When I was in college some 11 years ago, some friends and I made a short-lived online publication. (Everybody was doing it.) This was long ago; if Facebook had even launched by that point, it was available at just a handful of universities. Twitter didn't exist. To get noticed, you had to get blogged by someone. So I still remember that moment of validation when the best operation in town gave us a link: Gapers Block.
The site is going on hiatus on January 1, editor and publisher Andrew Huff just announced, effectively ending a 12-year run. It came as a huge surprise. But Huff didn't expect it to last 12 years, either. "No, absolutely not," he says. "We didn't incorporate for three years. It was a labor of love. We were starting to make enough on occasional ads and t-shirt sales that we thought the IRS would notice."
Gapers Block began the only way it could have in 2003: through bloggers who had gotten to know each other through links, blogrolls, and sessions at the Hopleaf. Ramsin Canon, who'd go on to be one of the site's longest-tenured writers, was the only founding member who hadn't met the others in person. The makings of a network were there, but no one had yet connected the dots.
"Gawker had just gotten started, but it was focused on New York media. San Francisco had Laughing Squid. There was nothing in Chicago," Huff says. "The local media was barely covering the internet, other than 'holy cow, the web!' We wanted a venue for long-form writing. That March, we sat down at a coffee shop in Lake View and sketched out what we thought should be on the site. Gapers Delay was already registered, so we became Gapers Block. We wanted to be champions of freelancers, writing things they couldn't anywhere else."
A breadth of writers and artists passed through Gapers Block's pages over the years. Photographer David Schalliol, an editor at large, is one of the participants in this year's Chicago Biennial (and a Chicago contributor). Canon is the operations and research director at Aldertrack; its publisher is Mike Fourcher, a former Gapers Block contributor. Kris Vire, one of its founders, is the senior editor of Time Out Chicago. Fellow founder Phineas X. Jones is an illustrator perhaps best recognized for his work with Half Acre and Three Floyds. Britt Julious is a Tribune columnist who's written for Spin, Vice, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, and Chicago. Former contributor Daniel X. O'Neil is the executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative. Nilay Patel edits The Verge. My boss used to write for them.
"To a certain degree I owe my career to it," Vire told me via e-mail. "I'd been blogging for a couple years by the time Andrew Huff and Naz Hamid [the site's original designer] invited me to join this group project with a dozen or so other writers from our Chicago Bloggers Yahoo! Group (soooo 2003), but writing as a career never really occurred to me until Gapers started getting attention. I left Gapers in 2007 when I got a staff position at Time Out, but I've always thought of it as my home—the place that gave me the experience and confidence to pursue writing as a career."
Hamid's crisp design, which the site is still faithful to, gave it an air of legitimacy when most of us were still puttering around on Blogger. "GB was a center of gravity that dragged a lot of bits of Chicago together. And it looked cool—it looked cooler than all of its competitors," Canon told me via Twitter. "Andrew, Naz, and the rest of the editorial team put a premium of finding new, interesting, and beautiful things and presenting them in a slick, cool way. I think it helped a certain niche and generation of Chicagoans see the city in a new and different way. For years, I've met people, lots of times transplants, who credit GB with helping them learn Chicago and start to feel like Chicago was home. That's such a special thing."
The site is on hiatus; it won't disappear. Huff isn't sure what will become of it, but it will stay online. "My goal is to be able to keep the archives up indefinitely," Huff says. "If it disappeared, so many links would break."
With that, some highlights from Gapers Block's run:
"Isolated Buildings," David Schalliol, 3/19/2007
"Charts! The Geography of Ward Politics," Ramsin Canon, 4/6/2011
"Tapped Out," Mark W. Anderson, 7/16/2003
"Out of Turn: The Story of the Will Guzzardi Campaign," Caroline O'Donovan, 3/9/12
"Chicago Revenant: Dunning/Schorsch Village," Mr. Dan Kelly, 8/18/09
"The Kids Who Fight For a Library," Cinnamon Cooper, 9/28/10
To Be Demolished, 2012 photo series by David Schalliol
"Celluloid, Graft & Puppies: The (Abbreviated) Portage Theater Story," Mr. Dan Kelly, 4/19/2012
"Cook County Regular Democratic Disorganization: Guzzardi and Berrios," Caroline O'Donovan, 3/30/2012
"Regime Theory in Chicago: A Case Study," Ramsin Canon, 12/20/2011
"An Audio/Visual Farewell to the Last Cabrini High-Rise," 3/30/2011
"Goodbye, Prentice," Andrew Huff, Scrappers Film Group and David Schalliol, 2/4/15