The Plant


Here’s another multimedia piece I produced this fall, in collaboration with my friend and colleague, Shannon Heffernan. It’s about The Plant, a small business incubator in Chicago.

We produced the story for Front & Center, WBEZ’s reporting initiative covering issues in the Great Lakes region. Shannon and I shared responsibilities evenly here, each taking part in recording sound, taking still photos and editing the whole piece together.

The old saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” may be a tired cliché, but the operators of small business incubator on Chicago’s Southwest Side hope this mantra will help them turn spent grain into money and fish waste into jobs.

Tucked away on a dead-end corner of 46th Street, the Plant is a collection of food-related small businesses working together in a kind of entrepreneurial ecosystem whereby the waste from one company – spent grain from the brewery, for example – becomes literal fuel – charcoal briquettes – for the bakery upstairs.

Plant founder John Edel, who colleagues describe as a “benevolent mad scientist,” says that by “following the waste” and finding the inefficiencies inherent in any manufacturing process, he and his team can create jobs and rebuild the economy of a neighborhood that was once home to the Union Stockyards and countless related jobs. The Plant received a $1.5 million grant from the state to help create 125 jobs in its 93,000 sq. ft. facility, which they hope will put a dent in replacing the estimated 400 jobs lost when Peer Food Products shut down their meat processing operations at the site in 2006.

Front & Center visited the Plant in October to see how Edel and his team are trying to pioneer a new model of business ecology and job creation. You can see what they’re up to in the video above.


Artist Deb Sokolow at work in her Chicago studio.

Artist Deb Sokolow at work in her Chicago studio. (Robin Amer)

I produced a lot of stories this past fall and winter, but did a bad job of sharing them here. I’m finally getting to that, so you’ll see a few posts from me today.

Here is the first. Art/Work is a monthly profile series I launched in September 2011. Each piece features a contemporary visual artist exhibiting in Chicago talking about the inspiration and perspiration behind their creative endeavors.

Coming as I do from a visual arts background, this series has been especially fun to produce. I love spending time in peoples’ studios, and I love demystifying art and artists for a public audience. I think a lot of people have this notion that art is something that just emerges fully formed from the mind of some “genius,” rather than something that takes a ton of labor to create. Making art is work, and it takes a lot of trial and error and a lot of experimentation to get something right. It can take years for ideas to percolate, crystallize and develop.

Here are my four favorite pieces from the series so far. They include a primate-obsessed photographer who secretly wishes she was a scientist, a painter with a sense of humor and bona fide conspiracy theorist. I’ll post the next few as I produce them.

If you have trouble with the Vimeo links, you can see the whole series as it first appeared on here.

Spaghetti and ‘Cubist cokeheads’? Artist Scott Reeder seduces with humor.

With his “Cubist Cokeheads” and spaghetti on canvas, Scott Reeder is a funny painter, following in the footsteps of modern artists like Duchamp who challenged the art establishment with humor. But his new show at the MCA is less a challenge to – and more of a conversation with – the great painters of the past.

Art? Yes. Conspiracy? Maybe. Artist Deb Sokolow makes conspiracy theories come alive in graphic style.

Chicago artist Deb Sokolow creates giant narrative drawings that explore conspiracy theories great and small. Is she paranoid? Maybe. That doesn’t mean your postman isn’t really a drug smuggler.

With ordinary objects, artist Laura Letinsky instills – and questions – photographic desire

Through still life images both lush and disorienting, photographer Laura Letinsky explores her own love-hate relationship with images of domestic perfection.

Through primates, the evolutionary origins of war

In her photo series The Four Year War at Gombe, artist Alison Ruttan follows the roots of human conflict back to our primate ancestors.

Abraham Levitan performing at the Third Coast Festival awards ceremony in 2010.


Have you ever seen Shame That Tune, the musical game show that happens every month at The Hideout?

Three participants read embarrassing stories about their lives. Then, host Brian Costello interviews them for a few minutes. By that time, pianist Abraham Levitan has composed a song based on their story, in a musical genre determined by spinning a musical Wheel of Fortune. (When I went, options included “Good Aerosmith,” “Bad Aerosmith,” and “Muppets.”)

Let me tell you – Abraham Levitan makes this show. He is so talented, so quick and so funny! Seeing him perform in Shame That Tune, one feels the pleasure of recognition, watching him weave little details from each story into the song; delight, in his ability to mimic almost any musical style; and amazement that he has done it all SO FAST.

So imagine my delight and amazement when I learned recently that, unbeknownst to me, I had been Shame That Tuned! Well, sort of.

I’m embarrassed I didn’t know this sooner, but here’s what I learned: The lovely ladies of the Third Coast International Audio Festival’s program Re:Sound will, on occasion, commission Abraham to write and record a song based on the radio pieces they present in that week’s episode. And they had commissioned Abraham to write a song for their episode called The Lost Show, which features my story Ghosts of Gary.

I heard a rebroadcast of the show when I was driving home from somewhere a few weeks ago. It’s always fun to turn on the radio and hear your own story pop up (never gets old for me, actually) but I was totally surprised and enthralled when I heard Abraham’s song.

Along with my story about the abandoned Palace Movie Theater in Gary, Ind., the show features stories about Hopi teenagers struggling not to lose their language; an episode of Nate DiMeo’s excellent podcast The Memory Palace about two sisters who discover they can speak to the dead, and a story about a nursing home for actors. From that Abraham wrote a song, which to my ears sounds like a waltz, called We Were Beautiful When We Were Young:

May you die in Act five, Scene three
May your kids learn the native tongue
My sister and me haunt the streets of Gary
We were beautiful when we were young

Me and my sister, we talk to the dead
We find out exactly how Sam Beckett read
We break into the Palace
Where performing live
It’s the ghosts of the Jackson Five

When our dead brothers come back we’ll all form a line
If we can speak their language they’ll let us off fine
But just when they’ll appear, don’t nobody know
It’s like waiting for Godot

May you die in Act five, Scene three
May your kids learn the native tongue
My sister and me haunt the streets of Gary
We were beautiful when we were young

I fell asleep in the lobby
And didn’t get home until four
Dance my dreams with Dillinger’s ghost
Man, my mother was so, oh…

So I died in Act three
So my kids never learned my tongue
My sister and me haunt the streets of Gary
We were beautiful when we were young
We were beautiful when we were young

The audio is above. Please listen to it! Aside from the novelty factor, it’s really very haunting and beautiful, with Abraham’s plaintive vocals and the resonant sounds of the organ. I also love all of his little touches, like the eerie “ABC…1-2-3…” after the verse about the ghosts of the Jackson Five.

Recording on the deck of Excalibur. Photo by Karen Hoffman.


At the start of the Race to Mackinac I was several miles out from the shoreline, photographing competitors from the press boat. Occasionally a missive would come across the radio from the race committee.

“Argo this is Breaker, we see 19 boats.”

“Copy that Argo, we also see 19 boats.”

Once all the starters from that category had been accounted for, the race committee would sound the starting cannon and they would be off, colorful spinnakers raised to the wind. The next line of boats would advance from the starting area.

But occasionally a boat would not be accounted for, and the race committee would radio back and forth trying to find them. In the middle of the afternoon we heard this on the radio:

“Where’s WingNuts?”

If you’ve been following the news or heard my recent story on the subject, you probably know that WingNuts is a 35 ft. sailboat out of Saginaw, Mich., that would tragically and shockingly lose its skipper another crewmember before the weekend was out.

The Chicago Yacht Club’s Dockmaster, Ryan McPheeters, who was driving the press boat, smiled and shook his head when he heard the race committee was looking for WingNuts. “That boat is wacky,” he told me.

“What do you mean?”

He reiterated. “That boat is wacky and her crew is wacky.”

He pointed out the sides of the hull that swooped out at the deck to make what looked like wings. This was apparently somewhat unusual. I got the impression from the rest of the conversation that when he called the crew wacky he meant they were fun loving and well-liked.

When I came into work Monday morning, preparing to finish what was supposed to be a light-hearted multimedia story about the race, and heard that two competitors had died, I was really stunned.

I remember walking over to my co-worker’s desk in a daze.

“They were from Wingnuts…?”

I couldn’t believe that people had died. I couldn’t believe I had seen them. I was worried for the other people I knew in the race, and I knew I couldn’t complete the story I had originally intended to produce.

Going through my tape was like listening for ghosts. I found moments I had forgotten about: the crew of Excalibur reading their Sail Flow charts and pointing out a storm that was likely to hit at 1 a.m. Sunday night; running into Sociable on our way to the start and hearing their crew joke around with Excalibur’s about how they were heading the wrong way, as they went to drop me off at Monroe Harbor.

It was very eerie.

Since I’ve finished the story I’ve gotten some interesting feedback from people in the sailing community. In my reporting, I heard people raise questions about the role of the Coast Guard in the search and rescue operation. Later I heard from a sailor who is also part of the Beneteau fleet that counts both Sociable and Excalibur in its ranks. “Spending the night monitoring the VHF transmissions from Sociable was one of the worst experiences of my life,” he told me. He also said this:

“I don’t know if the expectation of rescue is something more concentrated on the [Great] Lakes or if it comes from inexperience, but I started hearing that around from some sailors who were newer to the sport and none had left the [Great] Lakes. On the Pacific, on shorter races than the Mac, we are regularly out of rescue range for days on end…

Anyhow, the lack of divers certainly didn’t make any difference in the outcome. No chopper could have launched in that storm and it would still take 45 min. to an hour to reach them. After that long unconscious and under water, a diver can’t help anyway. It’s still terrible, but there is no reason to blame lack of rescue. Only to praise the efforts of Sociable and the others who responded.”

This came from a WBEZ listener who heard the story when it aired on 848:

“The USCGC Mackinaw does indeed follow the race, but is there as a courtesy escort. The thought of one boat being expected to ensure the safety of over 300 boats, of different speeds, scattered throughout the lake, is ridiculous, and it’s disturbing to hear that a sailor expected this. Sailing is a challenging sport, and most boaters realize that the responsibility for the their safety ultimately lies in their own hands.

Counting on the Coast Guard to behave like a safety net is a dangerous attitude to bring on the water. Sailing on our Great Lakes is an incredibly rewarding pastime, but the challenges that make it so come with risks that we sailors must accept and take responsibility for.”

I plan to stay on this story, although I don’t relish the next step: talking to the Charlevoix County Sheriff’s office when they get back the coroner’s report some time in the next few weeks.

Dear Chicago


I’m really pleased that after a ton of work the Dear Chicago series launched on WBEZ last week. The radio pieces will continue to air over the next month on 848, our morning news magazine program, and in a slot in either Morning Edition or All Things Considered. It’s been a really intense experience to bring this series to air, and I’m lucky that I’m working with excellent editors and administrators like Shawn Allee and Breeze Richardson. I could not have made this project happen without them. And Shauna’s photos…the bomb! Just as I expected.  The whole series is indexed here.

Coming up next week: an artist who has struggled to find and keep affordable live/work studio space, and a woman who lost her sister to gun violence who hopes the new mayor will make strict gun control laws a priority.

Photo: Don Dubin, 72, lives in Lincolnwood, Illinois. He’s kept a life-long relationship with the Chicago Rive and is one of fifteen people I will profile in the Dear Chicago series. Photo by Shauna Bittle.

Yes, it has been a while. Mostly this is because I haven’t had much new stuff (i.e., content) to share recently. This summer I started in a new position at ‘BEZ, and since then I’ve been deep in the R&D phases of about 15 different projects and ideas. Which is exciting. Here are one or two things to look out for down the road:

Dear Chicago

I’m working on a series of portraits of Chicago residents pegged to our coverage of the upcoming Mayoral and municipal elections in February. I’ll profile about twenty people, each of whose personal story illustrates a problem city government should address. I spent most of last week doing phone interviews with potential profilees, and I’m pretty excited. A cycling advocate who remembers his first (dangerous) bike ride as an adult; parents whose kids have to get up at 4:30 to catch three CTA buses to get to the good school on the other side of town; an urban planner who wants to rebuild the historic commercial corridor in his South Side neighborhood. The pieces will all be narrated by the people we’re profiling, so they’ll get to tell their own stories directly. That’s where the title of the series – Dear Chicago – comes from. Sort of like…”Dear Chicago, here’s what I need you to know about my life when you step into the voting booth.”

I’ll do some in video, some in audio and some in text, all accompanied by photos from the excellent editorial photographer Shauna Bittle and portrait photographer Nathan Keay. The first one should hopefully come out around the first week of December. (Gulp. I have a lot to do.)

Dynamic Range

Next week I’m launching a new weekly podcast and web feature that presents a curated experience from the archives of Chicago Amplified. Amplified is ‘BEZ’s program that records public events (lectures, events, talks, whatever) out in the world and then archives them on our website. There are almost 2000 events there now, so they’re sort of hard to sift through. My goal is to unearth the hidden gems – the stories, snippets, moments – that may otherwise get lost and highlight them for all to hear. I’m hoping it will be sort of like TED meets WFMU’s Beware of the Blog. Only with my own personality. We’ll see how it goes. I think I’m genuinely a  “maven” (a term I picked up from Malcolm Gladwell) in that I really like sharing things I get excited about. When I hear something that excites me, whether it’s a radio story or a new band or whatever, I really want everyone I know to hear it.

I’ll keep you posted on new stuff as it develops…

Sugar Cream Pie by Sarah Strierch.

Boston Cream Pie may have found its way into our shared dessert lexicon, but what about Hoosier Cream pie? Or Indiana Persimmon Pie? News of these regional treats had never reached me before I heard this lecture by pastry chef Paula Haney. Haney has cultivated a devoted following in Chicago with her perfect pies – lemon chess; pork, sage and apple; lattice topped blueberry – since founding Hoosier Mama Pie Company in 2005.  Now, Haney unveils the secret history of Indiana pies,  from the Amish inspired “desperation pies” of her Indianapolis youth, to pies made from exotic native fruits like the wild American persimmon, paw paw, and custard apple.

In this excerpt, Haney goes into the delicious history the sugar cream or Hoosier Cream pie, Indiana’s official state pie as of 2009. (According to Haney, at the time of this lecture there was heated debate between the sugar cream camp and the persimmon custard camp.)


If you want a taste of Indiana’s official pie, Hoosier Mama carries it at their Chicago shop. Or, you can go on a pie pilgrimage and follow the Hoosier Pie Trail! Better yet, make your own, using a recipe like this one from Turkey Creek Lane.

Click here to hear the rest of Haney’s talk, including a section about the South Side’s endangered pie species, the bean pie. Sponsored by Chicago Culinary Historians, and recorded by Chicago Amplified, a program of Chicago Public Media.


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