The Brooklyn Bridge and Chicago’s elevated Loop don’t seem to have much in common aside from being large transportation structures.
From its completion in 1883, the 1,600-foot suspension bridge spanning the East River has been a dominant element on the New York scene.
In his 1965 book Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol, Alan Trachtenberg notes that the bridge’s designer John Roebling predicted that it would be ranked as a national monument and as “a great work of art.”
Roebling’s claims [writes Trachtenberg] were far from modest, but history has borne them out. There is no more famous bridge in all the world. And in 1964, almost a hundred years later, the American government proclaimed the structure an official national monument.
By contrast, the 1.8-mile elevated Loop, which turned 120 in October, rises just two stories above four Chicago streets. Although it encloses 39 downtown blocks, it is lost amid the skyscrapers that loom above it.
Rare is the aerial photograph that captures more than a sliver of the rectangle of tracks. Indeed, it can only be viewed in full from directly above it (such as from a space satellite) — and even then, unless the sunlight is exactly right, the elevated Loop is obscured by morning or afternoon shadows.
As for being honored, the only recognition that has been granted to the elevated Loop has been its inclusion, as a seeming afterthought, in the Loop Retail District when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
The elevated Loop has not been designated a National Historic Landmark. Nor has it been officially designated as a Chicago landmark.
“Symbolized and enhanced”
Trachtenberg’s book looks at the “fact” of the Brooklyn Bridge, i.e., how and why it was built and what it is as a physical object, and the bridge as “symbol, i.e., what it has been seen to represent and mean.
In a preface, Trachtenberg writes:
Coming into existence at a time of change — change from a predominately rural to an overwhelmingly urban and industrial society — Brooklyn Bridge seemed to represent that change…
A symbol serves a culture by articulating in objective form the important ideas and feelings of that culture….Brooklyn Bridge symbolized and enhanced modern America.
As a monumental, free-standing structure, the bridge was initially the most visible of landmarks in the nation’s largest, most powerful and perhaps most congested city in the nation. Today, it competes with Manhattan’s gleaming forest of skyscrapers, but most views of those towers only reveal the upper floors. By contrast, the Brooklyn Bridge can be seen in its entirety from many vantage points.
When it was built, the bridge linked two cities, but, in 1898, Brooklyn and three other boroughs were consolidated with Manhattan to create a much larger and even more dominant New York City.
The Brooklyn Bridge became a symbol of that greater municipality — and of the fast-growing United States. It seemed to embody in its steel, limestone, granite and cement a heady mix of strength, force, beauty and simplicity that was catnip to local and national boosters.
Experienced from the street up
While the bridge is often seen from afar — certainly it is best seen from afar — the elevated Loop in Chicago has always been experienced from the street up. Close enough to touch…or, if you were unlucky enough, be touched.
Throughout much of its history, it was most often viewed as a nuisance with its lattice girders congesting traffic, its train wheels squealing and its stations and steel supports and frames providing pigeons with myriad nooks and crannies. From these roosting spots, these “flying rats,” as some call them, have spattered the pavement — and generations of unwary passersby — with white excrement.
Even before the elevated Loop was finished, there were calls for it to be razed. Over the next eight decades, it was a chorus that was often sung. The only way to beautify the downtown, the argument went, was to get rid of the “ugly” structure. The last push to tear it down came in 1978.
During those years, none of Chicago’s public officials, business leaders and promoters talked about elevated Loop as the symbol of anything. It got people into and out of downtown, and that was it.
Yet, in an odd, almost stealthy way, the elevated Loop came to “symbolize and enhance” Chicago in a way that was as significant locally as the Brooklyn Bridge’s impact was nationally.
A common ground
Just as the bridge linked Brooklyn and Manhattan, making possible the consolidation of the five boroughs 15 years after its completion, the elevated Loop linked Chicago.
It’s no accident that, during the 15 years after the completion of the elevated Loop, Chicago’s downtown came to be known as the Loop. The four lines of tracks that comprise the rectangle of the elevated structure enclosed and defined the central business district.
Not only that, but the elevated Loop delineated a common ground that all Chicagoans shared. The significance of this cannot be overstated.
Chicago has always been a city of sharp divisions. Over its nearly two centuries, it has been a city of battling neighborhoods, of competing churches and parishes, of the very rich and the very poor, of saints such as Jane Addams and sinners such as Al Capone.
It has been a city divided even by baseball: You’re a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan, and never, it seems, do the twain meet.
Allowed Chicago to unite
Chicago is a three-sided city — West Side, North Side and South Side. At the end of the 19th century, each of those three sections had its own house-numbering system completely unrelated to the systems in the other two sections.
And, prior to 1897, each had its own elevated railroad terminal just outside the downtown area. Upon reaching that final stop, riders would have to get out and walk or find a street-level ride into the central business district. The elevated Loop united those lines and, as a result, allowed Chicago to unite.
Because of the elevated Loop, no other spot in Chicago belonged to Chicagoans as much as the city’s downtown — its Loop. You might only feel comfortable in one section of the city, but everyone felt comfortable in the Loop.
Throughout much of the past 120 years, the Loop was where they got their marriage license and where they viewed the Marshall Field windows at Christmas and where many of them worked and where they went for plays and movies and where they shopped for virtually anything they wanted. And much more.
The people loved it.
“The Loop in the rain”
Riding the elevated trains from their humdrum neighborhoods, they arrived in the Loop with its glitz of power, entertainment and plenty spread out before them. Chicagoans identified with their home neighborhood — and with the Loop.
Although he was no fan of the Loop — or Chicago, for that matter — Manhattanite A.J. Liebling recognized the emotional power that the place and the structure had for Chicagoans.
His 1952 articles in the New Yorker magazine, later collected in a book titled Chicago: The Second City, were a caustic critique of what he saw as the city’s provincialism, inferiority complex and bombast. The Loop, he asserted, couldn’t hold a candle to Manhattan.
Nonetheless, he mentioned, with a kind of amazement, the great affection that “one of my most astute Chicago friends” had for the Loop:
He loves that grim rectangle, bounded in its iron crown of elevated-railroad tracks, and says that during the war, when he was overseas and he thought of Chicago, it was always of the Loop in the ra1n, with the sound of the low-pitched, bisyllabic police whistles, like sea birds’ cries.
Although both the Brooklyn Bridge and the elevated Loop were created as transportation entities, their impact on their cities has been economically huge in a way that is almost always overlooked.
The bridge and the elevated Loop have each shaped the real estate markets of their cities by the way they benefited — and penalized — properties based on location. Chicago and New York have developed over the past century and more because of the presence of these two transportation structures.
It was not for nothing that early promoters of the bridge saw the structure as a gold mine for property-owners in Brooklyn. More than half a century before the bridge was constructed, a promoter argued, “The rise of property [values] in Brooklyn alone would defray the expense of the project.”
In his book, Trachtenberg writes that Manhattan benefitted even more — and the lesson can be read in its skyline: “[B]y increasing the volume of traffic into Manhattan and by helping to concentrate wealth in the business section of that city, the bridge indirectly promoted the skyscraper.” There was only so much land on the island so each inch had to be used to the nth degree which meant building up, up, up.
The story was the same in Chicago.
Even before the elevated Loop was finished, real estate officials were noticing that the value of land within the boundaries of the el tracks was rising while, for the property outside the structure, it was falling.
Like the Brooklyn Bridge, the elevated Loop concentrated real estate wealth into a densely packed quarter-of-a-square-mile that, as a result, became even more densely packed. Chicago had already had skyscrapers. With the elevated Loop, many more were built — and they went higher and higher.
Over the past 120 years, Chicago’s downtown, as defined by the four sides of the elevated Loop, has evolved.
Much of upscale shopping moved to the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue after the 1975 opening of Water Tower Place, a combination of shopping mall and high-rise residences. Even so, Macy’s, the former Marshall Field’s, remains as an anchor.
Skyscrapers have sprouted throughout the Near North Side and have clustered around the four sides of the elevated Loop. Even so, within those tracks is still one of the greatest concentrations of skyscrapers in the world.
Even through hard times in the 1970s, the Loop remained home of one of the world’s most important financial districts as well as a one-stop-shopping concentration of city, county, state and federal government services and courts.
And so it remains today, even as it undergoes a renaissance of new residential towers and a boom in college classrooms and student housing as well as a growing wealth of entertainment and dining opportunities.
After dodging the wrecking ball in 1978, the elevated Loop increasingly has come to be seen as a unique and attractive part of Chicago’s character. A tourist draw and a singular Chicago experience.
And, as one writer noted in the late 1990s, “a fitting symbol of Chicago’s nitty-gritty style of life.”
Without the elevated Loop, Chicago would have been just another Rust Belt city with a rundown and discarded downtown.
With it, Chicago is Chicago.
Patrick T. Reardon
Some of the elements in this essay were incorporated into a commentary titled “The elevated Loop, a Chicago landmark in everything but name” which ran in the Chicago Tribune on 9.25.17.