Thursday, December 29, 2005

Field trip: A museum to museums

Perhaps it's proof that life is short but art is long. While every period piece hung at the Art Instutute appears timeless, Field Museum displays all seem to bear an invisible time stamp, they're such products of their time.

On a holiday visit, Underground Adventure had enough squirming giant ants to frighten small children, yet with all the stasis of Indian village dioramas. A video monitor tracked the bugs' simulated process, but with no game console attached. George Catlin's warrior chiefs at the Field never presented this problem, which is probably why the paintings could fetch $15 million last year at Southeby's.

The historical parallels, intended or not, were fascinating. I lingered at the Rove beetle, not a dung beetle but a predator that aimed for the soft underbelly. I had the same feeling I was seeing current events when at Philadelphia's Philosophical Hall I discovered a portrait of one of John Adams' Supreme Court nominees, George Washington's cousin Bushrod.

Led by the curator's invisible hand, we continued upstairs on our Field trip. Mummies made uncomfortable parallels between religion and social status, and hieroglypics bore a patron's message with the postmodern attitude of commercial art. (My nephew on break from art school kept his nose in a book throughout.) A factory-housing exhibit took residence next to the Maori meeting house, and an earthenware display ended with a 20th century turkey platter from Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Best self-help books

Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. — Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

After Carnegie's advice was quoted by speaker Tom Weber at the office Toastmasters meeting, a run of self-help books have come up in work conversation, from Primal Leadership to Project Management for Dummies. Currently I'm reading You're in Charge—Now What?, which give new executives tips on both listening and communicating.

One of my favorite motivational books is Phil Jackson's Sacred Hoops, in which the L.A. Lakers coach recounts some of the techniques that made him the Chicago Bulls' "Zen master."

Coach Jackson gave the Bulls reading assignments. What would be yours? Leave your recommendations for best self-help books here.

Friday, December 09, 2005

East Village other

Laura Putre of Chicago Journal is correct in a Dec. 8 Viewpoints piece (not available online) that the name East Village is of fairly recent vintage. When University of Chicago sociologists knocked on doors in the 1960s, residents south of Division and east of Damen told canvassers they lived in Wicker Park. Polonia also was common coinage; a residence on Winchester Avenue north of Iowa Street has Polonia Dairy Co. carved into the stone, a relic of another day.

However, the name East Village dates at least to 1984, when the East Village Association was organized. Likely the founders of the community improvement group wanted to identify the area more closely with tidy Ukrainian Village than with troubled Wicker Park. The blue street signs with the East Village logo, which appeared on lamp posts across the group's boundaries from Milwaukee to Damen avenues and from Division Street to Chicago Avenue, have fallen victim mostly to rust.

South of Chicago or east of Milwaukee, as the seniors Putre interviewed recalled, you were in West Town, or perhaps Noble Square, a name that survives in the co-op apartments on Milwaukee Avenue. As crime receded and vacant lots were developed throughout West Town in the 1990s, real-estate ads started to spread the East Village name beyond its original boundaries.

It's good that Chicago Journal has moved into the neighborhood. It won't be long before Chicago Journal will be seen as a local fixture, or perhaps as another creation of real-estate developers.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Cold reception

The new owners of 1056 N. Damen, the former tavern with the gangster cartoon sign, invited the neighborhood to cozy up to a space heater tonight at the vacant taproom, notwithstanding the hot buffet awaiting a few blocks away at the monthly East Village Association meetup that usually mediates zoning issues.

Attorney Lawrence M. Lusk promised in handbills to explain the proposed use for the space (the rumor was there was restaurant interest). But he told the chilly crowd the new owners had no plans, except that the bar had reverted to residential zoning and they wanted consent for business zoning. The bar space was impossible for residences, Lusk claimed, because the building's maximum allowable seven apartments were already upstairs.

I did the geometry in my head while my wife did the arithmetic, and neither way did the math add up: Investors buying into Condo Central, who didn't see residential potential in seven shoebox apartments with adjoining vacant space, did not seem ready to take on much development work. A landowner across the street, who seemed to be thinking along the same lines, observed that the street hadn't been shoveled till today,

We went on to spell out how the owners had much more yet to spell out. Ald. Ted Matlak leaned against the bar in a hooded parka and took in this "Fargo" scene. After an hour in the chill he was asked if he would put off the owner's zoning request. The answer sounded something like, "You betcha."

Too much source code, too little validation

I entertain the fantasy of making more frequent posts, but the longer I live the more distractions arise.

Students I've never met write with queries such as, "I hope you could answer a basic question for me on what it takes to be a journalist." My first impulse is to suggest that it requires the ability to do basic research before conducting interviews. But that's not very helpful.

There are many widely available references on journalism careers, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook. Journalism job postings are widely available via the Internet, including the Job File listings maintained by the Society of Professional Journalists' Chicago chapter.

A colleague asked what books could teach her Web design. I learned HTML eight or 10 years ago in the age of stone knives and bearskins. The O'Reilly series is now better than the books I used then. (BTW, over Thanksgiving my more mechanically minded brothers were poring over copies of Make, O'Reilly's hacker take on the digest-size Popular Mechanics of the 1960s. I enjoyed "The World's Biggest MP3 Player."

Most Web folks learn not from books but from other Web sites, such as Webmonkey. I found the basics in a Web tutorial by journalism prof Mindy McAdams, who shares my background as newspaper factotum.

Setting up a home page (with resume!) is a good Web design exercise, but a blog really does not require a lot of coding skill unless you want to trick out the standard-issue templates. However, one motivation to starting this blog was just to stare at the source code, which is how I learned a good deal of HTML.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Your ad not here

When newsrooms are seeing layoffs it's hard to argue that this is a good time for the news business. But the opportunities lie one step beyond the challenges.

Start with changes in news habits. Just a decade ago surveys from the Pew Research Center said network news broadcasts were a habit for 6 out of 10 people. Now it's 3 out of 10. For newspapers, it's 4 out of 10.

A newspaper or newscast might not occupy the same part of your day, but no one now needs a set time. Cable TV has more news than ever. And news is always online. The Web site that employs me didn't even exist 10 years ago. Now one-quarter of adults say they check online news at least three days a week.

How does this play out? In 1994, just under half of adults, 49 percent, said they read a newspaper the day before. In 2004, that figure was 42 percent. But almost invariably, they meant a newspaper in print. That 24 percent reading news on the Web were talking mostly about newspaper Web sites.

Combine newspapers, broadcast TV, cable TV and online news, and the total news audience, which was 90 percent 10 years ago, hasn't changed much. Surveys show us devoting more time to shopping, excercising, watching DVDs, and keeping up with the news too. So journalists remain very much in the news business. Just not necessarily in the newspaper business.

If the media universe is expanding, there has to be more money in it, right? Not exactly. When the economy is sluggish, there's less advertising money floating around. And newspaper web sites don't draw the ad dollars of the newsstand version. Print advertising brings in $1 a day for every reader; online ads, 6 or 7 cents. With that sudden influx of online readers, whoever reverses that online revenue ratio will make a ton of money.

For now, newspapers are still stuffed with ads. The Web, not so much. And it's a more competitive arena. Your newspaper dot-com reading may start at Google or Yahoo or your favorite political blog. All of them, even the blogs, are looking for advertising. Not this blog of course. If you're looking for news, what are you doing here?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Schmich's zehr gut

Judge Joan Lefkow's life is in ruins, her mother and husband shot dead by bullets intended for her. But as she works through her grief, Judge Lefkow shares it with with a reporter. For if anything just comes from this tragedy, it must come from the example she sets, her will that justice must prevail.

Her story isn't told till nearly a year has passed. Online, at chicagotribune.com/lefkow, it stretches to 12 pages. It's a closely observed, and yes, a life-affirming story. And the reporter, Mary Schmich, refuses TV and radio requests to talk about it. She does not want to be a scandal-monger.

What a strange business, where the workers must apologize for doing their jobs.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

World Series of commercials

Eric Zorn smartly critiques ads from the baseball playoffs. I was focused on the game and missed the Walter E. Smithe local spot, an oddly placed "Iron Chef" spoof better suited for that shrill "Trading Spouses" episode.

Pepsi's shatter-the-moon spot telegraphed Fox's expectations of an ARod-Vladi Series slugfest. Sorry, guys. Even speedy Mark Buehre's games stretched later thanks to the commercial glut. I was fortunate to make some postseason games and the lull between innings was notable for its length.

I also enjoyed seeing the Chevy ad en español with the tag line Sũubete, which I take to mean "Step up."

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Reflections on East Village

Comments for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks at a City Hall public hearing later today:

I live on one of the last blocks of East Village where all the 19th century houses are still standing and the renovations have respected the 19th-century streetscape. That's why property values on this block were rising years ago, when homes were being priced for the value of the building, not the value of the land.

The streetscape may not remain intact for long, so my hope is that new construction takes a lesson from this older block that seems so comfortable in the postmodern era.

A decade ago when we moved here, East Village was already a hotbed for builders. The best of the new construction reflected its surroundings, literally. The new brick buildings with their multistory windows reflect buildings from the 1880s that were making what was then equally bold use of glass and masonry. The marketing appeal of the new homes is "Where luxury is standard," but the cornice and lintel details of their older neigbhors are a luxury they can't afford. These modern designs will lose their impact if the old homes disappear and strip them of their original context.

That's an artistic judgment but the loss would have a financial impact too. The historic districts that rose in Lincoln Park in the 1970s not only improved the older buildings there but the design of the structures that filled in around them. The marketplace has rewarded that foresight.

East Village is relatively late to preservation, and the evidence of that is in the shrinking size of the district. There's simply less to preserve. The two- and three-flats described in the commission's documents are largely gone, and the blocks that remain cohesive consist largely of six and eight-unit buildings constructed with two-flat facades, plus side and rear entrances.

These buildings tell the same story about the immigrant past of the neighborhood I used to call Polonia. They take well to rehabbing and are selling as condos for the same prices as their newly built neighbors. There's no reason not to encourage more such development under a landmark district.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sniff test

Shadow

Dogs are social animals. No matter how early my day starts, it starts in a walk with my dog. There are reasons this is necessary but Shadow disposes of them early on. Well, maybe I dispose of them, but then it's time to explore. And Shadow likes nothing better than to meet other canines. Usually this starts with some sniffing about the other dog's ears and continues with sticking his nose in areas generally unexplored in human interaction.

Did it go well? Either way, the exchange moves into more aggressive territory, with a series of feints and lunges. If the dogs are ill at ease there's barking and baring of teeth. If they hit it off, the action seem the same but the growls are in jest. What seems like a tense meeting dissolves into another round of sniffing and tail wagging. Perhaps watching such exchanges was how man discovered irony.

Dogs have a simple life, though, and the meet-and-greet routine gets trickier on the other end of the leash. I've learned the names of a lot of dogs in my neighborhood, but not a lot of their owners' names. We exchange a few pleasantries about our dogs and often the conversation goes no further. It's harder for humans to let their guard down.

It's a fact recognized by Toastmasters International, a group better known for training in public speaking. The issues of making an impression are similar in an ice-breaker speech, a work presentation or a one-on-one meeting. The nerves are certainly similar. So Toastmasters has a series of excercises built to practice interpersonal communication.

Making introductions can be a verbal form of the jousting that amimals do to make themselves at ease. The interaction starts with small talk, an opportunity to size up the other person and tell friend from foe. If the new person isn't openly hostile, it's time to sniff around metaphorically, trying to find something in common. At least at the start, this exchange is nothing too intimate.

There's a hierarchy of disclosure at work here as we try to see what we can find out. First, we exchange simple facts, perhaps details about our surroundings -- more about our pets, or depending on those pets' shedding behavior, about where to find a dry cleaner nearby.

If we're comfortable we might want to learn something about each other -- how we work, what we do in our free time. Again, we start with just the facts. If we like what we hear, we might feel comfortable enough to move from facts to opinions, and see if we still share common ground. That could mean talking politics or comparing notes on favorite restaurants or other pursuits.

It takes a fairly thorough airing of the facts of our lives and what we think about them before we move on to personal feelings. There's a difference between talking about the local school and talking about your kids' problems there, and you can't bridge that gap unless you've struck up a friendship.

But first, you have to get a conversation going, and here's where our pets finally can teach us a few tricks.

First, we should share our pets' enthusiasm. Shadow throws himself into each of his doggie exchanges, and seems just as interested in a dog at their first meeting as he does five minutes later when they've both gone once aroud the block. The human encounter is all about learning something new, and every conversation can expand our knowledge, or to pass that knowledge on.

Second, we need to be angling for more. Shadow always wants to mix it up with his jousting routine, which calls for a response from the other dog. In interpersonal conversation, a real back-and-forth involves listening as well as talking. It also takes questions that require more than "Yes" or "No" answers. Open-ended questions give us something more to work with in keeping the conversation going and learn something new.

Finally, even if we're on our guard, conversations are time for fun. Dogs know not all run-ins are going to be pleasant, but their approach moves naturally from inquisitive to playful. We should be able to shed our inhibitions enough to enjoy a chance meeting.

We're social animals too, and talking to others is one way we explore our world. It's a sniff test without a hint of cynicism, just as our dogs would have it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Killing Field's

Marshall Field'sFederated Department Stores adds insult to Chicago's injury by renaming Marshall Field & Co. Yes, the Macy's name when spoken by the company's pollsters did not induce vomiting, but that is the curious kind of recommendation that replaced Philip Morris with Altria. What were they smoking? If only the company took the opportunity to give Bloomingale's dowdy sibling a makeover with a new, upscale name: Goodbye Macy's, hello Marshall Field's. Now that would be a miracle on 34th Street.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Building a new edition

As promised, Chicago Journal has launched a West Town edition with some well observed local news: a status report on abandoned St. Boniface Church, a fly-on-the-wall look at the closing of the Damen Avenue Libarary, and a he-said, he-said view of East Village landmarking in which opponents make curious, unrebutted statements. One suggests that poor neighbors yelled insults were yelled at condo owners in landmarking meetings — news to me, and I it sure feels like I've been to them all. Another says neighborhood teardowns started with "houses of prostitution, or drug-houses." After all this time, I had never suspected what went on beyond the burglar spotlights when that Polish couple sold their cottage around the corner!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Union label

ShopLocalIt's Labor Day, when we express solidarity with fellow shoppers by marching into the nearest mall. Brenda and I have been looking for fall clothing and the cursed fashion boss gives us nothing but summer's capri pants and winter's woolens.

Whatever our size, the off-the-rack choices are just a bit off. So we shop together for mutual reinforcement. A rare good fit on a pair of slacks made Brenda as happy as I had seen her since Illinois made the Big Ten finals. And even though Brenda finds it easier to shop for me than for herself, I have been trying to make up for my lack of a shopping gene by making my own selections.

Before I met her I had a reputation as a fashion horse, but in a newsroom that is a low standard to meet. I suspect I earned it by writing an article on maternity clothes, aided by astute bachelor shopping at Venture. At least now I can confidently take fashion cues from the sofa upholstery Brenda chose this year. Chocolate and sage appears to be the combination coming up everywhere except on dessert menus. It looks stunning on this Claiborne shirt, even though I'll have to accept a larger neck size.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Chicago not for humans, scientists tell aldermen

Is there any way out? The death toll is appalling: 3 elephants, 3 monkeys, 2 gorillas and a camel.

Summer has been a quagmire of bad news for Lincoln Park Zoo. It's a blaze stoked by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a group with a Greenpeace-style flair for the pseudo-event. This week PETA brought a researcher to Chicago to tell the City Council that elephants in the city don't get enough exercise. Perhaps this prompted the aldermen to pass up the donut break in chambers. They shun the heat, which makes Chicago their primary habitat. Or maybe they're drawn to the grease.

Farm in the ZooThe zoo was buzzing with children and their handlers the other day when we wandered afield from the pancake house at Lincoln Park West. We recall trips to working farms in our childhood, but Farm in the Zoo would be as close as most visitors likely would get. Every animal an exotic find, we stared at the alpaca sheepishly. Is their captivity sheer torture? The free world, which finds them so captivating, places their cages close at hand, and prisons at a great remove.

A sign at the primate house cheerfully said the gibbon was on the mend. It admonished that the injury was brought on by reaching for food tossed by a patron, tactfully not mentioning the subsequent amputation. We just love our animals to death.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Playlisted: Ahmad Jamal Trio, "New Rhumba"

Chamber Music of the New JazzChicago pianist Jamal's ensemble piece fit the captivating title of his first LP, "Chamber Music of the New Jazz." (The original 1955 title was more prosaic, according to jazz critic Robert Campbell). The trio gave Gil Evans everything he needed for his Miles Davis big-band orchestration. Verve issued a CD transfer last year; I'm wearing out a fake-stereo vinyl pressing. Jamal is still recording 50 years later.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sentenced to jury duty

At the Rolling Meadows courthouse, Judge Tim Evans testified on tape that jury duty was a cornerstone of democracy. Still, from the jury pool assembly room it seemed like a stone the builders rejected. Everyone I talked to seemed to require a two-hour commute. (The jury summons instructs prospective jurors how to use public transit to get there a little late.) The commute allowed me to read much of Steve Bogira's Courtroom 302, a fly-on-the-wall account that paints the activity in Chicago's Criminal Courts building as Sisyphusian.

Voir dire seemed endless from the jury box. The defendant seemed impatient as well, an unguarded demeanor for a domestic battery defendant. The judge found it remarkable that I was a White Sox fan from the North Side. "And a Tribune employee too," I noted. The defense excused me. Just as well.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

View from the street: Putting down roots

How did you choose your home? Your first impressions were formed before you ever stepped inside. You drove through the streets, walked past other homes, and pictured life in the neigborhood. Even if the home was going to get a complete makeover, you had to take its surroundings on its own terms.

That's no longer the case. Now many home buyers can come to an old neighborhood and envision it as a clean slate. The reason is that the road to a bigger house now starts with tearing down a smaller one. Putting down roots is not what it used to be. Today I'm taking you to my neighborhood for a tour of what's going up, what's coming down and their uneasy relationship.

Crain's Chicago Business this month marked my community near Division and Damen as something of a Teardown Ground Zero. It's where the the most demolition permits in the city were issued last year, and the most new construction permits. Crain's listed 62 addresses with both -- some down my street, some just around the corner.

Last summer, the Metropolitan Planning Council sent interns out to catalog the side streets of my immediate neighborhood, East Village, and they found new buildings on 1 out of 4 lots. Two thirds of the time they were as big as the zoning code allowed.

These are brick condominium buildings with spans of glass out front bigger than any drapery you could buy to cover them. So it's easy from the street to see some well-appointed and comfortable kitchens -- visit and you might never move from your chair at the granite countertop. The marketing studies I read at work call new residents in this ZIP code the "affluentials," and buyers responed to for-sale signs out front saying "Where luxury is standard." But beyond the kitchen, the rooms are large but simple.

The brick facade is all that hints about what stood there before. But the contrast with previous homes and previous generations is documented in a proposal for an East Village Landmark District. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks found three distinctions in the dwindling number of older homes, and the first was history. Before it was East Village it was Polonia, my Chicago relatives' old neighborhood.

Four out of five people were foreign born or children of the foreign born. They lived in small buildings with small apartments. The two-flat I bought had rooms barely big enough to fit a bed and hang a change of clothes. The simple facilities explain the presence nearby of an old park-district bathhouse, now converted to offices. The residents worked in factories along the river and traded with Polish shopkeepers on Division Street, or later Puerto Rican shopkeepers on Chicago Avenue. Some are still doing business among the boutiques. The L wasn't underground but rattled down Paulina Street en route to Logan Square.

The second noted feature is the architecture. No famous architects here, although you can walk few blocks to Ukrainian Village -- which is where East Village found its name, not in New York -- and see churches by Louis Sullivan. Here the worker housing is well crafted. Windows aren't floor-to-ceiling but they're still larger than any double-hung windows you could find to replace them. There's a course of limestone to mark each floor, a Victorian tin window bay or roof cornice, and iron fenceposts ornamented with flower designs -- luxuries you can't afford in new construction. New owners remodel inside -- there are granite countertops here too -- but the ceilings were always high and the old millwork details turn every doorway into its own Greek Revival forum.

After the history and the architecture, the landmark commission remarked on "distinct visual unity" from the street. Immigrants were building a neighborhood to impress relatives back in the Old Country -- the more modest two-story buildings often had a third course of brickwork just to make for good photos sent back home.

But as time goes on it's getting harder for the street to keep that cohesive look. The smallest houses on the street, cute worker cottages with gingerbread detail, were some of the first teardowns. The buildings that replaced them rose five stories high, dwarfing their neighbors. That brought a change in zoning citywide, too late for the cottage owner who now has a bathroom skylight with a condominium view.

The landmark district drawn early this year has grown smaller as the city eliminates blocks that no longer fit the late-1800s theme. My house is on one of the remaining blocks, but if the City Council approves it won't be forcing me to make historically correct quarter-million-dollar renovations. Repairs won't require more than a trip to the Home Depot, but getting a building permit would require that the changes visible from the street stay in character with neighbors.

As a reporter I wrote years ago about teardowns. By now you could write the story too, full of old-timers' regrets about the torrid pace of change ... and the McMansion that replaced the merely modest. After less than seven years back in the city, I don't have their familiar complaints about familiar places.

I like the new buildings and new faces. But this week I gave the district my duly notarized approval. The neighborhood's history, the architecture and the streetscape are as much a part of my life as are my neighbors, and I'd hate to lose either. I put down my roots alongside theirs, and now we're intertwined.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Mediated: Chicago Journal does West Town

Qu'est-ce que c'est? Perhaps I've jumped into another medium at its peak, to ride the downward slide — a pattern set by my Watergate-era entry into journalism and Netscape-era move online. As represented by the Division Street entry at Chicago Bloggers, my young neighbors abandoned blogging at its first whiff of popularity, or were so profoundly self-absorbed as not to notice. But what of it? As a certified blogger I pick up neat coding tips, and an excuse to watch less HGTV.

When I have nothing to say, I'm reading. So I'm looking forward to the West Town launch of Chicago Journal, the literate-minded West Loop weekly. Editor Laura Putre tells members of the East Village Association she's looking for help as the paper expands its turf west to Western and north along the Kennedy.

Putre succeeds founding editor Brett McNeil, a facile writer now trying to break formulas at the Trib. A year ago, he raised his cub-reporter profile with an online eyewitness or perhaps nosewitness report on the Dave Matthews Band's tour-bus discharge.