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Interview: Reporter/Writer Ben Austen

By John Wilmes\n\nAs previously mentioned here, generic cialis seek Ben Austen’s New York Times Magazine article “The Death and Life of Chicago” is a must-read. After reading it myself, sovaldi sale treat I was fortunate enough to get a hold of Ben for some Q & A about the piece, and his Chicagoan Sport and Society thinkings, generally:\n\nThe article alludes to you growing up in Chicago. Where did you live, and for how long?\n\nI was born and raised on the South Side. I grew up in South Shore and went to schools in Hyde Park. Kenwood class of ’89. I’m also a tragically devoted White Sox fan. My favorite all-time player: Ron Kittle. In no small part because of 1983, his rookie-of-the-year season, but also because of his goofiness and his many failings (that over-long swing, his bad back, those glasses) that made the occasional roof-shot all the more rewarding.\n\nThat makes you quite kin with this blog. Do you partake in any of the culture war hatred of the Cubs?\n\nAt my house while I was growing up, the Cubs games were often on the television during summer days. At night we would watch, or more often listen to, the Sox, actually paying close attention. But the Cubs provided a not unpleasant baseball background noise. I mean, the players were likable enough, and there was Harry Caray and the camera lingering on some blonde in the bleachers, and always a remarkably inventive way to lose a ball game. Yes, it was annoying that one of the city newspapers would run cover stories in the Sports section on a last place team, while the White Sox contending for a pennant would be relegated to page 3. But I never felt hatred for the tame Cubs. I do think it ridiculous, the definition of chutzpah, that the team’s owners threatened to leave Wrigley Field and go to Rosemont. I mean, the Cubs without the charm of Wrigley are just losers, not lovable ones. They are basically the worst team in the history of baseball, if not all of professional sports. The Astros, the Pirates, the Royals—teams that have been really, really bad for a long time—all had glory days not too long ago. The Cubs, a century of futility. I also wrote this story for the Wall Street Journal a couple of years back about a Cubs fan club made up of DC insiders—the Verban Society—and how the group annexed Sox-fan Barack Obama into its ranks without the president’s knowledge.\n\nYour essay ends with an allusion to Michael Jordan, made by Anti-Eviction Activist \”J.R.\” As he reclaims a particularly special home, he likens the greatness of this accomplishment to MJ winning a championship. It was heartening, and it also made me laugh; I’ve made such comparisons with myself before, and I think just about everyone around Chicago (and probably beyond) has, also. Are you a Bulls fan, as well?\n\nI was 13 when Michael Jordan joined the Bulls. So I spent my most formative sports-watching years seeing him develop into \”Michael Jordan,\” the team taking shape around him into the six-time champions. Maybe that’s what it was like for Celtics fans during the Bill Russell years, or various times for Yankees die-hards, but it felt like a singular and exceptional gift and still kind of unreal. How could we have been so lucky to come of age at that time? The wins never seemed inevitable, the games always just enough in doubt. It’s strange to look back and recognize how much this experience was shared collectively in the city. The park district placed Bulls stickers on every basketball backboard in every city park. At my public high school, Jordan calendars were distributed to each student, MJ makeup-ed and airbrushed in his sports car beside golf tees for one month and so on. I remember driving around the South Side after the first championship, everyone honking and calling out to one another. I was on a semi-pro baseball team the following two summers (an emphasis on \”semi\”) and guys on my team by then were talking strategically where they might position themselves if looting broke out. One of the great things I’ve seen while reporting in Chicago, and especially as I’ve delved into the past with the history of Cabrini-Green, is just how often Michael Jordan comes up. He is a cultural touchstone, a historical marker, one of the major ways we define those years living in Chicago. So when JR said he thought of Michael Jordan as he entered those houses, it made perfect sense. JR also told me that for a while he peddled Bulls championship merchandise outside Gold Coast stores, not far from Cabrini-Green. The team kept him in business for many years.\n\nYes, Jordan and the Bulls’ cultural hold does seem quite singular. But what, if anything (sports-related or not) would you say permeates contemporary Chicago like Jordan did then? What city-wide narrative might you, me, JR, and Rahm Emmanuel all hold in common, today?\n\nTo say Derrick Rose or Obama or the Bean in some way binds us all together would not only be false but would also fail to recognize what a rarity it is to have a thing that is actually shared across the many boundaries in the city of geography and race and class and age and all else. Of course, sports is the easiest thing to share with a stranger or your father. It doesn’t really matter, and so it can be chewed over again and again like old gum.\n\nBut, at one point while reporting the NYT Magazine story, I took a boat ride up the Chicago River with JR Fleming and other members of the Anti-Eviction Campaign for a strange fundraiser. It was actually the first time that I had ever been out on the river. We slid past the monuments of Chicago’s boom of the past decades—the Trump, Marina City, dozens of ten-million-dollar homes equipped with docks leading onto the water. On the river’s north fork, the boat turned around right at Cabrini-Green, or what had replaced it—the factories and warehouses repurposed into lofts, the march of gleaming condo towers. Several of the guys reminisced about their former home, pointing out where along the river they took girls or ran from police or sold newspapers. One guy identified a spot along Lower Wacker where he slept when he had been homeless. JR and I were standing together on the prow, taking it all in, when he announced, \”Man, I love Chicago.\” It was a sentiment you might not expect from someone who spent his days in the city’s disparate other half, a distant world of vacant homes, violence and poverty. But I understood exactly what he meant. I felt the same way.\n\nYou also got to spend some time around Rahm Emmanuel for the NYT Magazine story. What did you learn about him that you didn’t already know?\n\nHe was different from the caricatured version of \”Rahm Emanuel\” I had read and heard about. He didn’t curse, his barbs felt like they weren’t intended to wound. He was definitely combative with his ideas, refusing even to accept the premise of some of my questions. For instance, I mentioned budget cuts and he cut me off, calling them \”budget reforms,\” ways to do more while spending less; I framed another question about schools by saying last fall’s teachers strike was controversial, and we got stuck there, since he felt there was nothing controversial about the longer school day and the performance pay for principals and such. The mayor seems often to present the flawed status quo and his specific solution to it as the only two possible alternatives, so if you question his proposal you must be for no change at all. I heard him talk about the parking meter fiasco this way.\n\nBefore the day, I imagined that a consensus black or Latino candidate could beat him in the next mayoral race, what with all the ire over school closings, the spike in homicides, a general sense that he wasn’t engaged with these communities. But after the day I felt differently. I was surprised by how good he was at the retail politics, how much he genuinely seemed to love shaking hands and talking to people in black Chicago. He was so comfortable, natural seeming at it. Already with a huge money advantage, already the incumbent, I imagined he’d win over (enough) people as he joyfully and skillfully campaigned.\n\nWhat can we expect from your book about Cabrini Green?\n\nThe history of high-rise public housing in Chicago is also a history of the inner-city over the past 60 years, its post-war decline and (now that the towers are gone) whatever rise we’re now experiencing. Cabrini-Green is also fascinating for a number of other reasons—it’s location on the Near North Side, just blocks from the Gold Coast; its role in popular lore as the most feared and recognized of the projects, sort of the stand-in for urban horrors; the complex, real lives and activism of tenants there; and the gentrification that has swept through the area in the past decade. I feel like I’m writing about an essential Chicago icon, as well as about individuals whose stories I hope I can tell with at least some of the artistry and potency they deserve. I’m deep into the reporting and researching, and I’ll be hunched over a laptop for at least another year.\n\nHow do you like this year’s Sox team?\n\nStill not sure what to make of this year’s team. Even separate from the problems with talent, it seems light in terms of personality. Yet when the Sox reached .500 last week and had four games ahead of them with the Cubs (with the Cubs!) I believed their fortunes had changed. Then 8 consecutive losses. I did turn on yesterday’s game in the 12th, while it was still scoreless, and saw all of that incredible 14th—5 runs for both teams, the Mariners getting 4 of theirs with two outs and two strikes in the bottom half of the inning. Crazy. That’s why baseball is great—you often see things you’ve never seen before.

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