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Forgotten Chicago Activates City's Hidden Physical Legacies

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Contrary to its name, Forgotten Chicago believes that just because a place is gone, it is not necessarily forgotten. Focusing on little known elements of Chicago's infrastructure, architecture, neighborhoods and general cityscape—whether existing or historical—Forgotten Chicago works to bring Chicago's history to a wider audience, offering walking, bike, and boat tours of areas which have had major impacts on the city's economic and social development. Jacob Kaplan has been leading the charge since the inception of the group's website, which has also recently included a thriving Facebook component where individuals share photos and stories. In an interview, Kaplan discusses Chicago's attitude of innovation, his thoughts on current renovation projects, and how the Internet helps keep users connected to history.

Curbed: Your Facebook group is wildly popular with over 12,000 followers and multiple posts per day. Do you have any favorite stories?

Jacob Kaplan: A lot of times, whether we're doing a tour or doing a lecture, people have a lot of great stories. I will say that when it comes to Facebook, it's been amazing. We didn't start the group until well after we started the site. But it has become its own thing, where we have almost 12,000 followers.

Curbed: What do you think your readers and Facebook followers are most passionate about?

JK: Before the Internet, if you were interested in history and felt a real connection to Chicago, there wasn't an outlet to connect with other enthusiasts. Now with Facebook, you can collaborate even if you live in other parts of the country. A lot of the photographs shared have been passed down through their family; they are scanned, shared, and discussed. One of the fun things is getting people who post a family photo in front of a building, maybe in the 20s or 30s. It's amazing to see the threads of discussion in which we try to analyze the photo.

I think people love that we expose lesser-known places in Chicago's history to a wider audience. That's been our goal and mission since the start, bringing history to people—even the natives—and talk about things they may not know about. If you go to other cities, there are historical markers everywhere; and in Chicago—even though we're a major city—we don't have these historical markers or really a sense of history that is portrayed to the public.

Curbed: Why do you think this is?

JK: I would say that Chicago has always been a transit hub and the center of the Midwest, but maybe it's because we've always been a city that's prided itself on the future, on innovation; building new, rather than celebrating our history. Starting from the history of the Great Fire, and the Chicago school of architecture, Chicago—the loop, especially—has reinvented itself every 30 or 40 years since the 1870s. You can still see some remnants of the early eras of the loop, but they are hard to find. But due to that there is some history that gets bulldozed pretty easily.

Curbed: What are your thoughts on the 606—Chicago's reinvigoration of the Bloomingdale Trail?

JK: I was at first curious why the trail doesn't become a transit line. Years ago, there was a Humboldt Park branch that ran south that was discontinued in the 1950s. If that branch were still there, it would be one of the busiest lines in the CTA.

But I'm excited to see the final product; it's going to be a great addition to the city. I've gone and seen the highline in NYC, but I think this is going to be a much more Chicago project. In New York, their elevated trail is meant to be a more passive experience. Here, it's more utilitarian—getting from one place to another. But I like that it is going to be a bike trail that will reuse the existing infrastructure, so that it will be tied into the history of that line. Back then, the neighborhood was an industrial corridor and community that provided a lot of jobs.

Curbed: How does Forgotten Chicago discuss gentrification, a very sensitive topic?

JK: We like to focus on neighborhoods that are in transition. There's always a new group moving in and others being displaced. It has been a thread in Chicago since they city's inception. We do like to talk about the social aspects of neighborhoods. We try to bring Chicago history to the younger folks moving in—we've given tours to DePaul's incoming classes, ad we're trying to expand this kind of programming.

Curbed: Many of Chicago's most beautiful structures are located in neighborhoods with diminishing populations and are getting torn down; are you advocating for historic preservation in these cases? Do you often advocate for preservation activities?

JK: We don't explicitly advocate for historic preservation, but by bringing to attention the history of these places, we hope it will cause some of these buildings to be preserved. I'm a preservationist at heart, but that's not the focus.

Maybe, indirectly, we can have an impact because we conduct research through non-digitized journals—historic records of Chicago that are unexplored. If we find a building in the south or west sides that have those interesting histories and we bring that to light, maybe that will inspire its preservation; it could become a city landmark, which helps redevelop neighborhoods.
·Forgotten Chicago [official]
·Forgotten Chicago Flickr Pool [official]
·Curbed Interviews

—Anjulie Rao