Author Archives: kaysev50

About kaysev50

Award-winning writer and journalist, open to part-time writing and editing opportunities.

Confessions of a feature writer: I miss my Twinkies


twinkiesA long time ago and most likely in a galaxy far, far away where people received their daily news from newspapers or television, a fellow journalist at my college newspaper said this to me:

“News reporters write the meat and potatoes of the newspaper. You feature people write the Hostess Twinkies.”

Mick was probably hungry when he said that. But I argued with him anyway.

People like features more than news, I said. And Hostess Twinkies aren’t a good comparison. We at least are writing homemade chocolate chip cookies. I didn’t have a very sophisticated palate at age 20. Of course, that was before Twinkies became famous for getting a murderer off the hook, then famous for going out of business and coming back to life. They always were known for their lack of nutritional value, their silly fluffiness and the way they would smush in your mouth without needing to be chewed.

No matter what you call them, it’s clear that light features are hard to find in newspapers anymore.

For non-newsfolk, here’s the difference: Hard news stories cover serious subjects and events that have happened or will happen: meetings or crimes, for example. Features without strong news pegs (Twinkies, in Mick’s vernacular) might include a story about a pig that can skateboard or unusual ways teens are getting asked to Prom.

It seems frivolous to complain about the loss of features when seismic shifts in the newspaper business have killed so much of our more nutritional news. According to Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism 2013, 30 percent of Americans have deserted a news outlet because “it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.” (The Pew report makes no effort to distinguish news from features when it reviews newspaper content changes. Perhaps they didn’t find any features, or counted them as news topics or else dismissed them as inconsequential Twinkies.)

The reason is readers are unhappy is no secret. Because ad revenues are down to a fraction of what they were just a few years ago, newspaper staffs are around 30 percent smaller now than they were in 1989.

WHERE I LIVE, the last people standing in the newsroom are struggling just to cover government meetings. It’s hard to justify the time it takes to track down information for a Twinkie and they don’t always pan out. If writers have a spare moment, they tend to take on a quick, event-based feature with news angle. It’s so rare to find a longer feature–one with multiple sources, insight and context–that we have a new descriptor for them: long form. There aren’t as many of these any more. Long form doesn’t play nice with a mobile device.

I haven’t published a feature for at least five years. I miss writing my Twinkies. Last week I was walking on a street that I normally only drive. I discovered that someone had created a woodland path through a ravine. It seemed to be privately owned and had several “welcome to the path” signs near the entrance. The walkway was decorated with painted birdhouses and plaques offering a variety of thoughtful, nature-related sayings.

I walked down the path and found it eventually led to the back door of a nearby house. Did those people buy this ravine, then create a space for the public to wander? Who does that? Did they improve a ravine they do not own? Who does that? I wanted to write about them, mostly because I wanted to meet them.

This is how I got into feature writing in the first place. I was endlessly curious and painfully shy. Feature writing was my ticket out of introversion. I wanted to meet people like the pathmaker, but I was too shy to knock on doors, make phone calls, get introduced. Only with a notepad between us was I outgoing.

BACK AT THE SIDEWALK, I pondered who I still knew at the newspaper who might want this story idea. But in reality, there is no time or place for a story like this anymore. It has no pathology that I know of. No electric company is threatening to chop down the trees, no neighbors appear to be complaining about the dangerous ravine. I imagined that perhaps its creator was healing from losing a child, or thanking the universe for surviving cancer. Maybe just fulfilling a lifelong dream. We won’t know. The ravine will go unpublicized, as perhaps it should. But I will never meet the person who loves it.

While Pew has quantified the fact that consumers have noticed the changes in their “newstrition,” I would like to think that readers miss their Twinkies, too. Yes, news features are chewier – perhaps even more nutritious – than features without a news peg, but features can be plenty interesting without one, too. Back when we had actual feature writers on newspaper staff rosters, we didn’t let the lack of an angle hold us back when the story was good. Basic, local features would illuminate life in our times and inform us gently about the quirkiness, kindness, or different-ness of our neighbors.

Features aren’t completely gone, of course. Major metropolitan dailies still have some and local papers hire freelancers to cover light, feature-type events. Consumers can go online and find cat pictures and discussions by 20-somethings about sex positions with pumpkins. (Halloween angle, anyone?) But local, meet-your-neighbor features or long-form insights into featurized local issues – those peeks through the fence at what makes our town tick – those are mostly gone.

GOOD LUCK WITH finding the community glue created when one person said to another, “I read about your son in that newspaper article. I had no idea he made shelters for homeless people out of Popsicle sticks. I clipped it for you.” And then the newspaper clipping would be handed over in person, creating face to face conversation, or mailed. Yes, we have Facebook posts, and we email stories to each other – but seldom light local stories. They are nearly as hard to find as the real Twinkies were last year.

I don’t know who or what will replace our light feature stories, or when or even if (is that one of the 5Ws?) it will happen. I’m not sure how we will live without them.

But I’ve got news for you, Mick. Features weren’t Twinkies. They were sometimes strawberry shortcake and sometimes crepes with balsamic-macerated strawberries topped with a chiffonade of basil. They had vitamin C and fiber.

Delicious and good for you.


Women’s fashions have no good place for a cell phone


Not long ago, while waiting in the lobby for a job interview, I realized my cell phone was gone. Most likely it fell out of my purse on the bus. I tried to put the loss out of my mind to focus on the interview but I didn’t get the job.

Employment prospects are one thing, but the lack of a fashionable place for women to keep their cell phones is a problem on an entirely different plane – a monumental, world-wide phenomenon that like every other gender-based inequality, threatens to keep us tied to the kitchen, where there may be a landline, or at least a countertop on which to put your cell phone.

Take a look at the average male cell phone user. No matter how large the Samsung Galaxy or the iPhone gets, it always fits snugly into the back pocket of the average pair of men’s Dockers, dress pants or shorts. There it vibrates coyly whenever a call or text comes in, that gentle butt cheek vibration keeping  men in the loop. No matter what they are wearing, it almost always has a back pocket that they can reach before the message goes to voicemail.

Not so for women. Aside from traditional jeans, almost none of our clothing has a good place for a cell phone. Unfashionable pleated trousers with side pockets work sometimes, but typically the pockets are too shallow to safely hold a phone. It will fall out whenever you least expect it, but definitely just before you are expecting a call.

The fact is, ladies, while the behinds of your male friends gently vibrate, we are being left behind.  It is time to rise up and demand either improved fashion choices or better cell phone technology.

Let’s face it, our currently fashionable skinny pants and tight-fitting tops leave little room for a rectangular bulge. But even clothes that are designed to fit a little more loosely make almost no accommodation for cell phones. Most women have to carry it in their hand, or as I did, find a place in their purse. But to keep it safe, it has to be buried in an inside pocket where we will never feel it vibrate or even hear it ring. Even if you carry your purse with you 24/7, it’s not a solution.

The fashion industry could help by accommodating the tech world. Perhaps we can gather some ideas from the fashionistas of past decades. For example:

Jackie Kennedy could have stored her cell phone in her hat. Pillbox hats a la Jackie Kennedy – She looked so chic in her pink pillbox, but imagine if it cleverly had also hidden her cell phone.  “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ambass –“ Ring ring! And just like that, she  unpins her cute little hat and talks to John-John.


Enormous shoulder pads a la Lauren Bacall – Here’s the scene : Lauran BacallYou are interviewing a private eye with a startling resemblance to Humphrey Bogart. You light a cigarette. Suddenly, your shoulder pad begins to vibrate. You toss the cigarette onto his desk, unsnap the epaulet and whip out your cell phone. “The money?” you snarl in a throaty voice. “Show me the money!” Oh wait, wrong movie.

June CleaverFull-skirted dirndls a la June Cleaver –  Whether you are happily vacuuming the living room or presenting in the board room, your flirty skirt would hide a deep pocket within its gathers.  The problem with a dirndl is that it’s loose and you won’t feel the phone vibrate when the noise of the vacuum cleaner also is drowning out the ringtone. Perhaps your pearl necklace could be a remote sensor device?

impressionistsThe fashions of yesteryear offer more options. Think how easy it would be to have felt that butt vibration if the phone was tucked into a bustle. A false pleat in your mutton-chop sleeve could have stowed a device. Marie Antoinette could have slid her phone, heck, even an iPad, into her up-do.

The issue with these otherwise-sensible suggestions is that they are still dependent on clothing construction that changes based on what you’re wearing. Men are always wearing pants. Well, almost always.

While there’s certainly an advantage for phone manufacturers to have half the population regularly losing and replacing their phones, companies could also capture the market of satisfied phone buyers if they made a phone for the rest of us. What might this tech solution look like?

I have a half-baked idea that it will look something like Dick Tracy’s wrist phone, with a difference. Tucked fashionably inside a cuff bracelet, when the phone rings the user releases a mechanism to stretch the entire phone across the palm.

Samsung, Motorola, iEverything – this is your moment. Give me a phone I can use and not lose.

Historic Beverly celebrates its ‘rainbow’ of neighbors


On a warm summer evening, multi-colored Chicagoans line up at Beverly’s Rainbow Cone. The customers, whose ancestors came from Ireland, Africa, Poland, Latin America and many other lands, are united on one delicious obsession – a cone piled high with five flavors of ice cream.

Rainbow Cone has been around since 1926, far longer than the historic Beverly/Morgan Park neighborhoods have been ethnically integrated, but there is something especially fitting about seeing the famous ice cream shop’s rainbow sign at the edge of one of Chicago’s few, truly multi-cultural neighborhoods.

Today, the sister neighborhoods of Beverly and Morgan Park have a population mix of approximately 60 percent Caucasian, 35 percent African American and 5 percent other backgrounds.

Beverly and Morgan Park, says historian Ellen Skerrett, is “one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. This neighborhood doesn’t get the credit for achieving an integrated neighborhood. People have had a long-standing commitment to it for 40 years now or more. We see it as a positive.”

Like many of her neighbors, Skerrett and her husband are returnees, second generation families that grew up in or near Beverly and Morgan Park, and who returned to raise their own families there.

In fact, according to a BAPA survey of new residents, the number one reason that people gave for buying a home in Beverly/Morgan Park was because they wanted to be near friends and family.

“We are very proud of that,” said Matt Walsh, executive director of the Beverly Area Planning Association. “People want to come back here.”

It all started with Border’s

Many decades ago, the shopping area along 95th Street, west of Western Avenue, was known as “Quality Mile,” and was lined with popular clothing and furniture shops that catered to their moneyed neighbors. Sometime around the 1960s or 1970s, along with the rise of shopping malls and big box stores, 95th Street began to decline, and Beverly/Morgan Park residents shopped elsewhere.

But area business people and elected officials have been working hard to change that and in recent years, there has also been an influx of strong new retailers.
“Now we are seeing a resurgence,” said Lois Weber, executive director of the 95th Street Beverly Hills Business Association. “People don’t have time to go to malls; they’re just too busy. We have weathered many trends in retailing, and 95th Street has come through all of them.”

It’s been slow-going. The current turn-around began more than 12 years ago when Ald. Ginger Rugai was alerted that Borders was looking for a city location.
In 1998, after more than a year of finagling and negotiating, a team of area officials headed by Rugai was able to convince Borders Book Store to open a store on 95th Street between Leavitt and Oakley.

It was a difficult sell, since the lots along 95th street are smaller than most retailers want. Most of the lots are no more than 120 feet deep, and popular national retailers want acreage, with plenty of room for a big parking lot.
“To get Borders here, we had to acquire several parcels of land from several different owners,” says Lois Weber, executive director of the 95th Street Beverly Hills Business Association. And we were able to offer an incentive to the developers. They were our anchor.”

With the help of city conservation tax increment financing district funds, the Borders spread out east and west, and added a parking lot running linearly along 95th Street.

“That was a huge addition,” Walsh said, “and it’s now one of the top-producing Borders in the region.”

Borders’ success has encouraged other businesses to take another look at Beverly, officials say. In 2007-2008 a strip of businesses known as the “Shops of Beverly” has opened at 95th and Bell, among them a Cold Stone Creamery, a Panera Bread, a Chipotle, a GameStop and other retailers. More recently, and after many years of negotiations, the owners of the property on the corner of Western and 95th Street sold, and now the property is gearing up to house an AT&T, a Potbelly’s, a Back to Bed, a Fatburger, and more.

“We thought it would be easy (to get the next businesses in),” Weber said, “but it was still rather difficult. We were able to convince developers that we have a ready market here. We are a border community and sometimes it’s easier to do a project in the suburbs. But we have had developers come and be very impressed by our demographics.”

A recent survey of new residents in 2008 by BAPA found that 59 percent of the new residents had household incomes of $100,000 or more and 84 percent had attained at least a bachelor’s degree. Of the new buyers that year, 80 percent were Caucasian, 10 percent African American, and 10 percent mixed and other races. Among the surveyed households, 58 percent were Catholic.

And overwhelmingly, the reason they moved to Beverly was because they had friends and family there. A typical response to the question was along the lines of, “Grew up here, moved away, moved back!”

Returning residents are seeing other improvements along the main thoroughfares besides the new stores. A new Chicago library was built at 95th and Damen, while the old library, at 95th and Hamilton, is likely to be revamped into a Wishbone Restaurant, which will bring yet another high end dining place into the neighborhood.

A new, LEED-certified firehouse just opened a few blocks away as well. Along with all the business growth, the 95th Street Business Association is starting a streetscape program, and in coming years, visitors will see repaired sidewalks, improved lighting and landscaping as well as a new sign welcoming them to Beverly.
After 12 years of planning, the site of a tragic fire that took the lives of two firemen has been purchased by the Chicago Park District and will become a memorial park along Western Avenue.

Pretty streets

Beverly’s strong sense of community may be one reason that home prices did not drop as much as some other neighborhoods in the city, Walsh says.

“Our prices never went up dramatically like many neighborhoods so when we came down we weren’t hurt as bad,” he said. “People don’t buy here to be speculative, but to live here.”

The boundaries of Beverly and Morgan Park will vary depending on who you ask, but there is some consensus that the northern boundary is 87th Street and the south 119th, with the dividing line between Beverly and Morgan Park at 107th. On the east they point to Vincennes and on the west, California. Look at a map of Chicagoland and just about where the Dan Ryan splits and grows legs, Beverly bounces on the knee bone of I-57.

Walk along any neighborhood street on a nice day, and you’ll be shaded by mature trees, soothed by the flowering, meticulously tended lawns lined with brick Georgians, bungalows and more than a few historic homes by famous architects. Until about 15 years ago, the neighborhood suffered from cut-through traffic, but after cul-de-sacs were installed in key locations, the streets quieted down, and burglaries decreased.

Depending on the street, you will find modest bungalows and brick homes built after World War Two, larger Georgians and Tudors set back from the street on wide, deep lots, three Frank Lloyd Wrights home, as well as several other landmarked homes, and a handful of newer homes. The neighborhoods have four landmark districts and historic Rock Island stations.

While most of the neighborhood offers single family housing, some streets sport townhomes or apartment buildings, either vintage and new. Closer to Longwood Drive, Vincennes and Pleasant, the terrain becomes hilly. The last Ice Age left a ridge here which is still s the highest point in Chicago.

The high terrain gives the mansions along Longwood an especially regal look. But one structure doesn’t just look regal, it’s an actual castle. The Givens House is a replica of an Irish castle built in 1886 of Joliet limestone.

We’re not in Kansas any more

More than one North Sider or East Coaster has been known to marvel over the Shangri-la-like enclave. North Siders compare it to Lake Forest or Wilmette; East Coasters say it reminds them of home. Typically, says Walsh, they will think they are in a suburb, not the city of Chicago. It’s not just the neighborhoods’ appearance, it’s the close-knot community that sets it apart from many places.

“I’ve been on this route for 31 years,” says mail carrier William Edwards. “I know everybody. I’ve watched their kids grow up.”

He is retiring next year, and, said one long-time resident, “everybody is just sick about it. We’ll miss him so much.”

But that sort of neighborliness and “everybody knows everybody” is commonplace in the leafy neighborhood.

“Many people who live here could live anywhere but they choose this,” said Skerrett. “It’s quite an extraordinary place.”

Because Beverly neighbors look out for each other, she said, parents can let their children learn independence by riding their bike to school or to Ridge Park, or by taking the train downtown.

“Those of us who grew up in the 1950s take that for granted,” she said, “but it’s not the case in the suburbs where everything is dependent on the car.” Her three daughters, now adults, learned self reliance by being able to get themselves around the neighborhood, she said.

“For me, I keep coming back to a sense of place and roots,” she said. “And here, our kids can have some of the freedoms that we enjoyed.”

The neighborhood has a very strong sense of community, and is a place where neighbors look out for one another.

During a recent thunderstorm, several thousand residents were left without power. Immediately, neighbors came to one another’s rescue.

“Extension cords were running across the street from houses that did have power to ones that didn’t,” said Rugai. “People were carrying food back and forth, checking on elderly neighbors. In Beverly, people don’t say, ‘someone should do this or that.’ They just do it.”


No driving for Miss Daisy: Suburban seniors won’t age in place very well


July 8, 2011 – My grandpa kept driving his old black Plymouth to the store and to church on Sundays until he was 93. He drove slower and slower over the years, creeping up to green lights in case they were about to turn yellow, deaf to any honking horns.

He didn’t want to quit driving or to give up his independence. But after he plowed into some road construction he turned in his keys and moved to assisted living. His is a familiar story, but one that is becoming even more common. Baby boomers will start turning 65 this year and will represent 20 percent of the elderly population within 20 years.

In the decades ahead, they will have more trouble driving, but because many have lived their lives in car-dependent suburbia, they are likely to have few options for getting around.

A new report from Transportation for America, “Aging in Place – Stuck without Options,” says that in just four years, 15.5 million baby boomers will live in communities with little or no access to public transportation. The national report was based on an analysis by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, based in Chicago.

“The baby boom generation grew up and reared their own children in communities that, for the first time in human history, were built on the assumption that everyone would be able to drive an automobile,” said John Robert Smith, president and CEO of Reconnecting America and co-chair of Transportation for America. “What happens when people in this largest generation ever, with the longest predicted life span ever, outlive their ability to drive for everything?”

As they age, they will have no way to get to the doctor, see friends or family, or shop without either public transportation or someone to give them a ride.

Though baby boomers have been game changers throughout their lives, traditionally few Americans move after they retire. This means most will “age in place” in neighborhoods where daily activities require car trips.

Recent studies have found that non-driving seniors make significantly fewer trips to the doctor, are much less likely to shop or dine out, see friends and family or just get out of the house. And even those who do drive say they are worried about the cost of gas.

Organizations like Transportation for America and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, among others, have urged changes to our national policy on the use of federal tax dollars. While billions have been spent on roadways, comparatively little has been spent on public transportation.

I am a big supporter of walkable neighborhoods and the new report and its proponents have a strong case. But much of the report focuses on the notion that better public transit is the No. 1 answer to the problem.

However, my question would be: How do they expect adults, who are too old or frail to drive, to be able to walk to a bus stop, wait for a train in the rain, climb aboard a non-kneeling transport, or figure out a color-coded map? Envision your elderly, low-vision loved one, looking for a bus stop or waiting in the dark for a late bus.

A small part of the CNT report does address this issue and notes that many communities are making inroads into transporting those who are too old to drive or take public transportation.

A suite of services called “mobility management” is a relatively newer idea that addresses the varying needs of the population. A government agency called United We Ride suggests that good public transportation acknowledges the fact that not everyone lives along a highly traveled public transportation route. Ride sharing, van pooling and similar options may work where high-volume transit will not.

The challenges of retirement will be especially high for those on low fixed incomes. AAA (formerly the American Automobile Association) reports in “Your Driving Costs 2011” that the average annual cost of owning an automobile and driving between 10,000 and 15,000 miles ranges from $7,600 to $8,700. These estimates are based on an average fuel cost of only $2.88 per gallon, so obviously they don’t reflect auto costs this year. For a senior living at or below the poverty line as defined by the Census Bureau ($10,458 for a single person), the average cost of owning an automobile would consume 78 percent of income.

According to a recent study, most baby boomers think they will be going strong until age 80 or beyond, but a recent survey by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago indicates that more than 20 percent of seniors age 65 and older – nearly 7 million people – do not drive at all.

For short distances, it might be good for many elderly to walk, but oftentimes the walking route is not safe. Crime-ridden neighborhoods, crumbling sidewalks, short walk lights and a lack of benches make a walk to the store arduous for seniors even if it is nearby.

From 2000-2007, seniors age 75 and older accounted for 13 percent of pedestrian fatalities even though they make up just 6.1 percent of the total population, the report states.

So how are today’s seniors managing in suburban areas?

According to the report, many are ride sharing. They tend to feel like they are a burden on someone else, but for 40 percent of those older than 85, there is no other choice.

By 2015, 6 percent of suburban Chicago seniors ages 65-79 are projected to have poor transit access, while the percentage of suburban and exurban seniors with poor transit will rise to 66 percent. The total number of area seniors with poor access is projected to increase by 153,550 by 2015.

The underlying fact, as we all know too well, is that many of today’s seniors are solving their problem by continuing to drive, long past the age when it is safe.

“I’m a perfectly good driver,” states your 84-year-old dad in that tone you still dare not defy. “I’ve never had a ticket.”

Are you going to take his keys away? Go ahead and try.

Eyes on the streets: Chatham needs to get its neighborliness back


Even good neighborhoods can change with the times.

The middle-class, South Side neighborhood of Chatham has long been considered one of the safer family neighborhoods.  But more recently, residents have been challenged by an aging population and a generational divide, says Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, not to mention a tragic increase in crime in recent months that has received state-wide attention.

Though the increase in troubling episodes probably has many causes, says Lyle, one reason may be that the community’s fabric of strong neighbor connections has deteriorated in recent years.

When Lyle was growing up in Chatham, the neighborhood had a vital system of block clubs and all the children went to the same school.

Residents on blocks that shared an alley would work together to keep it clean and to take care of one another, she says, but over the years, the aging residents no longer had the ability to do some of the things they used to do. Previously if an elderly resident had trouble changing the battery in her smoke detector another neighbor would help, but when none of them can climb a ladder, those little favors dribble away. And many of the remaining elderly don’t want to ask for help.

“We have less workers and fewer young legs,” Lyle said. “Many are single women who have outlived their husbands, and don’t have the resiliency to head off some of these problems. When I became alderman we had the second largest population of seniors in the city.”

Almost all of her peers have moved to other neighborhoods or suburbs, she said, but those who have come back don’t seem to have time for neighborhood events.

“Their children have homework and dance lessons and karate lessons, and we haven’t been able to get that group to understand the value of CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy),” she said.

“And we have trouble getting our young back because the seniors didn’t leave, and because of the schools. If you move back here, you might have to put your child in private school. You cannot have a vibrant community without the schools.”

She thinks that the proliferation of magnet schools has put neighborhoods like Chatham at a disadvantage. When she was growing up, all the children on the block went to the same school, but now they are dispersed among many schools. That means their parents don’t meet at school functions, nor do they identify with the neighborhood school.

“We have to become involved in the schools in our community,” she added. When she was growing up, she could walk to school, and so could everyone else. They all knew each other. “If you were somewhere else and were threatened, even the bad kids would protect you because you were from their school. Now we have children on one block who go to five different schools and they don’t even know each other. Schools are so important to the community because they instill a sense of community in those children. If you send your child to a school on the north side, then you don’t care about the neighborhood school. But you should.”

Still there are some things that can be done and are being done.

For one thing, neighbors in Chatham have planted flowers on the corners of King Drive between 87th and 92nd  every year, which shows everyone who passes by that neighbors care about their community. 

“We all say it takes a village to raise a child,” Lyle added. “There is some truth to that, but in urban America, the ‘village’ is the block. We stress that through block clubs. We have to get the blocks talking to each other, and connecting. If you have a house with children out of control, the other 39 houses on that block can adopt that family and mentor the children. One burglar told us he would not go where people were outside watering the grass.  And we have to become involved in the schools in our community.”

Two different areas of her ward are trying to start a neighborhood watch, and others are lobbying for increased security and programming at Cole Park, which was the site of two recent drive-by shootings and is across the street from where Wortham was killed.

“That’s a spark,” said Lyle, “to get people thinking about the question, ‘If this neighborhood is going to survive, what is it going to need?’”

Here’s a conversation starter: Where are you really from?


You may have a place to live, but is it home? Is it really the place you are from, the home of your heart?

A new Pew Research Center survey has found that a majority of us don’t feel as though the place we are living now is really home.

That’s because so many Americans are mobile; they grew up in a place where they no longer live.

Pew calls this perceived real home the “heart home.”

That might not make any sense to you if you are one of the 40 percent of Americans who have never moved from the town or neighborhood of your childhood.

In fact Chicago is full of people who consider anything outside of Cook County as a foreign land. Many of my husband’s lifelong friends always have lived within a couple of miles of the South Side neighborhood of Beverly.

Some seem reluctant to visit us in the western suburbs, since the Land Beyond the Tri-State would be too far to travel without an overnight stay.

But for the rest of us, we might not live anywhere near where our hearts live. Pew found that people tend to define their true home in different ways.

For some, it is where their family of origin is; for others, it is where they went to high school or where they lived for the longest period of time.

My parents have lived in downstate Macomb for 46 years, but they might still say they are from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, even though they have not lived there since 1951. And even though my husband has not lived there since he was 18, he still considers himself a South Sider.

“Did you know so and so is from St. Sabina’s?” he asked me just the other day. (If you are a Catholic Chicagoan, there is really no other way to describe your neighborhood than by parish.) He was as happy as if he had found a long-lost friend while hiking the Himalayas — a fellow traveler from the heart home.

The Pew survey asked questions about American mobility and in one of the most surprising results, it found that fewer Americans have moved in the past year or so than at any other time since the Census Bureau began collecting data in the 1940s.

In a year spanning 2007 and 2008, only 11.9 percent of the population changed residences. Until the mid-1980s, it was more common for around 20 percent of Americans to move every year, but that number has been slowly declining since around 1985.

Most Americans say they have moved for job-related reasons, and have stayed for family reasons. College graduates are more likely to move; those with less education are more likely to stay put. Region-wise, the Midwest has more stay-putters than every other region of the U.S., and rural areas tend to keep their residents more than urban areas. And, the younger you are, the more likely you are to be mobile.

At a recent meeting, when I brought up this topic, the room exploded as everyone had to tell a story about where they had lived.

So if you need a conversation starter, try this one: Where are you really from?


Eyes on the streets: One secret to safer neighborhoods


Not so long ago or far away, in a presumably “safe” neighborhood where children frolic in the middle of the streets and neighbors don’t always lock their homes or cars, a McMansion started, then went into foreclosure, its bare Tyvek exterior surrounded by high weeds. Down the street, a drug dealer has moved in, and on another street, a pedophile.

Due to road construction elsewhere, one street has become a cut-through, bringing hundreds of commuters through at rush hour. In several homes bought in better times for investment, renters come and go, sometimes skipping out on the rent, sometimes damaging the property on their way out.

With apologies to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for good neighborhoods to go bad is for good neighbors to do nothing. That might sound like an empty statement this summer, with the wave of shootings across some Chicago neighborhoods. In such places, a different strategy may be needed, even in those we think of as traditionally “good” neighborhoods. Just ask Chatham, still reeling from a series of shootings and cold-blooded murders. Long considered a “good” neighborhood with active neighbors, things have changed and Chatham is now dealing with different issues than just a few years ago.

Still, in many places, a vigilant neighborhood attitude can work, especially in places where residents think they don’t need to worry about excessive crime. Those neighborhoods become — or stay — safe because the residents work at it.

Activist neighbors and the “eyes on the street” philosophy are branches of the now-classic “Broken Window” ( theory of neighborhood decline. Comparing a neighborhood to an abandoned building, the researchers noted that if a building has no broken windows, it is far less likely that one will be broken by vandals. But if it has one broken window that does not get fixed, in short order vandals shatter more windows because it seems as though the owners don’t care.

Similarly, if nearly every home in a neighborhood is cared for and its residents are engaged, it is more likely that the neighborhood will stay that way. But if one home or building becomes unkempt, abandoned, or inhabited by miscreants, it is far more likely that others will follow. After all, no one cares.

For burglars and other criminals, ”the best deterrent to crime is a nosy neighbor,” says Beverly neighborhood court watcher Roberta Kleinman, “They look for neighborhoods where people don’t know each other. If they don’t make eye contact, that’s a good sign they don’t talk to each other.”

But neighborhood problems can start with something less serious than a burglary. Neglected property, blight, loud music and lots of late night parties, are examples of early “broken windows.”

Our first response when hearing about a neighborhood problem is usually – “I can’t do anything about it.”  If the activity or issue is not actually illegal, we have no options, right? So we get mad, we despise the neighbors and we gossip about them. If we have never met them, we have no interest in meeting them now.

Or, maybe we screw up our nerve and confront them. If we have never had a relationship with them before, this is not exactly the best way to introduce ourselves. If we do know them, maybe the discussion will bear fruit – or maybe you’ll never speak again

Maybe you call the cops or the local officials. In the case of drugs or other illegal activity, this might help if the perps are caught in the act.

While these may be the appropriate responses, something about them doesn’t feel right. Muttering, calling the authorities or getting pushback from the neighbor make us still feel helpless, like the old codger yelling “get off of my lawn,” at kids who mock him. That’s why neighborhood watch groups and their cousins, such as “positive loitering,” are getting such a good reception in some parts of the city, such as parts of the 48th Ward. As an example, in Andersonville and Edgewater you can find residents actively working to keep their streets safer.

Positive loitering, neighborhood nights, neighborhood watches and vigilance regarding abandoned properties are just a few of the constructive efforts throughout the ward, says Dana Fritz, aide to Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th).

“Positive loitering is just going out on the street and maintaining a positive presence to counteract the negative loitering,” Fritz said.  As an offshoot of that effort, “Neighborhood Nights,” were started last year by resident Dan Kleinman and the Edgewater Community Council. Those events occur regularly on weeknights and include games and activities for children while giving adults something to do while they loiter.

Other positive loiterers bring their dogs, shoot the breeze with neighbors, or go on small missions, such as to find and record locations of graffiti or poor night lighting, he said. The addition a few years ago of the Uptown Puptown dog park in a corner of Lincoln Park has had the unexpected benefit of curtailing problems with homeless people in that area, Fritz said. “Mary Ann (Smith) is a big proponent of dog parks as an anti-crime initiative,” he said. “They bring people out into the streets.”

Loitering with your neighbors is just one way to connect and make sure a strong sense of community binds the stakeholders in a neighborhood. When we are busy and disconnected we tend to isolate, and then we are less likely to care about those around us.

“Unfortunately, our society is becoming less dependent on one another,” says Sgt. Gregg Bell, a suburban policeman. “Now you can do everything with a cell phone. Some people even mount cameras outside their house instead of meeting the neighbors. But if you do have a block party, and get all your neighbors out, that’s a good venue to bring things up.”

Neighborhood watch programs are another way to keep vigilant. The original program was started in the 1970s by the National Sheriff’s Association, which still administers

Typically, neighborhood groups get started when there is a sudden problem, said Chris Tutko, director of the national program. Once the problem dissipates, the groups tend to disband if members aren’t feeling useful.

“People don’t want to come to a meeting to have a cookie and go home,” he said. But USAOnWatch offers a toolkit of information and topics that can help neighbors address bullying, domestic violence, internet problems, burglaries and more.

While early organizations focused on gang issues or drugs, today the program includes those basics and more – including terrorist awareness and pandemic issues, he said.

Ed Kuske, the CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) facilitator of beat 2024 has developed a robust summer neighborhood watch program. Pulling at least 30 members from three area block clubs, the neighborhood watch patrols during the summer along Sheridan Road.

Though less of an issue in dense neighborhoods of high rises, foreclosures and distressed properties have added to the list of concerns in recent years, Tutko noted. “In places like Vegas, we have whole subdivisions with nobody in ‘em. They can have meth labs, all kinds of criminal activities because no one is there to look at them.”

Even neighborhoods with just one or a handful of vacant properties can suffer the consequences, particularly if the home’s windows are boarded up or if the lawn is not tended.

While some Neighborhood Watch members patrol their neighborhoods in fluorescent vests and carrying flashlights, not all watches include patrolling, he said. In fact, just posting some signs can help.

“If you put up Neighborhood Watch signs, the guy selling drugs thinks, ‘now there is some stupid citizen staring at me, maybe taking my picture, but in essence, he’s going to go somewhere else,” Tutko said.

And if you have a block party or a Neighborhood Night, you will pull everyone together for fun that has a secret purpose:  Good friends will help friends. Good neighbors will help neighbors stay good. And nosy neighbors – they have their purpose, too.


Accessible homes can be beautiful, too


A friend of mine is in a wheelchair now. Her home was built more than 40 years ago for an active, able-bodied family. I doubt the designers ever wondered if a wheelchair would fit through the kitchen door. So here is the answer – with difficulty.

Their architect also gave no thought to how one might roll a wheelchair from the car through the front door. A series of level changes – a concrete porch here, a step-up doorway there – act like little Mt. Everests for the disabled.

The notion of “universal design,” which promotes a built environment that everyone can live in comfortably, has been around for awhile now, but a new book, “The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities,” (Taunton Press, $27.95) gives readers page after page of color visuals to go with the ideas and instructions. It’s also full of information for the able bodied.

For instance, did you know that people with spinal cord injuries often have trouble regulating their body temperature? Several of the homes pictured in the book have heated floors and additional heating and cooling equipment to provide a cozy environment. The wheelchair-bound often cannot see out of windows as well as those who are standing, so lower windows offer a better view.

The book and its focus are well-timed, since the Census Bureau reports that nearly 20 percent of Americans have a disability. According to a report, “Americans with Disabilities 2010,” the total number of people with a disability increased by 2.2 million since 2005 and there are more now reporting severe disabilities.

Accessible homes have much more than just grab bars in the bathroom. They start, says author Deborah Pierce, with the path to the door. Instead of steps, accessible homes have entryways that are level with the adjoining sidewalk. Walkway materials can be differentiated by color and texture that make them easier to navigate for those with low vision.

Better design enables residents to perform normal activities. A low stove or sink with no cabinet underneath let a wheelchair slide close enough to work and foster independence. My friend used to love to cook, but now she cannot reach across her countertops or stove.

Other basics: Place electrical outlets higher on the wall within easy reach; roll-in showers are easier for those who can walk, too; consider adding lower windows or a glass front door so that those with a lower point of view can see. Have at least one mirror tilted or lower on the wall.

A common problem in the homes of many elderly is clutter, but too much furniture, piles of magazines and so forth make a disabled person’s life even more confining. Shoes on the floor, shopping bags that need to be emptied, an extra chair in the kitchen –these types of things keep a disabled person trapped and unable to even navigate his own home.

The book also addresses the outdoors. It can be very difficult to roll an adult over grass, which means that they rarely get off the pavement. In one back yard, the ground was carefully leveled and covered with artificial turf. In another case, permeable pavers were planted with grass. The pavers keep the ground solid under the wheels, and the grass appears to have filled in completely.

Gardening is much easier for the disabled with raised beds. You see them outside nursing homes, but they can be built around homes as well.

Retrofitting an older home, such as my friend’s, can be costly, but some grants and insurance moneys are available.

  • Disabled veterans should start with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
  • Chicago and Illinois residents will find a list of local and state resources at
  • Home modification and repair programs may be available in your area. For information, contact your local Area Agency on Aging or call 800-252-8966 or 888-206-1327 (TTY). Email:

Other resources include:

The big move-up house – giant spaces between us?


A growing family needs room. That’s the thinking behind the move-up house. At first we buy what we can barely afford, then the family grows. Equity builds. OK, used to build.

But still we need more space. The eat-in kitchen has no counter space. We need a fourth bedroom, a home office, a third garage space. We think we need these things and we go looking at the big move-up homes.

If we can make the dollars work, we find one or build one, and we make the move. But bigger is not always the answer to our space needs. And sometimes I wonder what all that space does to family dynamics. Perhaps someday, sociologists will study this and tell us what we already instinctively know – humongous houses can make families remote and disconnected from each other.

When our family of five lived in a 1,200-square-foot split level, I always knew what the kids were doing. If they weren’t right underfoot, I could hear them, and with a little dancing around, I could usually see them, too. But the kitchen was impossible and the neighbors were troublesome, so off we went to a bigger house with a nice, big remodeled kitchen.

And in the new house, which was actually a rather ordinary 2,200 square feet, I seldom saw the kids. Teenagers now, they could burrow in their rooms up on the second floor, while cooking and other chores kept me downstairs. More than once, I called them to dinner on their cell phones. Oh, yes, you’ve done it, too.

And more than once, I have emailed my husband in his upstairs office – from the family room. Oh, what have we done!?

Gale C. Steves, author of a new book, “Right-Sizing Your Home: How to Make Your House Fit Your Lifestyle,” might say we could do with a little less space between us. We just need to make better use of the space we already have.

“I have been looking at this for a long time, even in the mid-eighties, when people started building ego homes,” she explained when she was in town for the Kitchen and Bath Show. “More space doesn’t mean you live better. You need to have rooms that function.”

With the economic downturn, many people are finding they just can’t finance a larger home, and have to make do with what they already have. Instead of complaining about your home, Steves suggests a carefully laid plan, each step illustrated with color photos.

Among her ideas:

* Do a space audit by measuring your rooms. Then think about what the rooms are used for, and what they could be used for. Instead of calling a room by its traditional name, (i.e. living room) call it what you actually use it for, or could use it for. (i.e. actual use: furniture museum; possible use: music room.)

* What kinds of space do you actually need? Could the seldom-used dining room double as a home office with different lighting and furniture? Could a wide hallway double as a study hall if it had a desk and a kid’s computer? If your kitchen had more usable cupboards could you get by with less square footage? Steves recommends getting a good friend to help you sort out what you want from what you need.

* Can the clutter. I cannot count how many times I have seen people move because they needed room, not for themselves, but for their stuff. In places where domiciles are very small, people have to constantly reclaim their limited space from their stuff. When I interviewed a New York City author last year about how she found an 800-square-foot condo for her family, she said she now has room for 10 pairs of shoes. When she buys an 11th pair, one old pair has to go.

* Use the space you have very well. Look for existing wasted space, such as that triangle of storage possibilities underneath a staircase, or the space between wall studs behind a bathroom door.  If you are going to remodel the kitchen, consider changing the heights of things. Why can’t the dishwasher be elbow height? The oven, too. If you are tall or short, countertops can be of different heights to accommodate your comfort.

* Steves offers a know-thyself room analysis for each part of a home, and helps readers know their own user style. She also offers diagrams that explain how much space different kinds of furniture need. You need a minimum of 36 inches between a kitchen island and the cupboards across from it, preferably 48 inches. You’ll need 42 inches of clearance between a door and the nearest piece of furniture.