It’s been ten years since Ian called me late one Friday to say that he and 60 other people were being evicted. It was January, it was frigid, and they had to be out by morning.
The fire inspectors were coming then, and whatever was left in the building would be destroyed.
Ian lived in an art space called Valhalla, one of eight or so spaces in the Oak & Troy Street mills, a pair of old industrial buildings were the nexus of the city’s underground art and music scene. The previous summer there had been shows there every night: It’s a Fucking Trap at Pink Rabbit, Wrangler Brutes at the Bakery. On Halloween there had been a 24-hour show and costume party that culminated with the noise band Lightning Bolt playing to an audience of perhaps thousands, all of us packed and pushing closer and closer together under the hypnotic spell of Brian Chippendale’s spastic, unpredictable drumming. The floor nearly collapsed that night.
The mills weren’t zoned residential, and they certainly weren’t supposed to have shows. No one living there had permits to build the crawl spaces, loft beds, partition walls or makeshift darkrooms that filled the building. But the residents did have leases, and a handshake agreement with the property manager to stay under the radar while the owner looked the other way.
That changed after the Station night club fire in West Warwick; 100 metal fans died there when the band’s pyrotechnics ignited foam insulation material around the stage. However one might have described Rhode Island’s various municipal fire inspectors before that point, after that, they meant business.
There was chaos and confusion after the eviction notices were handed out. Information was spotty, and the pieces didn’t quite add up. They had leases, but did they have rights? Why were they being evicted before an inspection had taken place? Was the owner just trying to cover his tracks before the city got there?
By morning, that last one would emerge as the prevailing theory.
Ian called me that night because I had been working on a documentary about the adaptive reuse of the city’s mill buildings, and the contentious debates that had resulted ever since a developer had torn down a building that was home to the legendary art space Fort Thunder in order to build a shopping plaza. The loss of that place had been traumatic for the art scene. Now, some people accepted this repetition of history as the inevitable outcome of a devil’s bargain they had made by choosing to live in an illegal space.
I recorded at Oak & Troy all night, watching my friends make painful, split-second decisions about what to keep and what to let go.
And in the morning the fire inspectors came.
They walked through the buildings in dismay, shaking their heads at the makeshift construction. One said, “This whole place could go up like a match stick.”
They shut down the buildings. To the best of my knowledge they’ve been empty since.
All of that made it into my documentary. But I’m still rather haunted by what didn’t make it in, by what I didn’t report.
I had heard that the building was owned by a man who lived in the suburbs of Providence who ran a successful real estate business and hospitality company. I knew that he was scheduled to appear in housing court in connection to Oak & Troy.
But I never followed up. I never went to watch the court proceedings, I never pulled the property records for the building. I never called the owner for comment, so I was never able to ask him whether he knew there were people living in his factory buildings or whether he had singed off on it. I never called the property manager who had handed out the leases and the eviction notices, even though the tenants gave me his first name and his phone number.
Why? I don’t know. That’s the honest answer. It was almost as if it never occurred to me. I think also that I didn’t know where to start. But looking back on it, it seems as if it were impossible, somehow, to get to the bottom of what had really happened. It was like the systems of power at work were so murky and inaccessible that I couldn’t wrap my head around them.
It seems crazy to me now, a complete failure on my part to conduct the most basic kind of reporting. Not following up on this lead, not pulling this thread to see where it went is my single biggest reporting regret.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t endeavor to make the overall documentary fair and balanced. I couldn’t shake my very real friendships with some of the people who were at risk here. But in the course of my reporting I interviewed three different developers, each working to renovate various industrial buildings, at great length. I also included the opinions of at least two other pro-development figures — one was a city council member who had been in favor of the Eagle Square development and the other was the former point-person for development in the mayor’s office. I truly did not want the piece to be one-sided, because I thought a one-sided piece would be useless. There were already plenty of people advocating one way or another.
I’ve been thinking about this piece a lot lately, now that I’m in journalism school. I’ve been learning things the past few weeks that would have helped me a lot back then, and that would have made the path so much clearer: how to use publicly available documents to trace the ownership history of a building, or to see when the building has been tied up in a law suit or whether it’s received the necessary permits to move forward with demolition. They’re just building blocks, but I hope they’ll be a foundation for something bigger.
That’s why today, I submitted the paper work to major in business reporting. I’m sort of laughing as I type this, because I would not have predicted this path for myself. (I literally majored in something called art semiotics as an undergraduate, so. . . .) Over the next few months I’ll continue to report on housing and real estate issues, but I’ll broaden my scope city wide. I’ll also, hopefully, explore environmental issues having to do with land use, infrastructure and development. But I’ll also be taking seminars where I learn about markets, financial indicators and monetary policy.
Not because I want to work for Bloomberg, but because I want to do stories like the one I did 10 years ago, just better. I want to learn from people like Susan Chandler, an investigative real estate reporter who teaches in my program and who did this awesome story about real estate deed fraud on the South Side.
Basically, I am going to try and do what I think all good investigative reporters do.
I am going to follow the money.
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Tags: jschool, navel gazing, Providence, real estate, reporting
BY ROBIN AMER
Ravon Pugh and his girlfriend, Sandra Benson, sit in their apartment in the Darlington Hotel, a single room occupancy building in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
Their surroundings are modest: The linoleum floor is worn and the walls look like they have been painted a hundred times. Milk crates double as furniture. The couple has their own bathroom, but no kitchen. A table in the corner with a hot plate and a deep fryer serves as a food prep area.
But for Pugh, 37, and Benson, 53, it’s home, and a step up from their last apartment. They were among the approximately 150 people evicted from Lakeview’s Hotel Chateau this spring when developer BJB Properties set out to turn the building into market-rate apartments.
The Chateau, Pugh said, was filthy and mismanaged. By contrast, the Darlington is “livable.”
“I can’t even compare,” Pugh said. “It’s clean. There are no pests. They’re even laying new carpeting over here as I speak.”
Even better is the price: Pugh and Benson paid $625 a month for their room at the Chateau. Now they pay $495 a month, and they aren’t charged the extra $20 a month they paid at the Chateau for having more than one person in the unit.
After the evictions, BJB Properties and Catholic Charities offered assistance to residents in search of new housing. In some cases tenants received finical assistance towards a security deposit or first month’s rent.
Pugh and Benson were among the residents who declined assistance. They found their current spot at the Darlington on their own.
But the couple is still on uneasy footing, despite their new digs.
Affordable housing options are increasingly limited in more affluent neighborhoods like Lakeview, according to a report from DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies that came out earlier this year. The study looked at rental housing in Cook County through 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. County wide, “the supply of rental housing affordable to lower-income households did not keep pace with the growing number of lower-income renters,” the report said.
In Lincoln Park and Lakeview, the gap between the affordable units available and what’s needed is as high as 50 percent.
SROs, often seen as a last resort before homelessness, seem to be in especially short supply. BJB alone has purchased and redeveloped five SROs accounting for approximately 700 units of housing, and a separate group of investors purchased Lawrence House, an Uptown SRO, in August.
And families can spend years waiting on subsidized units from the Chicago Housing Authority.
Tina Fassett, a policy and communications associate with DePaul’s housing studies program, said it’s a matter of supply and demand.
“The demand for rental units is going way up in these neighborhoods,” Fassett said. “Whenever you have that kind of demand in an area you’re going to see rents stay high or get higher.”
Pressures on the housing market make things especially hard for people like Pugh and Benson, who see themselves as one layoff away from homelessness.
Pugh is among 4.1 million Americans facing long-term unemployment — those who have been without work for 27 weeks or more. He and 50 co-workers were laid off in 2008 from their jobs as guards for U.S. Security Associates when the company lost a major contract.
Now Benson is the family breadwinner. She used to work two jobs, including one at the Oak Park Denny’s she had for 23 years. But she lost that job in 2010, and now works full time as a meat wrapper for the Dominic’s in Streeterville.
As a member of United Food and Commercial Workers International Local 1546, Benson gets full time hours and benefits. But her take-home pay is only $325 a week, or $15,600 a year. That puts her and Pugh almost exactly on the federal poverty line for a family of two.
“With her income we’re just barely staying afloat,” Pugh said.
But Dominic’s parent company Safeway Inc. announced last month that it would exit the Chicago market by the end of the year, and the company said Thursday that it would close all unsold Chicago area stores by Dec. 28. Crain’s Chicago Business reported Friday that the shutdown could produce the city’s largest layoff in years, with as many as 6,600 employees at risk.
“I’m trying to take it one day at a time and pray that everything works itself out,” Benson said. “If you keep stressing about it you’ll be lost. You’ll just be lost.”
The couple has no savings, and spends nearly 40 percent of Benson’s take-home pay on rent. That makes them “rent burdened” — spending a disproportionate amount of their income on housing.
The problem is most severe for the approximately 238,000 households in Cook County that make less than $22,400 a year, according to the DePaul report.
Those renters are usually faced with a choice: Stay in a more expensive neighborhood and watch their money get eaten up by rent, or leave for cheaper digs elsewhere.
So why stay in an area like Lakeview that is increasingly unaffordable?
Pugh for one said he doesn’t want to move back to a place the South Side where he grew up, plagued as it’s been by violence this year.
“Nobody wants to live in harm’s way,” he said.
And DePaul’s Fassett stresses the importance of preserving low-income housing even in more upscale neighborhoods, which usually have better access to basic services and public transit.
“Mixed-income communities are more sustainable communities,” Fassett said. “Many studies show that when people are in mixed-income areas they have greater access to opportunities, and greater opportunities to get out of poverty.”
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The rear of the Hotel Chateau, a former SRO located at 3838 N. Broadway Ave. (Photo by Robin Amer)
BY ROBIN AMER
CHICAGO — Interior demolition has begun at the shuttered Hotel Chateau in Lakeview, as the project’s developer tries to secure permits necessary for the building’s multimillion dollar rehab.
Lincoln Park developer BJB Properties began gutting the six-story, 145-unit former single room occupancy building at 3838 N. Broadway Ave. in September. Today, a yellow construction chute snakes down from a rear third story window. A cardboard sign taped to the entryway reads “HOTEL CLOSED.”
But BJB has yet to receive the construction permits needed to move forward with future work on the 84-year-old structure. Although the Chicago Buildings Department approved a preliminary review in August and conditionally approved a zoning review in September, the agency denied electrical, refrigeration and fire prevention reviews on Oct. 10 and 11. Plumbing, ventilation and architectural reviews were incomplete as of Wednesday.
A buildings department spokesman did not comment on the project but said expert reviewers will deny plans if they do not meet city building code.
BJB did not comment about why some specific permits had initially been denied. But Matt Butterfield, a BJB representative and vice president at the public relations firm Mac Strategies Group, said these minor snags were a routine part of any permitting process.
“It needs all new plumbing, all new electric service,” Butterfield said of the Chateau. “It will be a complete gut rehab to make sure that it will be well equipped for the next tenants.”
“It’s a major renovation and they’re making sure it’s going to be done right,” Butterfield said.
In 2012, the Chateau’s former owners were cited for more than 100 building code violations including roach infestation, missing smoke detectors, cracked and uneven floors and peeling and water-damaged plaster walls. That same year, 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman expressed concern over “violent crime, loitering, drug dealing and public intoxication” that he said “were also common in and around the property.”
“People were living in deplorable conditions before,” Butterfield said.
Hotel Chateau tenants were evicted this summer after the building was sold, prompting concern among some affordable housing advocates who feared North Side SROs were a dying breed.
BJB worked with several social service organizations, including Catholic Charities, to help tenants secure new housing.
Anonymous investors purchased the Hotel Chateau in February for $9.05 million, according to county records, before securing BJB Properties as property manager and developer.
BJB, which has taken on other SRO renovations in the past, offered 424 W. Diversey Ave. as an example of what a renovated Hotel Chateau might look like.
Rental rates haven’t yet been determined for a renovated Hotel Chateau, but in a statement, a BJB representative said they would be “in line with the market for smaller apartments.”
Follow Robin Amer on Twitter @rsamer.
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Tags: Chicago, development, Hotel Chateau, housing, Lakeview, real estate, SRO
Preservationists urged 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith Thursday to stay the demolition of 1800 N. Halsted St. (Photo by Robin Amer)
BY ROBIN AMER
CHICAGO – Preservationists weighed in on the proposed demolition of an architecturally significant building in Lincoln Park Thursday, asking city officials and developers not to tear it down.
In a letter, Landmarks Illinois urged to 43rd Ward Ald. Michele Smith to halt the tear-down of 1800 N. Halsted St. as part of a mixed-use development project planned around the intersection of Halsted and Willow streets.
“This 1800s commercial building has a high degree of architectural quality and integrity and we are very concerned about its proposed demolition,” Lisa DiChiera, Landmarks Illinois’ director of advocacy wrote. “We hope the developer will be urged to strongly consider alternative designs that incorporate the historic building.”
The architect of the three-story brick building is unknown. Still, DiChiera said the building is a strong example of Chicago’s 19th century vernacular architecture. The building is cited in Chicago’s Historic Resources Survey, which tracks architecturally significant buildings constructed prior to 1939.
Buildings coded “red” have what DiChiera called “a high level of architecture integrity.” 1800 N. Halsted St. is coded “orange,” the second highest rating. After permits are filed, buildings coded red and orange automatically trigger a 90-day wait period before demolition can begin.
“I always look at a building like this and think, this is not a throwaway building,” DiChiera said Thursday. “It has its cornice; the retail level is not mucked up. It’s a really nice building.”
The demolition of 1800 N. Halsted St. would make way for a new mixed-use multi-story residential building on the site, as well as new retail along Halsted Street and new town homes along Willow Street, according to information posted on the 43rd Ward’s website.
The project was proposed by Chicago-based real estate company Golub & Co., which is best-known for developing and managing high-end high rises like 22 W. Washington St.
Golub purchased 1800 N. Halsted St. and 10 other buildings along the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Dayton and Halsted streets in March of 2012. The company’s head of development initiatives did not return calls for comment Friday.
Deirdre Graziano sits on the zoning committee of the Lincoln Central Association and serves as the community group’s vice president. She has lived and owned property in Lincoln Park since 1968, and said Friday that the neighborhood has lost many orange-rated historic buildings during her time there.
“When a building is orange-rated, it does not mean it’s insignificant,” Graziano said. “There are some buildings that should be torn down. There’s no question about it. But so many of the buildings in this area are, in many ways, gems that are irreplaceable.”
Some Lincoln Park residents have expressed concern that projects like the one proposed at Halsted and Willow would alter the neighborhood’s character. These residents fear new development that replaces older brick buildings with the kind of large commercial buildings that line the busy retail corridor along North and Clybourn avenues.
Diane Levin chairs the planning committee for the RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association, which is active in the portion of Lincoln Park bordered by Racine and Armitage avenues, the Chicago River and Halsted Street. “RANCH Triangle believes this is about more than just one building,” Levin said Friday. “It’s about the quality of life and the overall aesthetic of the greater community, which is very different from what one gets at North and Clybourn.”
RANCH Triangle co-hosted a community meeting with Ald. Smith Sept. 30 to discuss the project with Golub executives and 43rd Ward residents. Smith declined to comment Friday, but told Crain’s in advance of the September meeting that, “the community is going to have a lot of say about this.”
Landmarks Illinois’ DiChiera said it might be possible to extend the boundaries of the nearby Sheffield Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of HIstoric Places, to include 1800 N. Halsted St. If such an extension were possible, Golub could be eligible for federal tax incentives meant to encourage the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Such tax credits, DiChiera said, could make it more financially feasible for the developer to keep the building in place.
“All of these options should be studied,” DiChiera said.
Follow Robin on Twitter @rsamer.
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Tags: Golub & Co., Landmarks Illinois, Lincoln Park, Michele Smith, preservation
And now, for an update to my woefully out-of-date blog…
If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you probably know that I’m in the process of making some big life/work changes. In August, I quit my job at WBEZ. (I wasn’t the only one, but fortunately my departure is totally unrelated to Torey’s.)
In my case, I left because I’m going to graduate school! The McCormick Foundation, which funds many exciting journalism projects, offered me a full-tuition scholarship to study at Medill, the journalism school at Northwestern University. Like, whoa!
In truth, before I was offered the scholarship, I was on the fence about this decision. For like, months. I graduated from college in 2004, which means I’ve been working in this field for … OMG … almost ten years. (?!) And unlike law or medicine, journalism is not one of those fields that you need a graduate degree to practice. I’ve worked at major stations, I’ve freelanced on the national level, I’ve even won an award or two. Not to sound like an a**hole but I worried I was overqualified and that my colleagues would look down at me for going back to school.
I pretty much got over those fears when the school said, “Hey, you can come here for FREE!” Because…free graduate school, duh! But also for these reasons:
I want to be a better reporter. Even though I’ve done a fair amount of reporting, it’s never been the main focus of my work. Specifically, I want to be a better investigative reporter. I want to do some good old fashioned muck raking. I want to learn how to dig up dirt on companies accused of cooking the books or governments accused of corruption. I want to be able to find the documents or crunch the numbers to prove that people are acting up. And I want to learn how to deal with antagonistic sources… people who don’t want to talk to you or who actively have something to hide.
So, for example, one story I’m really interested in following this year is the renovation of the Circle Interchange, the sprawling mess of road where I-90/94, 55 and 290 meet just west of downtown Chicago. Part of this story will be about the design of the new roadway, and its impact on traffic patterns and the surrounding communities. Those are the kinds of stories I feel very comfortable reporting right now. But a good chunk of this story will be: Who gets the contract? How much are they getting paid? And was that process conducted in such a way as to be free of graft, clout, political influence etc.? That’s the kind of stuff I have less experience digging up, but I want to. I think it’s especially important in a city like Chicago, which has a long, sad history of giving development contracts to people who are politically connected, to no one’s benefit except the developer.
To that end, I’m hoping to take advantage of some special extra-curricular opportunities at Medill, like working with Rick Tulsky‘s Watchdog Initiative. Rick won a Pulitzer when he worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, exposing the shady dealings of public defenders. He spends at least a year on every investigation he does, and these days those are mostly about government corruption in Illinois. (Yes…he has his hands full.) He actually collaborated with WBEZ (and one of my favorite ever former colleagues, Kristen McQueary, now on the editorial board of the Tribune) on a project about Illinois legislators who were also paid lobbyists lobbying other branches of government. Not technically illegal, apparently, but ethically very questionable. I can’t remember whether I’m allowed to say anything about what Rick is working on now, so I will say nothing so as not to accidentally blow his cover!
Here are things I am not going to stop doing: making radio, working in multimedia, telling stories, caring about sound. That stuff still stands. SO DON’T PANIC! Mostly I am addressing a few friends who have said thins to me like,”Don’t forget about what makes you special,” which I interpret as, “Don’t forget where you came from.” I won’t, I promise. I fell in love with this medium through long-format storytelling shows like This American Life, and I still love that stuff. But that show was allowed to evolve, actually, in a more investigative direction, and that’s an evolution I’m hoping to make, too.
(Post-script: Obviously I am EXTREMELY grateful to the McCormick Foundation and to Medill for seeing fit to invest in me in this way. Thank you, again, for this seriously kick-ass opportunity.)
Filed under: Behind the Scenes, Thoughts & Planning | 1 Comment
Chicagoans are fond of saying that there are more Poles here than anywhere outside of Poland. But did you know there are more people of Palestinian descent living in Chicago’s southwest suburbs than in any other city in America? I didn’t either, until I went to Orland Park last week.
Orland Park, Ill. is a town of about 56,000 sandwiched between routes 55 and 57. It has a big mall, and a lot of smaller strip malls, many new housing developments and a ton of beautiful, wooded forest preserve land. And, along with neighboring suburbs like Bridgeview and Oak Lawn, it has a sizable Arab American population.
For the past few weeks, my boss has been sending a different web producer and reporter from the broadcast side of things out to the suburbs to explore, discover, report etc. We’re supposed to go in not knowing much, but then we’re supposed to find a quick-turnaround story and report it in one day. Last week it was my turn; I went out with Michael Puente, who normally covers Northwest Indiana for us — and is super awesome.
Michael actually worked at the Orland Square Mall — in a formalwear store! — when he was in his early 20s. But I knew nothing about Orland Park. I had heard that the southwest side of Chicago around Marquette Park used to be a landing pad for Arab immigrants (I learned this from the Arab American Action Network after I did a story with them in 2010 for my series Dear Chicago), but I had no real concept of what that community was like. I certainly had never heard that Chicago was home to the country’s largest population of Palestinian immigrants.
But when Michael and I went to Grape Vine, a small middle eastern bakery and grocery, we met the owner, Laila Maali, as well as her landlord and her friend/handyman. Her landlord, Edward Hassan, told us that all three of them came from the same village near Ramallah and that there were more people from their village living in Chicago now than there were left living in the village!
That claim obviously caught my ear; I knew when he said that there was probably a story there, one that I had not heard before and one that surprised me very much.
Hassan’s claim turned out to be exaggerated, but true in its nature; his home village, Beitunia, has traditionally been the largest feeder village of Palestinian immigrants to Chicago.
Hooked yet? I hope so. You can read the full story here. And check out my appearance with Michael Puente on the Afternoon Shift here:
Coincidentally, the story I was working on last week tied into another project I’ve been working on — the Curious City podcast. I took over podcasting for WBEZ recently, and I’ve started working more closely with Jenn Brandel by helping edit the podcast every week.
Last week’s episode featured a story reported by Odette Yousef, our North Side bureau reporter. It deals with the resettlement of refugees on Chicago’s North Side, and answers the question: What is the most diverse neighborhood in the city?
The part that really caught my ear was when Curious City/Bureaus editor (and my pal) Shawn Allee connected the dots between U.S. immigration policy and the physical makeup of the city. When our immigration policy allowed more people from one country to come and settle together, you got neighborhoods like Argyle Street, home to Chicago’s Vietnamese community. But when we let only fewer numbers of people come to the U.S. it was harder for them to make the kind of neighborhood impact that’s easy to see from other ethnic communities. (I’m probably bastardizing Shawn’s words a little bit, but luckily you can listen to the audio above.) I had never made that connection before, and I found it really interesting.
Palestinians immigrants living here are not refugees in that the U.S. government does not recognize them as such. But they and Chicago’s other Arab immigrants have clearly left their mark on the region, whether it’s in the form of the new mosque in Orland Park or the businesses along Lawrence and Kedzie on the Northwest Side of Chicago. Next though, I want to go to Bridgeview, Ill. It has the oldest and most established Arab American community in the Chicago area, and the oldest mosque. I think it is also more densely populated and urban, as it has its center between 79th and 87th along Harlem. (How that is not a part of Chicago I don’t know.) The expert I interviewed for my story, Louise Cainkar of Marquette University, said she once counted over 100 Arab-owned businesses in that one mile stretch of street!
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The aerial photo on the left was taken in 1925, facing south over Chicago’s lakefront. The curvy stone breakwater being built into Lake Michigan foreshadows the photo below it, taken just a few years later in 1928. By then, the breakwater had been filled with earth and Chicago had a new lakefront park.
This is just one of the surprising ways Chicago’s lakefront has changed over time. Did you know that Grant Park was once a disgusting lagoon filled with dead livestock and other debris? Or that the Gold Coast was once a sandbar filled with brothels and saloons? Or that we once sold the lakefront to a railroad company? Or that Richard J. Daley wanted to build an island in the lake 20-miles long? Chicago history is full of politics, surprises — and a lot of dirt.
I’ve been reporting this subject for WBEZ’s Curious City, and my story is finally out today. Check out the story here, the rest of the incredible photos here and an amazing collection of historic maps provided by The Newberry here. Other than coming away with a much better grasp of Chicago history, and a renewed appreciation for how complicated planning and development always is, one of the best part for me was talking to the Chicago Tribune‘s architecture critic Blair Kamin, and to Lois Wille, who wrote the book Forever Open, Clear and Free. Both Kamin and Wille are Pulitzer Prize winners — and great interviewees.
I’ll also be on the Afternoon Shift with Rick Kogan today at 3:45 p.m. I’ll post the audio later, but tune in if you’re around! Miriam Reuter, the woman whose question spawned the story, will join us as well.
Update 12/13/12: If you missed it, here’s the audio from my appearance on The Afternoon Shift. Editor Shawn Allee described me afterwards as sounding “geeked.” I think he’s right!
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Tags: Chicago, Curious City, history, maps, WBEZ