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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 638-640

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Book Review

Chicago Transit: An Illustrated History

Chicago Transit: An Illustrated History. By David M. Young. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998. Pp. viii+213; illustrations, tables, appendixes, notes/references, bibliography, index. $35.

At first glance, Chicago Transit appears to be a standard railfan chronicle: eleven inches high, lavish with large photographs and railway insignia, and wrapped in a jacket that promises both "nostalgia and historical detail." In fact, the book lacks both the nostalgic feel and the type of historical detail most commonly found in buff books: depictions of color schemes, timetables, and photographs of specialized vehicles used for salting streets or delivering mail. Instead of concentrating on vehicles and track, David M. Young tells the story of the corporations and public authorities that have run transit in Chicago for the last century and a half.

That story turns out to be one of politics as much as economics or engineering. In the 1970s, Young covered transportation for the Chicago Tribune and heard "the voices of the transportation professionals . . . drowned out by the politicians" (p. vii). In Chicago Transit, he shows that this was nothing new. Chicago's first mayor, William Ogden, later became president or director of several Illinois railroads, and transportation and politics have been intertwined ever since. Perhaps the most flagrant interference came in the 1880s, when corrupt city officials used their power to extort bribes from private transit companies, but Young convincingly shows that, whether privately or publicly owned and operated, Chicago transit for over a century has been at the edge of financial collapse and at the mercy of often shortsighted city and state politicians.

This story of the political economy of Chicago transit is told in ten narrative [End Page 638] chapters, interrupted by five thematic chapters on topics such as suburbanization, technological change, and the development of the automobile. These chapters come much closer to the standard buff book, including such information as the weight and capacity of various vehicles and trivia about such matters as the first use of the word "commuter." The effect of transit on land use is shown through dozens of photographs, most of them collected by the late George Krambles, a former head of the Chicago Transit Authority. Unlike typical railfan captions, which generally provide only technical details, those in Chicago Transit situate each photograph in historical context, explaining the land-use patterns seen or the advantages and disadvantages of various types of vehicles. Unfortunately, the illustrations float free of the text, with no cross-referencing between the two. For example, an arresting pair of pictures of Madison Street taken in 1947 and 1997 appear opposite text covering the 1870s, preventing text and image from reinforcing each other.

Aside from capsule biographies of traction magnates Charles T. Yerkes and Samuel Insull, Young's writing is generally in the drab style of the corporate reports he uses as primary sources. A typical sentence reads: "By 1924, the first year in which consolidated financial statements were available for the Chicago Rapid Transit Co. following its purchase of the bankrupt Chicago & Oak Park, the elevated system was still sufficiently profitable with a net income of $801,375 on revenues of $18,565,185 to sell $5 million in preferred stock and $9 million in bonds to refinance $10.5 million old debt and to finance a modest modernization program" (p. 92). Absent here are people, analysis, or quotation, leaving only a succession of dates, company names, and overly detailed financial figures. The five nonnarrative chapters are more lively but, like the photographs, they are inserted awkwardly, shattering chronology.

Although Young's bibliography includes an impressive list of scholarly works on Chicago and urban transportation, he does little to engage the arguments these contain. Despite many footnotes to Paul Barrett's Automobile and Urban Transit: The Formation of Public Policy in Chicago, 1900- 1930 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983) and to dissertations on the politics of Chicago transit by Robert Weber and John Allen, Young never indicates whether he agrees or disagrees with these...


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