My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


We have been quite busy this weekend, mostly because, as you may have heard, we have been absolutely buried in snow the last few days. Tom Skilling, weather guy for the Tribune and brother of notorious Enron felon Jeff Skilling, tells us that Chicago has only received 12" or more of snow in a single storm 20 times since they started keeping track in 1885. This weekend makes 21.

I won't repeat my rant about shoveling, the terrible weather seems to have brought out the best in people as it often does. Strangers help push cars out the sludge, overall people have been very polite and cautious drivers on the snow, and most people around here were responsible enough to do some shoveling - even the spoiled, tatooed North Shore brats renting from Pete managed to clear their steps this time, although I haven't dared to walk that side of the block. In part, the better snow clearance may simply reflect the work of some young Latina entrepreneurs who wandered the neighborhood offering their shoveling services and cleaning up in more ways than one.

Speaking of snow driving, Trope has been wonderful this weekend. The storm hit while we were visiting friends in the burbs, and she managed to get us home during the worst of it, slogging through drifts on the surface streets in the middle of the night because we didn't trust the highway. We are both intact in spite of our stubborn refusal to alter our plans in the face of inclement weather, for which Trope deserves most of the credit. She's done it all in my car, too - friends will recognize glimpses of her car peaking through the snow bank:

Thanks for everything, honey. You've been terrific, as always. And condolences to our friends in Boston, who I hear received the brunt of this thing after it moved east. Be safe, everyone.

Demolition of the Week

This week's notable demolition was the People's Bank building at 47th and Ashland Avenue, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The building had some interesting and unique architectural details, and looked like it was in very good shape, with what looked like new storm windows and everything.

But that's not really why I mourn it's loss. The building was on a 5-point intersection, which are fairly rare in Chicago since the entire city is built to a grid. Most of the diagonal roads were old Indian trails which predated permanent settlement. They were used for perioding trading conferences that were held near the mouth of the Chciago River by tribes which traveled miles to meet and exchange goods. This corner's a little different - the diagonal road in question, S. McDowell St., runs only two blocks, north and east of Ashland Ave to the corner of 45th and S Loomis (Southport to all you North Siders, Noble out here west of the river. I will post soon about all the people who don't realize they are living on the West Side, and why). McDowell runs from the major intersedction of 47th and Ashland up into what I believe was an entrance to the Union Stockyards which gave the neighborhood its name. Before the yards closed in 1971 the entire neighborhood smelled like rotting animal flesh. Now the Stockyards area is an industrial park, and continues to provide working class jobs to South Siders, although far fewer than in times past. The area was and is an immigrant neighborhood, with Eastern Europeans and Latinos mixing with African Americans at the southern edge, which borders on Englewood.

I like these corner buildings because they maximized use of space on odd-shaped lots and defined space in these intersections as important public places. Five and six way intersections have often boasted concentrated retail, resulting in high pedestrian traffic and the sense that the neighborhood had a defined center, it's own, smaller "downtown." At this particular intersection, Goldblatt's still has a small operation going in their old department store structure across the street, there is a new Walgreens (sadly with a big parking lot on the corner) and several smaller shops in storefronts. There were a lot of people milling around while I was there, in spite of the cold and snow.

Notice how the corner maintains a dense urban feel, even several miles from downtown. Such retail clusters, usually containing a cleaners, a drug store, a doctor's office or dentist, a couple hair salons, a small grocery, and probably a coffee shop or tavern, would bring people together and provide for a lot of chance encounters with neighbors, which used to happen a lot before the era of strip malls and giant parking lots. At 47th and Ashland, the other buildings haven't received proper maintenance and look sort of forlorn, but try to imagine what they would look like if they were well-maintained and re-developed as mixed-use retail/residential buildings.

As it is, the entire odd-shaped block the building sits on is being redeveloped, except for the other corner at 46th and Laflin, which is a playground for the local Chicago Commons Day Care. In all probability, the developers intend to replace the entire block with a parking lot and a single-story commercial building, possibly a new bank or a grocery store. This would both destroy the dense, walkable feel of the neighborhood and make a very bad neighbor for the day care by increasing traffic on the road between the building and the playground. The problem in this area is that as you head down Ashland into Englewood, you arrive at block after block of nothing at all. Since there is virtually no retail remaining in Englewood do to the neighborhoods extreme poverty and population loss, all the old commercial buildings which lined its main streets have been demolished. This situation makes land in the surrounding South Side very cheap, so when anything at all is built, it's built on a lot of land, with a lot of surface parking. The result is that as time goes by, the area gets more "suburban" in character, with separate single-use residential and commercial areas where people are expected to drive to the store and park. It's a very strange situation to have in an area in which so many people do not own cars and rely on the bus and walking to meet their needs. Even well to do areas of the South Side like Beverly and Morgan Park are seeing traditional buildings disappear, to be replaced by larger and larger parking lots. Beverly Blvd. is even sporting several blocks of sprawl-style houses with big garage doors facing the street! I won't mar this page by posting pictures of something so depressing. Instead, here's a last look at the People's Bank building, a fine example of the right way to make use of urban space.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Shaking of the Foundations

When Carl was a boy (he is in his 90s now), he and several other boys he
knew from the Lutheran church got a book with instructions for making a homemade telescope. They slowly ground the glass by hand using water and
grit, fashioned a tube and an eyepiece and assembled their new toy. It was
an exciting time. The sky was darker then, open to exploration with the simplist
tools. The Milky Way, the movements of the planets and the moon told a story to
those eager young students in the days before television, a story about gravity,
motion and the history of the universe. It was not the story they had heard in
Sunday School of a world born in seven days and nearly destroyed by the waters.
"Basically, we all became athiests," he tells me now.

I became aware that I was going to die at age 6. The knowledge, a sort of radical awareness of nothingness, just washed over me one night when I couldn't sleep, and I realized I was going to die. My parents didn't know what to do with me, of course, so they took me to church. Our church at that time was the Morristown United Methodist Church, which is right on the square where they train Seeing Eye Dogs in Morristown, New Jersey. They had a fabulous organ which had been built into the new sanctuary (the church had a devastating fire in the early '70s). The preacher's name was Reverend White.
The Right Reverend told me there was an afterlife, that I could have eternal life if I accepted Christ and was saved. I really tried to believe that, because I was scared.

Growing up religion was a big part of my life. God was like an invisible friend I talked to constantly, and I saw life very much in religious terms. Church groups were the easiest place for me to make friends as we moved around the country. Religious groups generally have rules about how we treat other members, which meant that kids were not as cruel there as they could be in other settings. As a teenager religion took on a different role in my life. I began to participate in service projects and mission trips, such as the Sierra Service Project in California, and an annual summer trip with my church in Ohio that took us to Tennessee, Florida, and England. These trips were fun, because they involved spending days or weeks away from home with co-ed groups of teenagers and marginal adult supervision. Also, they gave life a sense of purpose and mission. Raising the money to fly to England was the motivation for me to get my first job, at McDonald's. Working with poor people on Indian reservations, in Appalachia, and in the Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati awakened in my a sense of the injustice of the world and a desire to set things right.

I also think rehabbing old buildings to create low-income housing in Over the Rhine awakened my love of old buildings and urban neighborhoods. Where we lived at the time was new, and "nice," and boring, sterile and unattractive, without any sidewalks, or anywhere you could walk to anyway. Over the Rhine was a mess, broken down with weeds growing up through the cobblestone alleys, abandoned storefronts and burned out apartment buildings. And it was beautiful.

I was, of course, engaged in religious study at the time, which dovetailed nicely with my emerging social conscience. My Bible said things like this:
but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and woever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
and this:
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righeous will answer unto him, 'Lord, whe did we see see thee hunger and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and cloteh thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee? And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'
after which those people who had done nothing to help the poor and downtrodden were to get their asses righteously kicked.

And here was the real kicker:
And Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, "who then can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them nad said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
So in addition to spending as much as my free time as could be spared from the brooding and the teenage angst feeding the hungry, rehabbing housing for the homeless and visiting the sick and elderly, I attempted to to engage my family in discussions about our shared faith. Specifically I was concerned that perhaps we should not be living in such a large house and enjoying so many of the good things in life while homeless people were dying of AIDS in the street just a few miles away. Such behavior seemed to me to invite the wrath of God upon us. These suggestions met with a somewhat lukewarm response.

Other significant things were happening in my life at this time as well. A close friend of mine came out to me when I was fourteen, setting up the essential conflict, for both of us, between faith in God and the essential irrelevance of many of the traditional behavioral strictures of the Bible to modern life. For my friend, this struggle could never be resolved: last time I saw him he was one of these "ex-gay" religious people, convinced he can "overcome" his "condition" through faith. I didn't have such problems with it. I had always made some distiction between the red type* which talked about love and justice and redemption, and the black type which talked about smiting people and not wearing cotton-polyester blends.

For the next few years, these issues of sex and identity - abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, "obscene" art. My mother was outraged by the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. It was a huge issue in Cincinnati at that time. I thought she was being a fascist. I guess I still do.

My faith in God just melted away almost as soon as I left home. For one thing, being exposed to other religions, especially Buddhism, made me question why I should pick just one. It seemd arbitrary to just keep believing whatever religion I happened to be raised in - not at all rational. For another thing, it just seemed to me that Christians were either on the wrong side of the issues of the day, or just didn't seem to care about them, using their faith to comfort them while they went about their daily lives in the same self-interested way everyone else did - in fact more so.

In a nutshell, the combination of Christian passivity in the face of poverty and war with the archaic positions on social mores taken by the religious people I was closest to drove me from the fold. If most Christian churches had a relevant and compassionate doctrine on sexuality, especially regarding homosexuality and abortion, I would probably still be in the church. Fundamentally it was those issues which drove me away. But honestly resolving those issues now would not lure me back. Once the underlying authority and wisdom of the institutions and their primary doctrines have been undermined, it is just no longer possible for them to function as articles of faith for me any longer. I can't force myself to believe in such things as a personal God or life after death without evidence. It would literally take a miracle.

Lately I've been thinking about these issues because of everything that's been going on in the world. Terrorists inspired by religion are just the beginning. Last week I heard a panel of students at the University of Chicago talk about their experiences as human rights interns around the world. The interns, who had worked in Ghana, Iran, Trinidad and Tobago, and right here in Illinois, had all been hampered in their work to further human freedom and empowerment by religious people who felt that homosexuality is evil, or that women should stick to certain subordinate roles in society, or that sex should be kept under wraps, or simply that no one should question religious authorities at all.

And then, of course, there's the tsunami. It has been interesting seeing religious authorities attempt to reconcile the violent reality of the natural world with their faith in a loving and just God. These great links from Zorn's Notebook cover a variety of perspectives.

It seems to me that if there's a guiding intelligence behind the world, it's a cruel one. But Occam's Razor suggests that a controlling intelligence is not needed to explain such things. It seems more likely that such events happen the way scientists describe them, with no intent or underlying anthropomorphic purpose. If that's the case, what's the use of praising a creator or begging one for mercy? It seems unlikely He will do anything.

I don't have a deep new insight into the ultimate source of the universe. I suspect that the world we know is an illusion, that time, space and matter seem to behave the way they do only because of the position and situation of the observer. But I don't know what to do with that insight, or what it even means. For now it's enough for me to know that all of the old stories people use to explain the world are not true.

This perspective presents practical problems in today's America, and I don't just mean getting along with believers. Some of the best people I know are Christians, and their faith motivates them to do very positive things in the world, and gives them hope and the ability to persevere in the face of reversals. In fact that's exactly my problem - religious faith is a powerful tool for change. It can provide people with a vision, the ability to see the world from the outside. Just as fundamentalism tends to calcify the behavioral norms of past generations into dogma, radical religion can point out the inconsistencies between social practice and basic humanistic morality, as it did for me as an adolescent. It can call people to reinterpret eternal principles to fit the needs of the day, as it did in the civil rights movement, the Social Gospel and the anti-slavery movement.

I believe another such widespread spiritual awakening could yet save America. But just because I desire such a movement or believe it to be necessary doesn't mean I could believe in it.

*the song is by Trope's friend EL's band Canasta, who play out in Chicago and elsewhere from time to time. The singer, ironically, looks a lot like that famous "white boy Jesus" painting everybody's Grandma used to have in the parlor. I once had a "motorist's prayer" card in my wallet that looks just like him.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Windy City Blues is resigned to present this inaugeration eve interview with the now duly elected POTUS. You people voted for this, so don't go blaming me for it.
Harvey: Congratulations on your re-election, sir.
W: Thank you, bunnyboy. I've earned it. Capital, that is.
HR: Political capital?
W: All kinds of capital. By which I mean Power. Which is what it's all about, if you think about it.
HR: Some people say that's what the Iraq war is really about - preserving American power, PANAC, that sort of thing.

W: Yeah, those crazy Jewish boys! I love those guys! My brother used to hang with them in the 90s! Great guys. Wolfie cheats at poker and Richie Perle can't handle his schnapps, but otherwise a great bunch of guys all around.
HR: So that's why you attacked Iraq? To pursue their vision of American hegemony in a unipolar world?
W: Hell no.
HR: Then why?
W:I attacked the birthplace of civilization as a . . . symbolic . . . gesture. I intend to end it once and for all.
HR: Terrorism?
W: Civilization.

HR: I see.
W: Do you? It has a sissifying influence on people.
HR: Civilization . . .
W: Exactly. Dilutes the gene pool. Re-directs resources from the strong to the weak. That sort of thing.
HR: The gene pool?
W: Look, civilization - what you'd call civilization, anyway, is too complicated. It's inefficient. It interferes with the natural state of competition. Dilutes it. Weakens it. Do you see that?
HR: What's the alternative?
W: It's what I like to call The Ownership Society.
HR: And what, exactly . . .
W: I thought that was pretty obvious. The people that own society would get to run it. Just like it says. You read the Bible, Harvey?
HR: Parts.
W: The Old Testament. Before the Hebrews settled down, back when they were pure. Abraham, Moses, those guys. How did they live?
HR: They wandered around the desert, half starved.
W: Well, yes. They wandered. They didn't need a state. They had family. Family was the unit of society. They didn't need secular laws or police, because they had religion to guide them. Struggle and competition made them strong, potent, virile.
HR: Yeah, but what happened when they had to interact with people with different beliefs or values?
W: They killed them. I believe this is what secular liberal scientists refer to as "natural selection."
HR: It sounds like you believe in evolution after all.
W: I'm not going to comment to that. This is the kind of media entrapment that distracts the public from the issues at hand.
HR: Are you afraid of riling your evangelical base?
W: They need a shepherd in these perilous times. And a shepherd needs sheeps, or else he's unemployed.
HR: I don't understand.
W: No, you don't, bunny-boy.
HR: So if you don't believe in the state, what's with the USA PATRIOT Act? Guantanamo and the "Gulag Archipeligo?" The FCC for Chrissakes?
W: I AM the state, Harvey. I mean to replace the state with the family. Specifically my family. Anyway, what good is power if you don't use it, know what I mean?
HR: One last question, Mr. President. Who's your favorite Desperate Housewife?
W: Edie Britt. You?
HR: I like Bree Van de Camp.
W: The ice queen with the hair? Is there a reason you're a pink bunny, Harvey?
HR: Hatemonger.
W: Fruit.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Demolition of the Week

Today's victim of "progress" is an old mixed use commercial/residential building along Milwaukee Avenue between Leavitt and Oakley, a few blocks from our home. The area has been undergoing a transition from mostly industrial and commercial uses as demand for housing in Bucktown has increased. As empty lots and industrial buildings have been replaced by new commercial residential buidings, Milwaukee between the tracks and Western Ave has become an interesting amalgam of 19th and 21st century styles. It's been a fairly successful mix, redevelopment of what had been a fairly forlorn stretch of road being spurred on by the establishment of a couple of fine restaurants, Cafe Matou and Irazu. I had hoped that buildings such as this one would find new uses and continue to grace the block with their presence. With new, modern glass storefronts on the first floor, the building could have fit right in to the new look of the neighborhood:

One of the reasons I am so concerned about the destruction of these buildings is that the quality of workmanship and detail that went into their constrution is missing from most modern buildings as old skills such as metal stamping and terra cotta work have been lost from the building trades. Look, for example, at the kind of detail that was put into the decorative trim of this workaday building:
Compare that to the stripped-down, geometric detail on the block's new buildings:

In this case I am fairly confident that something suitably urban and appropriate will go in on the block, because developers have such high hopes for the area. But it seems sad to me that so much that has survived so long is being destroyed so quickly in the name of redevelopment. I actually rushed to the scene with a camera because I was so concerned that the 1894 commercial/residential building next door would be torn down as well, but it looks to me like the demolition crew is being careful to leave this neighborhood marvel intact.

For that I am grateful. Although the building will lose some of its historical value deprived of its original context, the new build environment of Milwaukee Ave will still be functionally close enough to the old one that the strength and practicality of the building's design will still be evident, along with its beauty.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

People in Glass Houses Always Have to Wear Pants

This new condo in Manhattan was inspired by a 1970s era design forward toaster oven

Can Modernism Be Stopped?

I have been asking myself that question lately as I read about trendy new condo developments without opaque walls, details or storage space. These places are being successfully marketed to people on the basis of "light and air." Since there was certainly light and air on site before there was a building there, you'd think these places would be going pretty cheap, but you'd be wrong. Apparently all that nothing adds value to the unit, a postmodern irony probably not lost on the developers or real estate agents.

It does seem to be lost on the architects themselves. From this piece in the NY Times, check it out while it's still free:
"I've had friends walk in and say: 'What is the story in this room? How does the Asian stuff work with the modern? I don't get it!" Mr. Jaklitsch said. "The story is just that I respond to anything that is rigorously designed."
Which explains why this lover of Mies is living in an archetypal prewar apartment building - one of five Emery Roth buildings designed for the real estate developers Bing & Bing in Greenwich Village just before the Depression . . . It's sort of a joke, Mr. Jaklitsch said, but kind of true that when he learned that Mies van der Rohe had, in fact, lived in a prewar building himself, Mr. Jaklitsch thought he "could cope with this one."
Also, as he pointed out, it's rigorously designed; its gracious proportions are an Emery Roth signature. R. A. Sassone, a vice president at the Corcoran Group who
handles sales in many of the five Bing & Bing buildings, said it's a truism among fans of the Village quintet that if you are blindfolded and led into one, "you can't tell which building you're in." All have the same low and lovely beamed ceilings, brick fireplaces and cloistered bedrooms. Mr. Jaklitsch said he loved the proportions of his 800-square-foot home . . .
Since moving to New York City in 1994, Mr. Jaklitsch, who grew up in Maryland and took his architecture degree at Princeton, has lived in the same four-block section of the West Village.
"I hate the grid," he said, "and I love the trees."
Here in Chicago, Modernist boxes have been big (literally) since the Mies invasion of the 1950s, which has left glittering empty boxes scattered around the city like old aquariums in a crazy old man's junk-filled back yard.

This regrettable tradition has lingered on in the Soldier Field renovation, which defaced a monument to American war dead to further the economic fortunes of a really crappy football team. Also notable is our glorious new Millennium Park, featuring bridge over Columbus Drive which is too delicate to handle Chicago winters, and has to be closed when it snows. Our grandest new Modernist project is the billion dollar expansion of the McCormick Place convention center, which is transforming block after block of the South Loop into a hermetically sealed concrete and glass bunker, barricaded off from the life of the street.

We have seen the future. It looks like a parking garage.

Which gets me all conflicted when it comes to Stanley Tigerman. I want to like the guy, I do. He seems to be a good guy. He and his firm design Holocaust Museums, headquarters for nonprofits, and low-income housing. He believes in using architecture to effect social change in a way that's almost touching. But his buildings are often horrible and anti-human, because Modernism is anti-human, in a reductive, manipulative B.F. Skinner sort of way.

His headquarters for the Ounce of Prevention Fund hurts the most, because I support the organization and what it's trying to do. But it looks like a fake little strip mall that should be surrounded by parking, even though in fact it isn't, it exists in the shadow of the Illinois medical District like Hobbit holes build over by Wal-Mart and Ikea.

Tigerman's Educare center is both nobly intentioned and, esthetically speaking, patronizing, silly, and contemptuous of humanity

Alas, Tigerman has been given the job of designing the new facility for the Pacific Garden Mission, perhaps Chicago's best known homeless shelter. Pushed out of the gentrifying South Loop by a public school expansion, the mission will be rebuilding nearby on a larger parcel of land. Tigerman plans a new campus-like atmosphere with "indoor streets" and enclosed garden spaces for programs and recreation. I've never felt so scrooge-like in my life and I want to be supportive of the new project. But I have grave doubts about this opportunity for Chicago's poorest to share in the aesthetic ugliness which has heretofore been the province of the rich. Is the enclosed design really an attempt to keep the homeless safe from the outside world, as Tigerman claims, or does it function as a way to keep unsightly poor people locked away from the rest of us? Who can tell the difference between a school, a prison, or a townhouse development these days?

We don't need our relationship with space redesigned by architects. We have a pretty good system - shops and residences with clearly visible entrances, squared off to make the most efficient use of space, close together to create a high enough density that you can walk to stuff. Where a door is, how a building relates to the street, these "problems" were solved long ago and do not need to be re-examined.

Modernist ideas are made worse by two trends visible in new buildings - lack of decoration - because builders are cheap, not becasue sleek is beautifuls, mostly it's just boring - and the privatization of public space. Buildings are turned away from the street, their doors are hidden, they look inward instead of outward. Why? because so many people are used to traveling from place to place in a car and aren't used to approaching a building on foot anymore, and because all you wussy people are so afraid of crime all the time so you are fleeing the life of the street (Again, is the building design really to keep the homeless people safe from the street, or the other way around?).

Perhaps the greatest example of this kind of folly is Zaha Hadid's award-winning firehouse in Germany. The building was quite useless to actual firefighters, so it became an art museum, and an exeptionally ugly one. But since it boldly challenged conventional thinking about the use of space or something like that, it was regarded as brilliant and catapulted the architect to fame. Previously she had been known for designs that were impossible to build. Now that she had succeeded in building something perfectly useless, she was hailed as a genius.

This misshapen pile of concrete is not construction waste, it was built this way on purpose and won a design award.

Hadid has since designed the Cultural Arts Center in Cincinnati, where her patrons will not admit they think her building is weird and ugly, in classic "Emperor's New Clothes," for fear the art world will think they're a bunch of rubes in Cincinnati. (Not exactly a state secret anyway)

Look, guys, you did the experimenting, and it failed. Most people hate what you do. We like brick houses and Greek columns on courthouses because they're useful, they make us feel a certain way, and they communicate their purpose and function to us clearly. Furthermore, the basic design of human habitation - the city grid, courtyards, doors facing the street, storefronts and townhouses - goes back as far as Domascus and is found in every civilization, because it works. It just doesn't need to be rethought for the new century.

People don't like modernism. Not only should this stuff not be built anymore, builders should be required to express an appropriate amount of contempt and scorn for modernism. They should be able demonstrate an ability to mock it in a way that is knowledgable and truly funny, revealing that they know why it is bad. They should design buildings that do not build on what the modernists did at all, but instead respect the design of the city, tradition and humane ideas of truth and beauty.

The trees are great, guy. But the grid is human.

Note: I am sorry this post doesn't even live up to my usual modest level of writing and logic. I have been working on a much better version of this post for a month, and Blogger ate it. I came very close to throwing this whole computer out in the alley at one point this evening.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Law and Order

Today was my first experience in Federal Court - I was interviewed as part of jury selection for a criminal case. We were all picked for this honor from the voter rolls - this is one reason why people don't vote. Needless to say I was not selected as a juror, and furthermore we were all asked not to discuss the specifics of the case, but I did have the opportunity to compare the United States Federal Court in the Northern District of Illinois to my only other source of information about criminal legal proceedings - Law and Order reruns. So how did reality stack up?

Judge Amy - looked pretty much like Judge Amy, with better hair. Came off as wise and authoritative with a personal touch.

Federal Prosecutor - babe. Very attractive brunette, even a couple months pregnant. Smartly dressed.

Assisting Federal Lawyer Guy - young guy, handsome and of course impeccably dressed.

DEA Agent - handsome, broad shouldered, great haircut and nicely cut suit. Heartthrob material for sure.

Drug Dealer (alleged) - stocky and swarthy, well dressed and a little too smug looking considering the gravity of his situation. He had his own translator with him, does not speak English.

Defense Attorneys - their suits were just as good as the Government lawyers, their hair was not. I swear there had to be $2500 of Brooks Brothers suits in that room.

The Jury - My guess is they will end up being a Greek chorus of faceless everyman. Everyone who displayed intelligence, wit, or seemed informed was rejected. I have no idea why, all the haggling was done in whispers up close by Judge Amy.

Everyone was asked if they had ever been the victim of a crime, if they had had positive or negative experiences with law enfocement, etc. We were asked if any of us had any "problem" with federal anti-drug laws, and we all remained silent in spite of the fact that, from the decidedly haggard looks of things, most of jury had used marijuana at some point, especially the aging boomers and the out of work former MIS guy. You don't want to start an argument about decriminalization with a Federal judge, in court, after all.

All the prospective jurors were white, except for one young black single-mom Chicago State student, who I guess was the token everything - both of us other city dwellers were bounced from the jury. The others were suburbanites, a couple younger white guys married to stay at home moms, even. We were asked whether the fact that the defendant was Hispanic would make it hard for us to be fair. Everyone said no, but I wondered at the time if he'd end up with any "peers" on the jury.

I sort of wanted to stay for the rest of the episode, but apparently unedited they run for four or five days, and I couldn't afford to stay that long (Jury pay is like $40 a day, it costs $4 in public transit just to get there and back). Anyway, I couldn't decide which way I should be biased. On the one had, I think our current drug laws are wrongheaded and counterproductive, and I believe criminalization, like Prohibition, is causing more harm to society than addiction alone ever could. I don't believe that decriminalization will result in that much more use - I'm sure not going to start smoking crack just because it becomes legal. Are you?

On the other hand, I'm sick of these gangbangers and their business killings and their loitering around the neighborhoods making things harder for everyone else. A classic case of externalizing costs (the economic term for "sin"). So should I want to put him away, using a law I don't agree with, because I don't like him? Or let him go even though he's probably an asshole on account of the inanity of the law in question?

I know what you're gonna say. I didn't stick around to hear the evidence. The law should be applied as it's written. Guilty until proven innocents. Blah blah blah. I just don't see it. Not only are we human beings, we're Americans dammit! We don't need no stinking evidence! Just our beliefs and values and "common sense," whatever the hell that means. What use is being given a little power if can't exercise it arbitrarily to make some boneheaded point?

So anyway, I'm real happy I'm not a juror, and the American criminal justice system should be as well.

Note to readers: I don't know anything about the law at all. To learn something useful about legal matters, check out How To Law School, an insightful and thoroughly researched guide to legal education in America.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Pedestrian Road Rage

You may have heard that it's snowing in Chicago. As of this writing it has been coming down constantly since 8:00 Tuesday night. Remember when you were a kid and you looked forward to the snow, skipping school and making forts and snowmen?

Boy, I sure don't. First the weather turned our trip to Ohio for Christmas into a nightmare, trapped in the frozen hellscape of I-70 for hours with no way out because none of the exits had been plowed. Now I've spent two days clearing the same little patches of sidewalk and street over and over again. For grownups, snow brings hard work and the risk of death.

I have to admit that I enjoy the exercise somewhat. But the whole thing makes me grumpy, because I also consider it a social responsibility to clear one's sidewalk to prevent injury to the young and old who try to walk down the street. Walking to the El this morning was treacherous even for me, and I'm fairly able-bodied, because so many people and business have neglected their civic duty.

Now I don't mind helping out. In a city neighborhood we only have about 15' of sidewalk a piece, and I'm glad to pitch in for someone who's not home. But when we're getting something like 14" of snow over a few days, and going over the same ground again and again, I could use a little help.

The people who annoy me the most are the young people who are renting apartments in Pete's 3-flat across the street. Perhaps it's a diffusion of responsibility type situation, where everyone expects someone else to do it and Pete should step in and make it clear whose responsibility it is. But I suspect they come from a background where Daddy always did it and they have never had to take responsibility for anything. They won't even shovel the front steps (which are steep and high), they just keep stepping in the same footprints on the way to their cars. If somebody slips and falls on the inevitable ice they should sue these cretins.

I bring this up in part to weigh in on the subject of "Dibs," the citywide system of street clearance under which if you shovel a parking spot, you get to hold it with a chair until the streets are cleared. Eric Zorn opposes this practice on the grounds that it's somehow barbaric. But I figure, if most people won't come out and shovel, the people that do the work deserve dibs on the space cleared. And parking might be an incentive to get more people out on the street who would otherwise be content to let me do all the work, "tragedy of the commons" style.

Yesterday I waved off Pops when he tried to park in a spot I'd just cleared for my wife - I actually was trying to wave him forward because there are three spots between 3-flat's curb cut and the alley, not two, and he was taking two spots. But Pops doesn't speak much English and I couldn't explain the problem to him, so he parked across the street. I felt bad about this momentarily, but I don't now. He hasn't shoveled his 15' of sidewalk either. Now it's true he's not such a spring chicken anymore, and I'd be glad to help him if he asked (assuming we shared a common language). But I did all I could last night and this morning, and none of you lazy cretins better take our spot.

Winter can bring either haunting beauty or injury and inconvenience to the neighborhood, depending on how selfish and lazy people are. And this goes for institutions such as banks, churches and private schools, too. Just because you built a fence around your parking lot doesn't mean you're not responsible for clearing the sidewalk on the other side of it. It's been two days. In a perfect world, tomorrow there would be an orange $50 ticket on the door of every negligent household or institution who didn't live up to their civic responsibility. How's that for a budget-balancing idea, Richie?