Flat Iron: The Sitcom

Bob Berger was watching palm trees grow on the Web a couple of years ago when it occurred to him there might be an audience out there for artists at work. “There are several successful farm sites in Iowa where people can sit around and watch the grain grow,” says Berger, on his way to becoming the Max Bialystock of the Internet. If they’ll click on corn and soybeans, he reasoned, oil on canvas should be a shoo-in.

Since Berger owns the Flat Iron Building at North, Damen, and Milwaukee, home to 100 or so artists in 60 studios, he was in a position to try this idea out. His plan, to put the Flat Iron on the Web “around the world, around the clock” via cameras installed in the building’s hallways and first-floor businesses, caused a stir among tenants, who figured out what he was doing just a couple of weeks ago as the wiring was going in. Some of them fear their privacy and security are at risk. But the eight cameras–including one mounted across the street to pan the neighborhood–and the giant monitor that will hang on the front of the building are only a prelude to Berger’s real project: Flat Iron Building, the Sitcom. It’s slated to follow the Internet launch by a year.

“It’s a natural,” he says, brimming with conviction. “I have the first episode written already. It will actually be filmed on location with local actors. It’s based on people I’ve met in the art world and composite characters of people at the Flat Iron. We don’t think there’s anything like it.” Berger, who says he has trouble writing his own name, spent six months laboring over the first episode with the help of two professional writers (whom he fondly refers to as “the ladies”). He now realizes “how difficult it is to produce a sitcom,” but he’s undaunted. The show is funny, he says, but not necessarily a comedy: “It’s a com-dram. Serious stuff, based on reality.” One character is a chronically depressed artist (“a hero in his own way”); another is a publisher of an alternative weekly who strongly resembles the founder of this one. “We want to have a year of the Internet under our belt,” he says. Then “this show will go to television. I’ve met with agents; we’ve talked with several companies. They’re interested.”

There probably won’t be a character based on Jessie Davis, office manager for RCP Publications, even though she’s been in the building for 11 years. Since RCP stands for Revolutionary Communist Party, Davis had an idea about what to do when (she says) Berger refused to come over to talk about the issues. She scheduled a tenant “speak-out,” put out a press release, and was promptly smacked with an eviction notice. It’s retaliation, she says, and it had a chilling effect on the speak-out. “How much of your privacy is going to be taken over by these reality-TV or Webcam sites?” Davis asks. “Can any landlord come in and say look, in all the common areas we’re going to have Internet cameras?” There are a lot of rapes in Wicker Park, she adds: “It’s sort of antisecurity if people know you’re entering or leaving. Most people don’t mind the cameras as long as it’s consensual, but people want to keep their comings and goings private.”

Berger says federal law permits broadcasting from public places. As for security: “What kind of robber wants to go where there’s cameras?” He says the communists have been on a month-to-month lease for two years, and he wants them out of the building because he needs the space for artists. “You know, I thought they were harmless,” he says. “I thought they were nuts. But these people are dangerous. I said, ‘By the way, how do you feel about America?’ and she says, ‘Well, we’re fine, but we want to overthrow the government.'”

“I never said that,” says Davis. “Basically this is a business office. This is not over politics.”

Berger, who’s owned the building since 1993, says he’s spending about $100,000 to get the Internet site up and running, what with an antenna on the roof, a “giant server” in the basement, and a seven-by-seven-foot custom monitor that will be mounted on the building’s narrow front wall, facing the intersection. The monitor will broadcast images from the eight cameras in rotation, but home viewers will be able to choose which camera they want to watch: the one in the Local Grind, in the Note, or in the usually empty labyrinth of hallways. Berger says the site will be on-line in the next 30 or 40 days, and that’ll be good for the artists. “I tell you, this is 1990 all over again,” he confides. “The economy is in the toilet. No one knows it yet. The first thing people stop spending on is art. And we think, if there’s any spendable art dollars, we’ll get it. Our artists, I hope, are going to do very nicely.”

Supreme Test

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed last week to get involved in the fracas between Roosevelt University and the runaway board of the Auditorium Theatre Council, an epic struggle that’s been grinding its way through seven years and millions in legal fees. Roosevelt appealed to the Supreme Court in early May, hoping for a ruling broad enough to end the case, which hangs on the question of whether or not the university created an irrevocable public trust when it established the Auditorium Theatre Council in 1960 to raise funds for the theater and run it. It became an issue in 1994, when Roosevelt president Theodore Gross attempted to transfer $1.5 million of the theater’s surplus funds to the university to use as collateral for a Schaumburg campus. Auditorium Theatre Council members, led by Fred Eychaner and Betty Lou Weiss, filed suit to stop him. The university has won twice at the county court level, and the council has successfully appealed twice. Gross just received a two-year extension on his Roosevelt contract; if the university wins, it will dissolve the council. The case should come before the Supreme Court in late fall or winter.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry/photo manipulation/Ben Utley.