Lightfoot is Chicago's 56th Mayor, Pete Buttigieg is running, and TAKE ME opens at Strawdog Theatre!
Spring is here — sort of. Despite the on/off weather in Chicago, one big change is underfoot: We have a new mayor.
Lori Lightfoot, a reform candidate who quietly kicked off her campaign 12 months ago, will be sworn in as Chicago's 56th mayor Monday. I'll be there covering for the Washington Post. That morning the Post will run a page one feature I wrote about her campaign and how she represents a very different mayor for the city, one that talks openly about curbing corruption and has made it a priority issue. I talked with Lightfoot in her office last week and was impressed at her calm and strength. The story is online now.
As we all know, the Midwest already produced a U.S. President in Chicago's Barack Obama. Now, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is vying to follow in his footsteps. Buttigieg was in Chicago for a fundraiser in Lincoln Park. For Crain's Chicago Business I wrote a feature on how he too represents a different kind of candidate and also what his legacy looks like in that notable rust belt city.
Finally, some theater news: My play TAKE ME opens at Strawdog Theatre Company on Monday! The show features the very excellent songs of Jon Langford of The Mekons and is inspired by a true story. Jon and I have worked for about five years on this show, the last two with Strawdog director Anderson Lawfer. The show features a cast of 10 and a four-piece live band and explores one woman's journey into the world of alien conspiracy theories following the abduction of her son and loss of her husband.
Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune named is one of the shows to see this week. Jon, Anderson, and I also were invited as guests of WGN's Extension720 radio show to talk about the play. Two of the leads, plus Jon, also sang songs from the show in a car!
The show runs through late June. I'll post reviews and whatnot here once we get through opening. See you at the theater!
2019: A mayoral race in Chicago, a look at Muslim athletes in Milwaukee, the Lincoln Yards controversy, and an investigation into a beloved Chicago music institution
We are only three months into 2019 and it's already been a busy year!
For the Washington Post, I made a few trips to Milwaukee to spend time with the young women of Salam School. They're breaking cultural barriers as athletes not just because they are playing basketball in traditional hijabs but because they're superior athletes. Their achievements have not come without a price, however. In small town Wisconsin they are often seen, not as individual athletes, but as representatives of their faith, which in some cases creates unnecessary tension on the road. I found the women inspiring, and happy the Post put this story on the front page of their sports section this winter. Read it here.
There's also a mayoral race in Chicago. For the Washington Post, I wrote this story in late December about how the race is unprecedented in Chicago because of the high number of women in color running to replace Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
But what a difference a few months make. Frontrunners Susana Mendoza and Bill Daley were given the KO by voters and the current run-off is between Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot. Here's my coverage from election night that produced that result. Looking forward to an intense final election April 2.
The other story that made Chicago the center of the universe is the scandal involving actor Jussie Smollett. He's charged with faking his own hate crime in downtown Chicago. Here's my reporting in the Washington Post on the day he was charged and bonded out of court.
The Chicago area was also hit with another mass shooting. This one took place in a factory in suburban Aurora. For the Washington Post I spent a long Sunday tracking down people who knew the killer as well as co-workers of the victims.
January was spent looking into how a controversial development project along the Chicago River — a "city within a city" as some have described it — will forever change the nature of the near North Side as well as set a precedent for spending $80 million in public money on what is essentially a private project. Lincoln Yards is the legacy project for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel before he leaves office. Advocates against the project want it slowed down and the debate has brought up many time-honored themes in Chicago: namely, old-fashioned cronyism, aldermanic overreach, and public money poured into the North Side at the expense of the South Side.
For the Chicago Reader I wrote an in-depth piece at how Lincoln Yards will affect the Chicago music economy due to plans for several Live Nation venues within the project's blueprint. I look at how other cities like Toronto, London, and Austin have done more to bake in policies that protect music culture, not just because culture is a good thing, but because it's perceived as a valid economic engine. Read it here.
Then there is the Old Town School of Folk Music, a 61-year-old beloved music institution that helped shape the preservation of what we now call "Americana" music in the U.S.
For New City I wrote a 10,000-word story that looked at how the institution essentially bankrupted itself over the last 10-plus years by terrible decision-making, lack of board oversight, failures in transparency, and a clear lack of understanding, or appreciation, of what the mission of the school is all about. I spent nearly three months talking with past and present administrators and teachers, looking at internal documents, and talking with experts in the non-profit world.
The Old Town School is dear to my heart, so reporting this story was tough. The school is currently at the precipice and this year will determine if the current board will learn the lessons from its recent past and move the school towards a feature that offers full transparency to its faculty and students, or will retreat to behaviors that are antithetical for an institution relying on public money. I hope for the former. Read the full story here.
Another police shooting, Rahm resigns, and Van Dyke guilty — End to a hot summer in Chicago
Summer 2018 was a difficult one for Chicago. The city was already dealing with the usual spikes in gun violence, but it also was creeping toward the start of the Jason Van Dyke trial. He is the Chicago Police Officer who fatally shot Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald 17 times in October 2014. A video of the killing came out the following year, which created a pressure cooker for city hall. Not only did the scandal do away with the Chicago police superintendent and the Cook County State's Attorney — one was forced to resign, the other rejected by voters at the polls — but it forced Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel into defense mode, which does not come naturally.
Things came to a head in July when police fatally shot 37-year-old Harith Augustus in the city's South Shore neighborhood. I covered the aftermath for the Washington Post. Marches took place for days. Forty-five minutes I arrived there for the second day of marching, police tape cordoned off a block, just one block from where Augustus was killed. Turns out, more gang violence in broad daylight. Luckily, no one was killed. You can read my story of that incident here.
The next day, about 3,000 people descended down an on-ramp of the Dan Ryan Expressway to protest ongoing gun violence on the South and West Sides. It was a Saturday morning and the activists included parents of children gunned down on the blocks, as well as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Fr. Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest who organized the march despite the early protests of Emanuel. Eventually, the state police relented and allowed the marches to take over two lanes of the busy expressway.
Read my WaPo story here.
By August, all media attention squared on the Van Dyke trial the next month. Van Dyke himself gave a tearful interview to the Chicago Tribune, attorneys on both sides battled on where the trial should take place, and some activists pledged to riot if Van Dyke was acquitted.
But then Emanuel said he was not running for a third term.
The timing of the announcement was unexpected, but not the reason. Although he said the reason was to spend more time with his family, the writing was on the wall for his continued electability in Chicago: Low approval ratings, disdain among most people of culture, inaction on police reform, and attention paid more to the interests of the luxury class than those who say the city became more unaffordable since he got into office.
Read my WaPo story here.
About one week later, Van Dyke entered the courtroom for what would become a three-week trial. I was in the courtroom that opening day and watched both legal teams paint the career police officer as either someone who felt under threat and fired upon duress, or someone who made the decision to fire his gun before he even stepped out of his car and then took steps to cover up his actions.
You can read my opening day analysis in the WaPo here.
As the weeks wore on in October, stories were getting out about what would happen if Van Dyke was acquitted. Chicago hasn't had violence on the streets since the 1968 riots. And unlike Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., protests over police shootings of unarmed black men have largely been peaceful.
So I wrote a story for the WaPo that looks at what's at stake for both sides in this trial. It was published the day of closing arguments.
Read it here.
The jury took a day and a half to come back with a verdict: Guilty on most counts. The fact that it didn't take long came as a surprise Despite protests downtown, violence was averted. But all agree that October 5, 2018 was a historic day in Chicago: The first time a Chicago police officer was found guilty in a court trial for killing a citizen.
The story ran long and was updated throughout the day and night. Read the full recap here.
Unlike the summer, the story of gun violence in Chicago is not over. But this is one chapter all Chicagoans are happy has come to an end.
A Sept. 11 story for the Washington Post takes me to downstate Illinois
That's right. There's a connection between central Illinois and Somerset County, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, killing everyone on board. Since that tragic day, the National Parks Service has been slowly building a memorial park designed to honor all 40 passengers and crew members. The Flight 93 National Memorial, set on 2,200 acres, has opened in stages, according to the installation of different design features. The final feature is the Tower of Voices, a 93-feet-high structure holding 30 wind chimes that will ring in perpetuity.
Those chimes were sourced, carried, cut and tuned by Brett Fugate, a heavy metal musician and professional instrument tuner who operates out of a small shop near Peoria. I visited Brett's shop, took photos, and the story was featured on the cover of the Sunday Style section the week of Sept. 11. Read it here.
Gun Violence in Chicago — From Parkland to the South Side
A few weeks ago the Washington Post sent me to the South Side to cover the first stop of a national tour by the kids of Parkland, Florida. They were in town to sign up voters and connect their experience as victims of a mass shooting in their high school to everyday gun violence happening in the streets of Chicago. Teenagers from both sides walked the streets, ate bbq, danced, and got to know each other as well as expressed their shared experiences with reporters. Temperatures were reaching 100 degrees that Saturday, which may have prevented a bigger crowd. But later that afternoon the kids traveled an hour outside of Chicago to Naperville, Illinois where they held a panel discussion at a Unitarian church.
You can read my story here.
That day the BBC asked me to join their evening broadcast. You can find that archived interview here.
This weekend, the gun violence beat continued. On another hot Saturday in Chicago, about 3,000 people gathered at 79th Street and marched down an expressway ramp to shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway to once again raise the alarm about gun violence in their neighborhoods. I followed them and later drove to Millennium Park where a group of about 35 people gathered to advocate for gun rights. This last group was organized to serve as a counterpoint to the Parkland movement. I was part of a national team for the Washington Post that covered their rallies across the U.S. that day.
You can read our story here.
Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, road congestion, and the Illinois primary
Just a few months into 2018 and things have been busy.
This Sunday (3/25) the Washington Post will publish a feature I wrote on the Obama Presidential Center. I tell a national audience about the controversy that's been brewing on the South Side since the OPC was announced last year. Many of the same issues involved in the pushback — fear of displacement, lack of transparency, gentrification — are the same that have consumed black residents in the neighborhoods surrounding Hyde Park for decades. Read it here.
This month I also took a look at why road congestion in Chicago has gotten so bad. Anyone with a car will have noticed that it's getting longer to get anywhere on the main arteries that connect to downtown. No surprise, researchers I worked with at DePaul came to the same conclusions as the same in other studies — It's due to ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. It makes sense. You can't add a fleet of thousands to city streets, not accommodate the influx of cars, and expect that driving will be the same as before. The story was for Crain's Chicago Business and you can read it here. The story has helped open a debate in editorial pages here, plus I talked with WGN's Amy Guth about it on Saturday.
Illinois just went through a primary and I covered it for the Washington Post. My story on the governor's race looked at what it means to potentially have a face-off between two billionaire businessmen with no political experience and who won't release their full tax returns. Does this sound familiar? The story is here. Then I spent primary day talking with voters all over Chicago and ended the day at an election party by Marie Newman, the progressive Democratic challenger to Dan Lipinski for US Congress. Lipinski won. Here is some of the coverage from that very long day!
I also was given the opportunity to dive into the gun control debate following the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead at a high school. In Wheaton, Illinois — Home to the Billy Graham Center – a local gun show decided to ban sales of the AR-15 assault rifle. That made national news because it was seen as the first sign of the right self-regulating opposed to the hardline stance following previous mass shootings. I went to the gun show that weekend to report for the Washington Post. What I found were some gun owners and sellers who agreed that some kind of compromise is needed. But there was also a lot of ugly shouting. Here is the story to read for yourself.
Finally, I covered POLITICO's Playbook for two weeks during the election and will be back on duty this coming week into April.
And the Loyola Rambers are winning March Madness! I went to Loyola for my BA, so it's nice to see an underdog get some attention for what is the feel-good story of 2018. See you next month!
2018 Off and Running!
Happy New Year! (Okay, it's really late January.)
The reason for the delay is that things have been busier than usual. In late December, Crain's Chicago Business published my front-page feature that looks into why Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pulled the plug on a potential plan to refurbish the Uptown Theatre, a 1929 movie palace shuttered in ruins since 1981. Thanks to some sleuthing I got my hands on a two-year plan to bring the theater back in life but was mysteriously axed in the run-up to his second election. The story was one of the most viewed on the Crain's site that month and got me an invite on WBEZ's morning show to discuss. Thanks WBEZ!
In late December I also handled the Illinois Playbook for POLITICO for a full week. Check it out every morning here.
In January I started teaching a new journalism course I designed for the University of Illinois at Chicago — Genres of Journalism. I set my students off to write a wide variety of stories, from arts criticism to perspectives to data-driven hard news. So far, so good. The class is maxed out and we're off to the races.
The Washington Post hired me to cover the Women's March in Chicago. About 300,000 people descended onto Grant Park that Saturday. Read more about it!
Finally, Medium hired me in the fall to create a bunch of news series for their site. Medium is expanding its mission to include professional journalism that readers want (and want to pay for!) The first installment of my series, "Human Trafficking in the Midwest," debuted last week. The second and third installments run in late January and early February. The series look at how people are being trafficked here for sex and for labor. The third piece look at how Illinois has taken a tough stance against trafficking, lead by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart who has emerged as a leading voice in treating the women, not as criminals, but as victims. I'm proud of the reporting I did for all three of these long-form pieces. I hope you read them.
See you next month!
Reporting for The Guardian on Las Vegas shooting
A sad news day today for anyone covering the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left nearly 60 people dead and hundreds injured. The Guardian asked that I write a story to provide context into the event itself — A three-day country music festival produced by Live Nation outside the Mandalay Bay resort. My reporting included context into the rise of these mega country fests and included quotes from my interview with headliner Jason Aldean from an interview I had with him last year. Sadly, Aldean joins the short list of performers whose concerts were cut short by gun violence or explosives.
Covering the Civil War for the Washington Post
Two weeks ago I attended a Cvil War reenactment in the tiny tourist town of Three Oaks, Mich. While this may have been any normal summer weekend in Harbor County, this Civil War reenactment followed the violence in Charlottesville, a weekend that involved horrible violence and anger over Confederate statues in the South.
My story, which ran in the Washington Post, looks at Civil War reenactments through the lens of Charlottesville and asks whether or not the same scrutiny over the monuments would be applied there. I also found that many in this community felt the tension from the statues debate and worried that their hobby, which they insist is about history, will soon die out. The story also featured my debut as a photographer! Check it out here.
My essay on country singer Linda Parker in new RUST BELT CHICAGO anthology
I'm proud to announce that my essay on early country singer Linda Parker is included in the new edition of RUST BELT CHICAGO: AN ANTHOLOGY, the latest edition from the people at Belt Publishing who have been documenting stories from across the rust belt states. As its name suggests, the book focuses on untold stories from Chicago and the surrounding area and features work by Chloe Taft, Sonya Huber, Britt Julious, Kari Lydersen, Kevin Coval, Rob Miller, among others, and a cover by artist Tony Fitzpatrick.
My essay, "Beneath the Willow Tree: The Early Death and Immortal Life of Linda Parker," looks at the short but fast life of Linda Parker who left behind few recordings but, as "The Little Sunbonnet Girl," captured a mass audience due to her short stint on The National Barn Dance out of Chicago. Even though she died at age 23, she was the first female country singer to launch a successful solo career out of a male-dominated group. Here is her voice, two years before her death.
There will be several RUST BELT-related events throughout Chicago this fall. In the meantime, read The Chicago Tribune's profile of anthology editor Martha Bayne, who commissioned the piece, and a review by Third Coast Review.