Time to hit the reset button on the 19th ward school closing/restructuring plan

kellogg

If you don’t live in the 19th ward of Chicago, you might not know there’s a plan to close and restructure some of the schools in our neighborhood in an effort to solve overcrowding at another. The current plan would close a high-performing school, is short on details of how any schools would benefit and is being pushed through without significant community input.

I wrote an op-ed about it for the The Beverly Review but in the interest of it finding the widest possible audience, I’m also posting it publicly here.

I am a resident of Morgan Park and a board member of the Southwest Chicago Diversity Collaborative, a group dedicated to preserving diversity within Beverly, Morgan Park and Mt. Greenwood.

The discussion about 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea’s plan to restructure or close public schools in the 19th Ward has dominated local news, Facebook groups and meeting places—and rightly so.

Strong, diverse, neighborhood schools are the backbone of great communities; they support larger initiatives around housing, safety and business development. We have high-performing schools here.

Our ward is not in a crisis. However, it’s clear we need to do more to offer quality education for all.

Through a series of public meetings, many residents voiced concerns about overcrowded schools, inaccurate data and implications for the diversity of our neighborhood. There has been significant discord, but most agree that while elementary schools like Mt. Greenwood and Esmond appear overcrowded or in need of repairs, the plan to close Kellogg Elementary School (a 1+ school), overcrowd Sutherland Elementary School and move Keller Regional Gifted Center is not the right solution.

Too many questions remain unanswered, and the heated discussion threatens to divide our ward into competing interests. We need to come together to serve our children’s educational needs.

It’s time to hit the reset button on this discussion. While O’Shea deserves credit for an attempt to fix a looming problem, this issue is too important to not have members of the community crafting a solution.

A task force of school administrators, local school council members and community representatives should work with the alderman to find an equitable solution that solves our schools’ resource issues while minimizing the disruption to our students and preserving the hard-won diversity that makes our community great.

In addition, our community needs more transparency around the data used to determine whether our public schools are underutilized, overcrowded or experiencing declining enrollment. Using competing data sets from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) or U.S. Census clouds the issue.

One of the task force’s first goals should be to agree upon the best set of numbers to guide its work and make these figures easily available throughout public discussion. Enrollment audits of all schools should also be completed.

Time is critical. State law mandates that CPS release an annual set of draft guidelines on Oct. 1 to guide any school co-locations, boundary modifications or changes in access to high-quality education. A 21-day community feedback process follows the draft’s release. CPS then issues a final set of guidelines on Dec. 1.

For me, this discussion has been a struggle. On one hand, I have a responsibility to support our neighborhood schools as a parent and a resident of this community. On the other, my child attends Catholic school because my family is one of many in our area who seek a faith-centered education. I am sure others have experienced similar feelings and wonder how best to support our neighbors. These are personal decisions, guided by many factors.

While the public school communities most affected by this decision should take the lead on the task force, it is essential that all residents of the 19th Ward make themselves aware of the issues at stake and participate in the discussion. Regardless of your affiliation, the strength of our public neighborhood schools has a direct correlation to the economic vitality of our community and requires all of us to be a part of the solution.

Despite an effort to provide money and resources to Esmond Elementary School, this plan would close Kellogg—a high-performing school—and therefore reduce access for students of color within school boundaries and outside of them. It’s important for us to note that policies adversely affecting people of color are not always intentionally motivated by racism. Regardless, we should not ignore the potential outcomes of this current plan.

Moreover, an Options for Knowledge program that draws a small number of youths from outside of the school boundaries—but often still within our ward—and provides a high level of education to those who might not otherwise receive it does not disqualify that school from being a neighborhood school. Many of us are raising families in this community because of its diversity, and it’s important to us to preserve it, including the educational opportunities it provides.

It’s clear this plan—however well-intentioned—has unintended consequences that we must avoid. Even parents whose schools stand to benefit the most have concerns.

A multi-part solution is required to solve myriad problems within our public schools while keeping high-performing ones available to those seeking them. We are all the 19th Ward. Together we can find a solution that best serves the children in our schools.

However, more community participation, data transparency and honest discussion must be had before we do.

Scott Smith

The South Side is a myth: Tuesday Funk, July 5th, 2016

16thstreettower

With The Frunchroom taking up most of my live lit energy in the last year, I didn’t have as much time as I liked to do live readings. I’m trying to get back into the habit and reading at Tuesday Funk earlier this summer was a good way to do it.

This idea was kicking around in the back of my brain for a while. It felt appropriate for this series since it’s held in a Far North Side neighborhood that was not only adjacent to some of the issues discussed but also more likely to have an audience that was open to hearing it.

A couple notes: There are a couple of time-specific references in this piece, so know that I’m speaking of earlier this summer, not now. I changed a couple instances of “there” to “here.”

And if you like watching and listening to things rather than reading them, scroll to the bottom of this post to watch the video.

There are a handful of books I recommend to people who want to understand Chicago. And, yes, I’m starting this piece off with a reading list but, look, if you don’t like anything else I have to say at least I’ve given you some options for something better. Think of it like Amazon’s recommendation list in reverse. “People who also disliked this reader at Tuesday Funk bought the following…”

Anyway, if you want to understand Chicago politics start with American Pharoah, Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor’s biography of Richard J. Daley and Fire on the Prairie, Gary Rivlin’s book about Harold Washington. If you want to know more about the sectarian, tribal mix of people who call themselves Chicagoans you can’t do much better than Studs Terkel’s Division Street: America. And if you want to understand Chicago’s influence and status as an innovator in everything from architecture to television to literature, read The Third Coast by Thomas Dyja.

Those four books are a great place to start, but they mostly tell you about the past. Natalie Y. Moore’s book The South Side, released just this year, is required reading about Chicago because it tells you about our present and updates the past that Cohen, Taylor, Rivlin, Dyja and Studs all explore.

What’s so essential about Moore’s book is how it argues against myth through a mix of facts and memoir. Against a historical context, Moore explains her own experiences with segregation, the real estate crisis, gun violence, political movements, the decline of the middle class – black and otherwise – and Chicago as the epicenter of social change, good and bad. Moore’s life experience fills in the gaps between headlines and stereotypes. Within chapters like “Notes from a Black Gentrifier,” “Kale Is The New Collard” and “We Are Not Chiraq” lives the nuance of stories often untold.

It’s the kind of nuance that’s tough to fit into a headline, especially headlines about the South Side. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the South Side defies easy explanations.

***

The other day I was talking with these two guys named Max Grinnell and Bill Savage. Max is a writer, professor and University of Chicago graduate. Bill’s a professor, too, as well as a renowned Chicago historian, writer/editor and former bartender. We were talking at that well-known gathering spot for gadflies, loudmouths and public intellectuals called Twitter.

Anyway, about a week ago, Max mentioned his former Hyde Park residency and noted, in an aside, “to some, that’s not the ‘real’ South Side.” Bill replied that “people who say Hyde Park is not the South Side promote a narrow view of the South Side they otherwise despise.”

They’re both correct though I’m not sure such a view is limited to those on any particular side of Chicago. For some who’ve never ventured south of Roosevelt, there’s a desire to convince themselves there is good reason never to have done so, to paint the South Side with the broadest brush possible or tell themselves that Hyde Park has something other South Side neighborhoods do not – like museums or a university or lakefront.

For some who live there, this reaction is something akin to an internal pathology borne of anger: surviving a lack for jobs and feeling overwhelmed by the violence that’s a part of some areas becomes a badge of honor others won’t be allowed to claim.

To make it very clear, the South Side contains multitudes.

31st Street Beach is great if you love water and clean beaches, but hate crowds.

For sheer beauty, heading south on Lake Shore Drive beats the drive north any day, especially if you end up at Promontory Point and walk around.

Maria’s in Bridgeport is one of the city’s great bars.

Vito and Nick’s in Ashburn serves one of the best thin-crust, tavern-style pizzas.

Lem’s in Chatham is barbecue, period, end of sentence.

You can tour a damn submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Pullman contains the city’s only national monument and you can get one of the best burgers and ice cream cones in Chicago at Top Notch Burgers on 95th Street and Rainbow Cone on Western and 91st, which are within five minutes of each other in Beverly.

And that’s just the stuff that Channel 11 will cover. Nevermind the stuff only locals know and oh by the way there’s going to be a presidential library down here in a few years so go now and beat the crowds.

But denying the real South Side also includes Hyde Park or, say, Beverly depends on the tired idea that there are nice neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods – that the problems that plague our city stop at boundaries that are a bigger concern for real estate agents than criminals. It also means denying the nuance within neighborhoods, the prosperity that often lives close to danger.

I live in Morgan Park which is about as far on the southwest side as you can live and still be in Chicago. On the whole, it’s pretty nice with some areas you might diplomatically call “dicey.”

Last week, four people, including a pregnant woman were shot and wounded in Morgan Park.

But the day after that I walked block after block, taking pictures of the historic bungalows, Queen Anne homes and old mansions that populate the neighborhood, blocks that contain more than a few Chicago landmarks and designs by Frank Lloyd Wright. The sun was out.

Three days ago, a man was shot in Morgan Park by the father of his ex-girlfriend. This happened roughly a mile from my tree-lined street with its well-maintained lawns, some professionally so.

I’m barely a block from a park which holds an easter egg hunt every year. It was on this street – my street – two years ago that a couple of guys robbed me at gunpoint two doors down from my house. When a lawyer for one of the guys showed up in my driveway with a subpoena, the first words out of his mouth were “This is a beautiful street. I can’t believe you got robbed here!”

Yeah, me neither.

I could tell you about the pro-am cycling event Morgan Park will host in a little over a week, the annual art walk in October or the live lit series much like this one that I host once a quarter.

I could tell you about all that in an effort to convince you that even within a particular neighborhood nothing is all good or all bad or remind you of the times people have been shot in tourist districts downtown or what we’d call a riot in one neighborhood is called a post-game celebration in another but sometimes it feels like I’m belaboring the point, which is this:

Myths are stories we tell ourselves to explain things that seem far away, things we don’t understand. For a lot of people, the South Side is a myth.

Are there very real problems of poverty and violence in some parts of the South Side? Yes. Let me state unequivocally that there are people living in some places here who would leave if they could escape it. But those blocks – and they are blocks not neighborhoods – are no more or less representative of the entire South Side than Edegwater, Rogers Park, Lincoln Park, Lakeview or Wicker Park are completely representative of the North Side.

That’s what’s always struck me: how often problematic areas on the North Side are referred to by their neighborhoods, while shootings are often said to be happening on the South Side. When good things are happening on the South Side, we often speak of them as exceptions or grade them on a curve. Residents of visitors describing a restaurant or bar as “pretty good for the South Side” is literally why we can’t have nice things.

***

Natalie Moore’s book The South Side is a welcome corrective after years of reporting that has focused on the negative of that part of the city. It doesn’t offer easy explanations. Instead, it embraces the complexity of its subject and describes how policy becomes personal. At some point, if you want to get people to stop believing in myths, you have to replace them with your own stories based in science, fact and experience.

While few of us are ever going to write our own book on the complex parts of Chicago we love, we’re all capable of creating the culture we want. Even if it takes a bit of nuance.

METX 204 at 16th Street Tower image by vixla via Creative Commons license.

Neon Indian’s “Annie” is basically Phil Collins’s “Don’t Lose My Number”

The NY Times recently proclaimed Phil Collins to be “very much alive” based on his recently reissued classic albums, an upcoming memoir and its interview with an ambulatory Collins during which words and sounds came out of his mouth, indicating life.

This Q&A along with a re-eaxmination of his legacy it published in January (which you should read if for no other reason than the description of “In The Air Tonight” which fills the latter half of the piece) were very much on my mind this morning as I watched and listened to Neon Indian’s “Annie.”

Because the whole thing really reminds me of Collins’s “Don’t Lose My Number”:

It’s not a direct lift by any means but the bouncy keyboards and guitars, the missing-persons storyline and even the cheeseball video reinforce the central conceit of those Times articles: whatever Collins’s crimes were in the 80s, they’re newly embraced by current cultural creators and critics (the love for “Take Me Home” in the Mr. Robot season premiere has been hard to miss.)

Father’s Day, different angle

Despite my insistence that it was bath time, Abigail – inexplicably dressed in her choice of a red flannel nightgown since 4pm – pleaded for permission to ride her bike around the block. I insisted, she pleaded.

So there we were: me walking, she pedaling. As we hit the halfway mark, we arrived at that spot in the sidewalIMG_4922k where the pavement is missing in large spots, a few tufts of grass growing amongst rocks. It’s not impassable on a bike but it’s intimidating if you’re five and still use training wheels. Abigail sounded her concern and slowed down.

I’ve often said I don’t have a significant quantity of unique insight into parenting. I have plenty of stuff you’d hear and think “Oh that makes sense” but maybe it doesn’t occur in the moment. Timing is everything though. What keeps me from writing more about is this: I know what worked for us but that might not work for you. Most parenting advice should come with the caveat “Here’s a blueprint, expect that you will make changes, build additions.”

Yet as we hit that spot in the sidewalk, the sun coming down on Father’s Day, Abigail questioning her fortitude and me at the end of a five-months-long learning experience, I hit on something universal enough to pass on, if somewhat greeting card-like in its phrasing.

“Abigail, don’t go slow, you’ll get stuck. If you hit rough terrain, just pedal harder and faster. That’s the only way to get through it.”

Rainbow Cone is Chicago’s original family dynasty

rainbowcone1

The piece below is something I wrote for a now-abandoned project about unique Chicago places. With Rainbow Cone‘s grand opening this weekend and the store celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, I thought it was right to publish it now.

If there was any justice in the world, the family name most closely associated with the greatness of Chicago would not be The Daleys.

It would be The Sapps.

Sure, the Daleys built O’Hare, Millennium Park and several other monuments to Chicago’s spirit of ingenuity triumphing over reason. But in 1926, when Old Man Daley was still finding his way around Bridgeport, Joseph Sapp and his wife Katherine built Original Rainbow Cone, a small store at 92nd Street and South Western Avenue that sold a unique, five-flavor ice cream treat of the same name. Some 88 years later, the store is in roughly the same location as when it opened and a Rainbow Cone remains one of the finest desserts known to man, woman or child.

The Rainbow Cone is a both an engineering marvel and a kid’s fantasy come true. Literally. The story goes that the New York-born Sapp grew up as an orphan on an Ohio work farm and had few indulgences, save for the times he could save up enough money for ice cream. At the time, he had two choices: chocolate and vanilla. Rather than a single serving of one or the other, Sapp envisioned a carnival of flavors perched on his cone. As an adult, he brought this vision to life:

Orange Sherbet.
Pistachio.
Palmer House.
Strawberry.
Chocolate.

That’s what it looks like, top to bottom. Five layers of ice cream, which could fairly be called slabs. They are not scoops. In a city once known as Hog Butcher to the World, this seems right. It also seems right that Chicago’s most famous ice cream should be built one level at a time like the skyscrapers the city invented. The slender cone below never seems quite up to the task of supporting it all, but it perseveres.

The Palmer House flavor always intrigued me: Venetian vanilla with cherries and walnuts. For a long time, I assumed it was invented, like the chocolate fudge brownie, by the legendary Chicago hotel of the same name. According to Joseph’s granddaughter Lynn, who has run Rainbow Cone since the 1980s, a New York dairy had a vanilla-and-cherries flavor called Palmer. Joseph added walnuts to the ice cream and “House” in honor of the hotel; he and his wife were equally savvy about marketing and making ice cream.

Once assembled, the ice cream often forms the shape of a scalene triangle, the orange sherbet layer valiantly holding it together over the top. It is possible to order a small Rainbow Cone from the menu but even then its size recalls a slice of Chicago’s famed deep-dish pizza. Lynn says Joseph’s original recipe was designed to be chock full of as much nutrition as possible – mainly from the fruits and nuts. His motto then was “Ice cream is good food. Eat ice cream daily.”

It begins melting immediately, as fleeting as a Chicago summer. And it’s delicious. If I were a proper food critic, I might be able to describe why it works so well or contrast the way it’s made with similar frozen treats. All I can tell you is it tastes like roller coasters and a run through the sprinkler and staying at the park until 9 p.m. and all the joys afforded by the warmth of the sun.

For those with an allergy, there’s a nut-free version that I understand is just as good. You can also get rainbow ice cream cakes and sundaes with various other flavors. I know this because it’s on the menu, but I’ve never had any of it. You can also get quarts of Rainbow Cone through December. I never have. The scarcity is part of the anticipation. What’s the fun in wanting something you can have anytime?

The ice cream aside, it’s important to understand why opening Rainbow Cone was sort of a crazy thing to do though perhaps no more or less crazy than raising up the buildings of downtown Chicago some ten feet through the use of jackscrews so an underground sewage system could be built. (Look it up.)

It gets cold in Chicago. Very cold. For months. So the window of opportunity for convincing people to leave their warm houses and buy something that will make them colder is a small one. Rainbow Cone closes for the season at the beginning of November and opens again in early March, which is so much wishful thinking. This year, I went to Rainbow Cone two weeks after it opened and took a picture of the cone piled high with multi-colored ice cream, my hand wrapped triumphantly around it. “Suck it, winter,” read the caption when I posted it to social media. Nevermind you can see a good foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground in the background of the picture. I think it eventually melted in April.

Also, Rainbow Cone was built in what is now the vibrant neighborhood of Beverly on the Far South Side of Chicago. But back in 1926, that area of the city was still developing and known for the number of cemeteries there. According to Lynn, Joseph realized there was a market in the relatives of those dearly departed who would come to visit them. On their way back into the city, they’d need something to lift their spirits and they’d stop at Rainbow Cone. Even now, Sundays remain Rainbow Cone’s busiest day.

The unique two-story design of the Rainbow Cone store is mean to evoke the fluffy ice cream it serves. Pepto-Bismol pink stucco with orange Spanish-style roof tiles. The doorway trimmed in rainbow-colored bricks. A towering Rainbow Cone on the roof. Neon letters offering “Cakes For Any Occasion.” It stands just across the street from the original location, on the border of Chicago and the village of Evergreen Park. The suburb recently removed acres of trees and green space to build big box stores and a gas station. It is as if Rainbow Cone stands at the entrance of the city, a guardian meant to preserve Chicago’s past.

Rainbow Cone remains a family business. Joseph’s son Bob and his wife Jean ran it in the 1960s and 70s and their daughter Lynn took it over from them. Outlasting the imitators (it’s not called Original Rainbow Cone for nothing), it’s been served up at Taste of Chicago for the last 27 years and functioned as the city’s culinary ambassador at events in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

Rainbow Cone has been a part of South Side childhoods for decades. The ice cream is certainly delicious. But I go back there several times a summer as a reminder of what you can do when you leave behind all the reasons why you shouldn’t do something and think about what you dreamed of making as a kid. Chicago has always given me a place to do that.

I’m sure the Daleys would say the same.

Year Five

agmeskatingAt some point during our shared birthday week last year, I realized I wasn’t going to write my annual post about where Abigail and I were in our lives. Let’s just say it was a tough week

This year has started with some uncertainty, but I’ve found myself fueled by activity and optimism.

And as I re-read the last post I wrote about our birthdays, I was struck by how much hasn’t changed for Abigail and I. She still loves Daniel Tiger, Doc McStuffins, Elmo and tag. I’m still trying to become a healthier, more productive me. So there’s some comfort in the familiar there. We have, however, left sleepovers on the stairs in the past. Amen.

Abigail’s new interests include Peppa Pig, music (specifically Puffy Ami Yumi), playing superheroes vs. bad guys and riding her bike. I’ve swapped Up for Fitbit and come to the realization that my vague attempts at running twice a week needed to be actual workouts four times a week if they’re going to make a difference. I’m reading more. Finding time to write is still a challenge.

Speaking of the familiar, Abigail’s also picked up more than a few phrases favored by Erin and me.

“Actually, the thing is…”
“You know, guys…”
“Can I tell you something?”

Part of me worries about this. Are we making sure she’s given enough space to figure out who she is without too much undue influence from us? On the other hand, when she caught a glimpse of the Oscars opening montage this week and yelled “Dad, that’s Thor!” I was more than a little pleased.

Moreso than in previous years, it’s easier to see how Abigail is our kid through both nature and nurture. She gets frustrated with things she’s not good at and likes staying busy. At various points this year, she’s taken acting, ballet, yoga, swimming, gymnastics and soccer. The latter activity was pretty much a disaster with me spending more time on the field as assistant coach (a.k.a. child wrangler) than she did.

It strikes me that I’m as influenced by having her as a kid as she is in having me as a dad. There’s no way I’d have volunteered to be an assistant coach of anything if not for her. She’s a big part of my motivation for getting on a treadmill. And on and on.

This year Abigail vacillated between becoming a big kid and staying a little kid. She pushed hard for a “big kid bed” only to find that growing up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She’s been telling us she wants her “little bed” back (because the big kid bed is “too tall”) even though I’ve told her many times that’s not possible because we used the pieces of the little bed to assemble the big bed. Due, in part, to this, bedtime’s been a bit of a struggle lately. On the night of her birthday, she was setting up chairs for a “roller skating show” and we made her stop and get ready for bed which led to a twenty-minute epic meltdown. It is the height of emotional conflict as a parent to be angry and exhausted by a child’s tantrum but still holding in a laugh while she screams “BUT THE SHOW MUST GO ON!!!!”

On a related note, her imagination is through the roof and through it she’s exploring more of her world. She loves building with Legos just as much as she loves acting out elaborate stories with her dolls – sometimes both at the same time. She’s not as cowed by new experiences as she used to be – “I know I can do it!” is something she tells herself to get psyched up. She has two very close friends at school this year who she talks about all the time so she’s figuring out who she is in relationships with humans other than the ones telling her to get dressed or line up for computers class.

As for me, this seems like the year that “life’s too short” becomes my mantra. Too much is uncertain and nothing’s ever perfect. Do the thing now instead of putting it off. Nothing to lose except for missed opportunities. Don’t settle.

Some of that’s a by-product of being on the other side of 40. But most of it is seeing myself through Abigail’s eyes. It’s easy for her to look up to me at 5. Doing the work to make sure she’s still doing it at 25 takes a bit more effort.