May the tavern rise up to meet you: The Frunchroom – 07.16.15

This is the piece I read at The Frunchroom back in July.

img_2192Oh hey, did I mention I produce/host a South Side reading series called The Frunchroom now? (Not here, apparently, because I’ve only written seven posts in all of 2015 so mostly I get my creative juices flowing by producing/hosting The Frunchroom, going on WGN Radio to talk about media stuff and directing editorial things at work.)

I explained here that me doing a reading at The Frunchroom was somewhat unintended. But it was good for me because I’ve been on a bit of a dry spell lately. The ideas for this piece had been rolling around in my head for a while and it made a lot of sense to do it at O’Rourke’s Office, where The Frunchroom is held, for reason’s that will become clear.

Can we talk about bars for a minute? I really love bars.

They’re like going to the gym but in reverse.

Have you ever heard of the idea of the third place? It’s the idea of a place other than your home or work that offers neutral ground, is open to everyone and – most importantly – features conversation as its main draw. There are lots of kinds of third places from parks to barber shops to churches or libraries. But most are somewhat purpose-driven or encourage conversation only amongst those you came in with.

Bars are different. By design, they force you into conversation with someone that isn’t family but might be a friend by the time you leave. No less than Mike Royko called the neighborhood tavern “the working man’s country club” or a kind of “group therapy.”

I’ve spent many a meaningful moment in a bar. I celebrated turning 30 at Blackie’s in the South Loop. I courted my wife in a number of bars on the North Side. Earlier this year, I mourned the death of one of my closest friends at Celtic Crossings. It was an Irish wake. (He wasn’t Irish.)

If I have to write something important, I prefer to do it in a bar. If I have an hour to kill somewhere, it’s my first choice of a place to spend the time. But it’s a culture that, in Chicago, has been in decline.

Back in 2012, Whet Moser at Chicago magazine took a look at some of the facts and figures behind this. According to USA Today, in 1990 there were 3300 places in Chicago with tavern licenses. By 2009, the number fell to 1200. Mayor Daley seemed to take a particular interest in closing bars but there were trends like more drinking at home and restaurants that figured into this, too. In fact, if a bar opens in Chicago nowadays it’s likely to get most of its revenue from food sales. Not just because of changing habits but because it’s a bit easier to get the nod from the city that way.

Even though they’ve changed a bit and are as likely to offer small plates as shots, we’re losing many of our third places. But if it weren’t for a bar, specifically this one, my wife and I might not have moved here.

Now, before you start whispering to the person next to you (“Oh god, the host of The Frunchroom has a problem with the drink….), let me assure you we looked at things like schools and property values and what have you. Also, you are in a bar on a Thursday so calm down and don’t be so high and mighty.

We were in the final stage of house-hunting when we drove down from Roscoe Village one Saturday to see what the Beverly/Morgan Park nightlife was like. This was in 2009 before we had a child and “nightlife” to us then had not yet become sitting on the couch and passing out in front of episodes of The West Wing.

The people at O’Rourke’s seemed nice, they served a decent cocktail and it also had a cool little back room that seemed like it could be interesting.

Prior to that we’d had a post-looking-at-houses dinner at the bar/restaurant on 111th called Ritchie’s (it’s now been renamed Joseph’s under new owners) and warmed to both classic Italian menu and our server Adam who was apparently given to sitting down at an old piano against the wall and banging out Billy Joel and Elton John songs. As he hit the second verse of “New York State of Mind” Erin and I looked at each other and said “We’re definitely moving here.”

We needed a sense of the neighborhood so we came to a bar. I hope the folks from BAPA are taking notes.

But our neighborhood’s had a weird relationship with bars. For example, there are – if my math is right – 16 bars along Western Avenue from 99th to 119th. Many of them are Irish in nature, in keeping with the tradition of the neighborhood. They’re full of friends, family and memories. But there’s a nickname for it. The Western Avenue Death March. (Editor’s note: I’ve since learned there are about five other names for it.)

It’s an odd dichotomy – a culture that’s at once celebrated and maligned.

The South Side Irish Parade – which, full disclosure, I volunteer with – became the legendary powerhouse it was – hosting mayoral, gubernatorial and presidential candidates – in part because of the bars along Western. Yet the attraction of drink drew busloads of Iowa college students and caused it to be shut down for two years before coming back more in the family-friendly spirit of its founders.

And sure, we have 16 bars along Western Avenue but nothing to the east of it as those precincts are dry. Both candidates in the most recent aldermanic election said they believe a restaurant serving beer and wine would help anchor development along 95th street or 103rd. Yet in 2009, the last time the matter was put to a vote by the residents of one of those precincts, an effort to open development of this type between 103rd and 107th on the north and south and between Longwood and Walden on the west and east ultimately died in the face of stiff opposition from the community and a confusingly worded referendum.

The theory goes that if the area east of Western was wet again, we’d be besieged with package liquor stores or the dark spirits of rowdy taverns. That this would bring in the wrong element.

It’s worth noting here that the area in question isn’t zoned for either liquor stories or a standalone tavern. It’s only zoned for restaurants or specialty grocery stores.

But I also think about the last bar/restaurant that opened in this neighborhood, Horse Thief Hollow. And what it’s done to change bar culture on Western Avenue, from the number of places that now proudly proclaim the number of craft beers they have to the rehab of Keegan’s to allow for a different kind of atmosphere. Not to mention the number of gallery showings or parties it’s hosted for the Beverly Area Art Alliance. (Note: Keegan’s has, post-rehab, been named Barney Callaghan’s.)

I also think back to a few months ago when one of our readers, Dmitry Samarov got up on this stage and lamented that Hardboiled Coffee, another wonderful third place at 91st and Western, might not make it. Sure enough, earlier this month owner Gregg Wilson announced he was closing the shop. But the wholesale coffee business would remain a growing concern and move inside another local business: Horse Thief Hollow.

And not for nothing but hosting The Frunchroom here at O’Rourke’s was a considered choice. I wanted it to be in a bar, to be in a third place. To add to the place, to the culture that made me want to move here.

If we want more arts, if we want more businesses – the kind that can help other businesses – if we want to reflect more of who we are to people who might want to move here and help carry on our traditions…if we want all that…then maybe it’s time to think about attracting that kind of element to areas east of Western. To 95th Street. To 103rd Street. Maybe 2016 should be the year we try again and pass a referendum allowing restaurants and grocery stores to offer beer, wine and liquor.

We could use a few more third places here.

Because I really hate going to the gym.

Timing is everything in the Laquan McDonald shooting case

On October 20th, 2014, Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by a police officer. McDonald was a 17-year-old teenager who was, according to reports, high on PCP and carrying a knife. According to the video released this week, McDonald was walking away from police, not toward them, and 14 of the 16 shots appear to enter Laquan’s body when he was lying in a fetal position on the ground. It took more than 400 days for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to charge the officer, Jason Van Dyke, with a crime and also that long for the video to be released and then only because of a judge’s order.

The video is evidence of a horrible crime and in the current climate of racial protest in this country, you’d expect a significant reaction from local activists. If you were Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, you might be worried about riots like those in Ferguson or Baltimore.

It would be almost impossible to draw attention away from release of that video.

And yet…

The day before charges were announced in the Van Dyke case, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy announced his decision to fire Dante Servin, a Chicago police officer who, while off-duty, shot into a group of people and killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd. By all accounts, Boyd was unarmed and doing nothing wrong.

The shooting occurred in 2012. Servin had been acquitted of charges in the shooting five months ago on something of a technicality. In the trial, the judge said he had been incorrectly charged. The case, according to the Chicago Tribune, caused “outrage from the black victim’s family and leaders in the African-American community.”

A police review board recommended firing Servin two months ago, but McCarthy seemed to only come to a decision this week, two days before the required release of the Van Dyke/McDonald video. He made the announcement not in a pre-arranged press conference, but unexpectedly after a graduation ceremony for new police officers at Navy Pier.

McCarthy said the timing was unrelated to the Van Dyke/McDonald case.

The day before the release of the van Dyke/McDonald video, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with several political, religious and community leaders and activists in an effort to control the expected reaction.

The day after that, a 22-year-old activist named Malcolm London appeared on TV with another member of his activist group, Black Youth Project 100, to explain why they – seemingly alone amongst other invited community activists and political leaders – refused to meet with the mayor. The refusal received a significant amount of attention.

The video showing the killing of McDonald was as awful as it had been described in media reports. It appears as if McDonald is shot twice, causing him to fall to the ground. While on the ground, he is shot several more times. Smoke or debris appears to rise from the area around his body. His body is left in the street while officers walk in the vicinity. No one offers him medical assistance.

It would be almost impossible to draw attention away from that protests over that video.

And yet…

Protests marched through downtown Chicago the night the video was released, mostly organized by BYP 100. They were largely peaceful. Only five arrests were made that evening. Two of the five were members of BYP 100, including London. Police allege London threw a smoke bomb, which fellow activists deny. Many fellow protesters saw London’s arrest as payback for both his group’s refusal to meet with the mayor and their organizing efforts.

The day after the protests, London’s court hearing was the story of the day. Very quickly, London was released and charges were dropped with no comment from either the judge, the prosecutor or police as to why.

Most of the attention around the McDonald/Van Dyke case was focused on London’s arrest though some stories began to circulate about McCarthy and Alvarez’s roles in delaying the release of the video and charges in the case. City Council aldermen within Chicago’s black caucus called for McCarthy to be fired. The National Bar Association, the oldest and largest association of African-American lawyers and judges, called for Alvarez and McCarthy to be fired.

A day before the release of the video, Father Michael Pfleger, a white activist pastor at St. Sabina in Chicago’s predominantly black Auburn Gresham neighborhood, announced his intentions to protest against the McDonald/Van Dyke case along Michigan Avenue on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. He called on others to do the same. As the week went on, more groups announced their intention to join him. Protesters would meet at Michigan and Wacker at 11am and march along the Magnificent Mile, a draw for city residents and tourists alike. Blanket media coverage would be a given.

It would be almost impossible to draw attention away from that protests over that video.

And yet…

At 4am on the day of the planned Black Friday protest, Chicago Police announced they had made an arrest in the November 2nd murder of nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee. There was no word as to whether the person arrested was the shooter or an accomplice. Additional information would be made available later that morning.

Tyshawn’s murder was especially heinous. He was gunned down in an alley near his house. Reports said it was retaliatory for his father’s involvement in gang activity. The killing of Tyshawn received national coverage with some commentators suggesting his death did not receive as much attention or protest as the McDonald/Van Dyke case though few in the community see it that way.

As of this writing, the extent of the charges against the person involved in Lee’s shooting or how it will be prosecuted is not yet known. UPDATE: Chicago Police arrested Corey Morgan on murder charges and have a warrant out for a second man. Chicago Tribune has details. The Sun-Times‘s Andy Grimm documented Morgan’s bond hearing on Twitter, which included statements from the prosecutor.

More protests are planned in Chicago while residents still await answers as to why it took 400 days for charges to be filed by Alvarez against Jason Van Dyke in the killing of Laquan McDonald and why McCarthy continued to keep Van Dyke on the Chicago Police force during that time despite the obvious nature of the crime.

Mayor Emanuel has made no public comment on the case since the release of the video. As protests filled Michigan Avenue, he attended the city’s official tree lighting ceremony.

It was impossible to draw attention away from the protests occurring just blocks away.

At Mizzou, the tension between the message, the medium and the marginalized

Graduate student Jonathan Butler leads the protestors in a chant in Jesse Hall at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (KOMUNews image via Creative Commons license.)

Graduate student Jonathan Butler leads the protesters at the University of Missouri on Oct. 6, 2015. KOMUNews image via Creative Commons license. Link

I’ve been struggling to reconcile competing thoughts on what’s happening at Mizzou, specifically between students and reporters.

This Vox post, quoting a Washington Post article about the parallel conversation at Yale, talks about an important part of these stories that’s often ignored:

One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant… As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.

The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent… If you are older than 22 and reading this, imagine for a second how you would feel if professional pundits pored over your undergraduate musings in real time.

So on one hand, I get it: Nobody wants an unintended gesture made or statement said in the heat of a chaotic situation to represent you on the Internet for the next 10-15 years. On the other hand, a cause that’s just and fair should withstand the scrutiny of an open press. The most newsworthy part of the Mizzou story was the black football players banding together and refusing to play – a story that touches on lots of hot-button issues: race, the ongoing conversation about unpaid student athletes, worker protections, social justice, etc. These issues should get a proper vetting in the press.

Still, how do Mizzou students exercise their collective right to protest and make change, do it in a transparent way and protect their rights to privacy? Honestly, I’m not sure. Yes, this is all being done in public space and on some level this isn’t private. But the coverage often outlasts the moment and at some point it affects the comfort level sources have with the press.

Is it possible to protect the right to make a mistake in protest efforts but also keep traditional media close? Does that get you anything as a protest group in 2015? It’s as much a risk as a benefit. If you have access to social media, which – thanks to Black Twitter and other groups – can amplify a story to its intended audience and understand it in a way traditional press cannot, why risk talking to CNN? Yes, there’s a First Amendment right to a free press, but these student groups aren’t a governmental body. Late today, the groups seemed to realize they’d perhaps started to do themselves more harm than good.

Prior to the last year, the national media has often undercovered stories on race. Even with an increased effort to cover these kinds of stories, they’re usually filmed through a Manchiean lens – this view vs. that view. A story like Mizzou is far more complicated with some folks seeming to act in a contradictory way. After a year of watching the way on-the-ground stories have been twisted by a virality-driven national media, I’m not surprised there’s a distrust of people who parachute into an event that has a complicated backstory. Somewhere in here, the affects of all the cuts that have happened to newspapers’ local and regional bureaus have prevented an ongoing dialogue between the press and their potential sources and the press now finds itself literally blocked out.

I don’t have a clear set of answers or a way forward here, but it’s clear this won’t be the last time reporters will be challenged in how to cover on-the-ground stories with marginalized groups. Just like their counterparts on the business side, they’ll need to stop insisting on a return to a previous model and adapt, perhaps – as local stories like this blow up into national stories quickly – by rebuilding the bureau model around beats, rather than geographic areas.

EDITED TO ADD: Having said all that, I pretty much sign on to the views expressed in this Atlantic article, too.

Mark Kirk has a very specific image of the South Side

Image: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kirk of Illinois celebrates at election night rally in WheelingThis week, Illinois Senator Mark Kirk referred to Lindsey Graham – an unmarried Presidential candidate – as “a bro with no ho.” He further intimated “that’s what we’d say on the South Side.” (Kirk was born in Champaign, IL and is a resident of Highland Park, IL where the median income is $108,393.)

The Washington Post heard that second sentence as “on the street.” Either way, it found “bro with no ho” is not in colloquial use on the South Side or anywhere else and is likely something Kirk made up.

It’s tempting to think of this as a one-off remark from an out-of-touch white guy who’s trying to adopt an urban patois that both enhances his cred while simultaneously critiquing the language patterns of a lower socioeconomic population.

In fact, it’s a pattern of Kirk’s who clearly sees the black neighborhoods as a wasteland of violence and corruption.

Back in April, he referred to “the black community” as “the one we drive faster through.

Then there was the time in 2013 when Kirk said he wanted to spend $500 million dollars to have federal agents roll into South Side neighborhoods and round up gang members:

The freshman Republican senator visited Englewood as part of a deal with Chicago Democratic congressman Bobby Rush to help smooth over tensions from earlier this year.  In May, Kirk proposed spending $500 million in federal funds to arrest 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples street gang as a solution to combat violence. Rush responded that Kirk’s idea was an “upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about.” [SNIP] Kirk responded: “Oftentimes when people say you cannot police your way out of this, I would say thank God that Illinois and Chicago didn’t believe that. We could’ve just let Al Capone run the whole place.” The audience scoffed at the decades-old crime reference and tried to explain street crime to Kirk.

At least then he actually toured the neighborhood instead of hitting the gas when he approached it.

As Kirk approaches a re-election fight, it’s also worth remembering the time in 2010 when he said he wanted to “voter integrity” monitors to the South and West sides because Democrats would be likely to “jigger the numbers somewhat” there. Nevermind that voter fraud of this nature barely exists and such tactics are usually intended to suppress minority voter turnout.

So it was interesting to hear Kirk proudly wear the mantle of the South Side this week when he so often seems to want nothing to do with it.

Of course the Sex Pistols have a credit card

The Sex Pistols now have a branded credit card.

For some reason, this development has made people feel angry and betrayed.

I say “for some reason” because…do people not know how and why the Sex Pistols were formed?

From Bloomberg’s’s obit of Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ manager.

“I don’t really care if bands can play guitars or not,” McLaren said in a 1984 interview. “I want them to say something. But, above all, I really want them to make money. Lots and lots of it.”

The budding entrepreneur, always seeking controversy, then decided to rename the shop Sex, sell punk clothes covered in safety pins and have the group promote it. He also paid for rehearsal space and renamed them the Sex Pistols — over objections of band member John Lydon (better known as Johnny Rotten), who wanted the act to be known as “Sex.”

“I didn’t want these herberts to be named just that,” said McLaren, in his 1984 interview with me for “The Dictionary of Rock and Pop Names.” “I wanted to get them known. I wanted to sell loads of trousers.”

Here’s John Lydon (née Rotten) during the 1996 press conference announcing the Sex Pistols’ reunion shows:

Reporter: Do you still hate each other?

Lydon: Yes, with a vengeance, but we share a common cause, and that’s your money.

Filthy lucre, indeed!

Oh and then there’s this.

417pA+7OiwLIt isn’t so much that a Sex Pistols credit card is a betrayal of a punk ethos as it is a surprise that it took this long to happen.

Sure, the card is produced by Virgin Records and it’s possible the Pistols had nothing to do with it. But it’s not like they’ve ever been interested in running away from money. The Pistols coincided with punk more than they formed it.

If there’s ever a Clash credit card you should only be allowed to use it in a supermarket.

Chicago media is getting rid of what it needs the most


Last week, a new report from The Knight Foundation said a lack of local news and information was the biggest cause of declining turnout among millennial voters.

Meanwhile, these three things happened in Chicago media:

* The Chicago Tribune laid off ten people from its newsroom
* The Sun-Times cut its Homicide Watch editor
* WBEZ canceled The Afternoon Shift, cutting two hours – or half – of its local programming

I’ve often heard the phrase “cutting into bone” when describing particularly painful layoffs and it’s hard not to see the above that way. Especially when you consider the Knight Foundation’s findings.

(Full disclosure: One of the people Tribune cut is someone I’m friendly with, I’ve had an op-ed published on Homicide Watch and I’ve been on Afternoon Shift a bunch of times – including its last show – and became friends with its host, Niala Boodhoo, as a result. I’m not exactly a disinterested party here but I’m trying to keep my argument separate from all that.)

In the case of Tribune, the average person probably doesn’t recognize most of those names. Copy editors, image techs and associate/planning editors aren’t exactly star columnists or even as familiar to readers as reporters with a byline. But you’ll notice them when they’re gone. They’re the folks that keep bad grammar and typos out of the copy, ensure the photos look front page-worthy and decide what gets covered when and how. If you want quality local news coverage and not just filler, they’re the people that make it happen.

Yet it’s often easy to think those cuts can be made without damaging the organization. Your average copy editor doesn’t have a big Twitter following so the outcry will be limited to those in the know on a couple media-focused blogs. Everyone who’s left will be asked to “do more with less.”  The mistakes will slip by and everyone will hope no one really noticed.

But hey, at least the the three nationally syndicated columnists who published transphobic nonsense still have a spot on the op-ed page.

With the Sun-Times, you’d think a person whose entire job is to track the names and faces behind the numbers of murders in Chicago would still have a job. But no. How do you not have a spot for that guy in your Chicago newsroom in 2015? Especially with all the evidence that the CPD has previously played a shell game with the true murder count?

When you have something no one else has it puts you at an advantage but only if you realize what you have and know what to do with it. How does the editor of Homicide Watch seem less crucial to a news organization trying to create an engaged, loyal, paying audience than a strategy of Buzzfeed knockoffs with content scraped from social media and other news publishers? Publishers with deeper knowledge and pockets have tried and failed at the latter. Even something like Circa which attracted the best and the brightest, eventually learned that technology and distribution won’t matter unless a unique content strategy underpins it.

As for WBEZ, the Afternoon Shift‘s mission was to feature voices other than the usual slew of bold-faced names, pundits and academics. It was a two-hour show that devoted itself to issues like segregation, crime, jobs, arts and how all these topics interrelate. Award-winning bartenders were juxtaposed with authors, sports figures with community activists. A typical recent show looked at whether local doctors understand nutrition, Illinois’s state budget cuts, NASA’s plan to launch a flying saucer and the Blackhawks. It was unique, it was local, it was entertaining and it informed the public – the latter is a mission critical aspect of public media. It’s all the kind of thing listeners are willing to support with money.

Admittedly, I’m a novice about public media’s overall business model. Perhaps a strategy that creates more shows like Sound Opinions, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and This American Life – shows that can be syndicated throughout the public media universe – and fewer that only appeal to a purely local audience make more sense for WBEZ’s bottom line. And hey, those are good shows! But in just a quick perusal of their financial documents (page 4 of this doc is a good summary), it seems membership contributions, community service grants and other program-specific underwriting drives 70% of revenue. (As a comparative, Wisconsin Public Radio is 59% listener/grant/underwriting-supported.) That all seems driven by local programming, which WBEZ says it’s committed to in shifting staff from The Afternoon Shift to The Morning Shift (though the length of the show won’t change as of now and firing Niala, the show’s host, a journalist with several years experience reporting on Chicago and the Midwest, seems misguided, at best).

But again, maybe the health of the organization overall is in better shape if you’re less dependent on those three buckets so local programming isn’t a great bet for the future. How that delivers on a public media mission and less on a capitalistic one will be for them to figure out.

On the whole, it was a damn awful week for people who believed in the value of quality local news. Discussing it this way gives me no thrill. I want vibrancy in local media.

Now, back to that Knight Foundation report and a quote from the release about it:

“The report highlights that young adults care about their cities and have many concerns that local government can address, but these potential voters lack the information, habits, and social cues that would prompt them to engage and participate in local elections,” said David Mermin, partner at Lake Research Partners.

Chicago recently had a mayoral runoff election. It was historic. Never in the history of Chicago elections did something like this ever happen. The two candidates could not have been more different. Stakes, financial and otherwise, were real. Both candidates cranked up their get out the vote efforts…

Turnout averaged 40%.

I’m generally an optimist, even about the state of journalism and media. This week put me back on my heels a bit. In large part because I work in media so this is a direct concern of mine. But it’s one thing for me to be worried about the future of my friends. At this point, I’m worried about the future of democracy.

UPDATE: My friend Mike Fourcher has a response to the above. I don’t see my argument as “If only someone would provide good local news, people would care” so much as it is “Your audience says they need something and you’re choosing not to provide it.” And if you give an audience what they’re asking for they’ll probably see you as valuable and your chances of survival are better.

Winter apocalypse” image by Quinn Dombrowski. Used through Creative Commons license.