About the publications in which my Illinois work appeared
Here the curious will find recollections of the magazines, books, and papers in which my Illinois work appeared. An exercise in nostalgia, I admit, but that future historian of Illinois magazines that I like to think will be born someday might find it interesting. Besides, all were honorably intended publications that deserve to be remembered by somebody.
Focus (“an alternative . . . “) was a newspaper published in Springfield in 1970-71 by activist/entrepreneur Todd Domke. He and I were both misfits in Springfield but his ambitions were, to borrow a word, more focused than mine. We were too much alike to get along very well, but he was a go-getter of a very old-fashioned type. He began publishing newspapers at Springfield High School with his partner, fellow Solon Lew Friedland. They were fired by the conviction, common to the young, that the main reason the world persisted in error was because they hadn’t been born yet.
Todd and Lew made an odd pair—romantic and earnest, their physiques were not the only way in which they reminded me irresistibly of Quixote and Sancho Panza. Their politics were reformist, and as close as they came to hippie-ness was a loose necktie. When Focus debuted in December of 1970, they were just out of high school.
The paper attracted like-minded people, as such projects do. I would later describe the paper’s corps of writers to its readers as “as unlikely a congregation of talents as one is likely to encounter this side of the state legislature. Its ranks consist of teen-agers still wet behind the pencils, one or two immaculately middle-class housewives, a gathering of chronically frustrated reformers, and at least one rapidly aging dilettante of letters.”
I don't remember, but the dilettante must have been me. In me they had a contributor who was just as earnest, although I had an antic streak they did not. They were not the last publishers who indulged that side of me for the sake of lots of free copy. My pieces included Tom Wolfe-inspired reportage from the opening of a new J. C. Penney’s store, filled with dubious sociology; labored whimsy such as Death and the Bureaucrat by Ernest Bombastico; Springfield in the Age of Plastic: An Archeological Fantasy” that imagined a shopping mall excavated centuries years hence; “A Layman”s Guide To Musical Terms (”Key signature—that of the club owners; it is most commonly found on the dotted lines of contracts or more rarely on bar tabs”); ancient engravings captioned for comic effect such as Anatomy of the Liberal (“The elbow joint of Homo liberatum is uniquely hinged, allowing the individual to pat himself on the back with a minimum of effort”).
Clearly, I was a young writer in need of a worthy topics. I found a few. For Focus I covered city hall debates like a near-grownup, and my analysis of the 1972 Presidential race was no worse than most such pieces in the national press. Much better were a profile of the retiring mayor (republished here) and my account of very brief spell as a crew member on an archeological dig at Dickson Mounds in Fulton County in the summer of 1968 (which you will find here).
For some reason Springfield did not change in spite of our advice. (I did an editorial, which today I find hilarious in its presumption and its naiveté, in which I blamed the paper’s commercial struggles on our readers for not being clever enough to understand what we were trying to tell them.) Charging readers a quarter for the paper did not work, so Todd made it free; that did not work either, and the paper folded the following fall.
I went on to publish my own papers that were, if anything worse. Todd, who used to party on the left, was soon partying on the right on the East Coast as a political gadfly and campaign consultant. Lew Friedland became, in time, a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his research and teaching centers on “civic and citizen journalism, communication and society, communication research methods, international news reporting, and civil society and public life.”
In short, we have hardly changed at all. Todd is still looking for an audience as smart as he is, Lew still nurtures the hope that communication can lead to community, and I am still cracking wise trying to impress the interesting girl in the back row whose name and face I've forgotten but who is always with me.
My longest and on many ways most satisfying professional relationship has been with Illinois Times, the now-venerable weekly in Springfield. In the beginning, the paper offered an op-ed page to which I contributed, occasionally under a pen name. These proto-columns were welcomed by the editor if not always by the readers because publishable pieces for that page were not exactly flying in through the transom. I found I liked writing them, some people liked reading them, and I was invited early in 1978 to do a regular column in that space.
My new column needed a title. I then was besotted by the work of Henry Louis Mencken. Hoping to emulate him, I dubbed the new IT column “Prejudices,” the title he had given his series of personal essays that ran from 1919 until 1927. It caused no end of problems. I was routinely damned by readers for publishing strong personal opinions; what did they expect from a column titled "Prejudices"? I see now I should have stuck with As the Crow Flies, which was the title I had chosen for such pieces in Focus and which incorporated a pun on my name.
I didn’t even get my own title right. I'd been “Jim Krohe” or “J. Krohe” in my own papers but I’m a junior and my father also was working in Springfield. To spare readers any confusion and my father any embarrassment, I chose to become "James Krohe Jr." for professional purposes. I soon regretted it. I wish now I’d now I’d dared to do the full Mencken and used the middle name I share with him and become J. Henry Krohe in print. It reads better and would have established a public identity more distinct from Krohe pere.
I wrote about the paper on its fifth anniversary and again on its thirty-fifth. An appreciation of its long-time publisher Sharon Whalen can be read here. Readers interested in the period or in the phenomenon of the alternative weekly might also be interested in Fletcher Farrar's "Alternative weeklies, 40 years later," which appeared in the February 1, 2018, issue of Illinois Times.
Veterans of the 1970 constitutional convention were convinced by that experience that there was an appetite among Illinoisans for high-minded discussion of Illinois issues They didn’t trust partisans, and the state’s newspapers seldom covered issues, as distinct from personalities and races. Illinois Issue was conceived as the magazine of record for Illinois governmental and political affairs. Realizing the dream was left principally to founding editor William Day, a former reporter and director of the Illinois Legislative Reference Bureau, and (after 1977) his successor, Caroline Gherardini.
II was published by the then-Sangamon State University from their Springfield campus. The work I did for II during the first 16 years of my long association was straight reporting of the most traditional kind, often on big-picture topics like energy and conservation. Coverage was rigorous as to the facts and scrupulously fair. It forced upon me a welcome discipline and it earned me a reputation and not a small amount of money, as many of the articles were part of grant-funded projects.
In time I grew disenchanted, or rather just bored, and I had other livelier assignments in other publications, so I appeared there less and less often. Caroline’s retirement in 1994 was an opportunity for a change of direction at the magazine. Illinoisans’ appetite for issues analysis, it turned out, was easily sated. Rather than a magazine of record, Illinois Issues (quoting from its new mission statement) was to be “dedicated to providing fresh, provocative analysis of public policy in Illinois” and would pay “close attention to current trends and legislative issues and examine the state's quality of life."
The editor who was asked to make these promises real was Peggy Boyer Long. Peggy and I had been colleagues for a time at IT, and when she got the job, she called to ask me to consider contributing again. Peggy wanted more reflective kinds of pieces from me—I was to be an “essayist” rather than reporter—and I said, sure, why not?
Peggy couldn’t pay me much, but she indulged me in every other way, and over the next 13 years, until she retired in 2007, I did dozens of review-essays, commentaries, and thumb-suckers. After Peggy retired, the magazine reverted to an editorial model more akin to the founders’ vision. The new editor, Dana Heupel, was able and earnest and, like Caroline Gherardini, a creature of newspapers. I wrote only a couple of pieces for Dana.
The magazine always struggled financially. After a quarter century of trying, it had a circulation of only 6,000 (the estimated readership was f 24,000). II was proof that the audience for intelligent and informed coverage of state issues was dismaying small. It certainly could not have survived as a commercial venture, and the magazine managed with foundation grants and the like. But the growing university had other things to spend its money on, and since then II persists only on the web, and even there it is not an actual magazine. (Its articles appear under the banner of the university’s public affairs-oriented NPR station.)
Most of Illinois’s better journalists and critics contributed to II at one time or another, not to mention a governor or two. I don’t know how many pieces I did for Illinois Issues in all. Quite a few are among the better things I’ve done. (Most of them are available on this site.) I was lucky to have the magazine, and while I didn’t fit in at II any more comfortably than I fit in anywhere else, I recall the people I worked with affection and respect, in particular my editors, Caroline Gherardini, Peggy Boyer-Long, and Peg Knoepfle.
Illinois Issues special reports
I was always indulged by editors who gave me more than the ordinary amount of space for my articles and columns. But while the Reader could give me from 10,000 to 14,000 words for one story, few publications can be so profligate. Unfortunately, a great many of the topics that Illinois Issues wished to investigate demanded more explanation and analysis than could be accommodated in even a lengthy magazine article.
One solution was the multipart series, whose word counts fell somewhere between a magazine feature and a small book. I was to do four of these series (usually called “special reports” or somesuch) for the magazine between 1979 and 1986, on the subjects of coal, soil, water, and toxic pollutants. Each comprised about six articles, each totaling between 20,000 to nearly 40,000 words. For a policy nerd, this was heaven; whether readers found them heaven to read, I never knew. Most of the readers, I suspect, consisted of lobbyists, advocates, and trade associations types who were paid to read such things. The people involved at the magazine deserved better.
Coal It is hard to recall how important loomed Illinois’s vast coal reserves in the national debate about energy independence. Illinois, which has rather a lot of coal, was being called the American Saudi Arabia. News to most city-dwelling Illinoisans, I suspect, who didn’t know the state even had a coal industry. Anyway, I did six parts about all aspects of the coal question, which were published from mid-1979 and into 1980. Links to these pieces can be found here.
Soil Demand for corn and beans in the 1970s and thereabouts meant that a lot of Illinois was being intensively farmed, and cultivation methods them in use meant that topsoil was being washed off much of that land at alarming rates. The creeping conversion of farmland to non-agricultural uses posed a further threat to farm productivity.
To focus attention on this problem, Illinois Issues commissioned a series of articles exploring the current use and abuse of Illinois' soil and its possible futures, funded by the Joyce Foundation, the Chicago-based foundation that funds policy research, development, and advocacy with a focus on Great Lakes states; the project also got support from the Illinois Department of Agriculture and (through the magazine) Sangamon State University.
The soil conservation series that appeared in the magazine between September 1981 and February 1982. The articles were gathered into a booklet published Breadbasket or Dust Bowl?: The Future of Illinois Farmland. (It was an odd title. The erosion problem in Illinois is caused by water, not wind aggravated by drought, and no one makes bread from Illinois corn and beans.)
The series was well-received by (among others) senior officials of the Illinois Farm Bureau and the State Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, who actually knew what they were talking about. Douglas L. Whitley, then the president Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois, wrote in to say, “Words cannot adequately express the satisfaction and encouragement I received from the recent publication of Jim Krohe Jr.'s writings on Illinois farmland. This publication is a valuable contribution to the state and a testimonial to the importance of Illinois Issues magazine.” We usually get feedback only from readers we leave annoyed or disappointed, and it was pleasant to read praise, although I can't take credit for the magazine's contributions to the series. They picked the topic, arranged to get it paid for, and published it; all I did was write it.
Links to the soil articles can be found here.
Water The success of the soil series led to a second similar series, this one about Illinois water resources. Again the Joyce Foundation footed the bill for a six-parter, published between June and November 1982. (It ended up running to 28,000 words.) This series too was repackaged as a booklet, under the title, “Water Resources in Illinois: The Challenge of Abundance,” published in 1982 by Sangamon State University. This one too was well-received by experts in the field, which was gratifying. Links to these articles can be found here.
Toxic pollutants In the early 1980s I was doing occasional pieces for Student Lawyer magazine, the monthly published by the American Bar Association for its law school division. In 1984 the magazine asked me to author one of three planned special reports on toxics pollution, specifically about the regulatory problems these substances caused, about changes in tort law resulting from of mass toxic tort actions, and the likely direction of public policy.
I worked with editor-at-large Robert Yates and Drew Douglas, along with my editors at Student Lawyer, the excellent Lizanne Poppens (late of the State Journal-Register in Springfield) and her associate editor, Sarah Hoban. The series, titled "Toxic America," was published in 1985 and received two prestigious awards—a 1985 Peter Lisagore Award for Exemplary Journalism from the Chicago Headline Club and an American Society of Business Press Editors editorial excellence award. Got a lovely plaque (which I’ve used ever since as a cheese platter) and a free lunch at the Ambassador West.
This made me an expert, as such things are reckoned in journalism. In 1986 I was commissioned by Illinois Issues to write a series of articles about toxics, specific topics to include assessment, politics, economics, risk management, and possible solutions. This series was very hard to write, demanding as it did at least a rudimentary knowledge of dismayingly complicated technical and bureaucratic issues. Such work costs a writer money in foregone assignments. (I could have written two or three shorter pieces in the time it took me to do one of these.) Happily, the work was cosponsored by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and The Joyce Foundation, so the magazine (again) was able to pay extra.
This series too was published separately, in 1986, as the 48-page Toxics and Risk by Sangamon State University.
All of these series were edited by Caroline Gherardini. For links to the toxics series, see "Toxics and Risk" on the Nature & the environment topics page.
About the Joyce Foundation A word is owed about the Joyce Foundation. One of their policy areas was the environment, an act of expiation common to such family foundations whose money came from the patriarch’s profitable exploitation of natural resources, in this case forests. They gave me a lot of money in those days; I used to joke that I planned to name my first-born Joyce, be it girl or boy, out of gratitude.
Did the series have any impact at all on policy? Not that I know of. The series had an impact on me—regular work at decent pay encouraged in me the delusion that I had joined the middle class at last. I quickly learned better.
IT's first home, on Eighth Street a block from the Lincolns' house, as rendered by founding staff reporter Claudia Dowling
Note: Parts of what follows appeared in different form in the Illinois Times column Going on . . . and on.
Some people can't leave booze alone, some over-indulge on chocolate. I over-indulge in words. I have never written 200 words when 400 would do. I might have been cured of the habit as a young professional had I gone to work for, say, a daily newspaper where reporters are typically given only 250 words to tell 500 words worth of story. Instead, like many a bright young boy from small-town Illinois who goes to Chicago, I met people there who were all too willing to indulge my weaknesses for their own profit. I found them not in the drug dens of the West Side but in a converted warehouse in River North, at the offices of the Reader, Chicago’s pre-eminent free weekly.
The Reader of yore was a platform for the endangered genre known as long-form journalism. I was to write nearly 60 pieces for the Reader, and several were some 10,000 words long and one ran to 14,000. By Reader standards, this verged on the laconic. Ben Joravsky’s two-part report in 1992 on the Roosevelt High basketball program, for instance, added up to 40,000 words.
This put the editors at odds with much of their readership, which cherished the paper mainly for its entertainment reviews and classified ads. One of the veteran editors, Michael Miner, recently offered this imaginary riposte to those who complained that even a commute on Chicago’s slow-poke el gave them too little time to finish a Reader cover story. “We’re publishing 20,000 words on beekeeping because Mike Lenehan felt like writing 20,000 words, and we know you won’t read 19,000 of them; but if you do, by God, you won’t find a single typo or dangling participle and you’ll learn a hell of a lot about bees. And if you don’t, no hard feelings and good luck finding that apartment.”
The Reader was, like Illinois Times, considered an “alternative” newspaper. It and IT, worlds apart in sensibility and scale and setting, were alike in one respect. Michael Miner, who also was a long-time Reader columnist/critic, wrote that the paper had no ideological ax to grind at a time when just about every other alternative paper sought to “tout its favored one true path to making the revolution, cleansing the earth, and reconciling the races. If a free weekly didn't preach to a choir, who the hell would read it?”
Lots of people, actually; it was only editors who wanted to read agitprop. That's not to say that IT and the Reader did not have an agenda, only that it was not explicitly political. The revolution they championed was generational. All such papers were boomer-driven—founded, written by and for, and supported by new enterprises catering to that generation.
The boomers' papers were defiant (often unthinkingly so) of established norms. The Reader would print the kind of pieces that the Tribune or Daily News lacked the guts or the imagination or the space to run, sometimes just because those papers wouldn't print them. To hell with Babbittish advertisers or the old men in the board room; the Reader would print what its young founders found interesting or important or amusing.
The result, said Miner, was “a newspaper where . . . length was never an issue and a point was never a prerequisite.” I did dozens of pieces for them. They ran under the Cityscape (urban issues and architecture) and Reading (book reviews) rubrics, and not a few ended up on the cover or as what the Reader called Inside Features. My first editor was Pat Clinton, who was likable and able and went on to teach the craft at Northwestern U.; mostly I wrote for editor Mike Lenehan, a fine writer himself who (I suspect) overlooked my failures as a critic and reporter for the sake of my prose.
I did some of my best work there, but never felt at home. The Reader might not have had an explicit agenda but they assumed that writers did. My only agenda was to write pieces that the Reader would buy, and about that I got little guidance. Writes Miner: ”A writer coming to us with an idea was told just write the damn thing and if we like it we'll run it.” Mike is too smart a guy not to appreciate what that “just” might mean to anyone trying to make a living. The risk was borne by the writer, who might invest weeks in a piece only to learn that they didn't like it. So I did Reader pieces as a break from other, more dependable commissions. I never assumed that the Reader would buy a piece (although one was never turned one down, as far as I remember) and was always relieved when they did.
Writers who reliably delivered usable copy were elevated to staff status, which paid a modest salary that freed them from the uncertainty of piece rates and made the household budgeting less fraught. After a few years it was suggested that if I delivered the goods I was in.
I was ambivalent. The thrill of being in the Reader had faded and I had other things to do. Mainly I got bored with writing about Chicago. I loved its big-city-ness but I never warmed to its Chicago-ness. (How can you be counter-cultural in a place with no culture?) Topics were hard to come by, and the paper needed feature stuff, not the review essays that came more naturally to me. I failed to produce and the offer was withdrawn. Life was about to send me west to Portland anyway. Upon landing, I got in touch with Portland's version of the Reader—Willamette Week—which affected the Reader attitude at half the rates. I decided that “alternative” meant alternative to grown-up—I was then 46—so I went back to being a magazine hack.
This reminiscence by Mike Miner from 2011 is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in journalism, the Reader, or the era.
Chicago Enterprise was a monthly (later bimonthly) magazine published by the reformish Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, a bastion of enlightened businesspeople that backed Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago and later made itself useful advising City Hall on municipal financing and publishing sophisticated analyses of the city’s economy.
CE was founded in 1986 and produced out of offices in what was then known as First National Plaza in the Loop. Its charge (quoting the magazine) was “to bring to light important issues that were overlooked or even ignored by other publications.” A succession of editors—Al Lanier, Glenn Coleman, and David Roeder—gathered a stable of contributors who were described by Mike Miner as “sprightly writers who regularly sounded off." I don't know about the sprightly but by then I was good at sounding off. I contributed to CE from 1989 until 1994, doing features and book reviews and, toward the end, commentaries under the “Politics and Policy” label.
Miner described CE as “one of those serious little journals whose influence is felt softly.” Like Inland Architect, its readership was modest by Chicago standards but select; one contributor told Miner that it was good knowing that you what wrote would be seen by the mayor. I suspect that what I wrote was seen by no one higher than the mayor's staff, but that was as close to power as I ever exected to get.
The magazine, as noted, was sustained by the Civic Committee which was sustained by the Commercial Club which was sustained by donations from corporate do-gooder members. Unhappily, recession and the loss from Chicago of several national company headquarters demanded cutbacks. The magazine was closed in 1994.
Inland Architect was founded in 1883, when rebuilding Chicago after the Great Fire gave its creators a worthy subject and a readership and the new Chicago School of building design gave them a cause. It much later became a platform for anti-Mies modernist and planner Harry Weese, an important architect and hell-raiser in Chicago who subsidized salaries and provided office space for it in his firm’s studios on Hubbard Street.
Inland was hardly a mass-market magazine (it had a circulation of about 3,500) but within the architecture community it loomed large. It was known for intelligent criticism rather than the cheerleading typical of industry journals, criticism that was made possible by Weese’s subsidy, which made it unnecessary to pander to advertisers.
By the time I was introduced to it, Chicago was enjoying another of its building booms, and in the mid-1980s the new ads and subscriptions tempted IA's proprietors to convert it into a costly-to-print glossy magazine. When the boom broke, IA started losing money, and Weese (or rather his firm) stopped the subsidies in 1990. Area universities were interested in taking it over but all were deterred by the need to assume Inland’s debts. It ended up being purchased by the publisher of local real estate trade magazines, who effectively killed it as a respectable organ of thought.
I felt among friends at Inland and was named a contributing editor, which was gratifying. As many of my pieces dealt with urbanist matters—a preoccupation of Weese’s too, in his day—as with architecture. I did only seven pieces for Inland before it died and would have done more were it not for their poor pay they were able to offer; contributors to such publications subsidize them in their way as much as people like Weese and his board. I did them anyway in part because of the editors—Richard Solomon, who left to direct the Chicago-based Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and later Barbara Hower, a capable architectural journalist in her own right.
I am indebted to reporters Jeff Borden of Crain’s Chicago Business and Mike Miner of Chicago’s Reader for some of the information in this summary about the magazine's history. Readers curious to know more about the maverick Weese might want to read this profile in Chicago magazine.
Inland Architect as I knew it, all dolled up for a party. The party, alas, was soon over.
Nature of Illinois
A quarterly in magazine and later newsletter format, The Nature of Illinois debuted in 1984. It was published for its members by the Society for the Illinois Scientific Surveys, which itself was founded to promote, foster, and encourage the work of the three Illinois Scientific Surveys. The Illinois Natural History, Water, and Geological Surveys are essential institutions with distinguished records, but they were, and are, largely invisible to the public. Without a vocal constituency to demand it, state funding had languished; the magazine was intended to bring the work of Survey scientists before a wider public and explain why it mattered.
From 1987 until 1992 I contributed nearly a dozen pieces on topics from fish farming to dune ecology, working with founding editor Jane Bolin and her successor, Jean Gray.
The Society’s principal instigator was conservationist and outdoorsman Gaylord Donnelley of the printing Donnelleys. Donnelley was a man of consequence—his death elicited a nearly 400-word obituary in the New York Times—but even he had little influence from the grave, and the Society, and thus Nature of Illinois, did not long survive his death in 1992.
One of the chores I did for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was write up a series of reports about more than a dozen eco-regions across the state as part of an important and innovative project called the Critical Trends Assessment Program.
Here is the official description of the program.
The Critical Trends Assessment Program (CTAP) and the Ecosystems Program of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) . . . are funded largely through Conservation 2000, a six-year State of Illinois initiative to enhance nature protection and outdoor recreation by reversing the decline of the state’s ecosystems.
Conservation 2000 grew out of recommendations from the 1994 CTAP report, The Changing Illinois Environment, the 1994 Illinois Conservation Congress, and the 1993 Water Resources and Land Use Priorities Task Force Report. [Curious readers can read that document here.]
The Critical Trends report analyzed existing environmental, ecological, and economic data to establish baseline conditions from which future changes might be measured, The report concluded that:
• the emission and discharge of regulated pollutants over the past 20 years has declined in Illinois, in some cases dramatically;
• existing data suggest that the condition of natural systems in Illinois is rapidly declining as a result of fragmentation and continued stress;
• data designed to monitor compliance with environmental regulations or the status of individual species are not sufficient to assess ecological health statewide.
The Illinois Conservation Congress and the Water Resources and Land Use Priorities Task Force came to broadly similar conclusions. For example, the Conservation Congress concluded that better stewardship of the state’s land and water resources could be achieved by managing them on an ecosystem basis. Traditional management and assessment practices focus primarily on the protection of relatively small tracts of land (usually under public ownership) and the cultivation of single species (usually game animals or rare and endangered plants and animals). However, ecosystems extend beyond the boundaries of the largest parks, nature preserves, and fish and wildlife areas. Unless landscapes are managed on this larger scale, it will prove impossible to preserve, protect, and perpetuate Illinois’ richly diverse natural resource base. . . .
CTAP described the reality of ecosystem decline in Illinois, while the Congress and the Task Force laid out principles for new approaches to reversing that decline. And Conservation 2000, designed to achieve that reversal, has implemented a number of their recommendations, drawing on $100 million to fund nine programs in three state agencies.
One of these programs is IDNR’s Ecosystems Program. The program redirects existing department activities to support new resource protection initiatives such as Ecosystems Partnerships. These partnerships are coalitions of local and regional interests seeking to maintain and enhance ecological and economic conditions in local landscapes. A typical Ecosystem Partnership project merges natural resource stewardship (usually within a given watershed) with compatible economic and recreational development. The Ecosystems Program also provides technical assistance to the partnerships, assesses resources in the area, supplies scientific support to ecosystem partners, including on-going monitoring, and funds site-specific ecosystem projects.
To provide focus for the program, IDNR developed and published an Inventory of Ecologically Resource-Rich Areas in Illinois and conducted regional assessments for areas in which a public-private partnership is formed. The experts involved—staff of IDNR’s Division of Energy and Environmental Assessment, Office of Realty and Environmental Planning, the Illinois State Museum, the Illinois Waste Management and Research Center, and the state’s surveys of natural history, geology, and water—then assembled an assessment of each area.
I was hired to write popular versions of those assessments that would appeal to interested lay readers. Designed and printed in full-color format, they could be described as glossy tourism magazines, and were intended to excite locals to see their corner of Illinois is new ways and thus, perhaps, excite action on behalf of its/their environment.
As I noted on the CTAP reports page, all I am able to reproduce on this site is the text. I had to omit the many useful tables of data, the maps (of land forms, land cover, archeological sites), and the gorgeous photos by such people as Joel Dexter and Michael Jeffords and Sue Post.
Karen Miller was my editor. Duo Design and Gray Ink did the design and layout.
See here for more about CTAP.
Timothy Jacobson was the editor of the Chicago Historical Society journal. He had in mind a new magazine to be called Chicago History Today. It was to be a more popular version of the journal aimed at intelligent but non-academic readers.
Tim was talent-hunting. I don’t recall whether I’d read about his new magazine and expressed an interest or he sought me out (unlikely at that date) but we ended up talking over lunch at that great old Chicago diner across the street from the Society building on Clark.
Chicago History Today found no backers, and the magazine morphed into Chicago Times, which did. Jacobson was named editor. The magazine debuted in 1987 as a slick bimonthly that aimed to be the thinking Chicagoan’s Chicago magazine.
CT’s ambition was to be “neither a booster nor a muckraker” and to give writers “the freedom to do good work, to speak their minds, to say their piece.” That was noble but a bit vague. I didn’t see myself in the first issues of the new magazine, which celebrated too many dubious things just because they were Chicagoan. Besides, I had other things to do.
Chicago Times struggled financially from the start. The founders were not magazine people, its backers were Downstate small newspaper tycoons with modest means and less appetite for risk. Jacobsen proved a poor editor. (Editing a popular magazine demands very different skills than does editing an academic journal.) More fundamentally, everyone involved thought that a new magazine for Chicago was a great idea but disagreed about what kind of magazine that ought to be. Squabbles ensued, lawsuits were filed, the lawyers got rich, people came and went.
After events too tedious to recount here, the publisher was tossed, then the owners decided to abandon ship and gave not just the wheel but the whole ship back to the publisher. He hired a Reader contributor named Florence Johnson Skelly as CT’s editor. While the publisher looked for money, Flo looked for writers. Or maybe I went looking for magazines. In any event, we met and I became a Chicago Times writer. The early issues of the magazine had offered readers Joseph Epstein, editor of American Scholar, essayist and Loyola University professor Eugene Kennedy, University of Chicago’s Richard Stern, Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, and Mike Royko. You could practically hear the sighs of disappointment when subscribers picked up the September-October 1989 issue and found James Krohe Jr., writing about why Sears, Roebuck abandoned the Sears Tower. (That piece, “Why did Sears spurn the Tower?,” can be read here.)
I very much liked working for CT. If Flo didn’t make the magazine serious, provocative and highbrow, as its founders had hoped, she made it smart and fun. I was her idea of a CT writer, apparently; she even made me a contributing editor. Her lively stewardship promised to bring Chicago Times magazine back from the dead but the magazine, already weakened, lived on only a few months. Publication ended with its March-April 1990 issue. I’ve had a half-dozen magazines die under me, but I mourned the loss of that one more than most.
Readers who wish to know whether there is an afterlife should know that the magazine passed owing me $1,500 for my last piece; I took payment in the form of one of the old IBM XTs from their office—my first computer. For its good deeds, it entered the heaven that was my office above Zehender's drug store in Oak Park. God, it was slow.
In 1999 I got a message from a colleague. The Illinois Humanities Council, he informed me, is looking for a book writer, and he thought the project would be right up my street. They wanted to a guidebook to Illinois history and culture, loosely modeled on the fine state guides published by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s.
The IHC’s charge to the writer was ambitious, to say the least. They wanted a “broadly appealing, theme-driven, interpretive, concise, and portable” book that will “get people to see Illinois and to move around in the state,” be “distinguished by the quality of its writing, by a point of view that evokes the complexity of Illinois’ transformations over time” using themes “to enchant the landscape” while respecting “the historical complexity of the cultural, ethnic, and economic formations, the broad industrial, commercial, and ethnic transformation of the land, and the natural historical context in which this transformation took place.”
And make that to go. Buried in there was a dispensation of sorts; the treatment was to be representative, not comprehensive. I swear I didn’t see that bit.
I responded and got the gig. The larger scheme for the book was elegant. I divided the state into several regions, each delineated by essentially geological and ecological characteristics (based, ultimately on glaciation). The old Grand Prairie—east-central Illinois—was one, the old Military Tract was another. and of course southern Illinois below I-70. I also included a section on Illinois River towns, whose cultures and economies I thought were distinct in important ways from the countryside they abut. (Bill Cronon’s early book on the Connecticut Indians was an influence.) The working title was Seeing Illinois: A Cultural and Historical Guide. I never liked it but never came up with anything better.
My argument was that the characteristics of each region affected population migrations which affected culture. Emigrants from hill country in Tennessee and Kentucky sought hill country in western and southern Illinois. the prairie-and-grove ecology of central Illinois appealed to farmers from the richer soil part of Ohio, the flat treeless Grand Prairie appealed to German and Dutch farmers who were familiar with with such terrain. Among other effects, the hill people could never compete in a commercial ag economy, etc.
Oh, it was going to be grand. I proposed to illustrate it largely with paintings drawn from the state’s public collections, chosen to augment the text but also to amplify the sense of place and to distinguish the book from run-of-the-mill guides. The book thus would expose to a wider public Illinois's interesting works and artists, and would thus constitute a gallery of Illinois art in itself.
As for the text, my method was simple—read widely and write up everything that I found interesting. Predictably, I found a great many things about Illinois to be interesting, and the pages piled up. I’d given one section of it to my old friend and colleague, the late Rich Shereikis, who later reported, “It really is more than anyone would want to know, isn’t it?” It would have made the perfect epigraph for the book.
Just as predictably, the days piled up too. I was little consoled by the fact that I was hardly the first writer in such a dilemma. As I noted elsewhere on the site, Winton U. Solberg took thirty-two years to get to 1904 in his Intellectual and Cultural History of the University of Illinois; wrote one reviewer, “If the Press continues at such a pace, readers will not have an in-depth account of our present day until sometime around the year 2400. By that time, there will be at least ten or perhaps twelve separate volumes and no less than five thousand pages.”
The people at the council were wonderfully patient, but publication had been intended to commemorate an important anniversary, and when that date passed they lost interest. I keep writing anyway. I’d promised them a book and dammit I was going to give them a book.
I didn’t bother to add up the pages as I went. (In fact I was afraid to.) Even while I was toting up the final draft, I couldn’t bring myself to look at the rising word count on my calculator screen until I was done—679,872.
I described the moment in an Illinois Times column, Going on . . . and on ( "Dyspepsiana," Illinois Times, March 22, 2012).
I couldn’t stop laughing. The absurdity of it was extravagant, the extravagance absurd. A 300-page book runs about 150,000 words. One of 680,000 words would be three times longer than Crime and Punishment, six times longer than Huckleberry Finn, more than nine times longer than Catcher in the Rye, 850 times longer than this column and 30,565 times longer than a Tweet.
When she heard, Old Pal Claudia Dowling, a veteran writer for People and Life magazines, replied, “I, who have described wars in a sentence and whole centuries in a paragraph, can only wonder.”
In short, rather than deliver the book my client needed, I undertook to give them the book they wanted, and thus failed my client in every way. My performance reminded me why the 800–1500 word essay-ish column of opinion is the literary form best suited to my skill. I can’t be trusted with more space than that.
My client generously gave me permission to make whatever use of it I could, and no hard feelings, but it is is by now hopelessly out of date as well as unwieldy. While a fiasco in professional and financial terms, the project added to my education and (I think) to the archives of readable prose about Illinois. Bits of it ended up in another book and I cobbled bits of it together as a essay on Illinois humor which the IHC published on its web site. (The piece appears here.) However, ninety percent of See Illinois languished unread on my hard drive.
I have no hope of seeing it published in its original form, which is probably just as well; re-reading it, I found that the whole less than the sum of the parts. Some of those parts were worth reading, however, so I filleted the manuscript, removing from the carcass selections about this topic or that place and reformatting each as if it was a magazine article. (Readers should know that I made no attempt to update the text.) Links to these excerpt/articles are listed on the relevant topics page of this site. Thus the ghost of the dead book pops up everywhere in The Corn Latitudes.
The Plan of Chicago@100
The year 2009 would be the centennial of the 1909 Plan of Chicago by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett. The Ely Chapter of Lambda Alpha International, an international land economics society, decided to publish a collection of essays solicited from LAI members reflecting on the Plan.
I had done some work for one of the principals of Camiros Ltd., the Chicago urban planning firm that was bird-dogging the project, and on the strength of that was hired to be the editor. I also wrote the section introductions and a general introduction. These add nothing to what I have written about Burnham elsewhere (click “Urban issues” on this page) and are not here reproduced.
Just as drafting a site plan demands skills I don’t have, writing a persuasive essay demands skills that few planners cultivate, so several of the pieces needed a lot of work. The project thus proved a test of my diplomatic as much as my literary skills. I was gratified therefore to get a gracious note of thanks from attorney Reuben L. Hedlund, the longtime chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, who added, “I haven't had such a thorough editor since I wrote for the Yale Law Journal.”
The result was a 164-page hardcover book, The Plan of Chicago@100: 15 Views of Burnham's Legacy for a New Century (Ely Chapter–Lambda Alpha International, 2009). The fifteen essays selected were of variable quality, as such contributions to tends to be. And the project as a whole had the fuzzy focus typical of a the committee project. But editing the book contributed to my education, and I got to meet and work with some fine people.
Alas, in the book I managed to mis-name Sir Peter Hall, whose Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century I hold in particularly high regard and which I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone interested in the subject. I emailed a note of apology. Never mind, Sir Peter replied in effect. “They say the only perfect book is the King James Bible.”