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The Sitdown: Neal Samors, on writing about the Chicago River

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Updated: May 21, 2014 6:17AM

Chicago native and Buffalo Grove resident Neal Samors has carved a special niche in regional publishing — authoring, co-authoring and independently publishing 23 books about Chicago and its diverse neighborhoods — ranging from Downtown, Lake Shore Drive, Rogers Park and now his latest: “Chicago’s River At Work and at Play,” co-authored with photographer and journalist Steven Dahlman. In researching the Chicago River book I learned it really was a working river in the 19th century. Little by little, I came to realize people figured out the river provided multiple capabilities for the people of Chicago. Basically, growing up in Chicago, the river was pretty much only something you thought about when you crossed the Michigan Avenue bridge, and basically you knew no more about it than that.

I think very few people — newcomers or not — know about the reversal of the Chicago River. What’s ironic is now they are today talking about the re-reversal of the river because of the threat of Asian carp.

I think most people in Chicago may have heard about the Asian carp problem, or the development of the river walk downtown or the greening of the river, but that’s about all they know.

People know all about Lake Michigan. That’s where you go down and go to the beach or walk along the lakefront or look out at it from a high-rise building. The Chicago River? We didn’t start taking the [architectural] tour on the river until about the 1980s. The river was just kind of there, and not of such great interest to the average person.

I don’t know if I’d take a dip in it. Maybe so, but it’s much cleaner — there’s no comparison — to how it was when I was growing up. Back then I knew about the stockyards and how they dumped into the river and all the odors.

The south branch of the river when I was a kid didn’t exist for me. The North Branch, where we lived, went through Rogers Park, so we were a part of it there. But even so we really didn’t know it or think about it all that much.

There are many books about the Chicago River out there, but not with these kinds of photographs.

This is the best retirement I could have. Frankly, I don’t call it retirement. I call it my second career. Because I worked for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., for 25 years. I worked out of the Evanston office here.

What got me into doing the neighborhood books was becoming part of the team that did “An Illustrated History of Rogers Park & West Ridge: Chicago’s Far North Side.” I had been researching the history Rogers Park for 25 years. I ended up writing four of the five sections of that book.

After doing so many of the neighborhoods, and talking to so many people, there’s one neighborhood I’d like to do: Rush Street. Jimmy Rittenberg (longtime nightlife entrepreneur) and I have joked about doing a book about Rush Street and how it’s changed. If you can do it — and who you can mention safely! — and all that stuff.

Looking back at the history of Rush Street, there was so much entertainment, history in terms of the Rush Street Bridge. I’ve talked to so many people about this. That may be the next book.

I also may go back to my last master’s thesis. It was called “Chicago’s Border Neighborhoods & Border Suburbs.” The whole history about why Chicago established it’s borders where it did. It’s all written, basically.

For example, look at how Oak Park remained independent. Back then, it was Cicero Township, and Oak Park, Cicero and Austin had different views about becoming part of Chicago. Austin did want to. But to keep the others out, they had a late-night vote to keep them out. Chicago wanted these independent towns — that’s how it grew. All these neighborhoods today, whether it’s Englewood or Lake View or Rogers Park — they were all independent towns. The railroad came through and they were separate municipalities. Chicago annexed many of them. Hyde Park was a town. Chicago in the late 1800s was briefly the largest city in the country, but New York decided, ‘Uh,uh,’ and so they annexed Brooklyn.

The biggest challenge of being an independent publisher is pretty simple: Raising the money. That’s it.

The biggest issue of doing a book is the cost of printing. Today, Amazon is where I sell. Or through my website: I used to sell by doing a mailing to up to 2,000 people, plus selling directly to bookstores. Amazon in the beginning was a very small part of what I was doing. .

The i-book is not appropriate for my books. I tried it once, but when you have 200-300 photos it’s very tough, if not impossible.

Having an established track record now, it’s somewhat easier to get books done, because people are coming to me. Like doing the Victor Skrebneski book [about the famous Chicago photographer] that’s coming out next week.

People say “Have you run out of topics to write about?” Absolutely not. Neighborhoods could be redone and updated, because they are constantly changing. Plus there are things like Chicago’s airports or other pieces of Chicago — things like that — which would lend themselves to being a book.

All my books are really memory books. I give people books in which they can apply their own memories to the book. I wouldn’t have to have any text in there, just give them the books with these photos and people would go, “I remember going here. I remember when we did such-and-such there.”

One idea is a book I’m tentatively calling, “I Talked To Them.” Over the years I’ve talked to at least 500 people, including some very famous people with Chicago connections, like Mike Wallace and Hugh Downs. People who worked in Chicago and lived in Chicago. Hillary Clinton gave me an interview. I don’t do anything controversial, but just start out asking, “Where did you grow up?” And that opens up some fascinating stories that they can tell. People just go from there.


Twitter: @billzwecker

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