Being a Chicago Detours tour guide is very often a terrific job. We get to show people around a city we love and illuminate its history and architecture for them. Tour guests, especially those on custom tours, often ask us how we got into being a Chicago Detours tour guide or other questions about our backgrounds and interests. We figured, why not ask those questions ourselves? Next up is Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide for us, as well as an adjunct instructor at Harold Washington College.
1. How did you become a Chicago Detours tour guide?
Amanda, the Founder and Executive Director of Chicago Detours, was a classmate of mine in grad school. I still vividly recall her looking at me from across a picnic table at an icebreaker and asking “Are you from Michigan?” I am, in fact, from Michigan originally and was thus 90% sure she was a witch or sorceress.
Cut to six years later and I’d just left an unsatisfying job at Groupon. I was looking for another job to supplement my (meager) teaching income and saw an email saying Amanda’s company was looking to hire. I’d been on the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour years before and loved it. My wife probably heard me rattle off info from the tour for years afterwards. So I decided to apply and have been getting paid to rattle off said information ever since.
2. What’s your favorite public tour?
They’ve all got their qualities, no doubt. The Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour is the most fun. The Architecture Walking Tour for Design Lovers has the most information. The 1893 World’s Fair Tour is the most atmospheric. But I think my first tour is still my first love: the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour. I’ve led that tour hundreds of times at this point and always get a kick out of telling its stories, cracking my dad jokes, and pointing out wonderful hidden gems. I think it’s our most satisfying tour.
3. What’s your favorite private tour?
The Chicago Neighborhoods and Cultural Diversity Bus Tour is probably my #1. I’ve done that tour with everyone from 1st graders to senior groups and they’ve all loved it. It’s a treat to roll through areas as different as Prairie Avenue and Bridgeport and it’s an honor to tell their stories. A few years ago we did a custom version of it that looped up to the North Side and went right through my neck of the woods. I got to do a lot of the research and writing on that, which was really fun and rewarding. Who knew there were Kashubians in Lakeview?!
4. What downtown building do you most love taking tour guests into? And outside of downtown?
In terms of pure aesthetic appeal I think it’s one of the Art Deco masterpieces: the Board of Trade or the Carbide and Carbon Buildings. New York is probably more famous for its art deco towers, but I think those two are as beautiful and iconic as anything in the city.
It’s a little bit of cheating to include it, but the Mansueto Library on the University of Chicago campus is probably my favorite tour site outside of downtown. It’s got such a cool space-age look and watching guests deduce where the books are stored is always fun. Also, we don’t have a tour that goes past, but the Ba’hai House of Worship is always worth a shout-out.
5. Is there a Chicago building that’s been demolished that you wish was still around?
A question I have hemmed and hawed over many a time! I’m also the one who came up with these questions, so you can see how my brain operates.
I am torn between Louis Sullivan’s gorgeous Garrick Theater and the grand old Federal Courthouse. Sullivan’s complex and sophisticated details seem to have been perfectly wedded to a grand, voluminous space at the Garrick. And nothing against the current Federal Center, I think it’s Mies’ best work in downtown, but the old Federal Building always looks breathtaking. It’s somehow both gargantuan and lovely while also sort of shabby, which is a combination I adore.
6. What’s your best memory as a tour guide?
There’s some really good ones and I don’t want to have to choose.
- The pure satisfaction of completing my first tour, especially since I had no major screw-ups.
- Walking a group into the Chicago Temple and hearing a woman say “Oh, I got married here.”
- Starting down the steps to Lower Michigan and hearing a guy mutter “The depths!”
- Inviting dozens of first graders to laugh at the fact that my name was “Mr. Bean.”
7. A Chicago book or novel to recommend?
I’ve written several blog posts about my favorite Chicago books! City of Scoundrels is a fantastic piece of popular history. All propulsive drama, crazy personalities, and surprising incidents. I highly recommend Mike Royko’s seminal Boss, as well. It’s probably not as academic and neutral as a biography “should be.” But it’s clearly well-researched and Royko is merciless in his assessment of Mayor Daley and the Chicago machine. The Third Coast by Thomas Dyja is also great.
8. What’s next on your Chicago reading list?
I’m going to tackle one of Sin the Second City, Nature’s Metropolis, or Death in the Haymarket before the end of the year. At some point I also need to get into some of the great Chicago novels like The Man with the Golden Arm, Augie March, and So Big. There’s a new piece of Chicago historical fiction titled Make Me a City which seems right up my alley as well.
9. What’s your second-favorite city?
Honestly, I need to travel more. That being said, my vote goes to London. I found it almost impossible to fathom being in such an ancient and important city. Like…those are actual Roman walls. Queen Elizabeth I’s body is right there in that tomb. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims was found on this bench. Shakespeare’s plays were first performed at this spot. As a history nerd, it was well and truly mind-boggling.
10. Neighborhood or suburb you’d like to explore more?
Either Pullman or Riverside. Both are really fascinating examples of how Americans dealt with the inherent conflicts between our societal ideals and lived realities. Labor vs capital, urban vs rural, idealism vs practicality, black vs white – these are all issues we still butt up against. These two communities, built by small-minded men with fancy plans and pants to match, tried to resolve all those conflicts back in the 1800s. Both failed, but in different ways. Their failures still echo down to the present.
11. Favorite local brewery or distillery?
Two Brothers! Nothing against the Revolutions and Metropolitans of the world, but I cannot fathom why Domaine DuPage is not the default local beer. It’s rich and malty without being heavy. Best of all, it’s not hoppy! In the land of the over-hopped beers, the malty deliciousness of French Country Ale is king.
Editor’s Note: Alex is currently away on a short leave after welcoming a new baby girl to his family! We miss him around the Detours office, so this seemed like a great time to reflect on what makes him such an irreplaceable part of our team. He’ll be back to producing funny, insightful articles on Chicago’s history, architecture and culture soon. – Marie Rowley, Marketing Coordinator