Home for Christmas

(Note: I wrote the following back in 2009 about a now-somewhat-legendary mix of Christmas music I made in 2001. The reasons why I made it – and how, in the years since, I lost and found the joy that went into it – are what follows. I’m re-publishing it here now because I’ve finally re-created this mix on Spotify. Embed below.)


My feelings on “the holidays” have always been mixed.

Even when I was a kid, I always associated this time of year with a lot of running around. Between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we’d be zipping from one set of grandparents to midnight mass to our house to another set of grandparents and then back home. Then, when I was in high school, my parents divorced, which meant one more place to go on Christmas. I’d head to my Dad’s on the evening of the 23rd, then to grandma’s, then mass, then mom’s, then grandma’s, then home. A two-day, four-house gauntlet.

Then in college…well, you’re never really “home” in college, are you? The house you grew up in and the dorm with your hot plate both get tagged with that description, meaning you’re never really there. This feeling was always exacerbated by the break between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. There was a little bit of me in Chicago, and a little bit of me in Ohio.

After college, I moved into a series of apartments and this feeling of “the holiday gauntlet” was inescapable. I didn’t own a car, so I’d take the train down to the ‘burbs or have my parents pick me up, loaded down with presents and a suitcase. It never felt relaxing to me, pausing just long enough in places to eat, drink and do my best to be merry. I never really felt at home.

Look, I’m not saying being around my family is a miserable experience. It isn’t. I love them, and it doesn’t feel like Christmas to me if you’re not around friends and family. But for the ten years after my parent’s divorce, I never felt like I was in a place, emotionally or physically, to be able to fully enjoy Christmas. Again, there were good times. But I never felt like I could sit back and soak in the spirit (much less The Holy Spirit).

One of the other things I always disliked about Christmas was the music. If you want to put me through hell, make me listen to music I hate. And since most Christmas albums are cash-ins – recorded for easy money or to fulfill a contract requirement – the resulting music is generally awful. It’s not that I hated the sentiments, I just hated the arrangements.

I trace the genesis of my dislike of Christmas music back to my high school days in show choir. From 1990 to 1993, I, along with several of my classmates, spent cold December afternoons and evenings traipsing around the south suburbs singing the most common of Christmas songs. Over and over and over. (And yes, Virginia, there was accompanying choreography.) While this time period accounts for some of my most cherished memories, there is nothing more depressing than realizing you need to take “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” out of that afternoon’s repertoire because you’ll be singing at a nursing home. And I won’t even get into the lack of irony it takes for a bunch of white kids from a Catholic high school to run around singing a calypso version of “Mary’s Boy Child.” After that, I wanted to be as far away from the Christmas standards as possible.

I don’t need to rehash what most of us were feeling in the fall/winter of 2001. But I’ll tell you that my friends and family instinctually drew closer. It was against this backdrop that I decided to counteract my usual grumpiness around Christmas.

So in the winter of 2001, I set out to make a mix of Christmas songs that would give me the spirit again: The ones that married seasonal good cheer with the sense of fun that most people seemed to have this time of year. The result was A Rock and Soul Christmas. This was the cover:

Here were the liner notes:
If you know me (and undoubtedly you do as I’m not generally prone to giving presents to strangers), you know that music plays a rather important role in my life. Sadly, there are quite a few bad Christmas albums out there. Mannheim Steamroller alone has released seven of them.

So this year I set out to pull together some of my favorite Christmas songs — songs that not only expressed the spirit of the season but also didn’t, as a wise man once said, suck. While a few great tracks didn’t make the final cut (Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” Cheech and Chong’s “Santa Claus and His Old Lady”), I think the ones that did fit the bill very well.

A note to my friends of non-Christian faiths: Though the selections here focus mainly on Christian holidays, I think the sentiments expressed within them contain universal truths that we can all appreciate during this time of year. Regardless of your expression of faith, a song like Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” speaks to all of us. A note to my atheist friends: You’re all going to hell. Repent now. Just kidding.

The artwork on the cover was blatantly ripped off from A Charlie Brown Christmas as well as James Brown’s Funky Christmas. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what came from where.

I hope this CD finds you well and happy and gets you in a Christmas mood. If I can save just one person from buying A Rosie O’Donnell Christmas then it will be worth it.

Happy holidays and much love,

I sent the mix to a bunch of friends as a substitute for cards and presents and it went over really well. Every year since, I hear from one or two friends who tell me they’ve pulled out RSC during a party or while they’re opening presents. This brings me no small amount of joy.

Like most endeavors of this type, it ended up making itself. This isn’t the coolest, hippest mix of Christmas tracks ever assembled or even a collection of my personal favorites. In fact, it’s deliberately corny in some instances. Basically, I wanted to create both a Christmas-party record and a Christmas party-record. It’s also designed for all-ages listening (There’s one track on there that’s a little heavy on innuendo for the littlest ones, I suppose, but since I have friends with kids who say they play it, I’m not losing sleep over it).

I put together another mix the next year called Songs For Swinging Santas, which mixed jazz, blues, and cocktail hour together. It too was well-received, and I figured I’d do a variation on the theme each year.

Then, in 2003, I got married for the first time, which added yet another level of familial stress, not to mention more places to be, including an occasional trip to Phoenix to see my ex’s family. They were all very nice people but…well, suffice it to say there’s a fair amount of romance in the notion of a White Christmas and that gets all shot to hell in Phoenix. Plus, it was our first year as a married couple and we spent the holidays on a honeymoon cruise around the Caribbean and this, coupled with a lack of ideas as to what to do for that year’s holiday mix meant I passed on putting one together.

For a number of reasons, I lost the spirit again over the couple of years that followed. The nadir of my holiday experiences was Christmas 2005 when my marriage was breaking up. As luck would have it, we were spending the holidays in Phoenix that year. It’s not possible for me to describe how isolated and out-of-time I felt then. It was awful. One of the lowest points of my life.

The echo of that time carried through the successive holiday seasons, which brought some discord to my then-newish relationship with Erin. She loves everything about Christmas, always has. For someone whose feelings about the holidays were mixed to begin with and were now marred by an altogether unpleasant association, this was hard to take. Also – and this really is deserving of special mention – she loves The Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait. It is a holy relic to her. All due respect to Karen and Richard, but…it just wasn’t my thing.

I don’t know what lousy metaphor best describes the last couple years – a wound that’s slowly healed? A rough edge sanded over time? – but I’d found myself slowly coming around on the holidays again. This year, I noticed something weird: I was getting excited for Christmas. When I saw some Christmas trees on display, I involuntarily said “Oooh!” Out loud. I oohed, people! At first, I thought my renewed sense of Christmas spirit derived from all the folks telling me how much Rock and Soul Christmas was again adding to their Christmas celebrations. But earlier this week, I figured out what was really driving it:

For the first time in 18 years, I was going to be home for Christmas.

Or perhaps, more specifically, Erin and I would own a home for Christmas. We closed on this place during Thanksgiving week, just in time for the grind. And though we’d be running the gauntlet again this year, I was looking forward to it. Because no matter what, at the end of the day, we’d be at home together, not just in a place we called home. Not some apartment we were renting because we weren’t sure where we wanted to end up, not spending the night at our parents’ place, not in a convent singing for a bunch of nuns and mothers…no, we’d be home.

Hey, I realize that sounds trite. For God’s sakes, it’s cribbing the name of one of those cursed songs from the days of show choir. But it just makes sense now.

I’ve been blessed with many, many gifts this year. If you’re reading this post, you’re one of the people responsible since I pretty much I owe my career to the Internet. (2016 Note: This is still true, but keep in mind this was written in 2009. I think maybe 20 people read this blog then.) Eight years after I put together A Rock and Soul Christmas, I feel like I’m once again in a place where I can really enjoy it. So I’d like to share it with you.

Merry Christmas.

(Hey 2016 Me here. A couple notes on the above which is limited by what’s available on Spotify.

  • The original mix contained a different version of the Bowie/Crosby duet. It was intended as an interlude because it contained the awkward dialogue between the two at the beginning. That version feels way more Christmas-y to me.
  • The second-to-last track was originally a duet with Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I know how this song has been recast recently, but it’s never felt that way to me. And feminist responses to it here, here and here say it better than I could. But that’s not why it’s not here. It’s simply unavailable on Spotify (oddly, it’s the sole track off that Tom Jones album of duets that isn’t available there). That’s a shame because that version dials up the ridiculous-ness of that song and brings out the notion that the two people singing it are engaged in a consensual tete-a-tete. You can judge for yourself in the live version here:

If I was going to produce a Chicago news show, here’s what it would look like


A little over a year ago, I was reading The Third Coast. The book is full of stories of how Chicago was a hub of innovation. Not innovation in the way we currently think of it – as “the Uber of X” – but innovation in poetry, architecture, television, print, music, business, etc.

The television and media part stuck with me. I hadn’t ever really understood what Dave Garroway did and how Studs Terkel’s worldview was given life through the medium of TV and how important it all was before this book.

It seemed like TV – or something akin to TV with a heavy social media component – could still do that. To take the idea of the Chicago school of experimentation and apply it to conversations we’re having now. What is Chicago’s place in the national conversation? Or why isn’t it more prominent in that discussion? And what can we do to change that through media?

So I asked the question “What’s missing from Chicago media?” As you can see from that link, I had a lot of help answering that question.

All those answers informed the below: a way to tell national stories through a Chicago lens.

I have no agenda in posting this now other than it was an idea I spent some time on and the results of it have never been published. And I wanted to get it out there before the ideas around it seem too old. Since I started the discussion it public, it feels right to continue it that way.

There’s so much I love about Chicago media. So many reporters and producers are doing vital work. We need more of it. We need to know how to pay for it, too. But I wanted to know what we could do that’s different.

This is that.

What is this show?
This show will look at what’s going on in the U.S. through personal stories based in Chicago.

But it’s a daily news and information show combined with advocacy. It delves deep into a single topic each day across TV and social and shows both how it affects the audience and what they (or others) can do to contribute to a solution.

In doing so, it answers three questions for the audience:

* What do we know?
* What do we think?
* What are we doing?

We do this by making sure the audience sees itself reflected in what’s happening on-screen and giving the viewers a stake in it, which increases relvancy, word of mouth and audience size.

This should not be driven by media talking heads or “experts.” Sure, there’s some of that in the “what do we know” portions but we should hear more from the people living the issues we’re exploring.

Most importantly, this will solve for the biggest problem viewers under 40 have with these kinds of shows: understanding how it affects them in their daily lives and what to do with this information in order to make a difference.

Why does this show need to exist?
There’s a need for a daily news/information show that goes deep into a topic and isn’t ruled by a “news peg” or the 24 hour cycle. Look at the response to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. That show is revelatory because it exists outside the regular news cycle and motivates the audience to act.

There’s also a need to treat culture, food and arts with the same rigor and conversation as politics.

And we are perfectly positioned do all this here.

Chicago is a microcosm of the country, good and bad – in a way that NYC and LA can never be – while still remaining a national influence thanks to its geography and demographics.

* Our struggles between public vs. charter schools
* The crime problems, whether in the “inner-city” or the suburbs and their drug problems
* A world-class mix of fine dining and street food has helped turn us all into foodies
* Neighborhoods that all have their own personalities, adding up to a larger whole  
* Arts and culture that’s the home of Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, the Goodman Theatre or the next Wilco

The subtitle of the book The Third Coast says “Chicago built the American dream.” We were and still are a great testing ground for ideas. In many ways, Chicago’s problems and successes still explain what’s going on in the rest of the country.

The knock on younger news audiences is that they are uninterested in news. This isn’t true. News is important to them.

What they dislike is how most news is structured: it features the same old players in the he said/she format and doesn’t demonstrate how it’s relevant to them. They get their news through social so their news needs to be inherently social.

“Simply put, social media is no longer simply social,” the Media Insight Project report says. “It long ago stopped being just a way to stay in touch with friends. It has become a way of being connected to the world generally — to send messages, follow channels of interest, get news, share news, talk about it, be entertained, stay in touch, and to check in and see what’s new in the world.”

We also need a show that explores a broad range of viewpoints. The second part of this post on Medium lists recommendations for news from a still-relevant 2002 study on youth (consider that this cohort now makes up part of the older millennial segment):

“Let youth speak for themselves.” “Highlight root causes and trends.” “Examine solutions other than increased punishment and incarceration.” “Link social problems to public policy.”

Right now, some news organizations – mostly national – do parts of this. But no one does all of it and especially not in video or live TV.

WBEZ’s public radio programming often does deep dives with community voices. Chicago magazine, DNA Info Chicago and Belt magazine do mixes of long features and personal stories that explore topics outside of news cycles. Some TV stations will do special reports like this – think Fox 32’s “Chicago at the Tipping Point” series. This format could mix all of these approaches in a much more exciting way.

What is it like? What makes it new/different?
We’d see two co-hosts, preferably late 20s/early 30s. To be demographically specific, the relevance of this kind of show would be increased with at least one person of color and a woman (two women of color would be ideal). They’re our guides, but they’re us: they’re asking questions, they’re asking for more detail, they’re exploring. They are not approaching this as the all-knowing journalist who keeps an arm’s length from the topic. But they have expertise and experience. More importantly, they’re entertaining. They approach these topics with humor, when appropriate, but can handle serious topics, too.

Also, there are three things about this that make it new/different:

Socially-sourced: The 13-week editorial calendar will be planned out in advance and posted online for viewers to see. Viewers will be encouraged to email/tweet/message us who they’d like to see on the show. This will help us ensure we’re not getting the same voices we always see in these types of shows and showcase more of the people who are affected by or living these issues.

Socially-driven: In addition to the video conversations, we’ll see curated tweets, FB posts and photos pop up live throughout the show. Viewers will be told how they can contribute to the conversation through an onscreen hashtag. (Yes, this kind of thing has been done before but it’s rarely relevant to what’s happening onscreen, it’s usually just noise).

Socially-relevant: Even though we’ll have planned our topics in advance, the social conversation will keep it fresh and of that day.

Here’s a rough outline of how this might work as an hourlong version (weekly) or a half-hour long version (daily). Keep in mind we discuss a single topic throughout the hour.


Segment 1: WHAT WE KNOW (11 minutes)
A mix of of host-led explainers with infographics and animation that introduces the topic. Provides context for the discussion to follow. Consider this like watching a live version of your favorite blog – maybe Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish in its time or one of the better Vox videos.

From the social conversation we’ve seen before, we’ll choose some people to speak with live via Google Hangout, Skype or similar video setup. We’ll either do this one-on-one or in groups. This will help guide the conversation in the roundtable to come.

Segment 3: ROUNDTABLE INTRO – “WHAT WE THINK” (4 minutes)
Short profiles of the people we will meet in the intro. Who they are, what their background is, why we’re speaking to them. Quick thoughts from them on this conversation before we cut to break. We could do this live in-studio or – more ambitiously – as pre-recorded pieces that morning that are edited into the show. These should be people who have a stake in living with these issues, not people from think tanks or the heads of NGOs. Think block club captains, rather than aldermen.

Segment 4: ROUNDTABLE – “WHAT WE THINK” (11 minutes)
Our guests talk with the hosts about the topic. Conversational, open, not argumentative. This will be interspersed with social posts in the lower-thirds. Some of the social conversation will be used as the basis for discussion.

Segment 5: WHAT WE’RE DOING (8 minutes)
Conversation about people and places that are working on solving the problems we’ve discussed. Specific information about how the viewer can participate.

This could include more live Skype video interviews and/or an in-studio interview with a person who works at a social service, agency, a neighborhood organization or an advocacy group.

(More ambitiously, this segment might include a pre-recorded piece from time to time.)

Segment 6: THE PUSH/THE MIC DROP (3 minutes)
This is a straight-to-camera essay that summarizes what we know, what we think and what we want to do. Most of this is written in advance but it also includes drop-in excerpts from what we’ve heard in the show. This is our final call to action. 


Segment 1: INTRO/EXPLAINER (5 minutes)
Intro / explanation of topic: Discussion of how the topic is normally presented. This is an antidote for the “this person vs. that person” style of discussion. Maybe a couple anecdotes about why we’re discussing it how. (2 mins) 

Three-minute mix of animation, stats and facts  (3 mins)


Segment 2: ROUNDTABLE (8 minutes)
Interspersed with video-submitted questions from the audience and questions via social
Need to break this up into a series of three issues about the topic, would see that on-screen similar to how ESPN shows the various topics it’s discussing 

WHAT WE’RE DOING (3 minutes)
Segment 3: 
Conversation between the hosts and perhaps a guest about how someone can take part or solve this problem. Could be research, could be volunteering. 

Mic Drop: A one-minute straight to camera about what we’ve heard and seen
Possible show topics:
Why are so many people here killed by guns?
How can you make a living as an artist?
Is Chicago’s food scene the most innovative in the country?
Why is Chicago so corrupt?
What would it take for Chicago to become the next Silicon Valley?

Some final show notes:
Each piece of the show will exist in parts that will be broken down into social-friendly components.

It will be extremely important that this show is not shot in a typical studio environment. If this comes across like a CNN panel, we’re sunk. Think more about the average co-working space or a “teaming area” you’d see at an agency. The roundtable segments will need to feel / look as if the viewer is eavesdropping on a conversation. They shouldn’t start with a moderator controlling the conversation nor should we be aware of the camera through showy zooms, etc.

We’ll also need to see a variety of viewpoints. Again, this can’t be set up as “one side thinks this, another side thinks that.”

The 13 week editorial calendar will likely include a handful of topics that we go back to again and again in each season/cycle like gun violence, equality, civil rights, climate change, privacy. But instead of broad topics like this, we’ll delve into micro issues through personal stories. But it also lets us follow up on topics and people so viewers can follow the ongoing story. (Our social and web presence will also be key to this in our off-periods.)

Who is the audience? How do we know this will work?
As we’ve said, this is tailored to an under 40 audience. I’ve outlined above how this is tailored to their news interests. Some of these same values are shared by the Gen X audience, particularly the community aspects of it.

I look at stories like this that show how a broad issue – gentrification – is told through a personal story and see that it works.

And how there’s usually a deeper story to be told in these kinds of viral conversations.

Also, I’ve been asking people what they want more of in media. The above outline reflects a lot of that but puts it in a national context, instead of a local one.

Plus, this social-driven approach is something other news organizations are doing. For instance, Pro Publica does itTheir Get Involved page shows you how it’s done.

Final thoughts
The above should be the start of a conversation. From a production standpoint, there may be things we need to scale back on and begin as an experiment.

But there’s something here that would be unique and meeting a consumer demand.



Everyone is afraid. That’s how we got here.

I’m looking for hope right now or a sense of some common bond and that’s all I’ve come up with this morning.

For some, they’re worried their livelihoods or their way of life may end.

For others, they’re worried about their lives, that their actual lives may end.

Neither is hyperbole.

At this moment, I do not know how to bridge the gap and find a co-existence. But I’m re-committing myself to it.

We start with the world as we know it outside our door and the people closest to us, especially the ones we don’t agree with, and proceed outward from there.

I draw the line at those who want to hurt or expel those who are hurting no one and have the right to exist in their own space. I will not stop fighting for this.

From there, we figure the rest out.

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


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


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.)