Old School Chicago Politics and Journalism: Boss

Mike Royko is a Chicago legend. A giant in American journalism, he wrote thousands upon thousands of columns. Most were about Chicago – its neighborhoods, its characters, its perennial hapless Cubs. For those of us who read his syndicated work – he died in 1997 – Royko’s perspective shaped our understanding of America’s Second City.

BossI have lived in Chicago just under two years. Dipping into Royko now and then has been interesting. What has been truly informative, though, is reading Royko’s best seller, Boss, an unauthorized biography of long-term Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Written in 1971 and reflecting the political and social upheaval of the period, Boss is a brilliant work of history and commentary. Royko is an amazing writer.

A short read with punchy sentences and a master’s flair for capturing the feel of a group and the nature of a person, Boss captures the rise of Daley and Chicago. The first mayor Daley was brilliant, ambitious, anti-democractic, and relentless. A product of the neighborhoods with a keen understanding of power, he brought tremendous benefit to the city at tremendous cost. Daley defined much of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. Inspiring both admiration and hate, he was a fascinating figure whose priorities, values and vision are visible in Chicago today. Controversial does not begin to describe Daley.

Truly outstanding biographies do much more than explain an individual. Like Robert Caro’s four volumes on Lyndon Banes Johnson, Royko’s book sheds as much light on context as subject. The complexities of America’s post-wire economic boom, the prosperity and racism, the conflicted ways in which we thought about cities, are all part of Royko’s narrative. The very concept of “downtown” is best understood in a context of geography and time. Royko gets this – and also how Daley and his contemporaries thought about it.

Boss is still a relevant book, well worth your time and consideration. And it is particularly relevant as we ready for Chicago’s first “real” mayoral election in decades. We live in a much different Chicago today – yet the legacy of Daley still looms.

David Potash

‘Merican-Made: Beth Macy’s Factory Man

Several years back after teaching lessons on US labor history I became interested in modern labor practices and how to be a thoughtful consumer. Our family income was improving and while we are far from buying jewelry or vacation homes, there were opportunities here and there to get a piece of furniture or a nice item of clothing. Skipping Craig’s list and looking at new couches in a store was a treat. I started to wonder: Where do the things I buy come from? And how was it made? Are the workers making a decent wages or slaving in a sweat shop? I decided to try to avoid cheap, to purchase less, and when possible, to buy items made in the United States and/or goods that have a greener history.Factory Man

This has made for some interesting challenges on the shopping front. For instance, if you do not favor the expensive New Balance sneakers made in the USA, choices are slim. I also know that my strategy does not make all that much of a difference, is not sustainable, and probably rests on questionable assumptions. What I do know, though, is that is has made me a more conscious consumer. That, I hope, has been to the good.

I mention all of this to help you understand my thoughts about journalist Beth Macy’s Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save and American Town. It is a fascinating book, or rather three books, welded together. Well-written, engaging, and popular, Factory Man also highlights that “made in America” is about more than economics. It touches us emotionally, nationally, and ethically.

One focus of Factory Man is the business history Bassett Furniture Industries, a Virginia company founded in the early 1900s by two Bassett brothers. The company took advantage of inexpensive labor from Appalachia, building a factory town and exercising all manner of control as the firm flourished. Bassett furniture appealed to the burgeoning middle class. Since copyrighting furniture styles is well-nigh impossible, a smart designer – and Bassett invested in talent here – can copy and adapt with tremendous success. There was no culture of craftsmanship or innovation at Bassett, save making more money. Bassett’s growth and expansion, up until the threat of globalization, mirrored that of many other domestic industries geared toward the broad consumer market. Control expenses, find new ways to market, and seek profit.

Macy prefers people to business, though, so much of her attention returns to the people involved in Bassett. She spends years tracking down family lore, from sibling rivalries to sexual relationships between management and labor. Families involved in the furniture business inter-marry, form partnerships and break up acrimoniously. It is a bit like medieval history, without the flags. Macy is equally attuned to the history of labor in the factory towns, interviewing workers and their families. Their voices are valuable, but their perspective is limited, just as their straits were curtailed. Working at Bassett provided a wage but not much of a way of life. Those with ambition left the company towns. Much of Factory Man is colored through the lens of an inquisitive outsider trying to make sense of complicated family dynasties and their impact on the local communities.

The final key component of the book is the story of John D. Bassett III, family outsider who returns and leads the political charge against the tide of Chinese furniture imports. Led by Larry Moh, a brilliant business man, Chinese companies began to use very same techniques as Bassett to increase market share. Chinese manufacturers kept labor costs very low, controlled costs of ingredients, and copied designs. American companies responded by directing more manufacturing to Asia and shifting attention to retailing directly. US manufacturing jobs steadily disappeared. The strategy was at best a delaying tactic. Asian manufacturers started selling to other retailers and US furniture companies lost more share of the market. JD Bassett III put a halt to the trend by building a coalition of American furniture manufacturers and pressing an anti-dumping case against Chinese furniture makers. It took years and millions of dollars, but he eventually prevailed. The US case was “won” resulting in penalties and fines that eventually made it back to US companies.

It is, on one level, a great story: a “factory man” successfully fights globalization and keeps a local industry and community alive. Tom Hanks has optioned the book and it is easy to see him in the lead role.

On the other hand, Macy’s book raises more questions than it answers. Who, exactly, has won or lost here? Do workers benefit? It is difficult to argue that Bassett, despite the jobs it provided, values labor any more than its foreign competitors. Regulation and other macro-economic factors account for the differences. The US furniture industry, too, did not seem to do anything creative to either keep jobs in the US or to distinguish itself. The book regularly highlights the lack of investment, research, or innovation in Bassett industries. It is possible, in fact, to argue that the domestic furniture industry got what it deserved.

Factory Man left me a little wiser and more thoughtful. Reaching for the “made in America” label is no guarantee, but it remains a good place to start. And when it comes to furniture, I may be looking for antiques.

David Potash

Guns At Last Light: The Good War Done Well

In 2013 Rick Atkinson finished the third and final volume of his popular history of the United States military in the WWII Atlantic theater, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Europe, 1944-1945. It is the best kind of history for the broader public: well-written, informative, and driven by a clear focus. World War II is reputed to be humanity’s largest collective enterprise. It is damned difficult task for an historian to capture the scope of the conflict and still make it understandable. Atkinson handles the challenge with skill and verve.Guns at Last Light

The first two volumes, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, and The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, are equally well written. The first garnered a Pulitzer Prize. With the third in place, it is possible to see Atkinson’s strengths and weaknesses more clearly. The volumes, too, drive home the importance of revisiting the war and what it meant to America and the world. There are no easy answers when it comes to World War II.

Atkinson is an expert and mixing personal details with broader, well-established history. He knows how to maintain drama and interest with just the right quote culled from a journal or letter. To his credit, Atkinson never lets the reader forget that this was not just an international conflict pitting organization against organization. It was a battle among people. Maintaining that agenda, without losing sight of the larger shifts, makes for gripping history.

He is also writer with an expansive vocabulary and a love of rich prose. With a less sure hand, or a topic less important, the florid language might seem overdone. Considering he is writing about a war that killed 60 million, extremes are necessary.

On the other hand, Atkinson is not primarily an historian of battles or strategy. These books are not the best resource to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Normandy campaign or to consider supply line challenges. Atkinson mentions them, to be sure, but they are referenced in terms of people and ideas, not as examples of grand design. Further, the Atlantic Theater is best understood within the context of a global conflict. Atkinson’s theme – what the US military did and experienced – is valid. However, thoughtful readers should realize that there cannot be one definitive account of the war.

There are many volumes looking at WWII from a range of perspectives. What Atkinson has done in the Liberation Trilogy is make the heroic efforts of the United States military in the Atlantic Theater, warts and all, with its incomprehensible scale, and human sized. It is accessible intellectually and emotionally. It is an impressive achievement.

David Potash

You Can’t Keep Them Down On The Farm – Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

Triumph of the CityEdward Glaeser, Harvard economist and prolific blogger, is enraptured with cities. His 2011 book, Triumph of the City, is a paean to all things urban, with a special place for the twenty-first century mega-city. The work is a breezy airport read. Informative and lightly pedantic, it is a departure for Glaeser, who is a well-respected economic researcher. It is a work well suited for what we used to call the middlebrow market.

Triumph jets around the globe, zooming in on this city or that from 35,000 feet . There is little to no original scholarship here. Instead, Glaeser has skillfully assembled a host of anecdotes and a panoply of data points to argue that cities are good for people and the planet. His narrative rests on his observations and insights. He is smart, well-informed, and confident in his prose. The argument driving the book is summarized neatly in the subtitle: “How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.”

Cities, Glaeser claims, are magnets for smart human talent. As they create opportunities, they and their inhabitants flourish. Density promotes competition and competition forces innovation. Glaeser promotes ever greater density here. He criticizes mindless historic preservation as an impediment to urban success with a nod to Jane Jacobs. The narrative presents pros and cons of various urban policies, but is distant from the human politics that create the cities and decide those policies.

For all of Glaeser’s urban enthusiasm, the book has an oddly antiseptic feel to it. Some is due to the author’s relative lack of interest in people as individuals. He is, after all, a social scientist. The deeper reason is that Glaeser’s argument is fundamentally about the relative benefit of cities to society; it is not about the joy of living in a city or in a particular city. This is not an issue of class, integrity, or design. I share Glaeser’s affirmation of high-density mixed use, though I am less keen on the high-rise. Nor is it about crime or grit. Missing is a sense of the flavors that go with city life.

A certain kind of urban aesthetics about how one leads one’s life necessarily must inform writing about cities. For all of Glaeser’s intellectual enthusiasm, his book does not carry much personal passion for city life. The tensions, interactions, and felicity that accompany the forced socialization that accompanies being squeezed together in a city do not complicate this work. Glaeser does not strike this reader as in love with cities, though he certainly does wax warmly for New York. But I see him in a high-rise condo, perhaps on the upper East Side. It is difficult to picture him in a walk-up in Brooklyn or Queens. It came as no surprise to learn that he now lives in the suburbs with his family and children.

I guess my aesthetic is just different – another good reason cities are a great place to live.

David Potash

Lost The Rink and Take The Ribbon

RibbonSkating rinks are, by definition, rinky. You skate in a circle and then, after the Zamboni, if you are lucky, you skate in the same circle in the other direction. Great rinks have great views; mediocre rinks have little or nothing to see. Good rinks make you feel fast and accomplished. Bad rinks are easily recognized by their bad ice, overpriced snacks, and loud distorted music, usually pop rock hits from two decades hence. I think “Slap Shot.” For those of us who are no great shakes on the ice – and I count myself among them – the pleasure derived from a skating trip often happens in spite of the rink.

Those dynamics have changed. I recently had a chance to enjoy the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Skating Ribbon, the new ice skating feature at Maggie Daley Park. It was a delightful skating experience, probably my favorite ever, save a time on a frozen lake in my teens. Planners have abandoned the rink in favor of a trail. The ribbon twists and turns for a quarter-mile through Maggie Daley Park in downtown Chicago. And even though the lockers are not all ready, the food vendors have yet to set up, and construction crews are still around, it is lovely. Chicago has moved beyond the rink. It is something special.

Circling the Ribbon was a good time to look around. Chicago may not be perfect, but it truly features a truly world-class downtown. Folks journey from all over the world, in great numbers, as any local can attest. Particularly in Millennium Park. Our downtown enjoys beautiful vistas, inspirational architecture, and public spaces that make you feel good to be alive. I am a sucker for a good downtown and Chicago’s makes me smile. Especially on the Ribbon, which is spectacular. I encourage you to give it a whirl – and most definitely bring your own skates.

David Potash

City of Ambition – When Folks Could Make It There

Academic history is assiduously researched and tightly argued. Popular history, in contrast, pays homage to those methods with different goals. It aims to surprise and engage. Popular history provokes, and most importantly, it is designed to give the reader pleasure and information.City of Ambition

Mason B. Williams, author of City of Ambition: FDR, LaGuardia, and the Making of Modern New York, understands this well. The key protagonists in his book are well-known and well-researched figures. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, known for the New Deal and leading the United States through World War II, is perhaps the nation’s most important political leader of the twentieth century. Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945, is perhaps America’s best known mayor. With multiple biographies on each and multitudes of studies, essays, and books about them, Williams does not aim to captivate us through deeper research and finer detail. Instead, he offers a refreshing take on the two men, their complicated relationship, and its impact on America’s largest city. He has written a very good popular history.

FDR was a wealthy patrician, born to serve in government and lead. LaGuardia was an immigrant’s son who had to scramble to get ahead. Both faced difficult personal crises: FDR struggling with polio, LaGuardia losing his wife and child. Both men fought through political challenges, and both had great spirit, able to inspire and connect with the broader public. FDR was a Democrat. LaGuardia was a Republican. Despite partisan differences, they respected each other and found many ways to coöperate and collaborate.

Williams book works well capturing the human element. Partnerships – and in many ways this was an odd sort of partnership – are shaped by personalities. The substance of this history, though, is the federal government’s investment in the development of modern NYC. Federal dollars provided many jobs and funded the creation of much of the city’s infrastructure. In turn,Williams also makes it clear that the federal government needed effective and flexible local agencies and governments to be effective. Compromise and bipartisan work was at the core of the New Deal in Gotham.

Governance was different then, and in many ways, much stronger. One clear take away from City of Ambition is that we have lost much of bipartisan spirit. It very much was a different time.

David Potash

Modern Chicago – The Third Coast

Third CoastSometimes when feeling adventurous – particularly when time is not an issue – I will engage in a free-wheeling conversation with a stranger. The place where I start this matters – a bar, a library, waiting in line – and so does the stranger’s appearance. The likelihood that I will make an observation or ask a question increases if the person looks like they have opinions and something to say. These forays fall flat every now and then. But more often that not, asking the right question at the right moment opens up a vista. I listen and learn. People are interesting. And occasionally that chance encounter leads to an informed discussion that carries with it observation, nuance, and heft.

Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast reminds me of such a chance encounter. A novelist, playwright, and editor, Dyja has a way with words. They flow from his pen, building scenes and capturing moments. He is a long-time Chicagoan with a approach-avoidance relationship with the city. He loves it and it frustrates him terribly. Dyja’s book is a narrative history of the Windy City, covering 1932 – 1960, a period we historians think of “modern” America. He is deeply passionate about Chicago. Dyja now lives in New York City.

Dyja is no historian. He is unconcerned with large-scale continuities and movements. His story is disconnected from national economics, politics, and established historical analysis. What he brings to the table is an intimate familiarity with some key individuals, some critical conflicts and divisions, and a playwright’s understanding of drama, tension, and resolution. The key players in The Third Coast are Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Mahalia Jackson,László Moholy-Nagy, Nelson Algren, and Richard Daley. A cast of hundreds, though, vie for Dyja and our attention: Hugh Hefner, Studs Terkel, Ray Krok, Dave Garroway, Katherine Kuh, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muddy Waters, and many more. Dyja is free and funny with observations and opinions. His critical take on Robert Hutchins, for example, is withering and memorable.

The themes Dyja explores are about race, culture, and identity – played out in the development of centers of power in Chicago. North side versus south side, of course plays an important role. But so, too, does competing visions for downtown Chicago. Dyja is after an ever elusive zeitgeist, a sense of what forces were driving this extraordinarily dynamic city to be both the most American of all cities and also the most disappointing in not fulfilling its promise.

I learned much from The Third Coast. But like that lengthy discussion with a stranger, I left wondering just how much to believe – and why.

David Potash

Toms River – A New Environmental Classic

Growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s, my family would drive down the shore in the summer months to enjoy the Atlantic beaches. Our favorite spot was Ocean County. We would get up early in the morning and head to Island Beach State Park for a morning and afternoon of sun and surf. Folks would tire of the sand by late afternoon and we would then head to beach communities and boardwalks of Seaside Heights and Point Pleasant. The shore is a sanctuary and a breath of fresh air in a Garden State that is often less than verdant.

Toms River

The beach towns of NJ are located on a spit of land separated from the mainland by miles of sea, inlet and marshland. One the mainland side, most travelers to Ocean County head take a bridge on Route 37 from Toms River to beach communities. Toms River has developed over the years. When I was a child I remember farmland and the occasional diner. Today it dotted strip malls, many subdivisions, and ceaseless traffic. For many of us in New Jersey, Toms River has been a town to drive through, a traffic bottleneck on a journey somewhere else. We should have stopped and paid attention. Many bad things were happening in Ocean County.

As Dan Fagin chronicles in his outstanding book Toms River: a Story of Science and Salvation, the town has a sinister and literally, toxic history. Fagin is a science journalism professor at NYU. A longtime environmental reporter at Newsday (a Long Island newspaper), Fagin has written for many publications and garnered many awards. Toms River received the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and many other awards. All of them are well deserved. It is superb book.

The story of Toms River that Fagin chronicles consists of multiple distinct, yet interrelated, strands of history, knowledge, and action. Toms River’s historical and political development, from its basic geography and topology to the settling of the area and its demographic growth in the 1970s and later is one thread. Farmlands and woods gave way to industrial development, suburban homes, and then more and more homes. Another strand is the phenomenal growth and influence of the chemical industry. Starting in Germany and Switzerland and extending to the United States, the industry made great profits from the manufacturing of dyes for textiles and other products. The genesis of this whole income stream was a desire to do something with the detritus of a burgeoning petrochemical industry. The science around hydrocarbons, and the hard work that went into understanding them and the many ways that they interact with flora and fauna, is another strand in the book.

Fagin explains more than the bench science. He provides a wonderful explanation of large-scale environmental causality and probability. A dry topic in less skill hands, statistical probability and its role in making hazard and risk clear and actionable is extremely important. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for people to believe connections between illness and action if they are mediated by time and lifestyle. Cigarette smokers do not die of cancer within days. However, rigorous science can prove a causal relationship. If the arguments are persuasive and there is sufficient political and public will, policy can change. Determining the connection between a soup of dumped chemicals that leech into a water supply and a statistical increase in childhood cancer is a much harder lift. Fagin methodically uncovers the links, debates, and actions in government and public health circles in another history.

Finally, and perhaps the most compelling part of Fagin’s book, there are the stories of all the people involved in Toms River. We meet childhood cancer victims and survivors. We hear the voices of their parents. Greenpeace takes the stage for a while, as do environmental activists, small-time crooks, overworked bureaucrats, corporate leaders, union workers, lawyers, and the hundreds of people whose live have been caught up in the legacy of chemical waste in New Jersey. At the heart of the book are Linda and Michael Gillick, a mother and son whose live were completely reshaped by Michael’s devastating cancer and treatments. The truth about what happened in Toms River would never emerged without their passion, skill, and commitment.

Fagin subtitled the book “As Story of Science and Salvation.” Thanks to the untold efforts of Gillicks and many others, governmental agencies were roused after decades of indifference, if not out-and-out collusion. Fines were levied, indictments made, and eventually, noxious dumping practices in New Jersey were halted.  Cancer rates have decreased and the community has been delivered from the sins of chemical companies and toothless regulation.

Difficult questions, though, remain. How could companies that poisoned water, towns, and workers for many years escape the legal consequences of their actions? While the difficult science of linking environmental poisons to specific maladies was not always crystal clear, chemical companies like Ciba (the parent company of Novartis) had experienced many years of complaints and lawsuits. Ciba’s Toms River plant was built with minimal environmental concerns as Ciba fled regulation and attention from their Cincinnati factory. Companies like Ciba willfully avoided looking at long-term consequences as they dumped all manner of noxious waste. What sort of ethical expectations, if any, do we have for companies? Who takes responsibility and why.

The saga of Toms River is a powerful counter argument to libertarianism. Without governmental action, untold numbers in the Toms River area would be sick, dying or dead. Yet governmental officials are no more heroic than the families struggling to save their children. There might be salvation, but there are no happy endings here.

We will be reading and thinking about Dan Fagin’s Toms River for decades to come.

David Potash

Her Sister’s Keeper

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a recent novel from Karen Joy Fowler, is an endearing disruptive read. Narrated in the first person by Rosemarie Cook, an inveterate talked who starts in the middle and loops with little regard for chronology’s strictures, the book engages and challenges. Good novels worm their way into how we think about people and the world – and We Are Completely Beside Ourselves does a wonderful job of it. Fowler is a very talented author.We are all completely besides ourselves

Fowler does not so much have a plot as a concept, and it could be something of a surprise for those not paying close attention. A traditional nuclear family (father, mother, son, daughter) raises an orphaned baby chimpanzee as one of their own as a psychology experiment. The chimp, Fern, is the same age as the younger daughter, Rosemarie.  The experiment ends after five years – the chimpanzee is suddenly sent to a “farm” – and the family suffers trauma and disintegrates over time.

Rosemarie, who has a terrific voice and a real way with words, tells us this story. Irreverent and deeply moral, Rosemarie’s coming of age is more than a journey to adulthood; it is about what it means to be fully human. Those interested in literary analysis will find numerous thoughtful references. Themes of doubling and twinning themes are woven throughout. Fowler’s skill unfolds these questions with a light, yet penetrating touch.

Well worth your time – and I would be surprised if you would want to visit the monkey cage at the zoo after reading it. When it comes to our ethical responsibilities to animals, no easy answers are possible. Some things, though, are simply wrong.

David Potash

Marvels Abound

Panama CanalWhen I was about ten years old, I was given a copy of Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. An aged hardcover in an odd shade of green, it was a well thumbed through thick volume. Initially suspicious – what could be exciting in such a musty old book? – it quickly became one of my favorite reads.

Halliburton wrote of traveling the world before World War II, exploring and taking photographs. He was intensely curious and seemingly without fear. Reading the book, I could hear him saying “Let’s try that!” – whether it was walking through the jungle to find Angkor Wat in Cambodia or imagining knights fighting in Carcassonne in the South of France. He went everywhere. The book was loaded with maps and images. Halliburton was a trusted guide. His enthusiasm for discovery – for seeing it for yourself – captivated me. I wondered if there were new adventures and new discoveries. I very much wanted to see his sites for myself.

Happily, I have been extremely fortunate to have visited more than a few of Halliburton’s marvels. I am not going to make it to all of them. Climbing Mount Everest, after all, seems a bit of an extreme commitment. All of them, though, remain captivating. Earlier this week I visited the the Panama Canal, something I have thought about since reading Halliburton all those years ago.Halliburton in the Panama Canal

Halliburton’s account of the Canal is unusual. In 1928 he swam it. He described the heroic construction, the awesome size of the project, took more than a few photos, and paid 36 cents. That remains the lowest toll in the Canal’s history.

Wandering around the Miraflores locks, photographing the ships, and imagining the work of thousands of laborers was surprisingly moving. It is an extraordinarily accomplishment of human endeavor. I had a sense of wonder, both as an adult and as a remembered boy.

David MacCullough’s The Path Between the Seas is probably the best account of the Canal’s construction. (And yes, these books have cast a long shadow in my life). Seeing the Panama Canal up close gave a sense of witnessing something much larger and grander than an engineering project.

Marvel can do that – inspire and challenge in the same breath. It is the perfect emotion for a child. And not a bad one for an adult, either.

David Potash