Friday, March 24, 2017

Some of us don't have the sense to see Chicago's wonders; we're losing people

It seems not everybody shares the love I have for this magical land built along the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan – the Census Bureau reported this week the Chicago metropolitan area is nearly 20,000 residents smaller than it was a year ago.
Long-standing cultural institutions not enough to bring people to Chicago, ...
That would be the equivalent of an entire suburban community being suddenly obliterated from the map – although I’m sure urban development types would tell me it is people fleeing the city proper to go live in those suburbs.

FOR THE RECORD, the Census Bureau estimates that the Chicago-area population (including the portions that spill over the state lines into Indiana and Wisconsin) is 9.513 million.

Officially, the last Census count in 2010 showed the Chicago area at 9.461 million people. So we’re still bigger than we were a few years ago.

But the reality is that the estimated population count for this year is a 19,570 person drop compared to last year, which was an 11,324 person drop from the year before that.

It seems that when compared to other cities across the Great Lakes region and Midwest, we’re typical. Technically, the word out of Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis is worse.

BUT WE IN Chicago have always thought of ourselves as worthy of being held to a higher standard. Hence, we notice that places like New York and Los Angeles experienced population hikes of 2-3 percent.
... nor are the newer novelties such as 'Cloud Gate'

Not huge, but not insignificant either.

Now I’m not about to claim that the Midwest is somehow dragging Chicago down, making the city that blue dot on a red sea as way too many politically-motivated maps depict these days. If anything, I always thought Chicago was the spiritual capital of this vast region that thinks the Atlantic and Pacific oceans have nothing on that great body of water known as the Great Lakes, and that one-time Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick sort of had the right idea that “Chicagoland” was truly unique – even if his reasons why were a little half-cocked (or maybe were ahead of his time in predicting much of the region's political support for Donald J. Trump).
Corncobs along the Chicago River ...

I did notice the one demographer who told Crain’s Chicago Business that the Chicago area population is “flatlining,” as in we’ve dropped about as low as we can get and this is the bottom.

ALTHOUGH ANYBODY WITH sense knows we don’t bottom out until we literally become a ghost town – a place of long-abandoned structures just waiting for Mother Nature to whack the one-time site of the Second City with a massive tornado that causes everything to come tumbling down.
... and a gaudier structure located upstream

Now I’m sure some people are going to want to claim the politically partisan bickering that has occurred the past few years is somehow scaring people away.

I doubt it.

Largely because I think many people have enough sense to disregard the blowhard tendencies of the government officials they elect. Besides, most of the people who want to make that line of attack are more interested in blaming the “other side” for the population loss.
This shoreline of Lake Calumet is firmly located within the city limits
THEY WANT TO lambast somebody, rather than try to figure out the solution to our problems; which, admittedly, do include the fact that a significant number of people are willing to up and leave what I will always regard as the most wonderful city on Planet Earth.
Where else will you find streets named for Goethe?

Even if there are some people, particularly of African-American persuasion, who’d rather move back South to the lands their grandparents fled. Segregation isn’t what it once was down there, and our land of opportunity has fallen off as well.

Or there may be all those other individuals who push themselves out further and further away from Chicago’s downtown core to the point where they don’t want to think of themselves as being part of the metropolitan area.

Although I’m always inclined to think those people ultimately will be “punished” for their lack of faith by finding themselves so far out in the middle of “nowhere” that they’ll wind up longing for the days when they were a part of that wondrous urban area that gave us deep dish pizza, electrified blues music and a century’s worth of mediocre-to-bad baseball – both South and North sides!

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

EXTRA: The Green-era Cubbies, or Gene, Gene the Dancin’ Machine

A pair of “celebrity” deaths this week managed to catch my attention.

Dallas Green, the hard-core baseball man whom the Tribune Co. hired when they first purchased the Chicago Cubs in the 1980s to be general manager, died at age 82.
WHILE CHUCK BARRIS, the creator of so many schlocky television game shows, including the Gong Show, was 87 – leaving us the eternal question of whether there was any truth to the tale he once tried peddling about himself that he was a professional assassin for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Green’s death made me remember those days of the ‘80s when decades of Cubbie losing ways were supposed to end. Green’s stint as head of the Cubs did produce a division title in 1984 and arrival of future Hall of Fame infielder Ryne Sandberg, but little else. Unless you really get worked up over lights at Wrigley Field.

Other than to laugh at the television spots the Cubs ran back then saying the team was “coming out of hibernation.” Which likely are the most memorable aspect of the Cubs from that era.

It may be true the losing ways are done, what with that 2016 World Series championship – although taking 35 more years kind of diminishes the impact that the Green people would have wanted to have.

TO THE POINT where I couldn’t help but notice that most of the headlines on stories about Green’s death identified him as the Phillies, Yankees and Mets field manager – as though his Chicago stint were an afterthought!

Admittedly, he was the guy who was in charge when Philadelphia and the Phillies got their first World Series victory ever in 1980, but I certainly don’t know of any Yankees fans who long for the days of Dallas Green – which were truly dreadful in the Bronx.
Light towers are Green's Cubs legacy

A below-.500 winning percentage in 1988, and dismissal before season’s end for publicly insulting team owner George Steinbrenner.

Dreadful in a truly depressing way, and not anything remotely funny like the television programs that Barris gave us to watch on those off hours when the Cubs weren’t stinking up the airwaves with their mediocre-to-pathetic play.

BARRIS GAVE US shows like “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game” but perhaps it was his pure dive into schlock with “The Gong Show” that gives us our most intense memories.

Did we really have to know that?!?l
Creating a show where no-talent people get to show off how unexceptional they are – with the worst of them suffering the humiliation of being “gonged” off the air by a crew of celebrity judges who were as mediocre as the talent.

Or do you believe that Jaye P. Morgan was an immortal talent in her own right?

I wonder at times how much of the contemporary mentality of people thinking there’s anything legitimate about “reality” television was inspired by the Gong Show thought process that anybody could be worthy of being televised – no matter now pointless they are.

I ALSO STILL remember the “Unknown Comic” with his tacky jokes and bag over his head – wishing someone could have taken the gong to him! Just as we could have taken the “gong” to Cubs baseball at times.
I’ll end this little reminisce with the remembrance to Gene Patton, who himself died just over two years ago at age 82 and will forevermore be remembered to Gong Show aficionados as “Gene, Gene the Dancin’ Machine.”

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Does our Legislature need to regulate our behavior at funerals? Maybe!

About the screwiest incident I ever encountered as a reporter-type person involving a funeral was a moment a few years ago at a cemetery in suburban Calumet City where an interment turned into a brawl that some people tried to claim was gang-related.
 
HARRIS: Crafting bill on proper funeral conduct

What really happened was that the deceased person was involved, in life, with multiple women.

FOR HIS FUNERAL, several of them showed up – thinking they would be playing the role of the “grieving widow” (he wasn’t married). When the women discovered each other’s presence, things became heated.

People attending the funeral began taking sides with the individual women, and yes, a few of those individuals had gang ties.

Anyway, a brawl broke out at gravesite, which caused someone to call the police. The sounds of sirens in the distance wound up being sufficient to break this incident up.

When police arrived, there was hardly anybody left. Police wound up arresting nobody because anybody who would have done anything worth a criminal charge was gone. Which is why my editor at the newspaper I wrote for back then ultimately decided to ignore this incident, and this here is the first time I have written anything about it.

IT’S ALMOST FUNNY. That is, if anything about a funeral service can be somber. The deceased who, if he hadn’t already been dead, likely would have faced a serious tongue-lashing (and maybe a few physical blows) from the multiple ladies he was loving during life!

The scary part is that it seems such behavior is becoming more commonplace in certain quarters – to the point where state Sen. Napoleon Harris, D-Harvey, now feels compelled to put together a bill that could create tougher criminal penalties for such behavior.

He is working with funeral home directors to create laws that would have harsh penalties for using a firearm or other weapon while attending a funeral.

In theory, it’s the same as saying crimes near schools are more severe, or that using a weapon in general in a menacing manner that is worthy of a harsher punishment.

MUCH OF THE problem, however, is that these incidents often are occurring in neighborhoods where street gangs have accumulated significant influence – often through intimidation.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that funeral directors in certain South Side neighborhoods often wind up turning over the guest books they put together for mourners over to the police – who use them to try to figure out if gang members are attending the funerals of rival gang members for the explicit purpose of causing a violent ruckus.

For the record, activists at a press conference this week say they know of at least 17 funerals that were disrupted by gang-related violence. In some cases, it’s the people working in the funeral homes who wind up getting caught in the crossfire.

Yes, it’s an ugly situation. Although it’s also one that I’m not sure can be addressed with tougher penalties – largely because I wonder if anyone who thinks he’s carrying out an act of vengeance at a funeral is capable of thinking straight.

THEY MAY THINK they’re above the law. Or maybe they think they’re the ones who will get away with it. Actually, it will be when communities rise up to let gang members know how uninfluential they truly are that anything happens to eliminate occurrences as stupid as these.

I’m also wondering if the “gun nut” crowd will have the nerve to claim that such restrictions impose on their right to bear arms. As though in their minds the solution to this problem is to let everybody else carry a pistol so they can fire back.

All I know is that times have changed from an incident I covered at a cemetery on the Northwest Side back when I worked for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago. Back then, several men of Serbian ethnic origins conducted an informal “21 gun salute” at the gravesite of a friend – firing off pistols into the air.

I still remember talking to the daughter of one of the men arrested who couldn’t comprehend why there was an issue. Doesn’t everybody do this? Perhaps she was just three decades or so ahead of her time in her way of thinking.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Time passes on, but is it really for the better? Or, I wanna make a phone call!

The Illinois General Assembly is considering a change in law that I’m sure some people are going to think is long overdue – the “phone company,” so to speak, wouldn’t have to give you the option of a real-live telephone in your home.
 
This 'phone' would definitely freak out the kiddies

As in the landline, the one that’s actually hooked up to cables and theoretically provides your phone calls with a sense of security that our cellphones don’t.

SERIOUSLY, THE LEGISLATURE is considering a request that the laws obligating AT&T to make landline phone service available to everybody in Illinois should be abolished.

The entity we used to jokingly refer to as “Ma Bell” (a reference that may, in and of itself, age me) says so many people now rely on cellphones exclusively for their phone service that the old requirement is a financial burden because it requires them to maintain an infrastructure of cables that is no longer necessary for people to speak to each other via the “telephone.”

Now before I proceed, I probably should point out that I gave up a landline about one year ago. I rely exclusively on the “smart phone” (which often makes me feel dumb) for the ability to make calls, and also keep up with the work-related e-mails I get from people who think the best way to get my attention is to tap out a few characters of the English alphabet, then hit the “send” key.

Yes, I get those e-mails, but I often am astounded at how atrocious their spelling and grammar is. I also have to admit that many of the e-mails I get wind up being deleted unread – particularly the ones that are blatant appeals for me to donate money to yet another political gasbag of a candidate.
Confounding telecommunications?!?

BUT I HAVE to admit that even though I gave up a landline (I found that the people who were calling me were overwhelmingly using my cellphone number), I miss it. Particularly when I see other people who use the “freedom” of not having a phone cord to deal with to become so meandering and thoughtless that they lose track of what is going on around them.

Besides, I also wonder what it is with our contemporary society that they don’t fully appreciate how much of their privacy they give up when they do away with a cord. Because the reality is that there is no assurance that people aren’t listening in on all our cellphone calls, or reading every single e-mail sent to us through that “phone.”

Doing away with landline requirements might be accepting a certain reality, but it also means our reality is getting a little less logical.
Just trying paying a phone bill in this box!

Then again, I’m becoming an old man, and I know watching younger people, particularly my teenage niece Meira. I could go on and on about all the stupid, trivial things she looks at (mostly video snippets of people doing pointless things) when using her phone.

BUT THE CONCEPT that most catches my attention is that she seems to resent it whenever anyone actually “calls” her and expects to have a traditional phone conversation.

She and her friends don’t even bother to pick up on those calls, and ignore the messages that get left. Although they don’t seem to mind having conversations where they can look into their “phones” and see each other – usually in such close-up that their facial features become freakish and unrecognizable.

The “phone” truly has become a toy, one used for video games and watching video snippets and, occasionally, to talk to each other. I’m sure the loss of the cables that maintain “real” phone service won’t be missed.

Except by those cranks such as myself – the kind of people who looked at the Tuesday morning news reports in absolute astonishment that the Chicago White Sox signed their shortstop, Tim Anderson, to a contract providing $25 million during the next six seasons.

The high price of competence
I’M OLD ENOUGH to remember when a salary in the millions was considered unthinkable, then something reserved only for the elite of professional baseball. Not for the journeyman who barely meets the league average!

Although I suppose there are those people who will say I ought to take my out-of-date complaints and make them to someone with a landline phone so we can rant and rage about how the world has gone amok.

  -30-

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Whose money is truly tainted? Or, Are Rauner bucks really holier than thou?

We’re only at the first day of spring 2017 on Monday, while Election Day for Illinois governor won’t take place until we’re close to winter of 2018. Yet the level of doggie waste being generated on behalf of the campaigns truly is astounding.
What would 'Honest Abe' think of Daniel Biss, Bruce Rauner, or any of the Illinois officials now involved in creating Illinois' financial mess? Photograph provided by State of Illinois

Monday was the day that state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, formally declared himself a candidate for governor, and made a point of taking pot shots both at Gov. Bruce Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

AS THOUGH HE wants to create an impression that he’s somehow separate from the process of Illinois government. While everybody else is fighting, he’s the guy who would like to do some serious work toward getting our government operating properly again.

Which is nonsensical – he’s just a state senator from the North Shore suburbs, which makes him a complete unknown to everybody else in the state. And it’s questionable whether he has the resources to become better known.

In short, he’s a non-ethnic Amaya Pawar – the alderman from Chicago who has his own political dreams of running for governor.

The Illinois Republican Party, of course, went on their usual line of attack – instantly declaring him to be a party hack who does whatever it is that Madigan tells him to do.

“DANIEL BISS IS the North Shore branch of the Madigan machine,” state GOP spokesman Steven Yaffe said, in a prepared statement, adding later, “Daniel Biss is a willing Mike Madigan accomplice who would give the governor’s office back to the Chicago machine.”

Which is pretty much the standard line of rhetoric Republicans try tossing out – just fill in the blank with the name of the candidate. The rest stays the same, no matter how little it makes any sense.

If anything, there was one part of Yaffe’s statement Monday that made me laugh – the part where he produced what he wants us to think of as a dirty little secret that taints Biss. “Financial records reveal that Biss has taken over $260,000 in tainted Madigan money” (emphasis added).
 
RAUNER: Is his money holy?

Yet only four minutes before I received the Yaffe e-mail, I got one from Rauner himself. One that says he will match, dollar for dollar, any contribution people make to Citizens for Rauner (his campaign committee) to help boost his own re-election campaign.

RAUNER, OF COURSE, is the guy who already has pledged to spend some $50 million of his own money toward his re-election bid AND those of Republican candidates for the Legislature whom he would expect to become his political allies.

In short, the Rauner vision is to be able to operate like a strongman with legislators who rubber-stamp his vision – which largely is one meant to undermine the authority of organized labor.

There are going to be a ton of Republicans running for office in 2018 (can’t we just declare the April 4 municipal elections over and done with already so we can move on to the process next year some people might actually care about?) on Rauner bucks.

Or are we supposed to truly believe that only Madigan money is tainted, while Rauner’s finances are the equivalent of being blessed by His Holiness himself. Does Bruce Rauner see himself as the political equivalent of the Pope? Should we all genuflect and kiss his ring?!?

BUT BACK TO Biss, who wants us to believe he’s some sort of political virgin, saying to reporter-types Monday, “I’ve been clear for a long time that Madigan has been there too long.”

Yet he also has led fundraising efforts to produce money meant for anti-Rauner advertising to try to sway voters – which, in Rauner’s mind, is the true offense of which he’s guilty and must be put to a political death! That, and he publicly blames Rauner for the state’s inability to come up with a budget for the past two fiscal years.
Candidates won't ever come across this charming

Considering that we have nearly 20 months to go before the Nov. 6, 2018 date upon which we actually pick a new governor (or decide that Rauner is worthy of another term), all I can say is that I dread the endless rounds of nonsense we’ll be subjected to – particularly since that recent SIU-Paul Simon Institute poll showed people don’t like Rauner just as much as they don’t like Madigan.

I took my father’s dogs, Rocco and Carmelo, for a walk Monday just before writing this commentary, and Carmelo (the light brown one) left a steaming pile of a certain substance that is going to prove as unappetizing as anything the candidates have to say.

  -30-

Monday, March 20, 2017

World Series champs would like to challenge World Classic champs

I don’t often find anything to praise about the Chicago Cubs, but I have to confess to thinking that Cubs manager Joe Maddon has come up with a wonderful idea – the national team that wins the World Baseball Classic tourney come Wednesday ought to then take on the defending World Series champions.
 
Maddon offers a worthy proposal

Which, if it were to happen this spring, would be the Cubs!

NOT THAT I would think the Chicago Cubs need to beat anyone else to legitimize their accomplishments of 2016. Or that the WBC champion would gain any more legitimacy by beating up on the Cubbies.

But it could very well be the perfect way to end spring training, where the camps are scheduled to shut down toward the end of next week before U.S. major league ballclubs leave Arizona and Florida to begin the regular season in their home cities.

Now I’ll be the first to admit I don’t expect this idea to be acted upon this year. These things take time to prepare, and this idea would have about a week to become reality – what with we won’t know until Wednesday who even wins the World Baseball Classic.

So I don’t expect any team to leave Los Angeles and Dodger Stadium (where the championship games will be played Tuesday and Wednesday) to head for the Cubs’ training camp in Mesa, Ariz.

ALTHOUGH THE IDEA of the national teams put together for the World Baseball Classic playing U.S. major league teams isn’t absurd. Heck, there already have been such matchups during spring training.
If  Puerto Rico team wins, who would Javy pick?

Even the Cubs got to play Team Japan Saturday (the Cubs won 6-4) as part of that ball club’s efforts to cope with jet lag and adjust their body clocks (the games they have played thus far were in Seoul and Toyko) to playing in Pacific Daylight Time.

Pitting the two winners, whether in a two wins out of three games series like Maddon suggests or perhaps just one ballgame before breaking training could become a new tradition for the 21st Century.

If this idea had been in place previously, then the defending WBC champion Dominican Republic team would have played the San Francisco Giants, while the Japan national teams that won the World Baseball Classic in 2009 and 2006 would have played the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox respectively.
Easier rooting decision if Netherlands wins?

THE LATTER WOULD have provided a particularly intriguing scenario, and not just because we can’t help but wonder how much then-Sox manager Ozzie Guillen’s feisty spirit and loud mouth would have intrigued (or offended) the Japanese.

But that Sox team had Tadahito Iguchi as its second baseman. How much grief would he have got playing against his home nation?

Actually, that same scenario could occur this year, if it turns out that Puerto Rico keeps its undefeated ways going and wins the World Baseball Classic. We’d get the chance to see the Boricuans versus los Cachorros.
There's already been a Javy controversy

Except that the second baseman for team Puerto Rico is Javy Baez – who also happens to be an infielder for the defending champion Cubs. Somebody would have to make a judgment call on which team would get him, and it would be a decision guaranteed to offend a segment of baseball fans.

AS IT IS, Puerto Rican fans already are upset at the MLB-TV channel that has been broadcasting the games (Channel 233 on my cable TV system), a graphic of Baez depicted him in front of a Dominican flag!

It’s almost enough to make some people hope desperately that the Netherlands’ national team prevails. No conflict, and considering that their big star is New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, it’s likely the Yankees-hating world of baseball will unite in rooting against them.
How would Ozzie have 'played' in Japan?

All I know is that this spring already has had some intriguing baseball moments due to the World Baseball Classic, such as Team United States of America having the tying run on third base when they lost Friday to Puerto Rico, the fact that Team Israel briefly was unbeatable as they even knocked out Equipo Cuba. And the outrage I personally feel at watching Team Mexico blow a four-run lead to Italy, then getting knocked out of the tourney altogether even after they beat Venezuela because of a screwy tie-breaking system.

Maddon’s idea is one that could help further cement the idea that the tourney is a part of the professional game – rather than something to be conducted in isolation. Even more important, it would be fun – and that’s what baseball is supposed to be about.

  -30-

Saturday, March 18, 2017

EXTRA: Chuck Berry just as much a part of 2120 S. Michigan lore as the most hard-core of Chicago bluesmen

Chuck Berry died Saturday. At age 90, it shouldn’t be a shock.
And while he was a St. Louis native who towards the end of his life spent much of his time and talent at "Blueberry Hill," a Missouri nightclub he owned, the honest truth is that Berry is as significant a figure in the whole Chicago music scene’s history as anyone else.

FOR BERRY WAS amongst the musicians who recorded at the one-time Chess Records studios on South Michigan Avenue that is largely remembered because of the cast of hard-core blues musicians who made their bones there.

That record label’s catalogue is still out there, what with MCA continuing to release the old recordings of artists such as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and the ladies such as Etta James and Koko Taylor.

But while Chess Records might well have had the blues of black America at its core of operations, the fact that the record label had a crossover such as Berry on its roster was a significant boost to the label’s bottom line.

You could argue that it was the presence of Chuck Berry that helped keep the record label alive as long as it lasted (into the mid-1970s), and that it might well be Berry’s affiliation with the bluesmen that helped enhance their own legacies.

CHESS AND THE many old bluesmen might well be long forgotten and 2120 S. Michigan Ave. might well be nothing more than an obscure reference used by the Rolling Stones to title an early instrumental number they performed on one of their first records.

The fact was that Berry was the showman who helped put the flash in early rock ‘n’ roll, which is why we remember him while other artists such as the Flamingoes and Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers (all of whom appeared in the 1959 film “Go, Johnny Go!”) are long forgotten.

And why pop culture references to Berry remain humorous.
Berry appeared as himself in cinema

Remember the old Cheech and Chong gag about how Berry was the true king of rock ‘n’ roll because he went to jail for it? Or how in the film "Back to the Future," character Marvin Berry supposedly called his cousin, Chuck, during that zany guitar performance by actor Michael J. Fox’s “Marty McFly” character – implying that Chuck Berry was taught his style by someone who was actually ripping him off!

PERSONALLY, I ALWAYS enjoyed listening to Berry’s guitar playing and thought it a shame that his first “Number One” record was that silly and trivial “My Ding A Ling.” When his solo to “Johnny B. Goode” may well be the ultimate one that any aspiring guitar player tries to rip off for his own.

Personally, I still don’t have it down after all these years of strumming on guitars in my spare time.

And now, Berry is gone. Although the records he created in the Bronzeville neighborhood studios (an era recollected in the 2008 film “Cadillac Man” that even included Berry’s role in the record label’s success) are ones that will continue to live on.

Although the record industry may well be a pitiful shame. Because as it turns out, Berry had been working on a new record album of fresh material – his first new release of the 21st Century.
Mos Def portrayed Berry in '08 film

IT WON’T MATTER how bad it will be; in fact, I’ll bet it probably will be mediocre. But it likely will sell well, and may well turn out to be one of his highest-selling records ever.

We’re good about paying tribute to people once they die and aren’t capable of appreciating or enjoying the praise. Just like the Chicago Cubs' Ron Santo getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously.

The conspiracy-theory part of my mind is almost warped enough to suggest that Berry somehow faked his death to help boost his record sales. Except that common sense tells me rock 'n' roll already has enough "Elvis is Still Alive" conspiracies that we don't need tales popping up of Chuck Berry sightings outside a White Castle on the Sout' Side.
 
And on a final note, I'll acknowledge a personal favorite when it comes to Chuck Berry's recordings. For me, one of the pleasures of the Christmas holiday is that I can shamelessly overplay “Merry Christmas, Baby,” one of the few holiday-themed songs that doesn’t become monotonous and that I can hear over and over and over each year.

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