Making Market Street

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.

Redlining Redefined

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.

Update: Here’s the finished piece.

100 years of Chicago bungalows


I’ve just wrapped up a big project for WBEZ about the history of Chicago-style bungalows. There are more than 80,000 bungalows in Chicago, which means they account for nearly one-third of the city’s single-family housing stock. And this year marks the 100th anniversary of the first great wave of bungalow building.

I created virtual tours of three bungalows in different parts of the city. You can see the inside of homes that belong to a Latino firefighter in Jefferson Park, a Polish-American couple in West Ridge and an African-American family in Morgan Park (near Pullman). That last one is especially amazing, I think, because of the owner’s story. Ingrid Sanders is the fourth generation in her family to live in the house! (Her five-year-old son is the fifth!)

I’ll also be on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift Monday afternoon at 2pm talking about the story and taking calls from homeowners.

How has Chicago’s coastline changed over the decades?

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.

2 - Burnham Park landfill circa Apr 1925
Burnham Park landfill, 1925 (Courtesy of Chicago Park District)
3 - June_15_1928_Filling_Operations_south_lakefront_looking_north
Burnham Park landfill, 1928 (Courtesy of Chicago Park District)

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!

New series: Kitchen Close-ups

Barbara Davis: Hyde Park lunch line veteran from WBEZ on Vimeo.

Kitchen Close-ups is a new new multimedia series I’m editing for That’s right, editing! It’s one of my first times, professionally in the editor’s seat. In this context, editing means working with freelance producers Meaghan Glennan and Jason Rizzo, helping them shape the overall vision for the series as well as the narrative arc and execution of each individual story. I also helped them come up with the name.

The series provides intimate portraits of characters in Chicago’s restaurant scene. So far we’ve visited fancy places, like RL Cafe, and more accessible eateries, like Valois in Hyde Park. Today I have my second edit with the pair on a profile of a barrista at Wormhole Coffee in Wicker Park.

You can watch the whole series here.

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.

The Mac, before and after

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.

Rehabbed, A Punk Rock Dive Grows Up

Depending on whom you ask, the Fireside Bowl is either simply the bowling alley in Logan Square, or the best punk rock club Chicago ever knew.

In its venue days it was falling apart. It was loud. It stank to high heaven, and the men’s bathroom had no doors and no seats. It was punk rock to the core.

In 2004 it shed its punk rock past, ceasing shows in favor of recreational bowling. Fans of the space thought they’d never see another show at the Fireside.

But in June the venue began a trial run of shows, attempting to cultivate patrons during its slow summer season.

I went to a recent show with the Chicago News Cooperative’s Meribah Knight to ask what made the Fireside a punk rock legend.

Read Meribah’s print piece and see a gallery of photos at The Chicago News Cooperative or at The New York Times!

Editor’s Note: Hooray! I am EXTREMELY happy about this piece. It’s my first freelance multimedia piece, period, and it’s for the CNC and the freaking NEW YORK TIMES. I am really pumped. Also it was fantastic working with Meribah. She’s such a great writer and reporter, and was so easy to work with. I’m doing the happy dance at my desk right now.

I also want to thank everyone we interviewed, especially John Benetti, who connected us with so many great folks; Martin Sorrondeguy, who is an incredibly inspiring guy; and Annie Strong, who gave me a ton of old photos and music files which were invaluable in making this piece. Rebecca Ann Rakstad and Patrick Houdek also made their photo collections available, which again, was amazing and much appreciated. Thank you so much!