene, on the pub's patio, the characters experience the "L" just as author Shane DuBow describes it in the article: "What you do here…whenever a train passes, is sip your beer, feel the vibrations, and think of what to say next."

—Alice Dunn
Did You Know?

Related Links
Chicago Transit Authority
Get all the information you need to explore Chicago by "L" or bus—maps, schedules, fare and parking information, and more are available.

Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce
Learn more about the Lincoln Park neighborhood including its history, attractions, schools, business information, and more.

City of Chicago
Need to know how safe your neighborhood is? Get a building permit? Find a park or festival to visit? You'll find it all here for the city of Chicago.

U.S. Census Bureau
Find the latest population figures and demographics about your community, zip code, or state.

Chicago Tribune
Go to this site for the lastest regional and national headlines, and while you're there, learn more about Chicago's many diverse neighborhoods.

Chicago Association of Realtors
Whether you're looking for a house, a Realtor, a reliable contractor, or just want to learn more about Chicago housing statistics, this site will give it to you.

DePaul University
Find historical documents about the Lincoln Park community.


Ehrenhalt, Alan. "A City in Transit," Preservation, March/April 2001.

Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Miller, Ross. American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Pacyga, Dominic A. Chicago: City of Neighborhoods. Loyola University Press, 1986.

Spinney, Robert G. City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago. Northern Illinois University Press, 2000.

"Territorial Map of Lincoln Park Station, Chicago, Illinois 60614." United States Postal Service, 1997.


NGS Resources
Krist, Gary. "Beyond Little Italy," National Geographic Traveler (Mar. 2001), 118-127.

"Chicago," National Geographic Destination Map (2000).


Cobb, Charles E., Jr. "Traveling the Blues Highway," National Geographic (Apr. 1999), 42-69.

Burgan, Michael. "The Great Chicago Fire," National Geographic World (Sept. 1998), 14-18.

Yeadon, David. "You Gotta Love Chicago," National Geographic Traveler (Mar./Apr. 1994), 104-128.

Flaherty, Thomas. "North By Northwest on Amtrak's [Empire Builder]," National Geographic Traveler (July/Aug. 1991), 26-41.

Conniff, Richard. "Chicago: Welcome to the Neighborhood," National Geographic (May 1991), 50-77.

Beacom, D., W. Brashler T. Flaherty B. Cook M. Gartner. "The Many Lives of Chicago," National Geographic Traveler(Spring 1985), 46-71.

Showalter, William Joseph. "Chicago Today and Tomorrow: A City Whose Industries Have Changed the Food Status of the World and Transformed the Economic Situation of a Billion People," National Geographic (January 1919), 1-42.


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