Curious City is a news-gathering experiment housed at Chicago Public Media - WBEZ91.5fm. You ask your questions about Chicago/the region/the people who live here, vote for your favorites, and join us in tracking down the answers.

Here's where we'll be posting updates on stories in the works. Follow us to keep track of our progress and how you can help.

Check out our most recent stories on or find answers posted here.


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What to do with the Uptown Theater

We’re in the process of answering this question from Fariha Wajid:

How can we repurpose the Uptown Theater to the maximum benefit for the community?
It’s a great question and we can’t answer it without your help. Do you have an idea for the future of Uptown Theater? Submit your idea here or check out the other submissions and upvote the ones you like.

Illinois struggles with debt and unpaid bills, while Indiana is sitting pretty with a surplus topping $2 billion. What’s behind the fiscal gap between these two neighbors?

Our Editor Shawn Allee is seen here with a bad case of the audio producer’s plague: headphone crumblitis: an affliction in which the outer layers of ear pads on Sony professional headphones flake off and Most often: skin.

Allee was last seen in the men’s bathroom on floor 3 furiously scrubbing the crumblitis shmutz from his neck, face, inner ears and psyche.   

Been following our progress on our story about the ubiquitous but ever-so-interesting Chicago two-flat apartment building? Well, reporter Chris Bentley and the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Jen Masengarb have capped things off with this explainer on how this humble building is deeply tied to the city’s working class.  

A couple summers ago, Cherelyn Riesmeyer took her kids to a Chicago beach. They had brought their new boogie boards along, which they’d purchased on a family vacation a few weeks earlier.

But when they leapt into Lake Michigan with their new beach toys, Cherelyn says, a lifeguard promptly told her kids that boogie boards weren’t allowed on Chicago beaches.

“[My kids] starting referring to the lifeguards as fun guards,” Cherelyn says.

Then, in January 2012, a local surfer was arrested for illegally surfing at Oak Street Beach. When Cherelyn heard the news, she says, she was in disbelief. But she also wanted answers, so she asked Curious City:

Why is surfing not allowed in Lake Michigan?

Turns out, surfing is allowed in Lake Michigan, but it wasn’t always, and even now it’s not allowed everywhere. Here’s how a compromise between local surfers and a wary park district made riding waves game on four beaches.

Photo: A local surfer watches the sun rise over 57th Street Beach. (Courtesy Todd Haugh/Surfrider Foundation).

Question Answered: What’s That Chocolate Smell?


Dear Curious Citizens,

Maybe you’re getting off the brown line at Chicago or maybe you’re biking down Milwaukee and all of a sudden you smell this overwhelming scent of chocolate. It’s like someone’s baking the most delicious pan of brownies right under your nose. Maybe you’re curious where that smell comes from.

Plenty of our listeners are; we’ve received four questions about the smell since Curious City began. So we thought we’d answer all four questions at once. Or actually, we’ll let our colleagues do the talking. Click here for a Dynamic Range story about the Blommer Chocolate factory in Chicago’s West Loop and listen to Ira Glass explain why the factory actually smells less like chocolate than it used to. Happy listening (and smelling) and stay curious!

Love, Curious City

Photo by Ann Gordon (via Flickr)

Did you hear the voice at the top of our latest video ( ) and podcast? It’s from our latest question-asker, Laura Jones Macknin. She happens to be an actor, and has also done some Chicago-area voice-over work, including ads for Swedish Hospital as well as the Central DuPage Hospital group.

Laura sent a question about the so-called “Cabbage War” in the West Ridge and Rogers Park neighborhoods. Oddly, she came across a historical reference to this bit of vegetable-infused political rivalry while doing outreach for a healthcare outreach program. Her team needed to understand the dividing lines between the two northern Chicago neighborhoods. She ran into a blurb about the “Cabbage War” and was hooked. 

“It’s so odd and whimsical (Cabbages on poles! Cabbagehead slurs! Farmers vs. Northwestern!) that I wanted to know more about it,” she wrote.

Laura pressed us for a little Game of Thrones reenactment but, alas, the historical record is too scant to sustain a book or TV series. With help from the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society, we had illustrator/reporter Simran Khosla put together a short animated video that gives you the gist and all the drama. 

Chicago’s Cabbage War: West Ridge vs. Rogers Park

So there is this: An animated story based on a very odd question from Laura Jones Macknin (recognize her? She’s a voice-over artist and actor!)

Here’s the gist: 

What was behind the so-called Cabbage War in West Ridge and Rogers Park? I would like to know more because, you know … Cabbage War.

We’re glad we took it on (full story w/ podcast episode and animated video ) since the research we dug up gives a new perspective on the relationship between two of Chicago’s northernmost neighborhoods: the lakeside Rogers Park and its neighbor just to the west, West Ridge. Here’s how conflicts over booze, parks and taxes prompted these neighbors two Chicago neighborhoods to break into all-out vegetable warfare. Research help came from the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. That group’s name, perhaps, is a reminder that warring sides can put aside their differences — at least when they involved slurs of a vegetable nature. 

School, sauce, and Old Style signs. These are the topics up for vote in our most recent voting round. Head over to our website to choose which question you think we should investigate. While you’re there, you could submit a question of your own!

Ingredients of the Chicago speakeasy

The faux speakeasy is popping up everywhere, but what made the original Prohibition saloon work? Reporter Chris Bentley tracked down an answer. Among the ingredients for a successful speakeasy in the City of Big Shoulders: secrecy. As in, keep the noise IN the establishment. Gioco, an Italian restaurant in the West Loop area, hosted a speakeasy during Prohibition. The establishment used thick safe doors to shield a windowless back room from foot traffic on Wabash Avenue. 

These drawings are scratched on the walls at Gioco. 

Thanks to Elena Hadjimichael for pitching this story with her question:

What sorts of buildings housed speakeasy bars in Chicago during Prohibition? What made these buildings well-suited to be speakeasies?

Design No. 144: A money making proposition?

We’re closing in on an answer to a question about a fixture of Chicago-area residential architecture: the two-flat.

Here’s the question, to remind you: 

Chicago-area two-flats straddle the line between apartments and homes. Who were they originally designed to serve? Has that changed?

Funny thing about these buildings, they’re so common in the city and inner-ring suburbs that it’s easy to forget they were designed for a specific market in mind. A scan of a Harris Brothers Co. advertisement makes a lot of how Design No. 144 can be a money-making proposition for the right owner. 

And the price for materials was right, or so they may have seemed more than a century ago: 

  • Window shades for both floors: $14.75
  • Paint job for all woodwork, outside, trim: $38.75 
  • Double plumbing system: $155.50 

Stay tuned: Reporter Chris Bentley and The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Jen Masengarb will have a lot to say on this soon. 

The making of: Where do Chicago’s bats hang out?

Logan Jaffe here - Curious City’s multimedia producer. I’m gonna start this post with a big ol’ hooray! because today our bats interactive is featured as the Adobe Muse site of the day. So, in typical Curious City fashion, we’re taking this as an opportunity to open up our process and explain how we made the dang thing. 


You might remember this earlier post about our first bats brainstorming session. There, we discussed how to best answer Rory Keane’s question visually. Remember, he wanted to know how many bats are in the loop and where their favorite hangouts are. Key word here is where. Rory wasn’t asking about the variety of bat species that call Chicago home, but rather, what types of environments do they hang out in?

We knew from the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute that those locations were forest preserves, golf courses, the nature boardwalk and old homes/attics. And since Rory asked about urban bat hangouts, we wanted to make sure we depicted each of those environments with an urban flair. This was important because as we reported this, we learned that all 7 species of Chicago’s bats were actually detected just 3 miles north of the heart of the city. We wanted our viewers to understand that (1) if they wanted to see these tiny, furry flying critters, they wouldn’t have to look very far and (2) urban development and the natural ecosystem interact daily, and often right under our noses. 


(above) An early iteration of our bats presentation.

The Curious City team brainstormed a number of ways to depict these four environments: panels contained in a larger, illustrated spread, a 360 panorama, a large illustration in which the user could click on different environments and see what bats are “hiding” in it, etc. 

And we knew wanted to “interactify” the experience to give a sense of exploration. Seeing bats out at night is a rare and fleeting experience - so we wanted to give people time to take in each environment as well as see and learn about the bat species that live in them. 

So, we settled on Adobe Muse as a tool because (1) It’s super customizable. You start on a blank canvas and truly start designing from scratch. Plus, there are tons of widgets (we used the traditional Adobe slideshow at the end) that are simple to use and integrate with a number of other sites, like SoundCloud. (2) If we screwed up somehow (it was our first time using Muse) and didn’t quite hit the interactive mark, we could always still use it to design something simpler. (3) Tons of helpful tutorials and (4) Intuitive interface, especially for designers who got started using InDesign.

Then we got to work. 


(above) The first slide of our storyboard.

We sketched out a rough draft of each landscape and storyboarded our thought process with Google Presentation. That way, we could leave comments and communicate our ideas with Chicago artist Erik N. Rodriguez, who’s very accustomed to working with journalists and storytellers with his comics journalism company, The Illustrated Press

Here’s some more examples of how we storyboarded this, along with the final results:











Pretty neat seeing things come to life. 

As far as what this all looked like in our original Muse file … well, let’s just say it’s by far the largest document we’ve ever worked in (1280 pixels x 27704 pixels)!!!

We should say, though, that there are a number of ways we could have done this differently in Muse. A version 2 would likely include a top navigation bar with anchored points to specific environments and definitely an alternative layout for mobile devices. 

For our first shot at Adobe Muse and this kind of illustrated interactive experience, though, we’re more than flattered to be featured as Adobe site’s of the day. 

Here’s to the bats!


Also, if you’re still curious about the back end or the production process, feel free to email me with any questions or comments at

Are you in the market for a two-flat … and read Czech?


With the help of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, we’re making progress on our latest architecture-related question: “Chicago-area two-flats straddle the line between apartments and homes. Who were they originally designed to serve? Has that changed?”

As reporter Chris Bentley lines up trips to the history museum with CAF’s Jen Masengarb, he’s come across a bit of how two-flats were marketed in Chicago a century or more ago. Here’s his dispatch about this Czech language Kirchman ad from that period: 

" … various two-flat styles marketed in Czech to industrial workers, evidence of how housing was so tied to the development of companies like  Sears, McCormick Reaper, and Western Electric in those days"

Curious Citizen: Rory Keane


Chicagoan Rory Keane’s the guy who got us looking into bats, the furry fliers that are fascinating but often go unnoticed. A few years ago he nearly stomped on one that was hanging out in Chicago’s Loop. That’s when he sent us a question that inspired our interactive presentation on where bats live in the Chicago area.

A graduate from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Rory’s worked as an English teacher in China and is currently working as a digital marketer in Chicago.

“I guess you could characterize me as a curious person,” he says. “I have a little bit of a curiosity when it comes to travel and seeing the world from a different perspective.”

So, he’s no stranger to new experiences, but he still didn’t expect to get a new perspective from that one, tiny bat in his hometown.

“It was already an incredibly precious encounter given that you would never expect it,” Rory says of the eastern red bat he nearly squashed. “It took a bat to startle me into realizing what was going on around me [in the natural world] on an everyday basis.”

We took more than a year to finish Rory’s story because a key source, the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute, was in the middle of a bat study when we first took up his question. We’re grateful that he stuck it out with us and took the time to visit zoo staff and make a special appearance in the final story.

Our story this week is about Chicago’s bat hideouts. We didn’t want to just tell you about these critters, we also wanted to show you. So we enlisted Erik Nelson Rodriguez to create an illustrated tour of local bat habitats. Click the photo if you’re curious for more!

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