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Taking Chicago by Train: Greg Borzo

Writer Greg Borzo tracks the history of the Windy City’s iconic el.

Greg Borzo on the el

"For me, riding the el is in many ways better than a roller coaster ride," Greg Borzo (GJ85) says of traveling on Chicago's elevated trains.

A daily el commuter for the past 25 years, Borzo decided to research and write The Chicago ‘L' after becoming an el tour guide through the Chicago History Museum. "There wasn't a single book out there that tells the story of the el in popular language from start to finish," he says.

There is now.

"Many friends and family thought I was wasting my time spending so much time on a subject they thought no one would care about," Borzo says. "But once the book came out, it became clear that the public is very interested in the el — love it or hate it. It is the city's biggest mover and shaker, with a colorful history that has touched almost everyone who has lived in the city."

Despite funding gaps and service cuts in mass transit in Chicago and around the country, Borzo has faith in the endurance of the el.

"We had cable cars, we had trolleys that went right on the street with the wires overhead, we had battery-powered mass transit, we had cars powered by compressed air," he says. "The el arrives on the scene, and these systems are all competing for riders and technological and financial advantages that will help them succeed and survive. Out of all these systems, the only one left is the el. I believe it's because the el does not compete with cars for space on the street, because in the United States, cars rule."

Borzo always knew that he liked to write, but he didn't realize the power of journalism until he met columnist George Will, who wrote a piece for Newsweek about the Chicago nonprofit Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, where Borzo worked as the West Side coordinator, delivering meals and visiting the elderly. The column, "A Flower Grows in Concrete," beautifully captured the spirit of the organization.

"Within days of the publication," Borzo recalls, "our phones were ringing off the hooks, money was pouring in, along with support and encouragement — all this from one column. Then I realized that journalism is a powerful thing." 

This realization brought Borzo to graduate school at the Medill School of Journalism and eventually to a position as a science writer at the Field Museum, where he worked for 7 ½ years covering topics from meteorites to mushrooms.

His work on The Chicago ‘L' began as a side project but eventually became almost a full-time job. After publishing the book, Borzo received one particularly memorable response.

"Barack Obama [H06] responded with a personal letter," Borzo says. "He picked a photo showing a World War II poster exhorting Chicagoans to ride the el to conserve rubber for the war effort and wrote, ‘Past generations of Americans have banded together to overcome trying times, and the photo reinforced my belief that we can do the same in our era.' "

Borzo, who founded the Windy's Club at the Chicago History Museum for tour guides who go out and visit the city, plans to continue to pursue the history of transportation in Chicago in his next book project, which will explore the city's bike trails and bike paths.

For now he is working to promote the el and its dynamic history through presentations on his book. "There have been new lines over the years and new investments, so I think the el is really destined to survive in the long term," Borzo says. "Maybe my book will encourage people to take the el, encourage the government to support it, to finance it, to improve it."

— Elizabeth Henley (WCAS09)

Photo courtesy of Arcadia Publishing

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Greg Borzo book
Writer Greg Borzo, an el rider for 25 years, wrote a book on the history of Chicago’s famous transit system.Image courtesy of the Chicago Transit Authority