Category Archives: Commentary

See Potential: helping us all envision the rebirth of abandoned buildings on the South Side.

See Potential in what’s around us. That’s the goal of photographer Emily Schiffer’s See Potential initiative: affixing huge weatherproof photographic works to undervalued community assets. It’s a great idea that can help harness the public imagination for the greater good. It’s the sort of greater good that Schiffer always hoped her art would serve. She related to Benevolent Media:

“It’s very clear that publishing an image in a magazine or having a gallery show or having a book isn’t actually going to change anything… I’m always jealous of people who do pottery, for example, because their art has some sort of practical use.

For instance, Gladys’ Luncheonette (a Soul Restaurant that served Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood for decades, but recently closed) is re-imagined through imagery as a healthy corner store offering cooking classes. For members of the neighborhood, this is definitely a soft sell; but Schiffer, alongside Orrin Williams and Judith Helfand, is also trying to sell the viability of community development to outside investors (as well as the City of Chicago itself).

The works will illustrate the Center for Urban Transformation’s revitalization plans for shared community spaces such as:

– Locally owned corner stores that will sell nutritious food and provide on-site, healthy cooking classes.

– Year-round, indoor growing sites using aquaponics technology will train and employ community members and supply food to local healthy corner stores.

– Cooking schools or community centers refashioned from blighted homes that will provide holistic living practices through diverse forms of community outreach and education.

– Community gardens created in empty lots.

According to their Kickstarter proposal:

“Each photographic installation will include a text panel encouraging onlookers to send a text message in support of that specific site transformation.  Using a custom-designed SMS text messaging infrastructure and GPS technology, [they] will collect all messages and record the location from which each text was sent.  By pinpointing the different locations and by tracking the amount of public support at each site, we will be able to present a series of interactive, web-based maps to potential funders, policy makers, and city officials.”

This is just the sort of paradigm shift that Darkjive is all about, something I term as Lack versus Fat (outlined fully here). Using the analogy of the coffee can full of grease that my grandmother kept on her stovetop, the grease (and the can itself) could, at first, be considered waste material. But upon reevaluation, it can also be considered a resource that can contribute to the kind of meal that sustains life. The same can be said for abandoned buildings, or so many things in our communities that can be seen as deficits.

for more on the project (which was recently successfully funded via Kickstarter) click here.


Chicago: in all its fried, dyed, laid-to-the-side (or perhaps natural) glory.

I was watching my “Best of Soul Train” DVD box-set this weekend (of course), which includes tons of original TV spots for Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen (two black haircare lines manufactured by Chicago’s own Johnson Products). Iconic brands, to be sure. During the glory days of Black Haircare manufacture in Chicago (roughly the late 1960s through the 1970s), Johnson Products’ annual sales were over $10 million. During the 1970s, as sales expanded even further, Johnson Products ranked as the largest African American–owned manufacturing company in the nation. In those heady days, alongside Johnson Products, the illustrious Soft Sheen and other smaller firms also called the Windy City home.

Unfortunately, Johnson Products (the first minority firm to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange) was sold to Proctor and Gamble, but was recently acquired by a black firm based in Dallas.

Sadder still, Soft Sheen which had about 400 employees in the Chicago area and $100 million in annual sales by the mid-1990s, was purchased by L’Oreal in the late 1990s, and a newly built manufacturing plant on 87th Street was shut down soon after. The Company’s headquarters were shifted elsewhere.

Below, Sheila Hutchinson (the lead vocalist from the Emotions [who are also from Chicago]) sings an old Soft Sheen jingle called “Brand New You in ’82”. Nearly thirty years old, the record was released as a promotion on Soft Sheen Records. The song sounds like some lost Emotions or perhaps Earth, Wind, & Fire number.  Personally, it makes me feel like I’m ready to face 1982, too.  Reaganomics… here I come! Jive on!


Sophia Tareen’s Chicago Soul Food Sign-of-the-Times

photo by Southern Foodways Alliance.

Sophia Tareen’s article published in the Huffington Post this month, entitled “Chicago Soul Food Disappearing as Blacks Leave, (excerpted below) brings up a number of over-arching issues as to why these community institutions have had some hard times, but leaves out any solutions, leaving us with sort of a hollow ‘sign-of-the-times’ .

“The sweet aroma of fresh waffles and salty fried chicken – family recipes passed down through the generations – hang in the air. No soda is served, only sweet tea.

But places like [Hard Times] Josephine’s – located in a sagging building off a busy commercial stretch [79th Street] may number only a half dozen now, having gradually given way to fast food, healthy food and imports like Cajun cuisine, along with the pressures of a bad economy. Also, more middle-class residents are moving to the suburbs, some retirees are heading “home” to the South and others are pursuing the economic lures of the Sunbelt, reversing the historic wave that brought southern blacks pouring into Chicago for jobs in industry.

The Chatham neighborhood on the South Side shows the change. The rows of once-classy homes in the black middle-class neighborhood, including a brick cottage that was home to gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, are now pocked with boarded-up windows and vacant properties. Other traditionally black neighborhoods have suffered even more as the population loss and foreclosure crisis have left behind weed-filled lots.

One of the most popular soul food restaurants in town, Army & Lou’s, closed this year.

“When you lose your base, your foundation, the next generation isn’t there to keep it going,” said former owner Harry Fleming. “It’s losing a real strong sense of heritage.”

Earlier this year, the South Side lost Izola’s, known for its seafood. The year before it was Edna’s, a West Side establishment patronized by King. Also gone are the longtime Gladys’ Luncheonette, a popular musicians’ hangout with great banana pie, and Soul Queen.”

The article wraps up by stating (among other things):

“Increasing health consciousness has also played a role. Soul food, often fried and made with full-fat ingredients, has gotten a bad rap in recent years.”

Of course… it’s the yams and greens that have made us plump. It COULDN’T be the Fast Food spots on every corner….

These restaurant represent an indelible part of Chicago’s heritage, just like the music discussed on this blog. To me, the younger generation is charged with taking the mantle of this food that came with our ancestors and not letting it die.

The original food that became soul food was as “green” as green could be: fully organic, locally grown, and fresh. Urban transplants did what they could to recreate peach cobbler with canned peaches, but there’s nothing in the world like “Soul Food” the way it’s supposed to be. I, for one, want to see a “Real Food” restaurant, without greyish green beans, but rather the kind Grandma trimmed at the kitchen table.


Bridgeport Neighborhood Sees Identity Shift

Detail of a larger mural created by Juan Chavez and located at Fellowship House, 32nd and Lituanica, Bridgeport. Image from Mad About The Mural.

Below is an interesting piece from WBEZ by reporter Natalie Moore that sheds light on changes that the Bridgeport neighborhood  (home base for the Version Fest [see below]… and the Daleys) has been going through in recent years.  As a new generation (among them an influx of artists and immigrants) are choosing to make Bridgeport their home, the older working-class roots and racially-charged reputation of the community seem to be fading away.  But are they?

Bridgeport Neighborhood Sees Identity Shift.


Army and Lou’s: obituary of an icon.

(above, Common pictured at Army and Lou’s)

How does a person write an obituary for a restaurant? Not just a restaurant, but a place with historical significance. The Sun-Times did a pretty good job:

It was the late Mayor Harold Washington’s favorite restaurant — the booth where he always sat still bears his name. And its storied history goes beyond feeding the grass-roots political movement that elected the city’s first black mayor.

At its original Black Metropolis location, it fed the leader of another movement: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s.

But South Side soul-food legend Army & Lou’s, 422 E. 75th St., thought to be the oldest black-owned restaurant in the Midwest, closed its doors for the last time Sunday.

For 65 years, Army & Lou’s has fed celebrities, politicians, business moguls and others who slid into its red linen-tableclothed booths for greens and ham hocks, catfish, chitterlings and peach cobbler. Celebs ranged from Cab Calloway to Muhammad Ali to former U.S. Sen. Charles Percy.

Washington, a bachelor, would eat there up to three times a week, and was partial to just about everything, longtime staff like waitress Betty Martin recall….

…“It was a fine dining establishment, and the first place that a lot of middle-class African-American families back then were taking their children where there were linen tablecloths and napkins, and there was live music,” McDuffie recounted.

Yes, I can vouch for the cobbler, and lots of other dishes, too.  But, I also know that Army & Lou’s suffered through multiple changings of hands (the last of which occurred in late summer/early autumn of last year). Chicagoans know that when businesses change hands too often, it can spell disaster (can we say Marshall Field’s?).

It’s really unfortunate, and I’ve even heard vegans send up condolences.  But the issue that caused Army and Lou’s to close was not a lack of warm and fuzzy feelings, it was lack of support from the community in the form of dollars and cents.

Another issue was that since Army and Lou’s had relocated from Bronzeville to the Chatham neighborhood in the 1970s, very little had been done in terms of updating the aesthetics.  Since the highest concentration of folks who eat out are 20-45 years old, and they tend to look for ambience when paying over $20 a plate, an overhaul of the dining room area would have been wise.

My vote, and I’m totally not kidding about this, is let’s call Chef Gordon Ramsay (from FOXs Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares) and get him to help them bounce back. He has a pretty good record of revamping restaurants on the brink.  It would be great press, and would breathe new life into a local icon.  Click here for a sample of Kitchen Nightmares’ brand of tough love.


Don’t Care Bears. Hilarious.

 

You know you love it. Or else, you don’t care.   This t-shirt, featuring a trio of apathetic bears modeled after the iconic Care Bears is available from Chicago’s own Threadless, by artist Alex Solis.


The Return of Captain EO: This was it.

 

Hot off the presses.. Captain EO will be reopen at the Epcot Center (at Walt Disney World) this July. The ride/film short directed by Francis Ford Coppola and featuring Michael Jackson was originally opened in 1986 and closed in 1994 amidst allegations of abuse.  The film was definitely a highlight of my family’s trip to Orlando back in the day.  I am sad that Michael had to leave us for this gem of 80s cinematic opulence to return to the world!  Jive on.


Chicago Public Schools Walk Out to Stop Budget Cuts

 

My Teen Talk Radio students tell me that many students at our school (Uplift Community High) are planning on walking out of school on Thursday April 8th at 9:30am to protest proposed CPS (Chicago Public Schools) budget cuts.  Another school involved is Social Justice High School at Little Village/Lawndale High School’s campus (a school I’ve also worked with).

There is a projected deficit of nearly $1 Billion for the FY 2011, and the proposed budget cuts according to an official CPS slideshare presentation (presented March, 15th 2010) includes:

increasing class size (H.S. and elementary) to 37 students (a savings valued at $160 Million)

cut supplemental resources in half  for gifted, magnet, and montessori schools by $22 Million

reduce early childhood and bilingual education programs by $61 Million

reduce district funding for full day kindergarten programs by $16 Million

eliminate all district funded non-varsity sports (a savings valued at $7 Million)

reduce enrichment and after school programs by $17 Million

Taking into account the deficit, budget cuts certainly must be made; but students wonder how enrichment that supports at-risk students and gives students a chance at post-secondary success (via sports and other after school programs) can be considered for the chopping block.  They are (in their mind) just as, or even more essential than what goes on between the bells. 

The budget will not officially be approved by the board until August. 

This, of course, opened the door for a classroom discussion about whether such protests still work, and what the pros and cons of such displays are.   Many of my students will cover the walkout and subsequent rally as student journalists. Below is some of our board work.  Great to know that students aren’t as apathetic as the media leads us to believe.  Jive on!

(below, notes on a “reporter’s job”)

(above, pros and cons of protests)


Ebony in the digital age

 

Chicago’s own Ebony Magazine has digitized its archives.  Celebrate.

Ebony was the premier photojournalism and news magazine of the Black Diaspora for decades.   During its peak, Ebony featured groundbreaking work by photographers such as Gordon Parks (work seen below), as well as thought provoking articles that exposed sometimes obscure corners of the “black experience” (Mixed race children of WWII G.I.s in Japan, black scuba divers, black opera singers, et al.).  A beautiful thing.

 A contender has yet to step up to the plate and pick up that mantle.

click here to access the archive that goes back more than fifty years. Jive on!

 

 

 

 

 

 


Eunice Johnson: Wrought a Roadshow of Dreams

 

Eunice Johnson (1916-2010), widow of Ebony/Jet Publisher John H. Johnson, was more than Black Media’s First Lady.  As Creator and Director of the Ebony Fashion Fair (an all black roadshow of haute couture), she paved the way for generations of black models from Beverly Johnson and Naomi Sims to Naomi Campbell.  In fact, Richard Roundtree (“Shaft”) was a Fashion Fair model before he was kicking tail on the big screen. 

In the show, which was started in 1961, she included some of the most fashion forward designers, including Yves Saint Laurent (pictured with Mrs. Johnson, above).  In a time when Chicago was in many ways the hub of culture and information that bound the Black Community together (i.e., the nationally recognized Chicago Defender, Ebony, Jet, and a world renowned music and arts scene), Mrs. Johnson took her Fashion Crusade to the streets in towns both near and remote.  Accordingly, sewing machines buzzed each season, inspired by the roadshow of dreams.  Her shows, as well as so many of those classic Ebony Magazine fashion layouts, presented our people as we were (and still are) striving to be: free and uplifted. Strutting. Gliding.

As if that weren’t enough, Ebony Fashion Fair, which grew into the world’s largest traveling fashion show,  annually encompasses a nearly 180-city tour of the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.  It has raised more than $55 million for various charities.

And it keeps us dreaming.  To me, that is her legacy.  She brought the dream to our door.

Jive on!