Now that 2021 is winding to an end, I can’t imagine many people are holding vigils for its demise. The year was tough. For news people hardly got a break. I wrote about the first half of the year below. The second half got even busier.
Late this year I was in the courtroom for the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teenager who fatally shot two people and severely injured a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin. There’s no need to rehash what we already know — and what I wrote the case extensively for the Washington Post starting the night the violence took place. Go to the full archive and type “Rittenhouse” in the search bar and you’ll get the full gamut. Meanwhile, check out my piece about the two lawsuits leveled, not against Rittenhouse, but against the city of Kenosha for creating a situation they say allowed the violence to take place. Expect big news about both lawsuits in 2022.
Outside Rittenhouse, I managed to get a few words in the Post on some other issues. First, a new report shows that life expectancy among the poorest Blacks in Chicago has jumped significantly within a decade. Here’s a Post story I wrote about what the city plans to do about it. In July, I wrote about a historic victory for police reform advocates: Oversight of the Chicago Police Department is being handed to an elected board of community members. This fall I wrote about the city’s plan to become the largest city in the U.S. to offer a guaranteed income. The program is a pilot and is limited, but it follows a national trend of smaller cities to do the same. One shocking development is the unionization drive of workers at the Art Institute of Chicago and its sister arts university. The efforts revealed disturbing details about the treatment of workers there, from those working the gift shop to curators. Read my Post story here.
Finally, one of my favorite Post stories to write in 2021 came in September. I wrote about the ancestors of “Free Frank” McWorter, a former slave from Kentucky who in 1831 created New Philadelphia, a small farming town in Illinois, just 20 miles from Hannibal, Missouri, a slave port. Frank’s ancestors have kept his story going and now, the site will become part of the National Parks Service system. Why isn’t this story a movie yet? It should, and I won’t be surprised when it is.
This year I started working as a field producer for ABC News. In this role, I scout and conduct interviews for breaking news stories. This year that meant going to Waukesha, Wisconsin for the horrific violence at a holiday parade, and then to Kentucky to report on the tornado damage there. All my work appeared on ABC News programs, including Good Morning America and World News Tonight. In Kentucky, I encountered a married couple saving dogs they found on the sites of demolished homes. I’ll never forget that day, especially this one photo I snapped of four dogs who look terrified after going through a tornado, outside and alone.
The end of the year did not coast to the finish line. In Chicago, December meant the trial of actor Jussie Smollett who after a two-week trial was convicted of staging a hate crime. I sat in the courtroom each day for the New York Times, working with Julia Jacobs in New York. Unlike Rittenhouse, no cameras or live feed were allowed in the room, so coverage of this very unusual, and downright disturbing, case resulted from just a dozen or so reporters who were there each day, some of which stretched 10 hours. I think it’s fair to say that Smollett’s narcissism drove him to believe he would escape prosecution, and then a conviction. But after two days of being grilled by famed criminal defense attorney Dan Webb (whose career stretches back to the 1980s when he famously led a team that put dozens of public officials and judges in prison), it became obvious that Smollett’s concocted story made little sense. He’ll be sentenced likely in February. Webb says because he committed perjury over two days on top of his convicted, he needs to do some time behind bars. A story Julia and I worked on a day after the trial looks at the likelihood of that. The rest of the “gavel to gavel” coverage can be found in my story archive.
Finally, 2021 marked the farewell of Bloodshot Records 1.0. I wrote about trouble at the famed Chicago-based record label exactly a year ago. In October I learned that a recently-formed music group purchased the label and will be monetizing its excellent back catalog for years to come. New Bloodshot music? Not yet on the horizon. Read the story here.
Cheers to 2021 and see you in the new year!
Into 2021 and a Book Title and Date!
Even though 2021 has almost hit its six-month birthday, it feels like a new year has begun. The vaccinations are largely opening up the U.S. and, as such, it is beginning to feel like a proper summer.
Sadly, this year is not immune from problems of the past. As I wrote in the Washington Post, Jacob Blake, the Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, remains partially paralyzed from being shot multiple times by a police officer there. That officer escaped all charges and has rejoined the force. Meanwhile, as I wrote in the Post for another story, Kyle Rittenhouse remains out on bond with a trial set in November. He continues to sell merchandise online, though, as I pointed out last December.
One story I wrote for the Post was connected to summer 2020: A watchdog report showed how the Chicago Police Department essentially dropped the ball during the street protests that continued all summer downtown and in the neighborhoods. Poor training, communication failures, hostile actions by officers, and much more were detailed in the 152-page report. Yet another sad chapter for a department that continues to elude definitive reform.
The Rittenhouse story, the Blake shooting, the George Floyd trial — police reform remains in the headlines this year. In the Post, I joined a team of reporters on a story that looked at how this continued news is affecting ordinary Black Americans. In Chicago, efforts are being made to honor Black Americans who migrated from the South over half a century. The childhood home of Emmett Till, the long-time home of Muddy Waters, and other buildings are finally getting the attention of custodians who want to tell their stories — something previous administrations in Chicago have resisted, as I noted in my story in the Post.
Another hopeful story came out of Evanston, a bordering suburb of Chicago on the North Side. In March, the city council voted to approve a reparations program for its Black residents related to housing inequities dating back to the city’s earliest days. As I wrote in the Post – a story that ran on the front page that day — many cheered the move as a long time coming while others, including supporters of reparations, say the plan the city passed is too narrow. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that Evanston will be seen as a model for other municipalities, including Chicago, in years to come.
The Chicago music community began this year mourning one of their own: Joe Camarillo, a drummer for several bands over three decades. I didn’t know Joe personally, but I knew his work. As I wrote in the Chicago Reader, he was a drummer who went beyond basic timekeeping to lending creativity in every project he touched. Also running early this year was my profile of Chicago singer-songwriter Azita Youssefi who has a great new record out on Drag City. She’s one of my favorite singers in town and Glen Echo, her latest, caps a run of music that — as I wrote in the Chicago Reader — “has established her as an artist comfortable moving among accessible pop tunes, introspective piano-driven singer-songwriter fare, and no-wave freak-outs without anything sounding like a genre exercise.” It’s true!
There are a few other stories in the Post, but you can check them out by clicking my Story Archive section. Some good news for me recently: I learned that my book will likely be out in September 2022! It also has a title: STEEL HILLS AND CONCRETE VALLEYS: The History of Country Music and the Folk Revival in Chicago. I can’t say I’m 100 percent in love with that title, but it’s my best effort to date. Drop me a line if you have an alternate! The book will be published by the University of Chicago Press.
Until next time, cheers!
The Summer of Protests
The summer came and went for most journalists since the majority of time was spent covering action on the streets. Since the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man by Minneapolis police, Chicago was rocked by a wave of looting and then weeks of street protests that are continuing into the fall. I covered the majority of them for the Washington Post. I was downtown the Saturday when a peaceful protest turned into a full-scale run of looting in the city's central business district. Then, starting Sunday, I spend every night of the week following the looting as it traveled to the West Side and then the South Side.
The protests for police reform continued through the summer — in downtown Chicago, on the West Side starting in Homan Square, along Lake Shore Drive, and an aborted attempt to close the Dan Ryan Expressway. All of them are up on the Post site. Here's a story I wrote for the Post on the divisions that are emerging among different activist groups, starting from a confrontation at the Dan Ryan protest between the group that organized it and another that blasted them as misguided.
Local officials are being tested. Among them is Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, currently running for a second term, who is being criticized for her progressive approach to prosecuting some of these cases. Katie Shepherd in Portland and I shared a byline in the Post about the scrutiny prosecutors in both cities are getting as calls to get the looting and unrest under control continue. Those calls came hot and fast in Chicago when the second wave of looting took place in the downtown business district after midnight during a Monday in August. I got there around 2 a.m. and witnessed the rampant looting, from the Gold Coast to the Loop. The next day Katie Shepherd and I shared another byline on the increase in looting in both our cities.
Then came Kenosha. I arrived the day after police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the black following the outdoor birthday party for one of his children. I talked with witnesses and then went downtown where I witnessed a protest grow into a riot that spread into the neighborhoods, namely Uptown, a working-class area where the majority of its business district was looted and then torched. I followed the looters for an hour until I ended up in Uptown where I stood with neighbors at 2 a.m. watching the businesses they depend on burning.
On Tuesday, Post videographer Whitney Leaming and I got caught in the middle of the violence that left two men dead and one wounded in the street. Whitney captured what we saw here. Witnessing that event, after watching it build 30 minutes prior, was something I hope never to go through again.
I was in Kenosha through late Wednesday and then periodically after that, including the day the following week when President Donald Trump showed up in Uptown to tour the devastation. The crowd that greeted him? Mixed--many supporters, but many others who wished he stayed home as the city needs time away from the spotlight to heal.
I filed before, during, and after the violence and all of it is posted on the Post site, some of it archived here. I also got the opportunity to tell the story at the invitation of other media outlets, including WBEZ in Chicago, the CBC in Canada, the ABC in Australia, radio shows in New York and California, and Ben Joravsky's podcast for The Chicago Reader.
Covering COVID-19 and John Prine
Don't think a pandemic that originated in China and one of this country's most beloved songwriters are connected? Sadly, they are.
Earlier this year I was sent to O'Hare International Airport to cover the COVID-19 virus as it related to air travel to and from travel. You can read one of those stories here in the Washington Post. Part of that coverage was looking at what impact the looming pandemic might have on the global economy. I was part of that team for the Post in reporting the signs that looked ahead.
Then came April. Governors across the U.S., including JB Pritzker in Illinois, ordered a lockdown for most non-essential businesses as the number of cases and deaths started to grow. For the Post, I wrote a feature about Rush Hospital in downtown Chicago that was built specifically for a pandemic. I spent half a Saturday at Rush's ER and ICU and got to witness the medical staff in action. Here's the story, and make sure to check out the incredible video that takes you inside one of the most technologically-advanced medical centers in the U.S.
For Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the pandemic is the first real test of her administration, just one year into the job. Here's a story I wrote that looks at her innovative marketing campaign to convince Chicagoans to stay home during the pandemic. With insight from Kelly Leonard of Second City, the story looks at how humor and viral marketing is setting her administration apart in how it is reaching out to young people or others who aren't glued to everyday headlines.
Finally, one of the many tragedies to come out of this time is the death of beloved singer-songwriter John Prine. He died at 74 from complications due to the virus, an event that added a lot of heaviness during this very dark time. Before Prine died, I wrote an essay for The Chicago Tribune that looked at why Prine, who lived here until 1980, is such a product of Chicago. After he died, I wrote an essay for The Chicago Reader. I was angry when I heard the news as his death seemed so unnecessary, as do all the deaths that are resulting from COVID-19.
That week and the week later, I was invited to talk about Prine for WGN Radio and a podcast hosted by Ben Joravsky of The Chicago Reader. RIP, John. We all miss you, especially now.
Starting 2020 Looking Back
Hello 2020! In 2019 I started writing for National Geographic Traveler. My first piece looks at former industrial sites across the Midwest that have been repurposed for retail, condominiums, art studios, and more. From gritty to pretty? That pretty much sums it up. Check it out here.
I also started writing for The Daily Beast this year. My first piece was this summer when The Rolling Stones kicked off their recent tour at Soldier Field. That marks the third time (at least) I’ve reviewed the Stones at Soldier Field, although I’ve reported on other shows at the United Center and Wrigley Field. Amazingly, the band was in top form after being away for many years. Check out the review here.
My play TAKE ME received positive reviews during its May-June run at Strawdog in Chicago. We are now seeking commercial producers to help us tune up the play in a workshop and then stage it for another run. Check out the reviews here.
Finally, I profiled a series of Chicago artists for Chicago Magazine. My favorite profile was of Chris Ligon, probably the most under-appreciated songwriter in Chicago. Think of him as this city’s Harry Nilsson. Make sure you scout out his music. Read the profile here.
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.