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New “Chicago by ‘L'” doc explores importance of transit, cultures along the lines

Baer with a vintage 4000 Series train and its volunteer crew. Photo: WTTW

WTTW host and producer Geoffrey Baer has done TV travelogues highlighting Chicago's geography, history, and culture by various modes, including "Bicycling the Boulevards" and "The Chicago River Tour." Now he's highlighting our storied rapid transit system and its importance to local communities as a convenient and affordable way to get around, in the new documentary "Chicago by 'L'," debuting on Wednesday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. on WTTW and at

When the show launches, the website will also feature an interactive map that highlights neighborhoods seen on the show and upcoming CTA projects; additional drone footage and extra video from the vintage 4000 Series train seen on the show, built in 1929; behind-the-scene footage of the 'L' system's Skokie maintenance center; a gallery of art on CTA property; and more.

While Baer did another video project for public television called "Chicago by 'L'" back in 2001, which hasn't aired in years, he told me that while that show mostly involved on-train footage, the new documentary "really uses the 'L' to get into the neighborhoods and meet the people and explore the history." He noted that much has changed on the system during the last 20 years. "There was no Pink Line back in 2001, and this time we took a deeper dive into the system as a whole." He walked me through some of the highlights of the show on the the eight 'L' lines.

Red Line

Off of the Argyle station, Baer toured the Argyle Night Market weekly outdoor Asian food festival with Hac Tran, communications director for the Uptown United community organization. Tran is the son of Vietnam War refugees who met on Argyle.

After stops for an insider's tour of Wrigely Field, a visit to Chinatown, and an interview with the owners of Original Soul Vegetarian restaurant near the 75th Street stop, Baer visits the recently reconstructed 95th/Dan Ryan terminal, which includes a DJ booth designed by local artist Theaster Gates. "It's a wonderful new intermodal station," Baer said. A DJ was spinning when the TV crew visited, and there's footage of CTA employees dancing to the music in reflective vests with key chains jangling.

Green Line

Near the Oak Park Avenue Green Line station, the crew explored the history of Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio and local houses he designed. In Austin, they checked out 100 Men 100 Homes, an initiative to employ local residents in gutting and rehabbing houses.

By the 51st Street station in Bronzeville, Baer talked with Kaaron Johnson, cofounder of Boxville, a shipping container mall that provides retail space for young entrepreneurs, which is also the site of the Bronzeville Bike Box pop-up community cycle shop. And at the southeast end of the Green Line at the Cottage Grove stop in Woodlawn, the crew visited Daley's Restaurant, Chicago's oldest eatery.

The Boxville market beneath the Green Line tracks at 51st Street. Image: WTTW
The Boxville market beneath the Green Line tracks at 51st Street. Image: WTTW
The Boxville market beneath the Green Line tracks at 51st Street. Image: WTTW

Pink Line

Baer stopped at 'L' Cafecito, a small coffee shop inside the Damen Pink station in Pilsen, which he called "the antidote to Dunkin Donuts," and interviewed owner Eleazar Delgado, who also founded the larger community landmark Jumping Bean Café. 

Blue Line

At the west end of the Blue Line in Forest Park, Baer discussed the history of the suburb that has been jokingly called "more dead than alive," because some 800,000 people are buried in the various cemeteries there. By the Western/Armitage stop in Wicker Park, he visited the beloved ice cream parlor Margie's Candies, and interviewed flight attendants on their way to work via the train.

Near the Jefferson Park Transit Center, the crew checked out the Taste of Polonia Polish cultural festival at the Copernicus Center. And at O'Hare, they had a chance to film on the airfield, which Baer said was "thrilling."

Orange Line

On the way to Midway Airport, the TV crew stopped at the Halsted station to explore the history of the Bridgeport neighborhood, home to several Chicago mayors. Baer also discussed the industrial history of land near the Orange Line, which was build on old freight railroad right-of-way.

Purple Line

Baer visited the stately Baháʼí House of Worship near the Wilmette station. He also discussed how the North Shore Channel, which meets Lake Michigan at a harbor near the temple, was dug, along with the Cal-Sag Channel on the Far South Side, to help ensure that the Chicago River continues to flow towards the Mississippi River after stores, carrying sewage away from Chicago's drinking water supply. He also stopped by the Northwestern University campus.

Yellow Line

The crew looked at the origins of the Yellow Line corridor, which runs through the Skokie Valley, as the North Shore Line, a high-speed rail route to Milwaukee, built by Commonwealth Edison president Samuel Insull as a scheme to spur development and create new electricity customers, according to Baer. The route, which featured futuristic Electroliner trains, could make the run from Chicago to Milwaukee in a mere one hour.

Brown Line

Baer checked out the 60625 zip code area near the Kimball station, once called the most diverse zip code in the nation, and home to various Latino and Arab communities, Koreans, Orthodox Jews, Swedish heritage sites, and more, interviewing Ahsan Akbar, facilities director at the Albany Park Community Center. Then he headed to the Western station in Lincoln Square to discuss the neighborhood's German history.

Other stops included the brewing and distilling district along Ravenswood Avenue nicknamed "Malt Row," and the Boystown district near the Belmont station in Lakeview. The show ends by taking a spin around the downtown Loop Elevated tracks and discussing the famous buildings visible out the windows of the train.

Behind the scenes

Baer also told me a little about the filming process. "We got our own [modern] 'L' train for 10 days. We'd pick up the train with our own crew and do all our setup on the train, with lighting, and masking some of the windows to make it easier to film the view outside the window. The CTA employees were wonderful to work with. We would pick up extras who would pretend to be 'L' riders during shots on the train."

The WTTW crew also did some filming with vintage railcars from the CTA's Heritage Fleet, including 4000 Series cars with orange and brown livery, which were used from the 1920s all the way up to the 1970s, and 6000 Series vehicles that were introduced in the late 1950 and were originally painted green. These were operated for the shoot by volunteer crews wearing old-fashioned uniforms.

At one point Baer and company visited the CTA control center in the West Loop, which is full of monitors that employees can use to keep track of trains all over the system. "It's like the Starship Enterprise," Baer said.

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