Credit: Walter Grutchfield

Download the Reader‘s first issue—October 1, 1971. (PDF)

I didn’t expect to be interviewing Ben Adamowski for the Reader‘s first issue. I’d been recruited by pals from Carleton College to be the paper’s managing editor and moved into the four-bedroom walk-up at 48th and Dorchester (torn window shades, roaches, mattress on the floor) a couple of weeks earlier. The first issue was intended to be 16 pages filled with free classifieds (I helped copy notices from neighborhood bulletin boards), entertainment listings, feature stories, and about, say, 50 percent display ads. But as deadline day approached, a paltry few ads had been sold and more columns of text were needed. Meanwhile, there wasn’t much to edit (or to manage). What to do?

I’d started teaching myself about Chicago, a city I’d visited briefly once before, by reading Mike Royko’s Boss on the plane. Ben Adamowski figured prominently, as the only candidate who’d ever been much of a mayoral opponent for Richard J. Daley (back in 1963). I looked in the White Pages (remember those?), found his law office, called him up. Sure, he’d be happy to talk.

Lots of people were willing to talk to me in those days, it turned out, and I loved listening. The interview with Adamowski was transcribed (by me) and typeset, the first issue came out, and we faced the gaping maw of the second issue, even more empty columns surrounding even fewer display ads. By about issue number 3, money for my salary (I seem to remember $90 a week) ran out. Yeah, I lost the job. But the Reader still needed words to print, so I found a half-time secretarial job and became a freelancer for $25 a pop. (The managing editor in the staff box for the next few months, Rodney Wanker, didn’t exist—I’d been replaced by a rude-sounding pseudonym.)

For the next six years I taught myself about Chicago. Local history, politics, literature, architecture . . . whatever I learned, I wrote about. There wasn’t much background research in my early stories; the stories were the research. History of the skyscraper? Visit the Monadnock Building, 700 words. A view of the west side from the windows of the Halsted bus? One two-hour ride, 1,600 words. After the little display sales problem was worked out (thank you, Ace Hardware!) the paper grew—and needed more words than ever. With more room I developed a smart-alecky style and had fun with “creative” touches (this was the heyday of New Journalism, after all).

When I recall those years I always think of working with a trio of talented photographers: Marc PoKempner, Mike Tappin, Kathy Richland. And several of my earliest pieces ran with distinctive (!!!) illustrations by Andrew Epstein, most memorably the pregnant angel, complete with backpack and pubic hair, who was evidently supposed to symbolize the pending death of the Chicago Maternity Center (March 30, 1973). The center’s clients were mostly women of color hoping to give birth at home, not hippie backpackers—but never mind. Epstein’s drawings were at least as “alternative” as my writing, and more important to the Reader‘s identity out on the streets.

Today what strikes me about those old words is how much I loved roaming around the city. It was a rougher, grittier place back then, and Chicago didn’t have a Jane Jacobs praising its diversity and livability. But the Reader made it possible for me to discover what a great city this is, and I like to think I helped the Reader‘s readers discover it too.

Nancy Banks served briefly as the
Reader‘s first managing editor and wrote features and the Neighborhood News column during the Reader’s first six years. She then moved to Berkeley, where she cofounded and served as publisher of the East Bay Express. She retired and moved to New York in 1999.