The Other Side of the Notepad
The lead article in last week’s Reader told the story of Brad Suster, a tireless landlord, rehabber, and preservationist who believes the historic buildings of the south side get too little respect from City Hall and are too quickly torn down.
Mentioned briefly in the article, and clearly as one of the good guys, was the Sun-Times’s architecture critic, Lee Bey, “who has written more than 50 pieces on south-side preservation.” What Bey could offer Suster was useful but limited: a sympathetic ear and perhaps some sympathetic coverage. The fate of the buildings Suster worried about was in other hands.
But in May, Bey crossed the river. He quit the Sun-Times to become Mayor Daley’s deputy chief of staff for planning and design. He acquired real power, the power to help decide. “I see my job as simple,” he says. “It’s to look after the interests of the mayor. There will likely be times when preservationists and the city can get together on issues. And there will be times when we won’t.”
He goes on, “The same process can still apply. If a person calls up and says, ‘Here’s a row of buildings that are going to be torn down, and I think they’re historic,’ I’ll do the same thing I did at the Sun-Times. I’ll look into it. I’ll see what’s there and if there’s a case for saving them.”
But now he must look just as hard at the case against. “There’s a willingness in City Hall–more than a willingness–to look at these things in their proper light,” he says.
Does that mean that on his watch every nice old building will be protected?
Bey talks about the process reporters go through when developing sources as “putting people in the net.” In his five years covering architecture and planning for the Sun-Times, Bey thought he cast a pretty wide net. When he got to City Hall he thought again.
“No matter how much one thinks one knows, you truly don’t know until you’re inside,” he says. “There are people I’ve learned were very key that I never knew existed until I got in here. People I’d say–‘Boy, if I’d known six months ago!'”
“Deputy commissioners and assistant commissioners. People who are close to the streets and do a lot of the work.”
As a reporter, Bey did without their input. Now it’s vital. And because information Bey once squeezed out of the Hall today flows freely to his desk, other reporters are eager to net him.
“I get calls from the press every other day or so, and I try to deflect those calls and send them elsewhere. One of the things I want to convey externally and internally is that journalism is a past life for me, and though I had a fascinating time doing it, my job is different and my priorities are different. I want people sitting across the table from me to know the juicy stuff won’t wind up in the paper the next morning.”
He won’t answer the questions he used to ask. “I think they figure Lee Bey will know the answer because of his position. And that’s true. But I just can’t talk about most of what I hear. It’s almost like being in a Twilight Zone episode. There are things I always wanted to know the answer to, and now that I know the answer I can’t write a thing. The ability to keep knowing the answers largely depends on keeping one’s mouth shut.”
As a journalist, he says, “you can just sort of stand outside the process and say, ‘Why isn’t that right?’ In here you ask the same questions, but you have to figure out a way to make it right.” He’s talking about Block 37. “My mantra was, ‘Gee whiz, why can’t this thing be built, and why can’t it look good when it is built?'” As a journalist he had an idea of the problems the city faced putting something decent on Block 37, but he didn’t belabor them. “It wasn’t necessarily my job as critic to bog the reader down with the difficulties.”
Now they’re his to solve. And though he’s willing to tell me he felt all along that the most recent failed solution–a box with towers–was “outdated” because its fortress quality suited the desolate State Street of the 1980s but not of today, he won’t say what he’d like the city to put there now. I am, after all, a reporter.
He’s more forthcoming about North Bridge, a deal done before his watch. “The reason I wasn’t a fan and am not a fan of it is that it’s a totally–how can I say this?–it’s ‘anywhere.’ The mix of shops is nice, but the design of the whole thing doesn’t speak to Chicago. North Bridge has done something I don’t want to see–I’m speaking as a citizen–replicated anywhere. Commercially it probably works fine, but designwise–what it contributes to the area, the feeling it gives you walking by–it’s just sort of blah. Expensive but blah.”
Is developer John Buck on bad paper with the city because of North Bridge?
“No. The fact is, he can get stuff built, which is a virtue in its own right,” says Bey. “He’s smart. He has access to capital. He knows what he’s doing.”
In May, a survey by Columbia University reported that women architecture critics are a rare breed and black critics so uncommon that Bey was the only one in the country. Which means that now there are none. Meanwhile, back at the Sun-Times, there’s nobody of any color or sex filling his shoes. “It’s one of the unfortunate things about this whole progression of events,” he says. “People were looking to the Sun-Times for architectural coverage and criticism for the first time in I don’t know when. It didn’t win a Pulitzer [the coverage of his Tribune counterpart, Blair Kamin, did], but at least it was competitive. And to allow it to go away–I’m just at a loss. The audience is there. It’s waiting.
“To do it the way a tabloid should do it, it’s not a guy on the corner gazing up at the aesthetics of a building. It’s neighborhood stories. It’s architecture as a prism to look at the city in new ways. Those are stories I tried to do. It’s something that works and can continue to work.”
Late-Night Wake-Up Call
Luckily for Thomas Roeser, nothing’s harder to keep hidden than a good mind. Every so often genius doesn’t get its due, but over the long haul smart people are easy to spot. They look smart, they talk smart, they do smart things.
Roeser’s candlepower is considerable, though now and then his flame gutters. A familiar presence on Chicago’s op-ed pages as a conservative essayist comfortable with moral absolutes, he came last weekend to a subject more timeworn than perhaps he realized: the power of TV’s late-night comics to mold public opinion. Bewildered that President Bush’s standing in the polls has dipped for no reason that, so far as Roeser can see, has anything to do with his performance, Roeser found his culprits on the tube.
Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings? “They’re liberal propagandists, all right, but they’re not enough,” Roeser mused. But at the end of the broadcast day, wiseguys named Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien “are as unremittingly single-minded in pursuit of liberalism as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.”
Roeser gave us a taste of their humor. According to O’Brien, “Cheney said the only problem is that while he’s having the procedure done, President Bush will be running the country.”
Better not giggle around Roeser, who wrote, “I want to label them for what they are: irresponsible scandal-mongers specializing in fiction, casting a light on the feeble estate of art in the land, hustling for the left. They are not only debasing the public taste; they are destroying what remains of civility in public discourse, and it is time they are singled out for it.”
Roeser comes late to this party–a debate over the power of TV comics to shape public opinion that last flared up during the last election. But the big concern then was trivialization; Roeser’s is ideology. Yes, he allowed, the wiseguys “attack Democrats too.” But why? “For show,” he revealed. Oh, they “chide” Clinton for “womanizing,” something “this newer generation” believes is “funny, not fatal,” and “criticized” Al Gore as “dull…hardly a fatal flaw.” Bush they “assault.” They call him “dumb,” which in Roeser’s view is a flaw most fatal. “And so the perception has caught on. Despite the fact that Bush has a Harvard MBA.”
I have good news for Roeser. Not even the left-wingers who rule late-night television have the power to keep an intelligent president from demonstrating his intelligence. Over the next three years, several opportunities to use his mind will come Bush’s way, and by 2004, when he runs for reelection, the American public will know how deep it runs. Jay Leno won’t matter.
Roeser should worry less about the president and more about his friends at the Sun-Times. The best writers sometimes need to be saved from themselves, and that’s what a good editor does. Allowing Roeser to call the TV comics “scandal-mongers” suggests editorial forbearance, since there’s nothing particularly scandalous about being dumb. But his editors then allowed him to wrap up his piece by calling them scandal-mongers again. This suggests that either they’re blind to rhetorical excess when liberals are the object of it or that some cynic was laughing up his sleeve.
Another thing. There are probably better ways to assail someone’s “hit-man tactics” than by comparing him to the pamphleteer of Thomas Jefferson’s day who accused him of siring a child with a slave.
How others see us: “The quarter century since  has been a climb away from pessimism, a period evenly divided between Democrat and Republican presidencies: a dozen years of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, a dozen years of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (the temptation is to pick one pair as being better for American pride, but sometimes things are too obvious to need stating). The Soviet Union, dreaded for decades, fell apart like a cheap toy. The military was boosted by a turkey shoot of the Gulf War. The economy soared. The new Bush presidency, which began with such concerns for legitimacy, has provided a welcome half year of normalcy after the bury-your-face-in-the-hands shame of the Clinton years.” From the July Fourth editorial of the Sun-Times, owned, published, and edited by Canadians.
All in all, the Sun-Times has seen better days. A story on June 30 about artists at work in the Flat Iron Building in Wicker Park noted that “author Saul Bellow lived in Wicker Park, and a street in the trendy neighborhood is named for him.” Perhaps the newspaper was thinking of Nelson Algren. On July 4 the paper published a photo of Beth Conway at the Chicago Historical Society costume parade. The same picture appeared on the front page of the Sun-Times on July 5, 2000. And this past Monday the paper mistakenly reprinted the entire Saturday comics section.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.