Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Jack King

This is Resurrection Week or Passover, depending on one's religious background. For some there will be no miracle or rescue, symbolic or otherwise.

(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
Jack King lived under the Wilson Ave. viaduct, beneath Lake Shore Drive. It's where he slept as he had no permanent address. Recently Mr. King was interview by WBEZ, local PR station.

CLICK HERE to hear, listen to news piece.

I saw Jack probably 4 times a week as I ran from my house to the jogging path thru the park. Granted he seemed fairly healthy then, but many of the homeless that I've written about and also Jeremy Nicholls at his blog: Setting Prisoners Free many of these men and women are in fragile health--both mental and physical. Yet as Jeremy and I have written sometimes all it takes is giving these people a proper bed, a simple room, allowing them to have routine, a chance to take medications, a meal schedule and, as we can testify, a miracle occurs. Read HERE and HERE

(I love how Jeremy gives each reader the client's name. Presents them in all their human fullness--isn't this how we should all be. Treating others as we would wish them to treat us.)

Back to Jack. Not only was he and the other residents living under the bridge interviewed by WBEZ they were also interviewed by Mark Brown of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Now Jack is gone.

We all acknowledge that it was not primarily the eviction, the rude discarding of his possessions, the threat of arrest, fear of being fined that killed him. I don't blame our Alderman James Cappleman
But if the alderman hadn't closed down most of the programs in Uptown that served men in homelessness, shut down specifically a program at CCO that served elderly and chronically ill men, if he hadn't enacted fines and ordinances and in general made life difficult for this man (like the free cup of hot soup--c'mon!), then, yeah, Jack and others like him who have passed away already in 2013 MIGHT HAVE HAD A CHANCE.

A chance.

Many of us have been raised to lift ourself up by our bootstraps, life in our own terms, what we make of it, God helps those who help themselves. And, to be clear, Jack didn't do himself any favors. He drank. He didn't take care of himself by checking in with a doctor. He probably ate and slept irregularly or sometimes not at all. It all takes a toll.

So Jack died. Ironically his body was found outside a medical clinic not far from the viaduct and the park where many of those tossed out from under the bridge have melted into, sleeping now out in the open or under bushes (until the alderman or the Parks District chases them out again). Maybe he had an inkling something wasn't quite right. We don't know. We don't know all of his story. But I can assure you that this is not the end of the story. Jeremy and I will continue to blog/record/acknowledge about the many more deaths yet to come--because without a PLACE to go in Uptown, some kind of shelter, where the necessary services and help is readily available--they will continue to die.

If interested in donating to Cornerstone Community Outreach--especially as we enter this Holy Week--go HERE.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Several New Acceptances

2013 is starting out publishing-wise to be pretty good. I've just had my 8th acceptance.

Here is a flash that just recently came out:

When I spoke at a workshop last week I mentioned there are MANY sub-genres of flash--this magazine was looking for flash fiction about grief, and I just happened to have a mini-essay in my portfolio to submit.

Now I just have to finish writing my how-to-book on writing flash memoir!!! Stay tuned--it should be out in hopefully a month.

Thanks for letting me brag.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Thereby the grace of God, go I

Readers of this blog (and the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune) have been aware of a kind of class warfare taking place in Uptown. It’s no secret. Articles have been appearing in the media for about three weeks. As someone who has written for and about the homeless and under-housed (See Orphan Girl) I am very sensitive to this issue. The issue of zombie-fying the homeless. And, to be fair, not all those targeted are actually homeless—maybe they’re characters, troubled, alcoholics—they are, for whatever reason, poor people. They are the OTHER. They remind us that we have a comfort zone and we better retreat back into it.

I understand. But I also believe that these individuals are human and have rights.

Lately I’ve been reading about Vivian Meir and Henry Darger. Both artists, both truly “different.”

Vivan Meir was a nanny on the North Shore who often after the kids boarded the bus to go to school took off with her camera, making forays into downtown Chicago or out on her bike. Perhaps she had some kind of personality disorder, she wasn’t very sociable—yet she was interested in people, enough to take thousand and thousands of pictures of strangers on the streets she walked. She had a storage unit FILLED with negatives, rolls of unprocessed film, and trunks full of pictures. They were about to be disposed of when the unit was emptied and the contents auctioned off. The buyers thankfully realized what they had was unique and a complete collection. In addition Vivian had a rare talent. I’m never very sure of the definition of outsider art. Definitely she had skill, but no formal training. She also had an in-born gift for composition, lighting, and capturing a moment or a person in her photographs.

Henry Darger is more complex. Even his artwork—is it collage? Certainly not all of it was original—and yet he was one of the most original artists I’ve ever encountered. I remember seeing wall-size panels of his discovered work at the Terra Museum in the 1990s. For those not familiar with Darger’s work CLICK here. The psychology or speculation for why he did what he did—there have been several theories, but nothing to really explain what was behind the tomes he wrote. All together he produced over 15,000 pages of writing accompanied by his own illustrations and stand-alone artwork.

Both Meir and Darger would have been run out of Uptown today. Even though the community prides itself on being diverse—there is today a real push to see anyone perceived as “different” out of the neighborhood.

I’ve talked about this with Fred Burkhart, my artist friend. We both sort’ve laughed about so-called artists. The people who look the part—as if the hard work of producing art is merely a fashion show, as easy as making a statement. We both agree that the proof is in the work. Not to be confused with material wealth or monetary reciprocation for such work. We all know some of the most revered artists of today were in their time usually overlooked and their work undervalued. Van Gogh was never more important than once dead.

Meir and Darger had anti-social habits. Darger picked through trash, talked to himself, and rarely bathed. Meir soon found herself going from job to job because of difficulties getting along with her employers. Both were packrats. The MAIN issue though is that they were both living on the margins economically. They would have found themselves priced out of Uptown if alive today. AND unwanted. Their kind is even now being pushed out. Further north to Rogers Park. Into shelters. Into nursing homes or halfway houses. There doesn’t seem to be room anymore for characters in Uptown.

Maybe someday, in the future, when Uptown is homogenized, cleansed, gentrified, residents will look around and say to themselves—we moved here because this neighborhood used to be a hotbed of creativity. What has happened to all the characters?
photo: Vivan Meir
photo: Vivan Meir
photo: Fred Burkhart
photo: Fred Burkhart
illustration: Henry Darger

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Despite all this

I taught a class this morning in Winnetka at the Off-Campus Writers Workshop (OCWW). I like the name of this group because even though it is “off-campus” it means that somewhere there is a university. It might be as close as I’ll get to being an adjunct (which, in some situations, is not saying so much). Anyway—it went well.

We talked about where flash comes from and one of the things I mentioned was to-do lists. I create lists for just about everything. I’ve been keeping a list of things that remind me of Mom. My mother died about a year ago. I wasn’t exactly devastated when I got the phone call. She’d been in a state of fragile health for going on two months. My grief was mixed—relief and a sense of closure. Lately, though, I’ve been getting these sudden nudgings, memories provoked by the weirdest things.

Here is a partial list:

--excess handlotion
Mom would routinely squirt too much out and then make me come over, hold open my hands, and then rub the excess lotion on them.

--old bath water
This must be a holdover from the Great Depression. Mom would draw a full tub of hot bathwater in order to soak. After climbing out she’d hate to waste all those good suds so she’d call me to get in. I was always hesitant because the water was soapy grey and only lukewarm, but I did it anyway.

She wore one to sleep. She might also put one on when taking a nap to protect a perm. When she was depressed and never left her bed, she’d wear it all the time.

--answering the phone
I hear her in myself when I answer the phone and I wonder—has it always been this way? Mom would always answer, instead of hello, “yellow!”

--benign racism
I cannot tell you how many times she referred to President Obama’s daughters as colored girls, never once thinking how bad it sounded. She’d buy an expensive brand of bridge mix at the department store and call the chocolate-covered Brazil nuts “nigger toes.”

--a strange kind of generosity
She would always be quick to give and then drive me crazy by immediately taking it back. She could only go so far and then fear took over. Again this might be a product of growing up stone cold poor.

--filet mignon
She and my father were frequent guests at the Pine Club in Dayton, Ohio. One time she ordered a filet mignon, ate it, and then, because she could afford to, ordered another one and also ate it.

--falling asleep in cars
Without fail, as soon as Dad started the car, my mother fell asleep. One time she had the nerve to complain that they never took road trips. Dad’s comeback was—How would you know?

--chocolate cake
Despite all this, my mother baked the best chocolate cake ever. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

March in Support of the Homeless

Yesterday there was a march in support of the homeless and the agencies that work among marginalized populations in Uptown (Chicago). The march was called as a result of some political missteps from the ward alderman who has tried to shut down various services in the area. All in the name of “public safety.”

Of course this is a euphemism for NOT IN MY BACKYARD.

For those of my readers who might feel I’ve taken up too much of my memoirous blog writing about James Cappleman and the plight of ethnic/cultural diversity in Uptown—sorry.
At some point art and action need to intersect. I’m passionate about many things—writing and story amongst them, and I volunteer time at a homeless shelter working with the residents on memoir, being able to tell their story.

Putting all this together—I am concerned about the recent actions of the alderman that are targeting “the least of these”—remember the golden rule?—to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Since taking office the alderman has introduced several ordinances, an ordinance to close down the Wilson Men’s Club and an ordinance making it a $200 offense for a homeless person to “loiter” at a bus stop. My question is, is this profiling? I mean how can you tell if someone is homeless unless you stop them for no reason and demand ID and proof of address.

At the same time he is seeking to close down the Wilson Men’s Club there has been a rapid loss of affordable housing in Uptown, namely in SRO (single-room occupancy) units. Often this type of housing is the last step before a homeless shelter for people on fixed incomes. I just foresee a whole slew of problems when people who are housed, even marginally, end up on the streets. More crime (often inflicted upon the homeless, lest anyone assume it is the homeless who are always the perpetrators), more public urination, more sick and dying (as many of these residents are already healthwise on the fringes).

We are essentially helping ourselves when we help others.

Moreover, while losing affordable housing Uptown has recently attracted many mega-construction projects where the alderman has taken no firm stand with the developers in setting aside units deemed affordable. The city defines rent as affordable when a household earning 60 percent of the area median income can reasonably pay it. Sixty percent of the Chicago area’s median income is $44,160 annually for a household of four and $30,960 a year for a one-person household, according to the city. Thus an “affordable” rent for a one-bedroom apaprtment in one of the proposed highrises Alderman Cappleman is supporting (JDL developers See might be $1,200, with other units in the area of $1,700 to $1,800. Really? This kind of affordable housing is still beyond the means of most working-class people. By the way James Cappleman has committed $32 million in TIF assistance dollars to the $220 million project.

There is only so much myself or anyone can do to affect the tide of change, and often I sit by helpless. Last night was a chance to join with others and, if even for an hour, to feel empowered.
Neil Cowley pic
Neil Cowley pic

Here is a link to more great photos:

Friday, March 1, 2013

Wilson Men's Hotel, part 2

Where is He Going To Put These People?

A series of articles in the Chicago Sun-Times by Mark Brown

So today I sat down and worked on a timeline pieced together from newspaper articles on-line mostly from last year and early this year.

Cappleman Promises: a timeline

1/31/2007 before coming into office campaigned that he would fight to preserve and maintain existing “affordable” housing in the 46th ward.

1/2012 after elected alderman, Cappleman came into office and established a “Problem Building List” targeting several SROs, a type of housing often the last stop before homelessness and shelters

2/27/2013 From article by Mark Brown: I asked Cappleman if he’d worked to build any new single-room occupancy housing in his ward since taking office two years ago. The answer was no.

The Chateau, 3820-3838 N. Broadway, one of the buildings on alderman’s infamous list

1/19/2012 at a community meeting James Cappleman expressed intention to improve and not close Hotel Chateau, hoping to improve living conditions in Hotel Chateau

AND THIS, before elected, campaign promise: Real Transparency

What process should an alderman use to gather input from residents about new residential and commercial developments?
Would create real committees with real minutes, accountability and transparency

1/29/13 Court Hearing for Chateau:
46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman had previously said more information about the owners would be revealed at the court hearing. But on Tuesday, Cappleman instead declined to state the buyer's name, saying he had promised the new owner not to reveal the identity.

The Chicago Reporter asked Cappleman why he would make such a promise, given that Chateau residents, his constituents, are anxious about the building’s fate. He waved his hand and said, “There’s something called the First Amendment.”
1//29/2013 Commitment to constituents to work on affordable housing
After the court hearing, residents of the Chateau surrounded Cappleman, questioning him about the building's future and their own. Cappleman replied that he was working with the Chicago Department of Family and Supportive Services to help residents find housing. Later Cappelman suggested residents contact the city for information on getting into homeless shelters.

Maryville Property
A developer has plans to build nearly 800 units at Clarendon and Montrose, a 31-story glass building, a 10-story glass building with townhomes lining its base, and 85,000 square feet of commercial space, using TIF funds.

Chicago ordinances require that 20 percent of the rental units be dedicated to affordable housing in a residential project requesting TIF assistance  — unless developers pay the city $100,000 per affordable unit not built.

Cappelman campaigned on:
Mayor Daley’s affordable housing proposal calls for a 10% set aside for certain developments.  These set asides would be targeted to people at 100% or less of the Area Median Income or AMI, which is about $75,000 per year for a family of four. 

Yes, and he would call for a 15% citywide set aside for developments in need of city assistance

JDL President James Letchinger said that 40 to 60 units — or 5 percent to 7.5 percent of the total — would be devoted to affordable housing. “It’s definitely not going to get to 20 percent, like ONE (Organization of the North East, a community organization in Uptown) wants,” he said.

[Cappleman has worked with JDL before, on a mega-construction project on Halsted.
Despite widespread and vocal opposition, freshman Alderman James Cappleman insists, “It’s a done deal” as he seeks approval for rezoning from five stories to the development’s proposed 15 stories. Opponents cite unwanted density and traffic, and a negative impact to affordable housing and property values.

Alderman Cappleman has evoked the ire of several hundred of ward voters because of his staunch support for this mega development at the northwest corner of Halsted and Bradley Place. Many residents and business owners believe the development would greatly conflict with the character of the community and the preferences of a majority of area residents. Impact studies concluded that current residents would suffer from momentous increases in density and congestion; see city water, sewerage and electrical infrastructure greatly taxed at their expense; and lose natural light.

As of October 29, 2012 construction is set to begin.]

From alderman Cappleman’s website—the Maryville proposal is on task to go thru. Goal is to break ground by the end of 2013.

Jay Michaels of FLATS Chicago is buying buildings no other developer wants—SROs with low-income tenants—and converting these dilapidated spaces into luxury rentals, all of which will operate under FLATS. Michael will, with a few exceptions, keep the units their original size, putting the smallest FLATS apartment at 275 square feet. The average unit size, excluding a few multibedroom outliers: 350 square feet. That’s including a bathroom, kitchen and a place to sleep. Rents will range from the $700s to the low $1,000s per month.

ONE, an Uptown nonprofit that champions affordable housing, is concerned about the number of people who may be forced out of the neighborhood. The organization requested that Michael keep a portion of FLATS housing priced at or not much above what current SRO tenants are paying, which can be as low as $475 per month, perhaps using the help of government programs.

Michael says while he doesn’t like the term affordable housing—it’s tricky, he explains, because the city, state and federal governments all have different definitions of affordable—he is willing to work with Lynch-Dungy to make FLATS what he calls “approachable” to longtime Uptown residents.

Early in November, Michael and other designers met Ald. James Cappleman. “We’re happy that some of these buildings, that after falling apart, he’s purchasing and renewing and keeping the feel of the neighborhood,” said Tressa Feher, Cappleman's chief of staff.

FLATS has the support of 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman. “[Michael] reached out to me,” the alderman says. “Not many developers do that. I was impressed by his willingness and his commitment to connect with people in the community to get their thoughts.”

From alderman’s website (an advertisement for FLATS)

Making the most of a small space — or “microliving” — is on the rise among Chicagoans who want to live simply and stylishly in popular neighborhoods. In the past two years, 31-year-old real estate minimogul Jay Michael of FLATSChicago and his two business partners have embraced the trend, buying up old buildings in Andersonville, Edgewater, Lincoln Square and Uptown, then remaking the run-down properties into thousands of chic apartments for the young and upwardly mobile. This unit in the Edgewater building, dubbed No. 5718 ($1,000/month; rents vary based on unit and building), makes its debut at the beginning of March, and — thanks to some help from the design team at Chicago-based CB2 (which will offer all FLATS residents 10 percent off of their purchases) — demonstrates just how fabulous 400 square feet can be.
The Norman Hotel 1325 Wilson--now a FLATS, for about $1,000 a month (average)