Month: July 2012

Harpo, Oprah and the West Loop

It’s been a year and a half since Oprah Winfrey’s daily talk show ended.

I’m sure many viewers miss the show, but for viewers, the main impact is that the show no longer beams into their living rooms. Fans of Winfrey’s work still have her brand new network (OWN) where they can get their Oprah fix.

From this back in the day…..

I’m seeing a few more tangible repercussions of the end of Winfrey’s show up close. Why? Well, I live a stone’s throw from Harpo Studios here in Chicago.

And those studios? They’re virtually empty, and that worries me.

There’s been almost no activity there, save for the period when Rosie O’Donnell’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it talk show was in production there for five months. Hundreds of former Harpo staffers have been laid off.

Listen, businesses change and grow and relocate and are born and die all the time. I get it. And to be very clear: I do not have a chip on my shoulder about Oprah. I like her. I have some mixed feelings about how her show evolved over the years, but it had some great moments and affected a lot of people in very positive ways. I watched many episodes of Oprah and have no shame in my game about doing so.

This isn’t about her. It’s all about my ‘hood, you see.

When my partner and I first moved to the West Loop (a few blocks away) we were renters. Now we are homeowners. We’re invested in our home, our street and our neighborhood.

This sign was up for about a minute last year.

The fact that one of our neighbors’ homes, so to speak, is primarily a big empty shell is cause for concern, if not alarm.

It’s not just the actual Harpo Studios building, which used to be an armory and takes up a whole city block with Washington on its south, Aberdeen to its west, Randolph to its north and Carpenter at its east. There are also other buildings adjacent to the studio that are used by Harpo – I can count at least three other buildings in the same vicinity where Harpo staffers are located.

I hope Harpo has a long, sustainable life, but if it folds – or moves completely to California, where Winfrey herself is headquartered – that’s a huge chunk of our neighborhood to lose what was a solid economic engine.

Oprah’s arrival is often heralded as the beginning of the renaissance for the West Loop, but the neighborhood would probably survive a drastic change if Harpo leaves. Restaurant Row is a bustling thoroughfare, with restaurants by Stephanie Izard and Graham Elliot Bowles dotting the Randolph Street landscape. And in just the last few years, the Fulton Market neighborhood has exploded.

Farewell, Le Peep – directly affected by the loss of Harpo employees

But it’s foolish to think there will be no impact. Already Washington Avenue east of the studio has seen several businesses (including Le Peep) close due to the loss of Harpo-related business. I’ve seen a small spike in vandalism in those blocks, and it’s hard to tell at this point whether that’s just a summer-related spike or a more long term effect, but it’s troubling.

More puzzling is why Harpo hasn’t actively marketed the space as a usable, turnkey-ready studio space. I posted about the possibilities of this space for a film or TV show recently.

Steve Harvey’s new talk show was announced, but instead of using the Harpo space, a huge new studio has been built for him. I can understand a talk show host not wanting to follow in Winfrey’s shadow, but there’s been radio silence as to whether any other productions might use the space.

Winfrey is known for holding her cards close to her vest and limiting information about her plans (three words: employee non-disclosure agreement), but I wish that she or her team would take a moment to sit down with residents and tell us what their plans are. Or if they have any long term plans at ALL for the space.

I’m a good neighbor – I’ll come by and pay a courtesy call. (A tour of the studio would be nice, but I won’t be greedy.)

Gay fatigue and the road to reconciliation

NOTE: This post is, in part, inspired by a recent post on The Cynical Girl blog, written by Laurie Ruettimann, who’s funny and blunt and just a great writer. Check out the post, and the blog. 

It’s been a very gay summer, so to speak, and a very gay year, overall.

How so? A number of public figures have come out publicly as gay – from astronauts to Anderson Cooper. We’ve had a Secretary of State and our President make unprecedented statements about LGBT rights here and around the world. Gay marriage has been a part of the presidential campaigns, and even institutions like The Muppets and the Boy Scouts of America have been part of the conversations and debates.

A little sandwich – fuel for a huge controversy.

There’s been little in the news in recent weeks as controversial and divisive as the debate over fast food restaurant Chick-Fil-A.

The company’s CEO made statements about gay marriage that offended some people, and CFA’s charity foundation has made donations to some organizations with questionable intentions toward LGBT people.

And you know what? I’m sick of hearing about it all. I’m sick of gay people in the news. I’m having gay fatigue. And I AM gay.

Part of my frustration? We are living in a highly politicized world right now, and a very polarized one, too. I can’t see from the middle of this battle whether people are just taking to one extreme or the other – or whether all the more subtle, nuanced points of view just aren’t being talked about.

It just seems like a lot of bread and circuses to me – and a whole lot of people being asked to weigh in with the last word on the matter.

And somewhere in the midst of that, I want to say, quietly but forcefully: Hey, that’s my life you’re talking about. 

I wish the need to have this debate was past all of us. I wish that my partner and I could just quietly live our lives, loving each other. Caring for each other emotionally, spiritually, financially – and legally, through legal recognition.

It’s amusing to me to be thought of as a radical when the most ‘radical’ thing we ponder most days is what’s for dinner, or what bills we’ll pay this week. I’m as tired of people discussing this as others are of hearing about it.

Trying to strike a balance between American citizens with different, conflicting ideas and beliefs is an enormous challenge. And I actually think that the Chick-Fil-A (CFA) controversy is a great illustration of just how complicated and complex it can be.

CFA serves all customers and to my knowledge, has never declined to serve an LGBT person. Their board and CEO are certainly entitled to run their company as they see fit. And people who disagree – as I do – are clearly entitled to boycott the chain or not give them their dollars – and I have chosen not to spend my money there for some time now.

The more complicated questions arise in terms of employment law. There may be legal complications if local or state laws listed sexual orientation in their non-discrimination clauses for employment and the company was denying LGBT people employment. (Sadly, there are no national laws to protect LGBT employees.)

Was it right for lawmakers in Chicago and New York to state their intent to deny CFA permission to open a restaurant? I have mixed feelings about that. As much as I appreciate the message those lawmakers were sending on behalf of the LGBT community, I think it overstepped legal boundaries. (EDITED TO ADD: If we ask people not to let their religious rights encroach on the legal rights of LGBT people, then the reserve should also be true, too.)

And somehow, we need to strike a balance between respecting deeply held religious beliefs and ensuring fair legal protections for the LGBT community. I have to admit, it’s complicated. I have no solutions and no ideas, just an admission that it’s way more complex and involves a great deal more than the “us vs. them” media blare would have you believe.

And I also want to protect myself, my partner and my community, because these things aren’t just concepts or news stories to me.

  • I HAVE been fired from a job for being gay – twice.
  • I HAVE been evicted from an apartment for being gay.
  • I HAVE experienced abusive treatment from a police officer when I was reporting a crime (a minor theft) and was told that I deserved to have everything taken from me.
  • I HAVE experienced issues at school, too – I almost didn’t graduate high school because one of my instructors told everyone he could how much he wanted to “flunk that faggot.”

These aren’t just perceptions that I dreamt from whole cloth. There was no subtlety in these events – the reasons were made crystal clear to me. And it’s devastating to know that you can have even the basics in life taken from you. Most of those things happened   years ago, but there are still places in this country – and the world – where they still happen.

Faith in the LGBT community.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure out how to break down walls and broker peace, if not acceptance, among others. And yes, I am really, really tired of doing that.

As others are. That’s undoubtedly added fuel to the fire and the debate. We’re tired and we’re fighting. It is a war, no doubt about it, and it’s become Us vs. Them.

So, where do we go from here? I still don’t have any answers.

I think of someone who inspires me. His name is Patrick Farabaugh and several years ago, he created a magazine called Our Lives.

And that’s exactly what the stories in the magazine do – tell the stories of LGBT people, in a way that I think has opened the eyes of many. We ARE gay men and lesbians and trans people. And farmers, and bankers, and hockey players and writers and….

….and people of faith. I wrote much of the content in the cover story (seen above) about LGBT people of faith in the community, and it was wonderful to reconcile those two parts of my life.

Reconcilation. Bringing things into balance. It’s challenging and it’s complicated. But it can be done. At the very least, it’s a process that we can begin – if we want to. It means sitting down together, dropping our masks and the predetermined scripts from political parties and cable news channels, and just talking, face to face, to one another about who we really are. Sharing who we are – sharing our lives. That’s all I have in terms of ideas as to where we can start, folks.

Me? I’m a writer. The youngest child (and, my siblings would say, a spoiled brat). Wary of people but warm and loyal once the ice is broken. I have a wicked sense of humor and a soft spot for dogs and cats. I love the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, which I’ll always think of as home. I’ve been researching my family tree and hoping to build and strengthen ties with newly-found relatives. Religion and faith is a personal and, in some ways, private matter for me, but let me be clear: I know God and have felt His presence in my life. I love my partner with a depth and pureness I didn’t think was possible, and would do anything to protect him, sustain him, and be a source of light and joy in his life. I can’t cook worth a damn and I kill plants just by looking at them, but hey, let’s not focus on the negatives……

Lights, camera, action: where we make media

A few weeks ago, the Urbanophile – one of my favorite blogs and one that covers urban studies, cities and economics – featured a guest post that discussed Manchester, England and some of the changes to the city’s economy after the steel industry and other manufacturing collapsed.

It’s worth a complete read (linked above) but let me give you the Cliff Notes version: Manchester developed some sustainable alternate industries in the arts and entertainment sector, including music, film and television production.

Manchester, in many ways, is very similar to Pittsburgh, my hometown.

Pittsburgh has been active to a certain degree in film. The Pittsburgh Film Office has been working with Hollywood productions for over twenty years, and they’ve managed to attract really amazing films to be partly or completely shot in the ‘Burgh.

The latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, may be the largest in scope, but it’s not the only one: films as varied as Silence Of The Lambs, Wonder Boys, and Abduction have been filmed in Pittsburgh. (The movie I Am Number Four was filmed at my old high school.)

Pittsburgh has a lot of amazing vistas and a diversity of scenery in its neighborhoods that makes it an ideal place to film.

But hosting a film for a few weeks is different than having a dedicated film or television studio where ongoing work can be done.

For a few years, I wrote a blog about daytime soap operas. Initially, it was an analysis of the content of those shows. But I found myself also writing a great deal about the economics of making those shows. They’d become expensive to produce. Set storage alone in an intensely dense space like Manhattan was a massive strain on production budgets.

One show in particular, the now-cancelled Guiding Light, had a very public battle with economics that showed on air. In order to reduce production costs, the show’s executive producer and production company tried some inventive ideas, including filming on permanent sets, renting a large house in rural New Jersey for filming, and switching to digital cameras.

One thought struck me then, and it’s just as true of any TV show (or film) as it is for a soap opera. If New York City and Los Angeles are the two more expensive places in the country – for real estate, for cost of living, for everything – then why are we almost exclusively producing entertainment there? 

I can understand the pluses of Southern California weather, and the cluster of Broadway talent in New York City. But it seems like a no-brainer to me to diversify – significantly – where we produce entertainment so it can be done in a more cost-effective way.

We aren’t using coaxial cable to relay TV programs any more, folks. Digital cameras can go anywhere, be anywhere and film anything at any time.

Where else should shows be made? Well, there’s probably a lot of places that a sustainable industry could take root.

Take Chicago, my current city. There’s a host of talented actors here, enough to fill several shows. (Heck, the members of Steppenwolf alone are hardly strangers – John Malkovich, Terry Kinney, and Laurie Metcalf – also known as Jackie from Roseanne – just to name a few.)

There’s a studio sitting empty here – perhaps you’ve heard of Oprah Winfrey and Harpo Studios? – with lots of ready-to-roll space for a film or TV production.

And a production that isn’t made in NYC or LA might have the unintended side effect of – gasp – not having the everyone-lives-in-NYC-or-LA tunnel vision that so many shows seem to have.

Pittsburgh doesn’t have the ready-to-go space yet, and I wish that infrastructure would happen.  I’ve had an idea where it could happen for years.

There’s a small city adjacent to Pittsburgh called Braddock, an area that was hit hardest when the steel industry collapsed. The mayor of Braddock, John Fetterman, has been on TV and in the New York Times trying to find a new lease on life for Braddock. It’s already gained a reputation as an artists’ community.

Braddock has – and I intend no offense by saying this – a substantial level of decay, and has wide swaths of land where existing buildings could be razed or renovated into a large studio production space.

And then, if I wanted to be really super-crazy, I’d suggest that a program could be set up to help unemployed or challenged young men and women learn trades (like sound, lighting, or production) that could be parlayed into steady work.

Music, television, newspapers, books, and films – all of these media platforms have changed drastically in the last few decades. I think in order for these platforms to survive, the people who create and the people who deliver them will have to explore new methods of making them, and new methods of getting them in front of an audience.

EDITED AUGUST 7, 2012 TO ADD: I was incorrect in saying Pittsburgh does NOT have substantial studio space. According to a CNNMoney article, there’s a studio with 300,000 square foot of space. My apologies.

The geography of jobs

I’ve been a feature writer for almost a decade, and for a brief blink of an eye, I wrote for a Web site about jobs and careers.

I still find it an interesting field and one that connects in some way to everyone.

This fall, I’m taking classes in urban studies, and jobs are definitely a key element in understanding why people live in cities and suburbs.

When I was a staff writer for that Web site, I worked with a great manager/editor and really talented writers, and although the content was accessible (and easy to read), we put a lot of hard work into what we wrote.

But even with that research and all our great intentions, many of our articles carried an unintended but obvious bias: we were writing for white-collar readers who lived and worked in larger cities and larger job markets.

Yes, we wrote about blue collar jobs, jobs that didn’t require a degree and work for people who were beginners, part-time workers, older workers and interns. But our demographic was primarily young white-collar college grads, and we delivered.

I’ve lived in Chicago for four years now, and I admit to some collective amnesia about some of the other places I’ve lived and other jobs I’ve had. But a recent trip reminded me of how different the job market – and the art of establishing and sustaining a career – really is in other areas.

Perhaps the most vivid example for me was a recent visit my partner and I made to a lakeside community. The town had a bustling boardwalk area – fun and frentic, with a mixture of shops and little ramshackle restaurants where people could eat dinner or have some candy or ice cream.

We walked by one of the more famous places on the stroll, and I sat outside as we waited for food. From my vantage point, I could see the staff working. And their segregation – and interactions – were in some ways very chilling to me, even on a hundred-degree day.

The workers, all college age or younger, were grouped together. The female employees were all up front, essentially there to wordlessly deliver food to the customers with a smile. They were not allowed to take orders.

The young men gathered around the grill and clearly had an ‘alpha male’ attitude. In the short time that I sat and waited, their body language – and the rude, unflattering things they said to the young women working – told me all I needed to know about the hierarchy there.

And then, off to the side, ignored by both groups, was the sole “diverse” face in the group, a young African-American girl.

I realize I’m making a judgement about a place I saw for maybe five minutes. But something about this haunted me. The place had been open for 60 years and something told me that very little had changed in that time.

It reminded me that in small towns, there aren’t always multiple career options. Sometimes you are dealing with outdated ideas about gender and race at a workplace. These are issues that no resume tweak and no interview tactic will fix.

During that same trip, I visited a few friends in northwestern Pennsylvania. One is an amazing writer who just recently finished a business degree. He was valedictorian of his class and went searching for a new “career” job – and promptly found offers that were no better than the part time work he’d sought before he was in school.

He eventually found a job with fair wages, but soon learned he was working for a boss who was homophobic. No matter how efficient my friend was at his job, the boss  created an unfriendly work environment for him. Eventually my friend had no choice but to leave that job.

Another friend is a very talented interior designer, and has established a name for himself and for his eye for design. But the opportunities for him to practice his craft in his own backyard, so to speak, have significantly diminished in the last several years. The company he’d worked for closed up shop. There simply weren’t other options in the community he loved and where his parents and family were anchored.

When his job at home ended, he had to go where the action was, so to speak. As a result, he’s had to live “a tale of two cities” for years, living part of the week in his home in Pennsylvania and part of the week in the Ohio town he works in a couple of hours away.

I don’t think any of the career posts and article I wrote are any less true or real. I’m just beginning to believe that too often, white collar bias and urban career bias slipped into those articles and blog posts.

And this IS the part of the job creation puzzle that I think has been widely ignored by all political parties. We can talk about big scale projects in urban areas, or big energy and manufacturing plants that are booming in the Southeast and Southwest.

But what are the choices on Main Street? If you’re in a small or medium size city, is relocation the only resolution to a career crisis? I honestly don’t have the answers, but I know the disappearance of small local businesses (and the advent of big corporate ventures like Wal-mart settling in those areas) has changed the job landscape in small American towns forever.

The friendship dance

The New York Times ran a series of articles last week on the topic of friendship, and one of them has hit close to home.

The article, “Friends of a Certain Age,” talks about some challenges that face those of us who are over 30 and trying to establish new friendships.

Confession: I’ve actually wanted to blog about this topic for a while, but nothing screams “fail” like a blog entry complaining that you have no friends. It’s some comfort to me that others have had the same experience.

I do have several really wonderful, strong friendships with people I’ve known for 20 years or more. They’re more like family to me at this point.

But, like most of my family, these friends live a time zone or two away. Two of my closest friends, who I’ve known for a decade, will be moving away from Chicago at weeks’ end and will not be returning.

We forge our friendship foundations when we’re younger. High school and college years are great incubators for friendships; you’re in an existing community and can make connections. Those intense life events that bond people together – the good, the bad, the lifechanging – are all in plentiful supply in those years, and are fuel for friendships.

Once we reach our thirties and forties, it’s not impossible to make new friends and sustain those relationships, but it definitely takes more work and more precise effort.

And in terms of growing my friendship garden, I have to confess that I don’t have a green thumb. And I take ownership for most of that. In the last 10 years I’ve lived in three different cities and have worked for four different employers. I left all of that behind a year ago to return to college, where I’m surrounded by students that have parents my age.

There are other quirks, too, that probably play a role. For example? I don’t drink. No, I don’t have an addiction issue, and I don’t have a moral objection to it. I just don’t like the taste of it, or the effect (depressed and sleepy) it had on me, and I haven’t had more than a half glass of wine in over a decade. It doesn’t mean I can’t hit happy hour or be at those networking events – but asking for bottled water when everyone else is having a belt is a bit unusual!

And here in Chicago, friendship is often strengthened by neighborhood ties – or to be more blunt, dictated by whether you’re within walking distance. We all fight traffic to and from work – and understandably, few people want to fight it just to hang out with a buddy.

My partner and I knew several wonderful, kind people who lived in LGBT enclaves like Andersonville, Boystown and Rogers Park. We made a choice to live significantly closer to the city and lost many connections as a result. Logically we’re right near the Loop, but to our north side acquaintances, we may as well be in Indiana.

Chicago is also a place where all of us are chasing careers, and that has to be priority numero uno. Few of us have free time during the day, and for many of us, the end of our day can be 9 p.m. or even later. That doesn’t leave much time for socializing.

If I wanted to be brutally honest, I’d also confess that I’m a wary person and though I can be friendly – and very generous and loving to the people I know and trust – I am more cautious in my initial dealings with people. It’s the reporter’s gut, telling me to check my sources and get a better sense of someone before I proceed. [EDITED TO ADD: that might come across as aloofness or unapproachability.]

I’m a pretty unconventional (read: oddball) guy and though that’s been a source of pride and a professional strength, it’s also been a roadblock to building community and a potential professional pothole.

My life has taken an unconventional path – and I have to say, I’m very happy about the journey so far. I’m in a great place and am working towards some really important goals in my life. And I’ll keep working towards building and growing the community that my partner and I have here in Chicago.

But I wish, sometimes, that some of my more established friends were in much closer proximity. That established history makes for a rich experience.

Friendship can be wonderful in its simplicity and strength once it’s been created and forged. But the art of meeting and making friends is not so different from dating – location, chemistry and what you have in common can play a big role in whether you become true friends or distant acquaintances with someone.

If you’ve experienced challenges making friends after 30, or you’ve had some success building your community, please share in the comments!