People With Passion: Ben Joravsky

People With Passion: Ben Joravsky
Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader, with Mayor Daley. (photo by Hunter Clauss)

A People with Passion series

Chicago journalism

December 20, 2011: Ben Joravsky

In this excerpt of Jack M Silverstein's Chicago journalism People With Passion series, Chicago Reader political writer Ben Joravsky discusses the challenges in writing about Chicago's tax increment financing program, the cluelessness of Chicagoans, and the trouble with aldermen.

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I was covering the aldermanic elections in the 1st and 32nd in February. I was sitting in on a lot of town hall meetings and keeping my ears open more and listening to what the candidates were saying, and they were talking about TIFs and they’re talking about the parking meters, and people really had an understanding of what TIFs were. They weren’t just saying “I’m hearing something called TIFs, and what the hell is that?” which would have been great on its own, but they were saying, “What are you doing to do to make sure that this money is getting to us and not getting to,” And you guys weren’t really using narrative techniques with those. You weren’t showing characters, for the most part. You were saying, “Here’s what’s going on.” You got people to care about something that is very technical and numbers-driven and not entertaining.

There’s two separate stories there, the TIF story and the parking meter story, and they reflect different aspects of Chicagoans. Let’s start with parking meter. There are three big parking meter stories that I did with Mick. They were very Reporter-esque. Mick’s from the Reporter as well. Mick and I are a great partnership, because we bring different things to the table. Mick’s much more rooted – even though he’s younger than me – he’s much more rooted in the investigative reporting school. When we work together, our stories tend to be much more Reporter -like. A little less attitude, wisecracks, etc.

The reason the parking meters took off, in my humble opinion, is because it was hard (laughs) it was hard to conceal the deceit, because the deceit was slapped in the face of Chicagoans every time they fed quarters to those machines, okay? It just pissed them off. Chicagoans – I like to tease them – they’re not the brightest people in the world, but they do understand a basic thing: if you put quarters into the parking meters in the old days, you had the feeling that it went to the city. The city might waste it, but it was going to the city. Now, you put the quarters in it, it’s going to some rich guy! We get nothing out if it. What the fu – (lowers voice) What the fuck did you do this for? Chicagoans aren’t the brightest people in the world, but they got that.

You really think that?

Oh yeah. You don’t? What’s the evidence contrary? (Laughs.) Look at their behavior. Look at the people they elect. I mean – look! They elected Mayor Daley for 22 years. He ran –

Do you think we’re specifically more clueless than other big city populations?

That’s a classic Chicago behavior thing. I will point out how corrupt, wasteful, inefficient, and boneheaded Chicago is, and a Chicagoan will tell me, “Well, how do they do it in Cleveland?” Why the fuck do you care how they do it in Cleveland? They’re doing it stupid here! I spent four years getting questions like, “Well, it’s better than Detroit.” After a while, it’s like, “Why are you picking on Detroit? Why do you consistently pick the one city that has consistently bottomed out? Why don’t you compare us to Minneapolis?” This is a conversation with a Chicagoan. This is the Chicago mentality. “Well, Minneapolis is different than Chicago.” Well, what’s the difference? What are you really saying, Chicagoans? Why don’t you pick Seattle? Why not Vancouver? Why do you always pick Detroit? Or sometimes you go to Gary or Cleveland.

They always pick the city that’s doing the worst. Why stop at Detroit? Why not use Baghdad? I mean, if you’re going to find the poorest city with the most retched living conditions, why limit yourself to the continental United States? Come on Chicagoans! Why don’t you ever compare yourself to Evanston? Or Oak Park? Or Lake Forest? Or Winnetka? Or Wilmette? They get garbage service without seeing corruption. They have great schools. They have the finest facilities in the world in Wilmette. Why do you continually compare yourself to Detroit? Why don’t you compare yourself to Wilmette?

I’ve written two stories doing this, comparing Chicago to Wilmette. I think I’ll do more now that we have the mayor from Wilmette who is running Chicago. That’s why I’m saying, “Chicagoans” – it’s like, they’re so happy. “We just love our city so much, and our mayor, and it’s a clean city…” What are you saying? I once took my daughter through Chicago. We went all around the city. I was pointing out dirt on the street, because this was in ’07 when Chicagoans were really in love with Mayor Daley in kind of a weird – I mean, Chicagoans’s love for Mayor Daley, I never quite got.

So how do you explain that in a normal narrative? How do you explain the irrationality of Chicago voters, who continually vote for a guy who is driving their city to ruin, and reveres him? How do you explain the mentality of Illinois voters who continually vote for corrupt governors? We’ve got one governor in jail and another one going to jail.

I’ve come to this conclusion – and this is Chicagoans I’m talking about, so don’t ask me about Clevelanders, and don’t ask me what it’s like in Newark, don’t ask me what it’s like in New York – I’m talking about Chicagoans, okay? (Smiles.) I think Chicagoans have this twisted attitude that somehow or other, you can’t get something basic done without corruption. They’ve not only come to tolerate it, they kind of like it. It’s a weird, twisted, sadomasochistic thing, and I don’t want to get into it too deep, but they’re really weird. I’m telling you! You guys are weird!

In this ward, where we are right now, Ameya Pawar ran for alderman as “I’m gonna clean it up. I’m gonna vote my conscious. I’m not gonna participate in any of the smoke-and-mirrors…” Gets in office, and the first thing he does? He gets absorbed by it. He’s voting for all of the budgets, he’s having fun at fundraisers with Mayor Rahm. It’s like everything he said before he was elected is completely contradicted by everything he’s done since he’s been elected.

Here’s the other thing about Chicagoans, and it’s probably not that much different from other people, but I’ve not done the scientific history – Chicagoans walk through life in a sense of cluelessness. They could tell you so much about the latest iPad, or, what are those things called? iPhones? They know more about Apple products than any man possible, but city politics, “Oy! It’s so confusing! Who can keep up with this stuff? He seems like a nice guy. I saw him at a restaurant. He said hi to me!” That’s Chicago.

You mentioned you’re in the 1st ward. This is on my mind. I think voters in the 1st ward would vote for Joe Moreno forever, simply because he goes to Pitchfork.

Oh yeah. We love Moreno.

Yeah! You love Moreno! You don’t know anything about his political stands. You don’t know anything about his stands on taxes, schools, charters, TIFs, the CME budget balance –

He voted for the budget.

Yeah he voted for the budget. He’s voted for every single TIF that’s ever come down the way. So if you’re against TIFs, why would you be for him? If you think that the TIF is an inefficient, unfair, inequitable way to divvy up the pie, if you think that it leads to corruption and waste, why would you vote for an alderman who continually votes for TIF deals?

Because he’s a –

Because he likes to go to Pitchfork! (Laughs.)

No, no, he’s a nice guy. He’s like, a 1st ward guy.

You are now proving my point.

No, every – he’s got a really open office. People come in to talk to him.

You proved my point. The difference between you and me is that I think that people are weird for behaving that way, and you think it’s normal! (Laughs.) So anyway, how do I explain that in a narrative form? How do I explain that? You can’t.

Okay, so parking meters, fine. TIFs?

Here’s a really important distinction. The parking meter was a done deal. For better or worse, Rahm Emanuel said, “I’m against it, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” which I don’t believe for one minute. I believe that if he wanted to end the parking meters right now, he could end it. There’s ways around it. There’s ways of forcing that company to re-write the deal, there’s ways of suspending payment –

“This is bullshit. It was the last guy’s stupid idea.”

Yeah. “I’m not gonna do it. See you in court. My lawyers against your lawyers in a Chicago court. Let’s see who wins. With judges that we appoint. Good luck.” You know? When Rahm wants to go to a longer school day, you never see him say, “We can’t force the teachers to take a longer school day because there’s a contract that we signed.” Suddenly, contracts don’t matter. But contracts matter when it comes to the parking meters. Isn’t that funny? We’re selective about contracts.

And here’s Chicagoans: “Oh yeah, we can’t do the parking meter thing, because Rahm says the contracts matter.” Well Chicagoans, I’m just asking you this: why do you accept what Rahm says when it comes to the contracts for parking meters, but not when it comes to the contracts for teachers. This is why I struggle with my fellow Chicagoans, and I really do. I just feel very alienated from Chicago. Maybe all writers do to a degree or another, but I really – and that’s politically. People are really nice in Chicago, by in large, but politically I’m very alienated.

TIFs is harder to understand because it doesn’t face you. You don’t put quarters in. It’s a bill. And it’s a bill that not everyone receives. If you’re a renter, you don’t even get a property tax bill. Most renters have never even seen a property tax bill. They have no clue what property taxes are. So it’s a perfect scam for the city, because a good portion of the people have no idea what you’re talking about.

And the people who get property tax bills, the TIF is lies. It says, “TIF gets nothing.” The receipt that they give you is part of the fraud. One of the things I’ve been fighting for, eight years and counting, is to put truth on your property tax bill. I think that’s fraud. I think that any statement that so obviously conceals where your taxes are going is itself a fraud and should be ruled illegal.

You tell me that people were asking about the TIFs – I consider that a great advancement, okay? But just to have a small segment of the population that actually shows up for a debate as opposed to the great mass of people who show up to Pitchfork asking about TIFs is not going to change it. It will get all of the aldermen in that room – like Ameya did, and maybe Proco Joe for all I know – to say, “Yes, Ben is right. We have to change this TIF thing.” And then as soon as they get elected they just go about the way it was. That’s the difference: TIFs are an ongoing thing that are hard to understand, whereas parking meters is a dead thing that everyone understands. It still infuriates people. I think people are still pissed off at the parking meters, the symbolism of it all.

So trying to get people to understand something that’s really complicated, something that the city denies is a fraud – that’s the other thing. I spent so many years fighting with the city’s official explanation of TIF. If you went to the city’s official website, the documents there completely contradicted everything I was reporting in the paper. So if you’re a reporter at a regular mainstream newspaper, you have to decide, “Am I going to be calling the city a liar?” That’s a tough question to answer. You have to say, “Who am I to call the city a liar? My editor’s not going to believe me.”

I remember a writer for a neighborhood newspaper in Hyde Park who effectively told me, “The people aren’t ready to be told the truth about TIFs.” It is kind of deep. You’re saying, “Your city is lying to you on an ongoing basis about how taxes are spent, how taxes are collected, and this program is incredibly important.” I mean, how can you do that in a normal narrative?

Every time you tell a story about how TIFs are used, you have to explain it. And you know that there’s a good chunk of your reading population that’s already read it, and you don’t want to bore them, but then if you just skip over the explanation, there’s all the people who are maybe coming to it for the first time. It’s a challenge. The TIF thing was, in some ways, more of a challenge than the parking meter, because with parking meters, everybody was on our side, because they were feeding those meters.

On parking meters, Mick and I had a big impact. That was very gratifying. An immediate impact. We shaped that story from the get go. People came to the story ready to be educated. But TIFs, it’s harder, because people – it puts them off a little bit. It’s like getting them to eat broccoli. “You gotta eat this! It’s really good for you!” “Uh, okay,” and they’ll take a nibble, and then they’ll take another nibble.

But I feel as though TIFs in some way, as a journalist, has been my greatest contribution to understanding Chicago. I think it’s an issue that mainstream politicians have to deal with, and I think they have to deal with it because I’ve pounded that drum for so long. Now, they’re dealing with it in the most superficial ways at the moment, where they pretend they reform something but of course they’ve just left it the way it was, so I guess we have to move to the next phase where you actually elect people who challenge the system instead of being swallowed by the system.

Jack M Silverstein is an oral historian working in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama's inauguration is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.

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Enjoy this interview? Click here for the full version, as Ben discusses his early days at the Chicago Reporter, his relationship with Rahm Emanuel, and the beating down of the journalism profession.

Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein’s People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming next week: a three-part series with Bulls.com's Sam Smith. Part I coming Monday, January 23.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:

(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)

December 9, 2011: Chuck Swirsky, Chicago Bulls play-by-play announcer

December 14, 2011: Sarah Spain, ESPN personality

December 6, 2011: Jon Greenberg, ESPN Chicago, columnist

October 21, 2011: William Lee, Chicago Tribune breaking news crime reporter

November 4, 2011: Elaine Coorens, Our Urban Times founder

November 4, 2011: Andrew Barber, Fake Shore Drive founder

October 21, 2011: Jane Hirt, Chicago Tribune, managing editor

September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff, Gapers Block founder

September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano, Chicago News Cooperative, video producer

September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner, Playboy, former CEO

September 15, 2011: Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter, publisher

August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune, editorial board and columnist

September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter, editor

August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist, editor

August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer

August 18, 2011: Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times, sports columnist

August 15, 2011: Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader, investigative reporter

December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)

August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist

August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune, columnist

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