Kathleen Dragan may not be a native Chicagoan, but the South Loop resident has created a very special guide to her adopted city — a children’s book focusing on a number of important neighborhoods, with their key details colorfully illustrated by artist Ed Koehler.
As Dragan sees it, NOT being born in Chicago gave her a so-called outsider’s perspective on discovering things about the city where she has lived since 2009.
“When I moved to Chicago I knew one person in town. I came here with such a hunger to learn about my surroundings, said the author, who grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Now, I have two kids here, so it’s about passing that new knowledge down to them. But as an outsider you don’t take things about the city for granted. You go out and try to explore.”
The initial move resulted from Dragan’s husband attending business school at the University of Chicago. Then “he was offered a job here, and we had already fallen in love with the city, so it was a natural thing for us to stay.”
Dragan’s children — now ages 8 and 5 — were a big help as she researched “Rickshaw Reggie.”
“For each neighborhood it was about intensive study of each one for about two weeks. We visited all the places, kind of wandering around and having random conversations with residents that we would meet there. I couldn’t have done it without my kids, because as an adult you may think some things are interesting, but this is a children’s book, so I wanted their input. When a kid really latches on something, you know, ‘This is good! This is going into the book!’ They were an automatic litmus test for me. Is this interesting, or not?”
In the Portage Park neighborhood, for example, “I knew I wanted to put in something about architectural features in all the neighborhoods, because architecture is so important in Chicago. Because Portage Park is part of the so-called ‘Bungalow Belt,’ I wanted to work that in. What was great was, the kids learning about what bungalows were, they really got into it. Every time they would see a bungalow, they would go, ‘Bungalow, bungalow, bungalow, bungalow,’ like a little chant. I loved that!”
The biggest challenge for Dragan was limiting the number of neighborhoods she could include. The city recognizes 77 official neighborhoods, but the author was only able to zero in on a handful, including Lincoln Park, Rogers Park, West Town, Portage Park, Pilsen, Beverly, Pullman, Hyde Park, Kenmore, Chinatown and Bronzeville.
“I would love to do another one. Maybe, ‘Rickshaw Reggie Rides Again,’ or maybe he’ll have a wife, and ‘Rickshaw Regina’ can take us to other Chicago neighborhoods,” Dragan said with a laugh.
“It would be dipping back into a very deep well of interesting history and character to cover other neighborhoods in a future book for kids. There were large parts of the city I just didn’t get to, so that’s where Rickshaw Reggie would go to next.”