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Chicago Literary Map Celebrates City's Stories, Known and Unknown

 A photo of the Chicago Literary Map app; founder Stephanie Plenner (inset)
A photo of the Chicago Literary Map app; founder Stephanie Plenner (inset)
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Courtesy Stephanie Plenner

THE LOOP — Communication designer Stephanie Plenner realized last year that when she walked around the Loop, certain intersections and landmarks stirred memories of stories her dad used to tell about his life in Chicago in the 1970s.

"He has one [story] that starts off very exciting and then goes very abruptly to a sad place, about the time that a train had actually fallen off the CTA track," Plenner said. "My mom and dad were supposed to be on that train, but they stopped to eat at Miller's Pub instead, and when they walked out the train was on the ground and people had died."

When she passes Miller's Pub now, her thoughts drift to her dad and his personal experience, and she feels connected to a headline-grabbing tragedy in Chicago's past that predates her.

It's an experience she thought other Chicagoans would want to share as they wander the city's streets.

So last year, Plenner founded the Chicago Literary Map: a website and app that plots reader-submitted stories on an interactive map of the city.

"I was writing reviews [of local businesses and landmarks] and I found a limitation to that," she said. "I wondered, 'What would it look like if there was a literary version? Instead of navigating Chicago based on like, where's the best place to eat, what if you were led through the city by a collection of stories?'"

An artist and writer herself with ties to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Artist Resource, Plenner put out a call for submissions "from experimental to traditional, true stories, tall tales, poetry, song lyrics, conversations, and essays."

Submissions started flowing in, from "a mix between established writers, emerging writers and students," Plenner said. 

Stephen Elliott, founding editor of The Rumpus and the author of seven books including the "Adderall Diaries" recently submitted an essay, "Where I Slept," but Plenner said most featured writers aren't professionals.

"In addition to emerging and established writers, we hear from students, BFAs, MFAs," Plenner said.

"But there's also this guy who has been writing poetry for years. I met another fellow who was actually a veterinarian from Florida. It's an interesting mix."

What's been less varied is the selection of neighborhoods featured.

"The Loop definitely has a concentration, the Wicker Park area of course — I think there's a concentration of artists in that area, I don't know if it's just the creative vibe," she said.

Moving forward, she hopes to incorporate more neighborhoods into the map. As the Chicago Literary Map marks six months — the app went live in October — Plenner says her new outreach focus will be shining a spotlight on more neighborhoods in the city and new subject matter.

"I want to see where else these stories can come from, aside from more traditionally creative neighborhoods," she said. "I've seen a lot of people writing about the river, and the 'L,' the train — how people get around is a common theme that has been surfacing."

"One of the best parts of doing these things is finding in your inbox beautiful poetry about places you walk every day."