Thursday, September 27, 2012

Local hero

From New City, here is an insightful and much deserved article by Harrison Smith on Chicago's official cultural historian, Tim Samuelson.

I'll just shut up and let you read it for yourself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Claremont Cottages

We came upon these lovely little Queen Anne style cottages on the near southwest side of Chicago the other day. I knew about their existence after I stumbled upon another, larger group of similar homes in the neighborhood of Oakland known as the Berkeley Cottages. What I didn't realize at the time, as you can see if you read the post, is that these cottages on the 1300 blocks of South Heath, Claremont and Oakley Avenues, not only still stand, but for the most part, are well maintained. Mea culpa. This group is probably an extension of the development known as the Claremont Cottages, a couple of blocks to the north, on the other side of Ogden Avenue.

Here is the Landmarks Illinois page devoted to this development which dates from 1884, which it attributes to the Chicago architect Normand S. Patton. Due to the unmistakable similarity between this Claremont group and the Berkeley Cottages designed by Cicero Hine two years later, it is very likely that Hine had a hand in the design of this earlier group as he worked as a draughtsman in Patton's office at the time of their construction.

Lynn Becker wrote about these homes back in 2010. You can find his post here.

Incidentally, one of the Berkeley Cottages just sold for over 300K, not too bad for a house in one of Chicago's more challenged neighborhoods during a bad economy. You can see interior photographs and read about it here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

You win a few, you lose a few...

That's usually the best those of us concerned with preserving our urban architectural legacy can hope for these days. Here is a story in the blog Vanishing St. Louis that bemoans the removal of a structure that once supported the rooftop sign that graced the Fox Theater in the Midtown section of St. Louis.

The theater was one of several grand movie palaces built during the height of the "Roaring Twenties", the frenetic period just before the bottom fell out during the Stock Market Crash of October, 1929. The Fox Film Corporation (which merged with the 20th Century Film Corporation in 1935) built several of these theaters featuring their films as well as live stage performances throughout the United States during that brief period. Of these, the most notable were built in Brooklyn, San Francisco (both demolished), Atlanta, and the grandest of them all, the 5,000 plus seat Fox Theater in Detroit, whose interior was virtually replicated one year later in St. Louis. The history of the surviving theaters mirrors that of the Chicago Theater in this city's Loop, that is to say: phenomenal success, followed by a long period of decline, and most recently, revival as venues for live performances.

The St. Louis Fox Theater just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its reopening. It now hosts performances of touring Broadway shows and concerts, and its restoration seems to have proved to be an unqualified success.

One part of the building that did not survive was the enormous neon sign that was built at the same time as the theater. As you can see from the postcard reproduced here, the sign comprised a major portion of the building's front elevation. The individual letters were removed many years ago but the structure that held them up survived until this month, when it was removed for safety reasons as well as providing access to the roof for repairs.

I suspect that few folks cared or even noticed the removal of the structure which to some may have seemed unsightly. The official web site of the theater mentions its removal matter of factly.

But Paul Hohmann, the author of the Vanishing St. Louis blog questions the structure's removal saying:
Just because a building element is not made of brick or terra cotta, does that mean it is not worthy of significance?
I have to agree. Although the sign may have been gone for a long time, its supporting structure even without the distinctive finials at the tips of its posts, beautifully reflected the building's eccentric shape. Like rooftop water tanks and other pieces of urban infrastructure that once peppered skylines all across this country, these structures spoke of a bygone era of the American city and provided a fertile subject for artists and urban archeologists. Also like the water tanks that once defined the urban American landscape, these rooftop signs and their hardware are rapidly disappearing before our eyes.

Preservation efforts should focus on more than just the facades of significant buildings. Signs like this one, while garish to some, announced a building's presence to the world and once formed an important part of a city's skyline. This particular sign was part of the original design of the building and however unlikely, its restoration would have completed the return of the Fox Theater of St. Louis to its former glory. Unfortunately with the structure's removal, that restoration is now all but hopeless.

For all the reasonable, practical grounds to remove the structure, I too am sorry it's gone.

Friday, September 21, 2012

In their footsteps

Call me a geek but there are few things more spine tingling to me than standing on the spot of a momentous historic event. On the top step leading up to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC there is a plaque that reads: "I Have a Dream." This was the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his most famous speech to the world and the throngs assembled on the Washington Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. I've mentioned before that I can't imagine the experience of the gargantuan new Martin Luther King Memorial not too far away could possibly match the experience of being on that spot in front of this country's most hallowed memorial, literally standing in Dr. King's footsteps.

As our nation's capital, Washington has seen more than its share of famous and infamous speeches. One site has seen more than any other: the steps leading to the East Portico of the Capitol Building, the traditional site of presidential inaugurations. It was there in 1865, when Abraham Lincoln, seeking to heal the wounds of the deadliest conflict in our nation's history, delivered perhaps his and this country's greatest speech. On those same steps in 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first address as president to the American people, reassuring them during the dark, early days of the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy stood there in 1961 inspiring a nation and the world toward a greater good.

Those same steps also saw the solemnest of processions as the bodies of Presidents Lincoln, Kennedy and several others (but not Roosevelt's) were carried over them as they were brought to lie in state inside the Capitol Rotunda.

The U.S. Capitol steps
Walking up those thirty four steps, standing in front of our most important building upon one of the most significant spots in this nation's history, was always a highlight during my trips to Washington. Unfortunately since 9/11, unless you have special credentials or are willing to take the chance of dodging security, you can't walk up those stairs or enter the Capitol Building from the East Portico anymore, one of the sad reminders of our troubled time.

My own city of Chicago has quite a few spots of distinction, some of them marking events of national and even worldwide significance. Chicago was a particularly important city for two of the presidents mentioned above:

As a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln argued many cases here. In perhaps his most important case, in 1857 he represented the interests that built a railroad bridge that spanned the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. That bridge was the first to cross the Great River. Its construction was contentious as riverboat companies argued that bridges posed an impediment to the navigation of the river. Their true concern was the inevitable fact that railroads would one day put them out of business. Just days after the Rock Island bridge opened, the steamboat, Effie Afton crashed into one of the bridge's piers, caught fire, and destroyed much of the bridge along with it. In the ensuing lawsuit, the defendants represented by Lincoln, hinted the boat intentionally rammed the bridge. Much more of course was at stake than awarding damages to the boat owners, and Lincoln argued that the very progress of the nation would be impeded if bridges were not allowed to span navigable waters. The case was dismissed as a result of a hung jury, which ended up a victory for the railroad interests and ultimately for Chicago as the tracks coming off the Rock Island bridge led directly here, making this city the rail hub of the United States. Meanwhile the glory days of old St. Louis whose fortunes were tied to the riverboats, would soon be behind it.

That case, Hurd vs. Rock Island Bridge Company, was argued in the Circuit Court of the United States for Northern Illinois which at the time met in the ramshackle Salon (later less than affectionately known as the Saloon) Building which stood at the southeast corner of Clark and Lake. The courts would later move into their new digs, the combined Court House and City Hall Building, designed by John van Osdel. After his assassination, Lincoln's body laid in state in that building (now the site of the Chicago City Hall/Cook County Building) during his long final journey home to Springfield. The Courthouse building was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A fragment of that building stands today in front of the old Academy of Science Building at Clark Street and Armitage.

In 1960, Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon while campaigning for president, squared off in the first ever series of televised debates, the first of which took place in Chicago at the CBS studio at 630 North McClurg Court. In that debate, Nixon who had been ill, refused makeup and appeared disheveled and uncomfortable, while a well rested and made up Kennedy appeared confident and prepared. The majority of people who listened to the debate on the radio chose Nixon as the winner but those who saw it on TV overwhelmingly picked Kennedy. Historians credit that moment, a victory of style over substance, as a turning point in American politics. Chicago played a pivotal role in the final result of that election as its voters (some of them allegedly casting their votes from beyond the grave), gave Kennedy victory in Illinois which was the state that put him over the top in a very close election. The building where the debate took place, a former horse stable, was torn down in 2009 and its site remains one of the many vacant lots in the Streeterville neighborhood.

As far as I know, there are no historical markers commemorating these events, the places and events have simply been absorbed into the flow of life in the city, like drops of water in a river.

The Haymarket Memorial by Mary Brogger, unveiled in 2004.
One site in Chicago was commemorated, un-commemorated, then re-commemorated. It is the site of an event that would set in motion one of the most dramatic periods in Chicago history, the labor riot in the former Haymarket district just west of the Loop. Eight police officers were killed on the fateful evening of May 4th, 1886, as were many protesters. For years a statue of a police officer, his right arm raised as if to say either: "stop thief" or "hello compadre" stood at the site. For years that monument was the victim of poor placement, vehicular accidents or protesters who saw the police more as instigators of the riot rather than victims. Poor Officer Friendly had been moved, run into, defaced and blown up so many times that he was eventually relocated to the safety of Police Headquarters where he remains today. The site of the riot, Desplaines Street between Lake and Randolph Streets remained unmarked and virtually unnoticed for decades because of the contrasting sensitivities involved. Eventually the Police seeing themselves as a part of the labor movement, lightened up about building a new monument that seemed to express the event from a more complete perspective. My first experience of the site was during a tour led by Chicago's official cultural historian Tim Samuelson, who reenacted the throwing of the bomb that set off the riot by tossing a muffin onto the empty street. That could be the explanation why to this day, whenever I think of the Haymarket Riot, I get hungry.

There are loads of historical markers around Chicago commemorating events, people, or inventions. Inside the Fire Academy on Canal and DeKoven Streets,  you can find a plaque marking the spot of the O'Leary barn where the Great Fire began on October 7th, 1871. Almost five miles to the north at Fullerton and Lakeview Avenues is another marker commemorating the northern boundary of the fire where it died out two days later. The haunts of important Chicagoans of the past are popular locations of markers. During our regular walks from our old home to Humbolt Park, my son and I would pass a marker in front of a CHA housing project pointing out the site where once stood the home of Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz.

Many years ago viewing a plaque on a building in the Loop made me aware of something I had always taken for granted, Standard Time. Before the age of railroads, unless you were a sailor and navigated using Greenwich Mean Time, you set your clock by the sun. Consequently, high noon in Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City all came at different times, and no one was any the worse for wear. It was the railroads and their necessity of accurate timetables that led to the invention of a system where time was measured consistently everywhere. Within a given zone, twenty four of them encompassing the globe, the time would be the same. The United States (the contiguous 48 states) was so large it required four different time zones. The system of standard time that we use today was adopted you guessed it, right here in Chicago on October 11, 1883 inside the Great Pacific Hotel which stood on Jackson Street between Clark and LaSalle Streets.

On the campus of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park sits by far the most sublime monument above the most sobering spot in Chicago. It is the 1967 Henry Moore sculpture titled Nuclear Energy. It stands above the site where the world's first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place, marking the birth of the Atomic Age.

The other day my son and I visited a site that stands in marked contrast to any of the others above.
It could hardly be considered having any worldwide significance. In fact it can be argued that this place is not significant at all unless you measure its significance by the hours of enjoyment with a little misery thrown in, shared by countless Chicagoans.

The site now is a parking lot on the South Side at the northeast intersection of 35th Street and Shields Avenue. If that location alone doesn't give itself away, you may as well stop reading now as you likely won't care that this was once the location of beautiful Comiskey Park, for eighty years the home of the Chicago White Sox.

All that's left of the once great baseball palace across the street from the team's not so new baseball palace (named after a cell phone company) is a marble slab in the pentagonal shape of home plate inlaid into the pavement right on the spot so they say, of the original, along with two batter's boxes placed on either side. Foul lines extending the length of the long lost field are painted on the pavement so motorists can tell whether they are parked in fair or foul territory.

Babe Ruth in action at Comiskey Park, 1929.  The catcher is Moe Berg,
perhaps one of the most interesting men to have ever played the game. 
My boy walked into the left handed batter's box and said: "Just imagine, Babe Ruth stood here." Through all the trepidations over the past eleven years about my parenting skills, I realized that I had done at least one thing right.

Tongue tied and blown away by his unsolicited remark, I tried to add to the list of great left handed American League batters who stood on that spot, but all I could come up with at the moment was Ted Williams.

The names have been coming to me all week: Gehrig, Maris, Berra...

One of my cherished memories of the old ballpark came sometime in the early eighties, when the Yankees were in town. The White Sox were struggling to hold on to a lead late in the game when the Yankees loaded the bases with Reggie Jackson at the plate as pinch hitter. In comes White Sox reliever Kevin Hickey. Prior to coming up with the Sox, Hickey who grew up walking distance from Comiskey Park, was a star Chicago 16" softball center fielder with an incredible arm. In 1978 during an open tryout for the big league team, Hickey got a contract and made his big league debut in 1981. In a scene that could have been scripted for a bad tele-drama, with everyone in the house on their feet, the neighborhood boy came in and saved the day by striking out the future Hall of Fame slugger, standing in the very spot where my son stood the other day.

Of course not all the great American League lefties were Yankees; the guy who would take Ted Williams' place in left field at Fenway Park, Carl Yastrzemski, the last person to hit for the Triple Crown, also stood in that batter's box. His replacement, Jim Rice batted from the other side of the plate. Since my son didn't stand in the right handed batter's box that day, Rice and all the other great righties are a subject for another day.

The irascible Tiger, Ty Cobb, one of a handful of ballplayers who could legitimately challenge the Bambino for the title of "best ever", batted from that box when he was in Chicago for all but five years of his career.

The great Cool Papa Bell of whom Satchel Paige said: "was so fast he could flip the switch in the bedroom and be in bed before the lights went out", like Mickey Mantle, batted from both sides of that plate. He played ball before the Major Leagues became integrated but would play in Comiskey Park at least once every year during the annual Negro League All Star Game.

I still remember one of the greatest hitters of my time, Rod Carew, or "RRRRRod CaRewwwww" as Harry Caray used to call him, batting from that box as a Twin and later a California Angel, my heart sinking every time he came up to bat.

Oh yes, there were a few good White Sox players to bat from the left side: Larry Doby, the first African American to play in the American League batted from that left handed batter's box. Doby broke in with the Indians but was a member of the 1959 Sox team that won the American League pennant. He also had the distinction of being the second African American manager of a big league team, which happened to be the White Sox. A couple other members of that '59 "Go Go" White Sox team, Ted Kluszewski with his bulging biceps, and the great second baseman, Nellie Fox were lefties as well, as was one my all time favorite Sox players and the team's current first base coach, Harold Baines.

But I save the best for last. Without question the greatest player to ever wear a White Sox uniform, the man whose style Babe Ruth emulated, and whose name and image would hang prominently in the hallowed shrine to baseball in Cooperstown, NY had it not been for his involvement from the fringes of the greatest scandal to ever rock baseball, Shoeless Joe Jackson batted from that box.

I get shivers just thinking about it.

My boy and I did what any American father and son would do given the chance to be in such a place, we played catch. Since a few hours before there had been a game across the street and were still cars lingering in the parking lot, we were prevented from tossing the ball around home plate. Still I paced off approximately 60 feet six inches, the distance from home plate to the pitcher's rubber, and stood where White Sox greats Ted Lyons, Early Wynn, Billy Pierce and all the other great and not so great American League pitchers between 1910 and 1990 applied their craft, while my son crouched behind home plate, the workplace of Moe Berg, Sherm Lollar and my other favorite ballplayer, Carlton Fisk, who contrary to fans of that other Sox team back east, will to me always be a member of the White Sox.

We then went out to left field where we played catch in earnest. He stood where Ron Kittle, another Chicago area boy and one of the handful of players to hit a home run over the roof of old Comiskey Park tentatively played his position in the early eighties. I stood in short left, where the great shortstops Luke Appling (who rumor has it, once lived in our building), and Luis Aparicio might have fielded a popup or two. On one toss my boy threw the ball at least ten feet wide of me. The ball rolled all the way from left field to deep right field where Harold Baines in his prime might have scooped it up, and thrown out a batter trying foolishly to turn a double into a triple.

The Last Game at Comiskey Park
 Photograph by Tom Harney
There are so many memories from that particular square block patch of land; if you close your eyes, you can almost hear the crack of the bat, the screaming fans, Bill Veeck's exploding scoreboard, and Nancy Faust playing Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye on the organ. If you squint you might be able to picture Armour Square Park just north of the old ballpark framed through the distinctive arches that were cut out of the left field facade. And with a little imagination, your mind's eye can conjure up all those larger than life players of the past, the legends still in their prime, warming up on that beautiful green diamond shaped field in Charles Comiskey's baseball palace on the South Side of Chicago.

My son, every bit the 21st Century boy, totally got it. I can't say this experience was as thrilling for him as it was for me, or that it even came close to walking around the field of the current ballpark across the street before a game this year and standing beside some genuine big leaguers. But for about one half hour on a beautiful late summer afternoon, for the two of us that parking lot became our own field of dreams.



Here is a site devoted to the Effie Afton incident, and here is a nice history of old Comiskey Park.

Here is a site with some tremendous historic photographs of the old ballpark.

The following is an incomplete list of players who hit home runs that cleared the roof of Comiskey Park:
  • Babe Ruth
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Jimmy Foxx
  • Hank Greenberg
  • Ted Williams
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Bill Skowron
  • Elston Howard
  • Eddie Robinson
  • Minnie Minoso
  • Dave Nicholson
  • Harmon Killebrew
  • Dick Allen
  • Ron Kittle
  • Carlton Fisk
  • Greg Luzinski
Finally, here is the incredible story of Kevin Hickey's life, unfortunately as told in his Sun Times obituary from earlier this  year.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Which occupations in your opinion, are the most important to society? Nurses, doctors, police and firefighters, the people who keep us safe and healthy would certainly rank high on anybody's list. Judges, lawyers, yes even politicians, at least the honest ones, are the folks who keep the gears of society greased and well maintained. Then there are the jobs we take for granted, the ones that keep our communities moving, transportation and sanitation and other public sector workers whose impact is most deeply felt when they go out on strike.

I don't think we take teachers, members of a profession I would put at or near the top of that list, for granted. Most sensible people realize that while the other professions listed above deal mostly with the here and now, teachers are responsible for our future.

Right now parents in Chicago are forced to take notice of teachers more than usual as they have to scramble to figure out what to do with their children. Members of the Chicago Teacher's Union have gone on strike, keeping the 350,000 students (two of them mine) of the Chicago Public Schools home in mid-September for the first time in twenty five years. In this increasingly polarized society, people are taking strongly defined sides.

The notion that the Chicago Public Schools are failing to turn out successful students across the board, ready for the challenges of higher education and the increasing demands of employment in the 21st Century is a given. As a strike loomed over the summer, the finger pointers prepared to sharpen their weapon of choice.

On the one side are people who look at the mess in the city's public schools, the violence, the high drop out rate, the poor academic standards, and blame the schools and the teachers. It is the Teachers Union they say who is responsible for making bad teachers with seniority unaccountable and virtually untouchable at the expense of newer teachers who regardless of their energy, skill and dedication, are always the first to go in times of cutbacks.

On the other side are the supporters of the teachers, whose already difficult job is made worse they say by unfair wages, bad working conditions, high class sizes and the unfair practice of performance evaluations based upon student test scores. They blame the politicians and the school board.

Another issue of the teachers is the support of the Board of Education and the city government of putting money and energy into charter schools manned by non-union teachers. I've heard the following argument made by folks on both sides of the issue so many times it makes my head spin:
If they only put more money into the local neighborhood schools, we wouldn't have these problems.  
It would be truly nice if the problems faced in the public schools could be solved with more money. Unfortunately, like any social problem, they can't. Unlike charters or other public schools in the city with one kind of selective enrollment or other, local neighborhood schools have to take all children that come their way. They don't have the luxury of transferring out students who are disruptive to the student body because of behavioral problems. Unfortunately it's these students who demand the lion's share of time and resources of the school's staff, short changing the rest of the kids. In many schools across the city, a teacher's role is more babysitter than educator. In most cases, we're not talking about the one or two disruptive kids in a class that we all knew back when we went to school, but far more.

Then why not get rid of selective enrollment schools altogether and dilute the number of troubled kids per classroom? Well in a perfect world, that would be a nice solution. Even without the selective enrollment schools, there are a number of options for parents who take an involved role in the lives of their children. Unfortunately the most popular option is moving out of the city. The Chicago Public Schools have been hemorrhaging students with concerned parents for decades. In the sixties, I was one of them.

Despite working as a Chicago Public School teacher, my mother did not want me to go to one. After a two year stint in a parochial school which came after two years in a Chicago public school, we moved to the suburbs where I spent the rest of my school career in suburban public schools. Many of my friends had the same experience. By far the biggest reason given by middle class families for leaving the city in favor of the suburbs is the quality of education. Clearly it behooves the city and the Board of Education to create alternatives to neighborhood schools, it's a matter of survival.

Mayor Emanuel took the bull by the horns last spring when he declared the amount of time per day CPS students spent in school was far too short. He was right. In my son's school, the teachers complained non stop that there was no time in their five and three quarter hour school day to teach basic skills such as multiplication tables and writing in script. Many other subjects were skimmed over so quickly that it was almost pointless to go into them at all. The kids had a fifteen minute lunch break where they remained seated in their classrooms, forced to watch "educational" videos. And after the fourth grade, there was no recess. That last omission inspired a petition from parents to extend the school day by ten minutes, so the older kids could get a short recess. The principal put the issue to a vote by the teachers who rejected it nearly unanimously.

That all became moot when the mayor and the Board of Ed decreed that the school day had to be longer, in our school's case by an hour and fifteen minutes.

It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that this action alone coming at contract time would set the wheels in motion for a strike. I know exactly how I'd feel being told I had to work an extra 6.25 hours per week with no extra pay, even if that included time for breaks. But since I don't have the privilege of collective bargaining where I work, I wouldn't have much of a choice, other than quitting.

One of the arguments put forth in the battle of rhetoric during this strike is that as professionals, teachers are paid much less than folks with comparable education working in the private sector. In the jingoistic world of social media, I've seen countless posts asking the question:
Who deserves more money, the people who are responsible for teaching our children, or the people working on Wall Street responsible for collapsing our economy?
That question while provocative, is utterly pointless. Whether it's just or not, public sector employees no matter what their worth to society, will never be compensated in the same way as people working in lucrative private sector jobs. As far as teaching jobs are concerned, public school teachers in fact do better than their counterparts in the private sector. The average public school teacher's salary in 2007 across the country according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics was $49.600 compared to $36,300 for private school teachers, a difference of almost 27 percent. As we've all heard this week, the average public school teacher salary in Chicago is around $75,000. Now that's certainly not a fortune and given the difficulty, many people wouldn't consider taking on a such a job for that kind of money. Still 75K is not bad given that teaching is in most cases a 9 1/2 month a year job.

The teachers in Chicago's public schools have many valid issues, most of the ones expressed by the CTU during this strike concern the children and their well being. I have no doubt the vast majority of the rank and file are entirely sincere about this.

That of course is why they became teachers in the first place. One certainly doesn't take the time and spend the money to go to college and beyond in the hopes of becoming an elementary or high school teacher, expecting to get rich.

One of the acts of the Union during this strike that rubbed me the wrong way was their decision to picket at the few schools that remained open as a service to parents who had no alternative means of daycare, and to fulfill their commitment to serving disadvantaged children breakfast and lunch. I've heard it pointed out that those two meals for some of these kids might be the only ones they'd get all day. This strike is adults feuding with adults, children shouldn't be forced to cross picket lines.

This brings up the difficult question of parental responsibility. If indeed the meals they receive from the Board of Ed are the only ones some children get all day, how it is possible for parents not to feed their children? Poverty is a terrible thing, I have never experienced it personally, but I am a parent and can't for the life of me believe that poverty can be used as an excuse to let your kids go hungry. If there are parents out there who are not responsible enough to provide even the most fundamental care of the children they brought into this world, they certainly can't be expected to do the slightly more involved tasks that prepare their kids for school such as reading to their children, or teaching basic skills like learning numbers and the alphabet. They can't be expected to teach their children values such as respect for others and respect for education. And no one God forbid, expects these parents to help their children with their homework. Small wonder so many children who are not prepared for school disrupt classes and make it hard for other students to learn properly, do well on achievement tests, and force schools to close and teachers to lose their jobs. It's a cruel and vicious cycle.

This problem is not unique to the poor. Far too many parents assume that schools are like factories that take raw material and turn it into a finely crafted product. They fail to see that a child's education begins at home and to effectively teach a child, parent(s) and teachers must work together as a team. Until that happens, schools, and more importantly children will fail.

The current strike has brought many important issues to the forefront and that alone makes it worthwhile to a degree. Many folks expect both sides will come to some kind of agreement this weekend. If that's the case, the teachers strike will have lasted one week and will not have disrupted life too significantly, no harm, no foul. However, if it lasts much longer, lives will be disrupted and the good will that exists now between the public and the teachers will not last. The union rhetoric that they're fighting big money and the powers that be, (aka The Man), resonates with many who themselves feel disenfranchised in our society. But the fact is it's the taxpayers who pay the teachers' salaries. In other words, you and I are The Man. There is not sufficient money in the public coffers to give the teachers everything they want, and even if there were, it would barely scratch the surface of all the problems facing public education in this city. On the flip side, achievement tests alone are an incomplete and unfair measure to judge the performance of schools and teachers. We need to find a better way.

Both the teachers and the city and its Board of Education have for the most part placed the interests of the children first. Both sides bring valid issues to the table, some I agree with, others not. I am a strong supporter of public education and refuse to support one side over the other. The teachers and their adversaries in this conflict are all professionals, trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. I honestly believe neither side is responsible for failing the children of Chicago.

As for the parents, well I'm not so sure.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The other shoe drops

As predicted in my last post, the Democrats at their convention this week in Charlotte, spun their own tall tales, most if not all of them caught by It's amazing to me given the army of people these days devoted to scrutinizing candidates' speeches with a fine tooth comb, that the campaigns don't put more effort into making sure what comes out of the convention speakers' mouths is air tight.

OK I understand putting out a figure that is purely conjecture, such as how much the president's policies will result in cutting the deficit. All you need to back something like that up is the opinion of one so called expert, a rabbit and a hat. But in the age of YouTube, is it really a good idea to take your opponent's comments out of context, thinking no one will catch on?  You'll remember the Republicans did just that with Barack Obama's "you didn't build that" line.

Yes Mitt Romney did say as Joe Biden suggested: "it's not worth moving heaven and earth, and spending billions of dollars" to catch Osama bin Laden. If you read transcripts of his comments however, Romney was looking at the larger picture saying it was more worthwhile to go after the entire leadership of al-Qaida then targeting one man. That's a valid opinion, you can agree with it or not. But in no way did it undermine the effort and heroism of our armed forces to catch the former al-Qaida leader as the vice president implied.

Then there's the problem when you want to point out your opponent's deficiencies in one area, but don't have enough fodder. Why not just make stuff up? Throughout the Democratic convention, especially in the culminating speeches Thursday night, it was pointed out that Mitt Romney proposes to cut the taxes on the rich, while raising the taxes on the middle class. The first part is true, but Romney also has stated his proposal to lower middle class taxes as well.

It can be argued, as pointed out in the FactCheck article, that some experts have suggested the result of eliminating certain tax credits and deductions to pay for Romney's proposed cuts, might actually cause some middle class people to pay more tax. Now that's a valid argument against Romney's plan, why not just state it that way?

Other than the factual errors, in my opinion the Democrats did a superb job of delineating the philosophical differences between themselves and their opponents. Their speeches were well thought out, delivered for the most part with a good measure of passion, wit and intelligence. Admittedly there were as many tiresome Democratic stories about poor relatives and their struggles to sacrifice so their children could have it better than they did, as Republican ones. The fact that they rang truer to my ears could be simply because I'm biased. The Democrats also went out of their way this year to pay tribute to the military and their families. Amazingly, the Republicans did not; they were probably too busy tripping over themselves telling us how much they like women. In a time of war, that was a huge gaffe and the Dems pounced on it big time. Expect Romney, Ryan and their supporters to make up for their oversight in the coming weeks.

As critics pointed out, the Democrats didn't address the details of what they would actually do in the next four years, especially about the terrible economy. But let's face it, convention speeches rarely go into those kind of details, and when they do, the plans and their projected results presented as we have seen, are usually misleading at best.

Conventions are meant to rally the troops. That's especially important in a close election when there are relatively few undecided voters and the outcome may very well be determined by voter turnout. The Democrats preaching to the choir, did a good job conveying their message of inclusion and the idea that we're all in this together. Looking at the delegates on the convention floor, you saw the face of America today which represents all races, ethnicities, creeds, and social classes. This is not the vision many in this country like to see, but it is a fact. Most inspiring I thought was the emphasis on the dignity of work and the idea that all jobs are important, not just the high paying ones. As someone who plans to vote Democratic this year, I was pleased and yes even moved.

I just wish they could have cut out some of the crap.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Funny Money II

I've prided myself during my adult life for trying to be open minded, willing to listen to both sides of arguments and not making up my mind on an issue until all the facts are in. As far as politics is concerned, while I've cast the majority of my votes for one particular party, I've done my best not to be controlled by that party's ideology. I've always given the other party the benefit of the doubt and have cast my vote in their direction a number of times. But circumstances have changed in recent years and after listening to a good portion of the Republican National Convention last week, I think I can sum up the event in one word: bullshit.

I understand that in the art of politics, the bullshit factor is unusually high compared to other fields of endeavor. Let's face it, it's a game of salesmanship and the Republicans want to win the election in November. I will not be surprised if the Democrats at their convention this coming week, dish out plenty of their own. But this go around the Republicans have raised the bullshit bar to staggering heights. If shoveling the you know what were an Olympic event, the current crop of G.O.P. members would be the Michael Phelps of shovelers.

Where to begin? One of the most irritating themes of the speeches last week was the inevitable mention of the humble origins of the speakers. If the speaker wasn't poor at one time, the parents were, if not them, the grandparents, and so on. Big deal; unless you're related to British royalty, chances are pretty good that on some branch of your family tree, you will come up with someone who had to struggle to make a living. Republicans, at least this crop of them have been accused of not understanding poverty. One or two uplifting rags to riches stories would have been sufficient, but dozens of them? I just didn't buy it.

Then there was the incessant pandering to women. Polls show the Reps trail the Dems significantly among half the population. It didn't help when Missouri Republican congressman and senatorial candidate Todd Akin claimed that a woman who is "legitimately raped" will not become pregnant. Fellow Republicans had to distance themselves from the comment, and the congressman as fast as their legs could carry them. Speaking of distancing themselves from one of their own, Where was Sarah Palin?

Another recurring theme of the convention was the reaction to a comment made by the president that was taken out of context. President Obama was talking about the system in place in this country that enables people to become successful, and the moral imperative of giving back a little to the society that helped make them that way. He said: "If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own." Admittedly he could have framed that sentence better, but what he said was obvious even to the point of being a truism. Frankly I'm not sure how any reasonable person could argue with it. Unfortunately at one point in the speech, the president while caught up in the moment, let slip the awkward and unfortunately timed remark: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that." The "that" he was referring to was specifically roads, bridges and other essential infrastructure that obviously were not built by individuals. The Republicans of course lifted those words verbatim and had a field day with them, someone even wrote a song called "I Built That". For being less than crystal clear in his choice of words, the president set himself up and has only himself to blame. However he may have the last laugh as the GOP's insistence on dwelling ad nauseum on a non-issue made themselves look disingenuous and foolish. You decide for yourself:

Mitt Romney's choice for running mate, Paul Ryan gave a speech that was filled with so many misleading statements, falsehoods and outright lies, he was called out by none other than the bastion of conservatism, Fox News. Here's the money quote:
to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.
Egregious as Ryan's blatant falsehoods were, perhaps the biggest, most tragic lies were perpetrated by the presidential candidate himself, Mitt Romney. In his acceptance speech and the build up to it, much was made about Bain Capital, the company Romney headed, and its contribution to the creation of jobs in this country. Staples, the nationwide stationery chain was sited as a success story which was made possible by Bain and Romney. The CEO of that company Tom Stemberg got up and lavished praise upon Romney and ridicule upon the president. It's true that the jobs created at Staples are a success story. So are the jobs at Sports Authority and Dominos Pizza, two other companies that were nudged along with the help of Bain. But did you wonder where all the other success stories were and why they weren't exploited by Romney and his friends? It's because they don't exist. When Romney counts the number of jobs he helped create while a businessman in the private sector, he singles out those three companies that created jobs in America. What he fails to mention, are all the companies that were forced to eliminate jobs, outsource them overseas, or in some cases driven into bankruptcy as a result of the corporate mergers and takeovers instigated by Bain. No one knows for sure but Mitt Romney and his company may have been responsible for more jobs lost to this country than gained.

This article in Rolling Stone gives a far more nuanced view of Romney and his work at Bain than the candidate and fellow Republicans gave us at the convention. Entrepreneurs of the past whose hard work and willingness to take great personal risk, created businesses that built things and created jobs. Those entrepreneurs had a tremendous stake in the success of the companies they built. This is hardly the case with new entrepreneurs such as Romney, who make their money buying and selling businesses, not creating them or involving themselves in their day to day operation. I wrote about this very topic almost one year ago. Whether the businesses they bought into create jobs or lose them, whether the companies succeed or fail makes no difference, this new breed of entrepreneur makes money either way. They and their clients (the investors not the customers) simply move on to other investment opportunities while the folks who worked for the companies, and the businesses whose own success depended upon them are left holding the bag.

Romney and his cronies would have us believe they want to return to a simpler time in America, where anyone who wanted to, given faith in God and themselves, and the will to work hard, could be successful. It could be argued that time never really existed in this country. The choice of actor Clint Eastwood with his ridiculous "make my day" bluster, to address the convention underscores the Republicans' attempt to sell us this fantasy.

The tragedy in all this is that fact that there are tens of thousands of unemployed Americans who buy into the notion of Romney the "job creator." I know some of them. They believe in Mitt Romney as their hope for the future.

Mitt Romney plays up the role as a successful businessman as his chief qualification to be president. In that vein he says he is poised to successfully address the problem of high unemployment in this nation. Today on Labor Day he is bemoaning the fact that millions of Americans woke up this morning not knowing where their next paycheck will come from. This is indeed a tragedy.

What he fails to mention to us is that in his role as businessman at least, he was part of the cause, not the solution.