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Chicago Wed Dec 30 2015
If somehow you haven't seen the news anywhere else: Gapers Block is going on hiatus effective January 1. You can read the open letter from our esteemed editor-in-chief here.
There have been many nice things said about Andrew and Gapers Block across Chicago media circles, including this from Mike Fourcher and this from Whet Moser. They provide a lot of context to why this is a big deal, and not just for the people immediately involved.
Now, I'm a Johnny-come-lately. I've been writing about politics here -- and, along the way, also about coffee shops, professional wrestling, and bowling balls -- for about two years. But I'm also here at the moment-before-hiatus, which means I get the chance to write about Gapers Block for Gapers Block. Sure, it's an exercise in the meta. But see: Gapers Block is all about Chicago, and Chicago is especially all about Chicago. It's all one huge ball of meta.
It might also be fairly said that I'm a Johnny-come-lately to Chicago, too. I moved here nine years ago this month. Now, I've lived somewhere in Illinois almost my whole life, so Chicago wasn't exactly foreign growing up, but I only experienced so much. When I was young my dad and I would come into the city to visit his friends. We'd take the Eisenhower in and get off at Austin, or we'd take the Kennedy in and get off at... Austin. Yeah, the city was this vast thing, but if we always got off at the same street, how big could it really be? (Now when we come back home from visiting Rockford, we take the Kennedy... and get off at Austin. Funny how that works out.)
As I got older I increasingly thought of Chicago as too fast-paced a place for me, and resisted repeated suggestions that I should just move to the big city. Finally, in 2005, my girlfriend (now wife!) and I visited Manhattan. She lived in Wicker Park then, so when we got back to O'Hare, we took the Blue Line back and got off at Division. It was that experience of emerging from the El at the Polish Triangle where I first really thought, yeah, I guess I really can live here. Spending a couple of days in Manhattan is all it took to make Chicago feel manageable... knowable.
Moving to Chicago doesn't make a person a real Chicagoan, though. There's no single benchmark to cross, either. Eventually, it happens, or it doesn't.
Pretty much immediately after moving to Logan Square nine years ago, I got involved in "Chicago politics." I was neck-deep in Green Party affairs at the time, and some of us got a new Green local off the ground in the neighborhood. The Greens had full statewide ballot status at that time, and in 2008 among other candidates we ran Jeremy Karpen for State Representative in our area. It was all very exhilarating, not just the kind of campaigns we were running, but to do so in the middle of Chicago.
One of the biggest differences in running a political campaign in Chicago as compared to downstate is the way local media responds. In Bloomington, as a Green candidate for State Representative in 2004 and 2006, I actually got newspaper, radio, even TV coverage. It was a lot harder to figure that out in Chicago, where the major media outlets pretty much ignore anything as small as legislative races. We were really excited, then, to see a piece all about Jeremy's campaign on Gapers Block. It was like we'd made it: an important and influential Chicago site was covering Jeremy's grassroots campaign. Forget the major media! We had won over the Internet!
As it turned out, Jeremy himself knew a little better. The writer of the piece, Brie Callahan, was a good friend of his (and now they're married!) See, that piece wasn't really an affirmation of anything specific we were doing. It was, unintentionally, more a lesson about how Chicago works: It's a good idea to know somebody.
It was a couple of years later that I finally found Nelson Algren (or, more precisely, I finally acceeded to the Reader incessantly name-dropping him.) The first thing I got my hands on was Chicago: City on the Make. Now, it wouldn't quite be true to say that suddenly everything made sense. It would be more accurate to say that I finally had the framework for understanding all of the things happening around me. Before, if a manager at work were to have made an off-handed comment about "The City That Works," it would have been kind of funny, but really just a thrown away line. Algren changed that for me.
Not long after discovering Algren, a bunch of things happened. The Green Party's fortunes in Illinois largely came crashing down in November 2010 when we lost our statewide ballot status. Jeremy's second campaign was a resounding success by Green standards, but he came up short, and a lot of our momentum fell away. A few months later, my wife and I bought a bungalow in Jefferson Park. (Or maybe it's Portage Park; it all depends on who you ask, like so many other "facts" in Chicago.)
By that point, I would seem to have been well on my way to being a real Chicagoan. I'd worked in River North for so long, it was like the Blue Line was my second home. Our favorite team was the Windy City Rollers All-Stars. And, I mean, we were now bungalow owners. Along the way, I was paying less attention to what was happening in Springfield (because, you know, snoozer) and more attention to what was happening at City Hall (because, you know, Rahm's an asshole and property taxes and all that.) But as familiar as the streets were, and as much of a foundation as we'd laid down, was it really enough? Could I have really said I was a real Chicagoan?
After settling in some after the move, I got a little more involved in the neighborhood, and I switched to a different job in the Loop. Along the way, I was reading more over time from Gapers Block, especially some of the excellent stuff from Jason Prechtel. (If you want to see how a site like Gapers Block can unearth deep crap on the part of our Powers That Be, read Jason's work on Ventra, like this piece.) Jason and I knew each other from a previous shared media conglomerate, and so I saw one day when he posted that Gapers Block was looking for people to write on politics. I figured that I was suitably qualified, and thankfully, Mechanics editor Monica Reida agreed.
My first piece was about how Bruce Rauner might eventually get elected governor. Now, dear reader, I should level with you: Bruce Rauner is one of the most despicable human beings I can think of. But writing a piece exploring such a subject was, for me, liberating. For so long I'd had to bury my fascination with the political process generally in favor of being the consummate hate-all-elites Green. My writing in that first piece was a little stiff, but my general argument has (unfortunately) largely been proven correct. I understood right away that I could bring a unique voice to political coverage, and Gapers Block could provide a rare forum for that.
Over the last couple of years, my thinking on a lot of political subjects has evolved. I've frequently explored the mechanics of the political process, and how those mechanics can be manipulated, mangled or, most often, simply misunderstood. I've also tried to dig deeper into the way that the political elite behaves -- especially the Democratic Machine, which somehow controls so much while being so reviled, and which is so effective at maintaining power and yet seemingly so incompetent at wielding it. And all of it, amazingly, seems to come back somehow to City on the Make, a theme I explored in my favorite piece. If you haven't read it, I hope you'll do so now. It's every bit as relevant as it was back in February.
At the same time that I've more deeply explored Chicago politics, I've also gained way more of an education about Chicago Public Schools than I could ever have imagined. Shortly after getting on board with Gapers Block, I ran for a seat on the Local School Council at Prussing Elementary. My decision to run was based on the idea that, as a new father, I should get involved in the local school before my son started going there. Pretty much immediately, I encountered some truly bizarre stuff, and it's only gotten more ridiculous over time. An early Gapers Block piece of mine was about the absurdity of having apparently gotten elected, but not knowing for sure. Since then I've experienced the bizarre-even-by-CPS-standards matter of the school principal being escorted out of the building for by CPS security (as Algren would say, for keeps and a day), and then two months ago, the unbelievable confusion of a carbon monoxide leak sending over 80 kids to the hospital and CPS thoroughly bungling the situation. I've learned that with CPS there's simply always more than meets the eye, and Gapers Block has provided not only the forum for sharing what I've seen, but also the impetus to dig deeper.
Generally speaking, Gapers Block is a site of, by, and for Chicago. It's not the first thing to be of, by, and for the city, but it's been the first of its kind, and it's held up remarkably well. In the Internet age, a time of broad societal dissociation and particularly difficult transformation for media, Gapers Block has been here to help usher the city into a digital realm, and yet to do so in a way which has stayed essentially Chicago. For as much as so many people feel disconnected today, our city's self-image has arguably grown even larger, as epitomized by arguably the most prevalent icon in Chicago today being the six-pointed star. Even in a time of mass gentrification, food deserts, a school system in broad collapse, and an era of unprecedented exposure of violence, it seems as though, somehow more than ever before, Chicago coheres.
Now, I am just some guy writing for a blog. And yet, doing so has allowed me, in a small way, to follow in the tradition of those luminaries whose singular names scream Chicago: Royko. Studs. Algren. Through Gapers Block, I have found not merely a forum, but also an obligation. Writing about the city -- and especially its politics -- demands something more than the knee-jerk and the superficial. As I have dug, I have learned, and I have grown, not just as a writer, but as a Chicagoan.
All of this is my very long, winding way of saying thank you to Gapers Block and especially to Andrew Huff for manning the wheel for all these years. Gapers and Andrew have provided not only the forum and the opportunity that comes with it, but even beyond that, the chance this year to play that most ridiculously Chicago of games, 16-inch softball. Not that he set out to do it, or that he would even expect me to have written something quite like this, but Andrew, you've helped me become -- dare I say it? -- a real Chicagoan after all.