Thursday, January 29, 2009

What to do?

This sign, which appeared a week ago, points to a political hot-potato best described by my own warring consciousness:

An hour ago: It's about time they tore out that awful parking lot and installed the plaza they've been promising for years. We're the second-most underserved community in the city in terms of green space, and it is possible to clean up a mess without sanitizing it or inviting the brushstrokes of gentrification. Sure, the MegaMall (that building exactly centered in the background) was successful in its day, but it's a proven safety hazard for vendors -- there was a fire, and the roof almost collapsed! -- and it now amounts to little more than a glorified swap meet: a bunch of crummy, labor-unfriendly goods you could find at any dollar store across the neighborhood. Why do they need all that parking anyway? And think of how nice that corner would look with trees, shrubs, and native perennials.

An hour from now: This is just the City saying the neighborhood has "arrived," and its infrastructure needs to serve the latest transplants. Why not make improvements in the interest of the MegaMall itself, which continues to attract more business than any of the hipster boutiques that have tried, and failed, to take root in the area? Does it have to be green space vs. MegaMall, one vs. the other? With the MegaMall goes the vendors' livelihoods, and along with it an option to buy affordable goods on the part of local working families. This is the age-old story of the strong pushing out the weak, all in the name of neighborhood improvement.

In this case, paradoxically, the mall is the underdog and the green space the goliath. It can boggle the mind if you let it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Charleston done here?

Urban wisdom suggests that a pair of shoes thrown over power lines is a clear indication of gang territory. Specific shoes are associated with specific gangs (in our neck of the woods it's the Imperial Gangsters and Insane Spanish Cobras), so it's not uncommon to find fancy sneakers thrown over the electric wires: a most dangerous kind of pissing match.

None of that explains how this pair of 40s-style spectator boots ended up over the lines a block or so north of us. Or maybe my naivete is showing. Maybe these boots are a signifier of their own kind of trouble -- something having to do with the colors, or the height of the heel, or the impossibly pointy toes.

But I like to think of this as a kinder, gentler marking of space. Katherine Hepburn enthusiasts only! Pageboy territory! Shufflin' off to Buffalo and taking the A-Train, bub, so step aside and don't get in my way . . .

If you happen to have a very tall ladder and can check to see if these are seven-and-a-halfs, you're welcome to leave them on my porch at your leisure.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I'm that awful person ahead of you in line

I'm a big believer that recycling is great, but the real key is reducing consumption from the outset. Mostly I like being a person who stands by that edict and adjusts my habits accordingly. But sometimes I really hate being that person, namely at my local Mexican grocery store.

While there may be plenty of conservationist tropes in place at fancier supermarkets and big-box stores and now even the local Walgreens, they haven't really taken hold yet at Tony's, where I do most of my shopping. I try to choose a line where the check-out person knows me. I put my canvas bags on the belt first and always offer to bag my own groceries. I return my cart to its proper place so no one has to bother with it. And I always have my debit card ready for the transaction: no waiting while I rummage in my wallet. You can see the bargaining, right? I'll be the model consumer so I'm forgiven my check-out sins.

But there I always am, explaining that the milk and cereal can just go at the bottom of my hand cart -- no need to put them in the canvas bags; we'll save those for smaller items. Meanwhile, my loose oranges and onions (no produce bags for me) roll around on the scale. Inevitably the woman at the register starts putting things instinctively in a bag and I have to say, "No plastic, no plastic," then watch her shrug, wad up the bag, and throw it in the trash, knowing she's thinking, "Just get over yourself already." And a big part of me thinks, "I agree, I agree! But what about the global warming?"

So I'll just say it was with glee this morning, as I pulled my usual routine, that the woman behind me in line was the exact same person! Hand cart poised at the end of the line, dingy canvas bags on the conveyor belt, similar disheveled appearance. Had we not both obviously been on foot--with plenty of perishables to trudge home through the snow--I would have invited her out for coffee and thanked her for making me feel like a slightly less lonely pain in the ass.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Coffee Shop Etiquette SOS

Ok, so we're at our favorite new coffee shop the other day with friends who never fail to crack us up, and we're all having a dandy time drinking our coffees and eating inventive sandwiches.

But what should happen to suck the joy right out of the room? A guy on a laptop leans over and says, "Hey, could you guys keep it down? There's a lot of people trying to study in here."

Now the foursome at our table would love to fancy ourselves the types who meet this kind of arrogance with snappy retorts. Instead, we were all shamed into silence, lost in some clumsy mental inventory of 'Up your nose with a rubber hose' before the moment had passed us by.

So I need to enlist the help of the four (beloved) people who read this blog with any regularity. Please let me know your answer to the following quiz so I can adjust my coffee-shop persona accordingly.

Here goes:

Hey Christy . . .

A) That guy was a total doofus, and a coffee shop isn't a library. You guys were totally in the right, and that loser needs an attitude adjustment.

B) A coffee shop isn't a restaurant or bar. A little decorum seems reasonable, and I probably would have asked you to pipe down too.

C) You were the first person to rush to the defense of the owner of A Taste of Heaven when he asked kids to use their inside voices and ended up making the national news. Face it, CP, your cackling guffaw is worlds more obnoxious than the dulcet tones of toddlers at play. Take your lumps.

D) That coffee-shop owner would *much* rather have a lively four-top ordering sandwiches and pricey espresso drinks than a dumpy guy who nurses a house brew for three hours in front of his laptop. Plus he wasn't even studying anyway! He was making a flyer for what looked to be an auto show! What a jerk.

E) You're clearly stacking the decks in favor of a pro-conviviality position. On principle alone, I have to go with the asshole at the laptop.

F) You've just taken a pay cut for a job with longer hours and far worse benefits! You can't afford the frivolities of fancy coffee and panini sandwiches anyway.

G) Wait, what was the question again?

Thanks to all who cast a vote in this important referendum.

Friday, January 9, 2009

There's work to be done

For years now -- since teaching, really, which ended over a decade ago -- I've longed to get back to meaningful work.

Come Monday, I'll get the chance to put my money where my mouth is. It'll be my first day on the job as the New Communities Program Manager for Humboldt Park, a troubled Chicago neighborhood not far from home. For all the challenges that face the area--gang violence, lack of green space, poorly performing public schools, unemployment, gentrification, homelessness, you name it--its great virtue is an abundance of local community organizations. For the next few years, I'll be working directly with these groups to bring their vision, i.e. a grassroots vision, of neighborhood improvement to fruition.

Hopefully, by the time those years wind down, there'll be a handful more community gardens, a bit more public art, some better prepared high-school kids, a few reintegrated ex-offenders, significantly healthier residents, and additional viable housing options for those in need. It's a tall order, a yardstick that I hope measures me well once the tally is complete.

These last few weeks I've been sort of sleepwalking through it all: the holiday chaos, saying good-bye to a job I've held (and strangely, at least partially loved) for the last 7 years, and finally preparing myself to be the new kid. On Monday, though, I'll wake up to a very different commute, with a brand new office and set of co-workers to navigate.
I'll be snapping out of it and getting to work.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This is the new gateway to our neighborhood.
I hate you, Pepsi.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Year, New Coffee Shop

This place used to be a sweet but sub-par taqueria. Then it was vacant for six years, waiting for the right entrepreneur to see its potential. And as of New Year's Day, it's the coffee shop we didn't even know we were missing until it finally opened its doors.

Budget be damned. See you there.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Year-End Roundup

We rang in 2009 at our favorite neighborhood bar with two of our favorite people. It was a nice way to cap off a splendid if exhausting year. Our friend Jon delivered the countdown for the entire bar, and Alex, the bar owner, handed everybody a glass of champagne to raise at midnight, which they did between some marathon lip-bussing.

Today we're a little groggy, and hoping to avoid an anniversary: it was exactly a year ago that the first Chicago homicide of 2008 was clocked just a block from our house. I'd like to collectively resolve that our street make the news a bit less in 2009.

Here are a handful of other updates from the year just passed:

I. I've just retired as chair of the block group. It was an incredibly satisfying year, with a multi-household yard sale, clean-up day, spring potluck, block party, caroling event, and neighbors who generally know and rely on each other a little better than they used to. Most recently we waged a group effort against a rise in gang tags on nearby buildings. It feels good to see people working together and know I helped to plant those seeds.

II. William resurfaced, but seems to have disappeared again. I'm still hoping to give him that cooking lesson one of these days. Be careful out there, William. The world could end up a little rough on you.

III. Super Pollo finally closed its doors for good. The last time I tried to go, they were out of pollo, and I knew they weren't long for this world. There seem to be some ceramic cookie jars in the window now, and I don't have high hopes for the next incarnation.

IV. The horn honker hasn't been back in more than 6 weeks, and I'm sleeping easier than I have in years.

V. My favorite police officer was reassigned from our community policing center. With his blessing, several of us started a letter-writing campaign to get him back, and we hear the superintendent is giving our pleas consideration. Below is an excerpt from Officer Mattson's gorgeous thank-you letter. If everyone had a guy like this on the force, I have to believe our urban centers would be a whole lot better off:

I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and feelings with the command staff. I have to confess that I feel a little like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It's a Wonderful Life, when everyone steps up and helps George Bailey at his lowest moment in the movie.

It's nice to know that my efforts in the CAPS office were not in vain, and that I had a positive impact on the communities in which I served.

I bid you peace, happiness & prosperity in the coming year.

VI. Finally, the mural at Christopher House is finished. Feast your eyes, my friends; it's a lovely addition.

As for a wish for 2009, I think Officer Mattson probably said it best.