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The Chicagoan: a living history

The Chicagoan
The ChicagoanDuffer

The Chicagoan

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In early 2010, when I heard that JC Gabel was trying to relaunch The Chicagoan, I couldn’t wait to see it. The pairing in itself was newsworthy: effervescent wunderkind JC Gabel, who founded the edgy, alternative arts and culture magazine Stop Smiling when he was 19, takes over the defunct, upper-crust society magazine that had a nine-year heyday peaking in the pre-Depression Flapper era. What the hell would come of this?

Since then, and along with the belated digitization of print media, as Chicago newspapers restructured under bankruptcy and countless glossies folded nationally, my excitement for Gabel’s ambitious endeavor turned into skepticism. After waiting for what seemed a year for the alleged prototype, the urgent question changed from when to how: how, in this economic climate for print media, would he fund a 194-page glossy magazine free of ad revenue?

Keep in mind that Gabel spared no expense with Stop Smiling and, to fuel his mad hatter publishing dreams, Gabel’s inspiration for The Chicagoan arose from Neil Harris’s 2008 book on the exquisite cover art and tumultuous history of The New Yorker’s forgotten cousin.

When I finally held it in my hands in early February, courtesy of a student, I couldn’t believe it. It was massive. It costs $19.95 and, at that point, had limited distribution largely to those things from the time of the original Chicagoan, newsstands. It was beautiful, flawless, diverse, engaging and absolutely improbable in every aspect. A biannual Chicago-centric culture magazine founded on long-form journalism and funded by donations, subscriptions, and retail sales? Well, it was nice to see once.

So I flipped through it, the back section featuring culture slices of life on the Midwest at large, the literary supplement with short fiction and essays by notable Chicago authors, and then, the centerpiece: a 50+page feature on Siskel and Ebert. I closed it: Who gives a shit about Siskel & Ebert, the most media-saturated duo in Chicago since, hell, Leopold & Loeb? What hasn’t been said about those two, or better, who’s going to write it better than Ebert himself? You’re only as good as your 50-page piece feature.

That night, I knew I’d have trouble sleeping. The Chicagoan represented a lot of things: as a writer it was a new market producing the form I loved about the city I loved and, with JC, you were guaranteed to be in good editorial hands; as a reader, it featured my favorite Chicago writers in the form I loved about the city I loved. With The Chicagoan, Gabel was celebrating in no uncertain terms the literary renaissance in Chicago. Yeah, I wasn’t fully aware how much I was putting into it, but everyone I talked to about it was excited and a bit skeptical.

I started at the back of “Enemies, A Love Story: The oral history of Siskel and Ebert.” The piece was broken down into digestible paragraph-long quotes from 36 industry insiders, from New York Times film critic and the last host of At The Movies, A.O. Scott, to make-up artists, to Thea Flaum, the original producer of the show at WTTW in 1976. I didn’t read linearly, though it’s structured that way. I followed my own questions, flipping back and forth in movie-title chapters such as “Fight Club”, “Misery”, and “Everyone Says I love You.”

Hours later I couldn’t sleep because the writer, Josh Schollmeyer, who is the executive editor at Playboy, had just created one of the most innovative and arresting approaches to his subjects and the form that I can recall reading. I say this without hyperbole: it’s the finest piece of feature writing I’ve read in years.

If you can’t say anything new about the subject then let other people say it: according to Gabel it took, “One calendar year, 50 interviews, hundreds of pages of transcription, and countless hours of editing” to distill it into a 25,000-word piece of brilliance, which no other magazine could afford or dare to accept. I doubt anything on Siskel and Ebert would’ve worked in any other way.

You are only as good as your 50-page piece feature.

Schollmeyer’s piece embodies what The Chicagoan is: audacious, conspicuous, forward thinking and historically relevant; it is newsworthy but not news, timely but not urgent; the Chicagoan is a living history documented from the point of view that is the most essential of any history, the present.

The Chicagoan’s literary supplement features a Joe Meno boy-meets-girl who’s a guerrilla artists story, Cristina Henriquez’ wholly unsettling story about a lonely father steeped in grief who begins to lop off parts of his body; there are essays by Kyle Beachy and Enrique Vila-Matas, and poetry by Ed Roberson. (Eat your heart out, Tribune, and your mispriced Printers Row.)

The back eighth of the magazine, “Into the Great Wide Open: further dispatches from the Midwest” features five pieces of essays and journalism, including a compelling read by Paul Durica on the unsolved Torso Murderer who plagued Cleveland in the mid 1930s. The front matter consists of a dozen pieces, including an extended interview with Chicago architect and visionary Jeanne Gang, and a conversation with Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James, to a piece on the locavore movement in soup kitchens. It’s overwhelming to review, because at 1000 words I’m already going too long and yet I haven’t given it due coverage.

I haven’t gotten through it all and I’ve had it for a month. But you can’t look at it as a traditional magazine; it’s not something to burn through and pitch in that week’s recycling. Categorically, it falls somewhere between a monthly magazine and a book, and knowing Gabel, this is intentional. Just as it is very hard to put down The Chicagoan, it will be harder still to dispose of it. It can’t be dismissed. Like any essential history, it will endure.

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