Overdue in sharing this story, which I reported and produced for the Southern Foodways Alliance podcast “Gravy.”

There has been a Jewish community in Natchez, Mississippi for 175 years—and my family has been part of it for 160 of them. But now the number of Jews in Natchez has dwindled to only a handful. I went home to Natchez to explore what traditions, culinary and otherwise, might disappear when they’re gone.

Photo: Me and my mother on the bimah of Temple B’Nai Israel in Natchez during the 1994 Natchez Jewish Homecoming. 

Making Market Street

If you’ve spent any time in San Francisco you have likely encountered Market Street. It’s the busiest street in the city, but also one of the most dangerous. It’s a “grand boulevard” that connects the iconic Ferry Building to the majestic hills of Twin Peaks, but it’s also the dividing line between two opposing street grids. It should be the street that binds the city together but it often feels like San Francisco’s most dysfunctional public space.

San Francisco is staging an ambitious do-over of Market Street in 2018. In preparation for that, the San Francisco Planning Department, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Knight Foundation are sponsoring a four-day festival — the Market Street Prototyping Festival — to give more than 50 teams of designers a chance to try out small-scale interventions on the street. There will be whimsical street furniture, public sculpture and even a mobile library. The festival isn’t meant to address the big, intractable problems on the street, but it will start a conversation about how to make Market Street better.

To give that conversation context, I spent the last three months reporting and producing a Detour about the urban planning history Market StreetDetour, if you didn’t already know, is a new company that offers gorgeous, location-aware walking tours via an app on your smart phone. The company just launched in February, and is currently offering nine different tours in San Francisco, as well as one in Austin produced in collaboration with Radiolab.

This Detour is a must-walk for anyone interested in urban planning, architecture, city history or the built environment. (In other words, if you are a city nerd like me.) I did a deep dive into 150 years of planning decisions to piece apart why and how San Francisco ended up with the Market Street it did. Along the way I found a savvy Gold-Rush-era land surveyor, a starry-eyed Belle Epoch architect, a team of ambitious mid-century engineers, a radical, utopian-minded punk squatter and a host of other characters whose individual visions for Market Street produced the complicated thoroughfare we have today.

Because Detours are location-aware pieces, you can only experience them if you are on location, ie, in San Francisco. (Detour will expand into other cities later this year.) But if you are in the city by the Bay, you’re in luck: the Detour is free this week only. You can take the Detours on your own any time you’d like . . . OK actually during the open hours for the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, which is the first main stop on the Detour. But if you want the red carpet experience, you can sign up for a “Meet the Creators” scheduled Detour. I won’t be there unfortunately, as I am in Mississippi this week reporting my next story. BUT you will get to meet my editor, Ben Adair, or one of my co-producers, or Jonathan Pearlman, the amazing architect and preservationist who narrates the piece.

As Jonathan says, if we’ve done our job right, by the time you’re done with this Detour you won’t see any city in quite the same way.

A worker takes a break from his shift at Finkl Steel. Photographed in 2013. (Robin Amer)

A worker takes a break from his shift at Finkl Steel. Photographed in 2013. (Robin Amer)

I have a new story out in Belt Magazine today. Belt tackles the future of so-called “Rust Belt” cities from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Cleveland to Chicago. My story is about the future of the Finkl Steel site, which up until last year was home to Chicago’s oldest steel maker. The site is enormous — 28 acres of prime real estate in the heart of the city. My piece explores how it managed to stay industrial for so long despite rising real estate prices, and what might happen now that the steelmaker has vacated the premises.

Update Jan. 30:

I was a guest on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift earlier this week talking about the story. Here’s the audio, in case you missed it.


MPLS (4 of 12)

A shot from my work-in-progress about housing discrimination in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis.

I’m only a few weeks away from completing my master’s degree at Medill. My thesis story — what at Medill we call a “capstone” — will deal with housing discrimination in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. That’s about all I can say for now, but stay tuned for more in just a few weeks.

A quick look at the new boom Loop apartment construction, and whether there’s really enough demand to justify all this supply.

This Saturday Feb. 15th I’ll be contributing to a unique walking tour of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The event is organized by Chicago Detours, an unconventional touring company run by my friend Amanda Scotese. I first met Amanda when I wrote about her company last year. I really liked the way she combined high-concept urban theory with a kind of entrepreneurial spirit, and I’m excited to have the chance to collaborate with her.

Here’s Amanda’s description of the event:

FEBRUARY 4 – CHICAGO, IL — In collaboration with Azimuth Projects, Chicago Detours offers “Saturated Landscape,” a special afternoon event of an art exhibition and tour in Logan Square on Saturday, February 15. This two-part experience, held at the Azimuth Projects apartment gallery from 2pm-5pm, combines an intimate exhibition of landscape-inspired works with a creative walking tour of the everyday landscape of the neighborhood.

“Saturated Landscape” is the first “Detour” of 2014, which are Chicago Detours’ series of one-off events. Both the tour and exhibition address the metamorphosis of landscapes and the emotional and social ideas we attach to nature and the built environment. The tour around regular side streets in Logan Square will spark consideration of the everyday features of the neighborhood landscape, such as lawns and Milwaukee Avenue.

Not exactly a historical or architectural tour, the one-hour-long tour will explore the ways we overlook or interpret the unseen processes and messages of our everyday Logan Square landscape and its vernacular architecture, from the habitat of rats to the social function of lawn ornaments and window arrangements. Chicago Detours Executive Director Amanda Scotese and collaborators will also talk about the profit-motivated perspective of realtors, the intricate engineering underground, and why the Midwest landscape is considered so boring.

For the exhibition portion of the event, which has been curated by Azimuth Projects Director Helen Maurene Cooper, artists Peter Cardone and Madeleine Bailey will show their works. Cardone will exhibit pairs of large format photographs that show a two-part process of first photographing an overgrown lot, and then clearing the location for a second image. Bailey’s new body of mixed media work has layered paper, photographs and paint to manipulateimages into complex abstractions that capture subtle shifts in location and time.

Because the walking tour is already filling up, Chicago Detours has added an additional time slot. Two limited groups of 18 can experience the walk at either 2:15pm-3:15pm or 4:00pm-5:00pm. The tour requires advance reservations through www.chicagodetours.com. Guests meet at the Azimuth Projects apartment gallery at 2704 N. Whipple St. for the tour. The $12 ticket includes Katherine Anne Confections hot chocolate for the walk, hand warmers, post card gift, and a $20 gift card for a future tour of interior architecture or historic bars. Attendance to the art exhibition is free.

Chicago Detours‘ one-off “Detours” are a new approach to a tour, so that beyond a tour guide sharing stories, guests have entire experiences designed around a particular theme and often taking place at exclusive locations. In addition to Chicago Detours tour guides leading these special events, this creative tour company will often partner with organizations and experts in cultural fields will share their passion and knowledge for niches of Chicago happenings and history.

For my portion of the tour I’ll be addressing the notion of “wealth” — how landscapes are often seen as a means of generating money. Basically I plan to talk about the real estate market in a neighborhood that’s often seen as the poster child for Chicago gentrification, and what the broader implications of that phenomenon are.

I know the weather has been brutal of late, but it’s supposed to be in the high 20s on Saturday. So basically it will feel like a picnic. I hope you can join us!

Graham Thompson, owner of Optimo Hat Co., ordered a custom concrete countertop for his shop in the Monadnock Building. Concrete floors, countertops and home wares are popping up in chic homes and shops all over town. (Photo by Robin Amer)

Once maligned as ugly and utilitarian — or worse, associated with out-of-vogue architectural Brutalism — concrete is back. The bulk stuff is popular again with hip builders, architects and craftsmen, and being put to use in upscale residential and commercial interiors all over Chicago.

New feature. Read the rest here.


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