This past June, in our annual Best of Chicago issue, the Reader offered a collection of stories under the heading, “Reasons to Love Chicago.” Staff writer Steve Bogira contributed. He called his piece “Fifty years after Dr. King’s march in Marquette Park, racial integration remains elusive in Chicago.” Just as elusive were the reasons to love the city that Bogira had presumably spotted. His subliminal message might have been this: if we all keep working at it, and hoping against hope, one day places like Marquette Park could be models of integration and equality, even though they aren’t yet.
Bogira delivered terrible news to the Reader staff Thursday. He’s leaving the paper. Our senior long-form writer, a contributor since the late 70s, wants to write at a slower pace and in an even longer form for national magazines. So he’s going to knock on their doors. “The Reader will be standing by to take any Bogira piece the New Yorker doesn’t have room for!” promises Jake Malooley, our editor.
Malooley’s note to the staff passing on the news got emotional.
“The values and principles and subjects at the core of our journalistic mission—race and poverty and segregation—have been formed by the work that Steve has done over the course of his 35 years with the paper,” Malooley wrote. This is largely true, and to the extent those things compose our core, Bogira’s the writer primarily responsible for putting them there—the founding vision was more along the lines of keeping an open door and publishing the best manuscripts tossed through it, whatever they were.
“The magnitude of Steve’s tenure at the Reader struck me on my very first day here,” Malooley went on. “Sitting on a shelf of my otherwise empty office, I found a yellowing copy of an issue from January 1983. The cover story, ‘Landlord of the Promised Land,’ carried Steve’s byline. It’s unfortunate that the piece isn’t included in our online archive because it’s classic Bogira: an engrossing long-form dive into the inhumanity of neglected public housing on the south side. Here was a writer who’d been crafting 5,000-word cover stories long before I was a twinkle in my daddy’s eye. He inspired Candyman for chrissakes! Working alongside such a legendary figure was a thrilling prospect.”
Candyman was begotten—at least in part—by Bogira’s 1987 Reader cover story “They Came in Through the Bathroom Mirror.” It’s about a terrified woman killed by someone who entered her housing project apartment from the adjacent apartment by removing the medicine cabinets. And here’s Bogira, two years ago, recalling the links between his story and the horror movie: “Urban legends may captivate us more than urban realities,” he concluded drily, but some of those legends are real. “We show our respect by at least being aware of them.”
Bogira, 62, began freelancing for the Reader in 1979. Editor Bob Roth hired him in 1980 to work half-time writing long cover stories, one every six weeks. One every two or three months turned out to be more realistic; the focus of those stories, then as always, being, in his words, “what life is like for poor people, especially poor black people, in Chicago.”
In 1993 he received an Alicia Patterson fellowship to write about urban felony courts and the poor. He submitted a couple of Reader pieces to the judges, one of whom was LBJ biographer Robert Caro. Caro was so impressed he touted Bogira to his editor at Knopf, and in 2005 a book emerged—Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse.
Critics hailed it, and HBO was interested enough to option it and develop scripts for half a dozen episodes, one of which Bogira wrote. A couple of networks also nibbled. “I made more money from HBO not producing it than I made from the royalties on the book, although that’s been fine,” Bogira says.
As 2007 ended, the editor of the Reader, which by then was no longer owned by its founders but by the risible Creative Loafing chain, laid off Bogira and three other prominent long-form writers on grounds that they simply didn’t produce enough product to be affordable. He and his wife, Jane, “needed me to be making a steady income,” he tells me, so he started looking for a regular job. He even stooped to consulting Craigslist, the online hiring hall that had decimated the Reader‘s once-lucrative classifieds. And in 2010 Craigslist told him the Reader needed an associate editor.
“Beggars can’t be choosers, so I applied,” Bogira recalled in a 2011 Bleader post explaining his return. As an editor, he needed to work in the office instead of at home. But soon he went back to being a writer. Yet he continued to come into the office because he’d discovered he liked it there. “We have a crew of many talents here, catching and striking a softball unfortunately not being among them,” he wrote. (Bogira once pitched for the Reader team.) “They are people who are playful with words. People of a variety of ages, ranging mainly from younger than me to much younger. It’s exhilarating being around them,”
He’s leaving now, he says, because “at this point Jane and I can afford not to make a steady income.” (And perhaps the Kup Cup the Reader won this past week in the Chicago media softball league finals helped persuade him that his work here was done.)
As Bogira is looking around for another book idea, I suggested he write a manual for young journalists on how to afford not to make a steady income. But no longer being young and raising a family seems to be central to that possibility. “The Reader today, you need to do some blogging, as you know, and contribute to special issues,” he says. “That’s entirely reasonable for the Reader to ask that, but I’m at the point in my career where I can afford to do what I want, which is focusing on one thing and immersing myself.”
And then, he hopes, selling what he surfaces to a national magazine, or turning it into a second book. “The challenge in writing a book is getting a contract to write about poor people,” he says. “It’s not easy. But it’s possible. Courtroom 302 did well. People see it primarily as a critique of criminal justice, but I see it as more of a critique of poverty and racial inequality.”
Bogira says, “I’ve focused on people who don’t get interviewed very much and usually never. The best part of immersion is sitting in a living room or kitchen just one-on-one with people who are really appreciative of the fact that someone is interested in them. I feel blessed for being able to do this.”