Sunday, April 30, 2006

Seed Wiki for community collaboration

You've probably used Wikipedia. If so, you probably know that a wiki is a website that anybody on the web can edit. If you don't like something about a Wikipedia article, you can click the edit button and make your changes.

So why am I talking about a wiki? The whole idea of a wiki is collaboration. And in a community like Elgin there are plenty of opportunities for collaboration. You or a community group can use a wiki to share and refine ideas, to organize and to mobilize.

For this purpose, I think you may want to go with Seed Wiki. It's free and easy to use--you don't even need to sign up (unless you want to create a new wiki). To get you started, I've created a couple of "skeleton" wikis:
If you have anything to contribute or say about these "projects," just click the edit button, and do your thing.

Elgin bands plan album releases

At least three Elgin bands are preparing to release albums in the coming months:

dormLife opened at the Smoking Popes concert that I attended at Clearwater. Their music has an all-American, corn-fed, Midwestern, apple-pie-kind-of sound (what does that mean???). What I mean is that it would make a great soundtrack for the Abercrombie & Fitch subculture, because ANF is what I think of when I listen to dormLife. It's very good music, especially if you like acoustic rock. I think they're better than their friends, The Academy Is. dormLife's sophomore album is expected in June or July.

Scheflo is blessed with a vocalist who at times looks like Scarlet Johanson. Check out the video for Don't You Want This if you don't believe me. Scheflo recorded their debut EP at Gravity Studios with producer Mike Hari(Fall Out Boy), and expect to release it "soon."

Showoff has been around. They were signed to Madonna's Maverick Records years ago, broke up, went into the wilderness, and are now back and based in Elgin. This pop punk outfit's big hit from back in the day was Falling Star. Their new EP, Waiting For You, will be released May 16th and presale will begin May 4th.

Fox River Rowing Club

The Crystal Lake Rowing Club website lists a Fox Valley Rowing Club based in Elgin. Does anybody know anything about this?

I've never seen so much as a scull on the Fox River. I would be really surprised to see a rowing crew. Some rivers are very pleasant to row on. Unfortunately, because of what we have done to it, the Fox is more smelly lagoon than river, especially north of Kimball Street. I seriously hesitate to call it a river.

I would heartily endorse the candidacy of anyone running for the legislature if he/she will agree to pursue state funding for removal of all useless dams on the Fox River. The Fox is the most heavily dammed river in Illinois. Removing this cancer should be our priority.

Elgin has best Wikipedia article

I do have to say that out of all the Wikipedia articles on Illinois cities of comparable size (Aurora, Peoria, Joliet, Waukegan, Rockford, Naperville, etc.), Elgin's is the best. The layout is better. The content is of higher quality. It's something you should be proud of. I think it really says great things about the people of Elgin.

To all of you who clicked the edit button and helped make it so, Go ahead and pat yourself on the back.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Introducing CACE - Contemporary Arts Center Elgin

Right now my favorite half-baked idea is the Contemporary Arts Center Elgin (CACE).

Obviously CACE is a play on case, since the complex is the old Illinois Watch Case Company factory, otherwise known as the watch case factory (though these days usually referred to as the Simpson Electric building). Since we destroyed the watch factory, we should try to preserve this complex, since it too is a part of the same Watch City heritage. When I say preserve, I mean preserve, not refurbish into luxury condos. I think it's important that it retain its industrial-age ambience.

So what is CACE and what is the model for it? CACE, as I see it, would be the midwest's premier contemporary art museum. It may include artists' residences, studios, galleries, museum, and businesses that are in the new media, communications or other art-related or creative industries. At 250,000 square feet, it would probably be the largest contemporary art museum in the Midwest. The problem with Chicago's MCA is that it's too pretty. It works for modern art, but isn't ideal for contemporary art, which demands a grittier venue and much larger spaces.

The model for CACE is Mass MoCA, the nation's largest contemporary art museum (300,000 square feet, I think). Mass MoCA is new (opened 1999) and very successful. It certainly makes me want to visit North Adams!
In 1986, just a year after Sprague's closing, the business and political leaders of North Adams were seeking ways to creatively re-use the vast Sprague complex. Williams College Museum of Art director Thomas Krens, who would later become Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, was looking for space to exhibit large works of contemporary art that would not fit in conventional museum galleries. When Mayor John Barrett III suggested the vast Marshall Street complex as a possible exhibition site, the idea of creating a contemporary arts center in North Adams began to take shape.

Joseph C. Thompson, Krens' colleague at the Williams College Museum of Art, was named founding director of MASS MoCA and spearheaded the project's launch. Thompson led the campaign to build political and community support for the proposed institution, which would serve as a platform for the creation and presentation of contemporary art, and develop links to the region's myriad cultural institutions. The Massachusetts legislature announced its support for the project in 1988. Subsequent economic upheaval in Massachusetts threatened the project, but broad-based support from the community and the private sector, which pledged more than $8 million, ensured that it continued to move forward.

The feasibility study for MASS MoCA was led by renowned architects Simeon Bruner of Bruner/ Cott & Associates, Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, and David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Bruner/Cott was named project architect in 1992 and, in 1995, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm completed the master plan and final designs. They proposed exploiting the unparalleled scale and versatility of the complex's industrial spaces, while establishing a dialogue between the facility's past and the new life it would have as the country's largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts.

As designs for the complex developed, so did the articulation of MASS MoCA's mission. Originally conceived as an institution for the display of contemporary visual arts, MASS MoCA evolved, under Thompson's leadership, into a center that would both present and catalyze the creation of works that chart new creative territory. MASS MoCA celebrated its opening in 1999, marking the site's launch into its third century and the continuation of a long history of innovation and experimentation. (source: Mass MoCA website)
The establishment of CACE would require a similar level of effort, buy-in and participation as was required for the establishment of Mass MoCA. Ideally, the City of Elgin, Kane County, and the State of Illinois would all share in the initial funding along with private and corporate donors. However, the City of Elgin could probably finance the project on its own. Art faculty from Chicago-area colleges would need to be involved. NENA and other neighborhood groups would need to be on board.

It's a lot of work, but it will save the complex from destruction or debasement. And of course it would generate a tremendous amount of buzz for Elgin. Elgin would become a serious cultural center. Artists would move in. Since it's a contemporary art museum, it would generate a lot of positive externalities or side effects. Artists would want to be nearby. People or businesses that follow artists would establish themselves in Elgin. Elgin would suddenly become an attractive place for creative businesses to locate.

What do you think would have a greater impact on Elgin, CACE or a new concert hall? I think CACE would have a bigger impact, because the concert hall is for an orchestra that already exists. The ESO is already here and whatever extra benefits from having a new concert hall are likely to be marginal, especially since in all likelihood they will choose a ho-hum design by a third-rate architect.

In my view, CACE would be a better investment. For one thing, it would be cheaper to "construct." It doesn't need to be fancy, especially since the idea is to preserve its industrial-age atmosphere. The other thing--the bigger thing--is that it would extend Elgin's cultural dimensions into the realm of visual art. It's great that we have an orchestra, but we also need an art museum, and here's a way to do it.

I think a contemporary art museum has greater potential for generating positive externalities than any other kind of art museum. The fact that the art on display is by living artists makes it much more likely that living artists will inhabit the community. When artists inhabit a community, positive things happen: Galleries open, followed by restaurants and stores, and so on. Artistic types--creative people--would love Elgin's historic districts with its gorgeous Victorians and the downtown with its unique mix of old commercial, industrial and religious buildings. They would be excited by the ethnic and socio-economic diversity that characterizes Elgin. CACE will bring them here.

If we want Elgin to be a creative city, a vital and thriving community we can all be proud of, I think this is an option we're obligated to explore.

A Pattern Language for Elgin

Jane Jacobs influenced my thinking about cities, and so did Christopher Alexander. His classic book A Pattern Language describes altogether 253 patterns for constructing spaces, from the scale of a small house to a large city.

Some of Alexander's ideas are utopian, but let me list some of the patterns that may work in Elgin (if you want to see all of Alexander's patterns, click here).

The patterns are identified by their number in the book.

8. Mosaic of subcultures (not ghettoes, not ethnocentric, smaller and separated by non-residential)
9. Scattered work (work places intermixed with residential)
12. Community of 7000
13. Subculture boundary (physical boundaries between subcultures, 200' wide)
14. Identifiable neighborhood (<300>100' apart)
59. Quiet backs (Elgin's High Line, er, Low Line!)

104. Site repair (always build on worst land, not best)
105. South facing outdoors
106. Positive outdoor space( vs. negative space left over by buildings, somewhat enclosed/convex)
108. Connected buildings (no space between them)
110. Main entrance (bold, visible, stands out in front of building)
111. Half-hidden garden (needs some privacy, half hidden/half exposed)
112. Entrance transition (not directly off street)
114. Hierarchy of open space (garden rooms that look into larger rooms or views)
119. Arcades (covered walkways at edge of buildings)
121. Path shape (should bulge in middle, taper off, invite stay)
122. Building fronts (no setbacks, right up to street)
125. Stair seats (missing at the GBL)
126. Something roughly in the middle (every square needs a focal point not in exact middle) [by Al's?]

140. Private terrace on the street
158. Open stairs (outdoor)
160. Building edge (must be useable, e.g. "bench" edge at CU)
162. North face (build a cascade on north side, eg. car port, so no long shadow is cast over ground)
166. Gallery surround (porch/balconies)
167. Six-foot balcony (less than that will go unused, set some of it recessed into building)
168. Connection to the earth (terraces, paths etc; should be unclear where building ends and land begins)
169. Terraced slope
171. Tree places (must create spaces, either alone or in combo with buildings, trees, bushes, etc)
173. Garden wall
174. Trellised walk
177. Vegetable garden (including community garden, build small shed)

231. Dormer windows (in roof)
241. Seat spots (good placement is better than good construction)
242. Front door bench
243. Sitting wall
244. Canvas roofs
245. Raised flowers (along buildings protects them from street-level traffic, etc)
247. Paving with cracks between stones (no mortar)
252. Pools of light (not uniform illumination; pools with dark spaces between)

There you have it, some of the patterns we can use to make Elgin a better place. I cut and paste this from my notes. Forgive any parenthetical comments that don't make sense! If you want more details, get the book or ask the GBL to order a copy.

Before, there was the Elgin Salon

I'm continually surprised by the great things Elginites have done. I don't even know how I came across this, but sometime in the past few weeks, I stumbled upon the website of something called the Elgin Salon.

The Elgin Salon is an intimate gathering of people from throughout Chicagoland who regularly converge in Elgin to talk about philosophy and the such--especially from a left-leaning perspective. It's not a forum for chitchat or networking.
In March, 1998, we began collecting as many bright, curious, open-minded, maybe slightly eccentric, occasionally intense, inventive, unconventional thinkers and doers as we could find. People for whom TV and an occasional beer with friends-from-work were not enough. Interesting people who enjoy the society of other interesting people. People who possess and appreciate wit and imagination. Philosopher-daredevils. Cool, self-invented people up for doing something extraordinary, maybe even a little far out. (source: Elgin Salon website)
What's the difference between a club and a salon? Clubs are more closed; they have members. Salons are in principle open to anybody, though they may still need to "apply" to the host to be invited. Clubs typically have dues. Salons do not. Clubs typically have some obligations of membership. Salons do not. Salons are primarily about ideas.

A salon is an intimate forum for thoughtful and respectul discussion of ideas.

Especially since will charge fees as of May 16--and nobody's going to use it anymore, salons can be Elgin's way of localizing the meetup phenomenon. Salon is a more elegant term than meetup, don't you think? Other places have meetups and Elgin has salons. How civilized!

Just a few salon ideas to get you started:
  1. Tech
  2. Web
  3. Classical music
  4. Area music
  5. Visual/performing art
  6. Preservation
  7. Downtown revitalization
  8. Politics
  9. Conservative politics
  10. Liberal politics
  11. Conservation/environment
And maybe for Elgin-related Elginite salon?

Towards an Elgin music revival

Right now, despite its enviable punk music heritage, Elgin's music scene is in hibernation. Elgin bands perform in Dundee, Dekalb, Chicago, Barrington, Arlington Heights--just about everywhere except Elgin! Exactly why, I can't tell you. But I think the Taliban atmosphere has something to do with it. Here's what John Emerson--good friend of all Elgin bands--had to say:
There weren't a lot of articles on the Third Floor. Back then, the Elgin punk scene was flourishing, but underground. Brian [Peterson] tried to avoid anything that would get any mainstream publicity because, no matter how "positive" the slant of the story, Elgin's blue-nosed puritans would have been horrified that there was something fun for kids to do in their town... that wasn't heavily chaperoned! ...and wasn't sponsored by the Parks and Recreation Department, one of the high schools or a church! What is this world coming to?
Music is a crucial part of the creative urban fabric. A music scene generates all sorts of economic activity. A successful venue can encourage entrepreneurs to open other venues nearby. Pretty soon, you have an entertainment district. Restaurants or pizzerias open to take advantage of the fact that people want to eat before or after they go to a show. Corner stores open, because people tend to want to buy something before or after a show--potato chips perhaps or bottled water. These corner stores then become an amenity for people living in the downtown. Other shops open to take advantage of the traffic. More people move in. Recording studios open. Record stores open. Book stores carry CDs produced by local bands. Web developers build multimedia websites for the bands or other sites that use their music. Designers create logos, branding and design t-shirts.

How much economic activity can come from a music scene? WSM-AM 650 started broadcasting Grand Ole Opry in 1925. Now Nashville is home to the largest songwriting community in the world (20,000 people). Music Row in Nashville is home to hundreds of music publishers and record labels, and the neighboring Berry Hill district has hundreds of recording studios.

Of course Elgin isn't going to be Nashville, but it can create enough of a music industry that will provide economic opportunities, enhance the quality of life, revitalize downtown, and give people pride in E town. I've mentioned Bellingham, Washington before. There's no reason we can't be like Bellingham, with all its live music venues and recording studios.

Elgin bands have historically done very well, rising to national, even international prominence. Slapstick is widely considered one of the three greatest ska punk bands of all time. Ex-Slapstick band The Lawrence Arms is touring some 20 European cities right now. Every teenager in the country has at least heard of the Alkaline Trio, if they're not actually familiar with the music, which gets regular airtime on MTV. Alkaline Trio started when Matt Skiba met Dan Andriano (ex-Slapstick and St. Ed alumnus) at an Elgin concert. The Smoking Popes, of course, are luminaries in the punk rock firmament. And Colossal, Elgin's reigning band, has been hailed by every able-bodied punk critic in America and Canada.

The Academy Is, a Hoffman Estates band, got signed to Fallout Boy's label (Fallout Boy is a Wilmette band), and is now huge. They're bigger than the Strokes, something I can barely believe. The Academy Is used to play Clearwater with all the other Elgin-area bands. And in fact, most of them were there on Monday when Elgin-based dormLife headlined a show that included several area bands, booked by Elgin-based DECAL Productions. The Academy Is will resume their national tour in late May.

When their peers have met with success, and when they have such illustrious predecessors like Slapstick, you can't accuse our bands of harboring unrealistic hopes and dreams. They deserve our support. When they meet with success it gives us--especially our teens--something to be proud of. I can't tell you how many amazed responses I've gotten when I tell people how rich Elgin's music heritage actually is.

Elgin once had a thriving music scene, centered on the Third Floor. We held the pearl in our hands, and let it fall. As a result, the Fireside Bowl came to national prominence, while the Third Floor became an obscure legend. Let's not repeat that mistake. When we get somebody like Brian Peterson--who organized the Third Floor and the Fireside Bowl, we have to work to keep him. When I see what the Taliban clique is doing to David Shelton, it makes me cringe, because sooner or later, enough will be enough, and we'll lose him too.

Despite the fact that Elgin's music scene is in hibernation, I can think of at least two record labels based in Elgin, a company that arranges logistics for touring bands, a booking company and a company that provides lighting systems for concerts. Imagine how many music-related businesses there would be if there was a thriving music scene! And of course the restaurants would benefit; of course cafes would benefit; of course the downtown shops would benefit.

A music scene would be a huge plus for Elgin, and the only thing holding it back is the Taliban clique.

Colossal, for those who need the introduction

If you didn't already know, Elgin's premier band is Colossal. They've received unanimous praise from critics, have been described as one of Chicago's most promising bands, and have toured with Alkaline Trio--an Elgin band that made it into the big leagues.

Colossal's music has a chiming, brilliantine beauty. As far as rock music goes, I think it's extraordinary. I'm not being partisan--afterall, there are a dozen other Elgin bands to plug. I say this because their music amazes me.

Colossal has accomplished the rare feat of creating a unique sound, one that has been described as lounge punk. It's a sophisticated sound characterized by an intricate texture of arpeggiated chords, challenging vocals, unusual intervals and metric innovation--this must be Elliot Carter's favorite punk band. Pat Ford is a fine singer with a good voice and outstanding intonation. His baritone is a refreshing change from the typical tenor voice.

Colossal, like other Elgin bands treat the drums as an instrument--all too many bands out there think the drum is a metronome, and it sounds great. Could this style of drumming be a part of Elgin's "audio fingerprint" or "sound identity"--the music that characterizes a place--that Richard Florida describes? But perhaps it's all because Octopodic Rob is the greatest drummer in the Land of Lincoln and drums or has drummed for all of the great Elgin bands...

Colossal has an impressive pedigree descending directly from not just Elgin's legendary Slapstick--through Rob Kellenberger, but the Smoking Popes as well--through Eli Caterer. Slapstick and the Smoking Popes were arguably the greatest bands to emerge from the Elgin-area music scene, and Colossal descends from both. Without doubt, Colossal now holds the sceptre and wears the crown. These are the kings of E town.

The Mission's significance

From what I understand, all-ages venues are important because local music scenes are driven by teenagers. New bands tend to be made up of teenagers, and their audiences are likewise dominated by teenagers. Teenagers don't have a lot of money to spend on tickets, so prices need to be low (around $6). But for the venue, it's hard to make a profit on $6 ticket prices--afterall the band, the booking company and everybody else will want to get paid. If the venue can't sell alcohol to some people in the audience--in other words if it were all teens, they probably couldn't make a profit. This is how I understand it. Tell me if I'm wrong.

The Mission, from what I understand, doesn't book rock bands--it has DJs, but similar economics are at work. And nightlife entrepreneurs would be looking at the Mission as a bellwether of sorts, since it mixes teens and adults. Can you open and operate an all-ages venue in Elgin? Can a place like Dundee's Clearwater Theater, which mixes teens and adults, operate in Elgin without unwarranted interference from city authorities? Right now the signs are not good.

Entrepreneurs will assume that if the Mission can't operate without city harassment, then a place like Clearwater can't either. Yet a place like Clearwater, where local bands can play to an appreciative hometown audience, is exactly what Elgin needs in order to effect the revival of its legendary music scene.

Interesting take on bike lanes

My personal opinion is that bicycle lanes are an expensive solution to a negligible problem. Many believe that such lanes make cycling safer because that magic paint stripe somehow reduces the risk of being hit from behind. But that risk is very, very low to begin with. If I recall right, less than 8% of all cycling fatalities involve being hit from behind, and the majority of those happen after dark to cyclists without lights or reflectors. Intersections account for roughly two-thirds of fatalities, yet bike lanes make intersections and crossing movements more complicated. Finally, the build-it-and-they-will-come argument is not supported by facts. We've spent ever-increasing amounts on facilities like bike lanes (but also including linear parks and other cycling amenities) yet the number of cyclists has remained relatively flat (when bicycle sales figures are used as an estimate of the numbers of new cyclists). (source: CycleDog blog)

Why don't we have angled parking?

Lane widths in downtowns and on commercial streets need only be 8-10 feet, rather than the standard 12-plus feet. This means that many commercial streets are wide enough to accommodate angled parking in some sections. Angled parking can fit almost 50 percent more cars than parallel parking, and it calms traffic, creating a safer environment that’s more conducive to pedestrian use. (source: Historic Dundee blog)
For a long time now, I've wondered if this option was ever explored for downtown Elgin. I for one prefer angled parking, because parallel parking when there's traffic makes me very anxious--I'm not used to city life. I think I would definitely be more inclined to stop and park in the downtown if there was angled parking in front of downtown stores and restaurants. I think it would also make for a nicer walking atmosphere, since the parked cars would create more of a buffer between the sidewalk and the street.

I think for the most part, sidewalks in the downtown are wide enough to accomodate angled parking. Look at Grove Street for example, pictured below.

Downtown parking has always been an issue. No matter how many parking decks are built, nothing can compare with parking in front of your destination. If angled parking provides 50% more parking, it's something to consider.

Randolph & Halstead, Chicago

This is what State Street between Highland and Chicago needs. Trees!

Mission Bay Multisport

Mission Bay Multisport's store in Elgin has consistently been ranked the #1 triathlon shop in Chicago, and is sometimes said to be best tri shop in the Midwest.

About 5 years ago, they opened a store in Chicago. I visited last week.

Nice to have them around in Elgin.

Elgin's highflyer - Middleby

You might have read a couple days ago about the big contract Elgin-based Middleby signed with Papa John's Pizza. You might remember too that in 2005, Middleby attained the #10 ranking on the Forbes Magazine's 2005 Best Small Companies list.

There aren't a lot of publicly-traded companies in Elgin. Middleby is one of them, and without a doubt, Middleby is the top performer. In fact, it's probably the best performing stock of any company in Illinois. In the past 5 years, their stock has risen 25-fold. That's right, 25-fold!

Elgin on MySpace

Is it time for the ESO and other Elgin groups to get on MySpace?

The Elginite's MySpace friends are all Elgin bands. Check it out.

Cupertino vs. Elgin

Check this out. Wish it were Ed Zander and the Elgin City Council.


I've watched the Smoking Popes Live at Metro DVD maybe three times (some tracks appear on the DVD but not the CD), and I think I've converted several people into Smoking Popes fans. I can't stop listening to the CD. If you're unfamiliar with punk music, this is a good place to start! The punk tent is a big one; this happens to be pop punk, which means it's easy to listen to, which is why their music has such tremendous commercial appeal.

Frankly, I'm amazed by the Smoking Popes. Their lyrics rake the heart; their beat can wake the dead. Even if they become deaf to their muse and write nothing more--which I doubt, their place is assured in the pantheon of punk rock.

God bless the Smoking Popes.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Elgin Taliban make comeback

Elgin City Councilman Juan Figueroa accused his fellow council members of acting like moral police Wednesday when they voted to reinstate a time limit on an Elgin night club’s permit to mix teens with a 21 and older crowd...

“It’s not a moral issue,” Rodgers responded. “I would not want my daughter or my nephew to go there with those pictures. To me, it was inappropriate, those teens were half naked, 80 percent naked.”

In March 2005, the council agreed to let the dance club open two weeknights instead of one, extend its hours until 3 a.m. on weeknights, and allow those 21 and older to drink in a separate part of the building during the young adult nights. They also put a time limit on the Young Adult Night permit, requiring a return to the city council for review after a year...

“If only symbolic, it’s important to point out that this is not something readily and easily granted,” Schock said. “It sends a message that the liquor commission is keeping a close eye and making sure the owner exercises every available caution. (source: Daily Herald 4/27/06)

No, Mr. Mayor, the message it sends loud and clear is that the 24-hr downtown thing was a lie. It sends the message that Elgin is run by a Taliban clique, and that nightlife is not welcome. I can't imagine any entrepreneur taking the risk of opening in downtown Elgin.

Gilliam, Schock, Walters and Rodgers voted against a vital downtown. They voted against Elgin.

Elgin Lyceum

This building for chamber music PLEASE!

Some thoughts on downtown housing

At some point we'll get diminishing returns to how much we invest in downtown housing. It may be that only a few people are needed to live in a downtown. I've never seen anything in the literature that sets a specfic density requirement. Generally speaking, when urbanists and new urbanists speak of putting people in the downtown, they meant converting the upper stories of existing buildings into residential lofts, apartments or condos. They didn't mean go out and tear down landmarks and replace them with condos--especially if the condos break the 4-story limit (a rule established by Christopher Alexander, whose work I will discuss at a later point).

On the contrary, they recognize that historic buildings are what endow a place with character--are what in fact make it a place and not just a dot on a map. Historic doesn't necessarily mean ornate temples, Victorians, Gothic or Neoclassical mansions and cathedrals. It means everything that came before. Some of these buildings may not be "pretty" to the average person, yet if they possess an aesthetic unity, to a discerning eye are often beautiful. Much industrial-age architecture is like this. This is one reason such buildings are so favored by the artistic community not only for living in but as spaces for the creation and exhibition of contemporary art.

For the anti-immigrant, words to ponder...

We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

-Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Mitchell tr.

ESO's immigration program

This month, Elgin Symphony Orchestra will kicks off “In Search of the American Dream,” a monthlong celebration of concerts and humanities programs exploring immigration and the American experience. (source: Daily Herald 4/27/06)
It's good for the ESO to remind us that we are a nation of immigrants. I still can't get over Mike Bailey's late-January editorial in which he seems to blame immigrants and the poor for companies like Spiess leaving the downtown:

The influx of lower-income residents and immigrants brought the need for expansive social services, charities and agencies to serve them, which in turn attracted more of the same. Low-income housing generated the need for even more such housing.

Quality department stores left, to be replaced by seedy strip malls, bargain stores and resale shops. As the unskilled labor pool here grew, so did the concentration of businesses requiring such help. (source: Elgin Courier Jan. '06)

The closing of stores downtown has nothing to do with immigrants or poor people. Stores moved out of downtowns because downtowns were not suited for the automobile--there wasn't ample parking, easy access, visibility, etc. Blaming immigrants for what the automobile wrought is just unfair.

As for strip malls, stores move out of these for different reasons. Here are a couple--I'm sure there are others:

  1. They change formats (e.g., from Wal-Mart to Super Wal-Mart) and realize that it's cheaper to build a new building than to modify, expand or refurbish the old one.
  2. Supermarkets and big box retailers realize that if they close down to refurbish, their customers will go to their competitors and never come back. It's better to build a new building elsewhere and then close the old store only when the new store has opened.
What this means is that the strip malls and buildings built for big box stores will always become "seedy" at some point. Other, more affluent communities also have these "seedy" old strip malls. Drive down Randall Road to St. Charles if you don't believe me.

If you understand this, you can appreciate the positive that comes when an immigrant converts one of these worn-out stores or strip malls and puts something vital in its place. The Elgin Fruit Market on Summit is a fine example. Jewel-Osco moved out of this site a long time ago, because their format changed--they wanted a new building. They weren't running away from poor people!

But once Jewel left, the building became "seedy." Eventually, Sears Hardware moved in, and then it became Sears Outlet. But until the Elgin Fruit Market came, it wasn't very pleasant to look at or visit. Elgin Fruit Market, a supermarket probably owned by immigrants and catering to immigrants, did great work there, and nobody paid attention. I can't recall a single newspaper article that brought to attention the fact that they recently completed a successful and major expansion.

We need to give credit when credit is due. And we need to stop blaming immigrants for all of Elgin's problems.

Reality of Festival Park

The reality of Festival Park is that you can have only a limited number of festivals, because it's surrounded by homes. That's the downside of putting residential there. You have to worry about the future of Brewfest now that people will be living all around it. Which is too bad because despite little or no promotion Brewfest is probably the most successful Elgin festival.

Festival Park is not like Grant Park or Millenium Park in Chicago, which are surrounded by commercial buildings. You can have a Lollapalooza there every weekend and nobody will wince. But Elgin planners built a "festival" park surrounded by residential homes. These residents will quickly tire of festivals, especially if it involves a lot of traffic and/or music. Ironically, the more successful the festival, the more annoyed the neighbors will be. That's just a prediction. I could be wrong--I often am.

My guess though is that festival park won't actually lead to more or bigger festivals. And that's too bad, because there are a lot of music festivals that would be fun to have in Elgin. ....
  • world music festival
  • punk music festival
  • chicago indie music festival
  • unsigned festival (unsigned chicagoland bands)
  • chamber music festival
  • new music festival (avante garde composers)
How would neighbors feel about music festivals every other weekend or whatever? Yeah...This is why I question the wisdom of building $5M latrines and such which will be in use rarely...

Festival Park - diminishing returns illustrated

I made this diagram a few months ago to illustrate the concept of diminishing returns as applied to Festival Park. I never got around to posting it. Diminishing returns is a basic concept in economics. The idea is that the first million dollars you spend will have the most impact, and then each additional million gives you less and less. At some point, it's no longer worth putting money into a project because the return on your investment is so little.

My thought is that Festival Park is good enough and the extra $5M or whatever they're spending is at the point in the project where the return is not worth the investment.

Give a hearty welcome to Blue Egg Communications

In recent weeks, Blue Egg Communications moved into the Burritt Building in downtown Elgin. This might be the first web developer to move into the Burritt Building since rule29 ignominiously defected to Geneva.

How the Crocker could have been saved

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden - T.S. Eliot
The below picture diagrams how the River Park Place condominium did not require the destruction of the landmark Crocker Theater. The condominium's footprint could have been moved south, and Dupage Street could have been extended to enable access to the riverside parking lot.

Extending Dupage Street would have required the destruction of this building, which is far more dispensible than the landmark Crocker.

And it would have been a perfect chance to get rid of this nasty, nasty, Jack-the-Ripper corridor.

But somehow our councilmen thought the Crocker was a blight, not this.

Move the watch factory train station

Elgin spent money and energy trying to restore a former train depot at National and Wellington because it was the destination for workers at the Elgin National Watch Factory, a building demolished 30 years ago and commemorated by an obscure plaque hidden at the entrance of the discount shipping center that replaced it. (source: Elgin Courier 4/23/06)
Mike Bailey's editorial brings up a good point. It would be better to move the old watch factory's train depot to a more favorable location where it can get a new life as a refreshment, ticket, newspaper, or concession stand or something along those lines. Even if it's open only part of the year to sell ice cream or something, it would be nice. Festival park might be a good location.

The building is very small and should be easy to lift up off its foundations, placed on a truck bed and hauled down the street. That may also open up the possibility of developing the old site.

Yeah, that's another one of my half-baked ideas.

I don't mind putting half-baked ideas out there. I do half the baking. You can do the other half. Isn't that the promise of the Internet? To get ideas out there, and people talking about ideas, and together baking something better than what one person could have baked on their own? With some luck, someone with a social-entrepreneurial bent will pick up on one idea and run with it. If I put out ten half-baked ideas and one actually leads to some concrete positive change for the city and people of Elgin, that would make all this worthwhile.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Too many posts for one day

Now that was a real blogathon. I spent the whole evening catching up...somewhat. Three more blogathons and I'll have a clean slate.

Trivia -- where was this photo taken?

Somebody likes the GBL

At the next tour stop, the Gail Borden Public Library, several Chicago residents said the 2003 building was enough to tempt them into moving to Elgin.

"I think this is the most beautiful library — even more than the Harold Washington library" in downtown Chicago, said Hyde Park resident Rosalie Fruchter.

"It is a gracious, elegant building, with all the curves and places to plop down and read," she said. (source: Elgin Courier 4/25/06)

I'm glad somebody likes the building. I would have preferred a building that broke new ground, that put Elgin on the map. Something like the library Rem Koolhass designed for Seattle or the one David Chipperfield designed for Des Moines. If Elgin wants to be recognized as a cultural center, it has to take risks in new architecture, not go for the least-common-denominator building that offends nobody and inspires nobody.

Buildings like Calatrava's expansion in Milwaukee or the Guggenheim Bilbao were big risks, hated by some people, but ultimately huge successes that catalyzed urban renewal.

The Harold Washington Library was a terrible mistake. It's probably the worst public building built in Chicago in the past few decades, a great betrayal of Chicago's great architectural tradition. A building that succeeds neither as a modern building nor as pastiche.

But ignore the Harold Washington Library, because Chicago has amazing architecture. And if Elgin is to be truly Illinois's second city, then it must aggressively work towards assembling a collection of fine architecture. Columbus's example should be instructive.

Elgin's unnatural approach to downtown revitalization

Drawn by affordable rents, layers of history and quirky architecture that lends itself to eye-catching show space, art dealers are increasingly opening galleries on the South and Near West Sides, clustering into art districts and tapping the disposable income flowing into gentrifying neighborhoods.

Like the artists before them, many of the gallery owners are urban pioneers who arrived before a wave of residential construction and have helped breathe new life into decaying neighborhoods. Others set up shop later, attracted by what they described as the "raw energy" of an up-and-coming area...

The pattern itself is not new: Artists move into a down-and-out area, spark a cultural revival and are joined by galleries, restaurants, cafes, newcomers and niche shops. Real estate prices soar, and artists, even art dealers, are pushed out. They then migrate to areas with skimpier rents. (source: Chicago Tribune 4/7/06)
It's a good reminder of how things normally work and shows how unnatural, expensive and risky Elgin's approach to downtown redevelopment is. Will it work?

Beats me. But there are ways for us to reduce the risk. More on that later.

Campton to sue over Stony Creek

Campton Township trustees voted 4-0 Tuesday to sue Elgin over annexation and zoning of the 932-home plan...

Township officials would not say on what grounds they plan to sue their northern neighbor, but warned they’re not bluffing and will do so in coming weeks.

“The township understands the weightiness of this issue,” township attorney John Noble said. “We’re ready to take it through completely.” (source: Daily Herald 4/26/06)

Good idea. I've thought all along that if they lock it up in litigation, there's a good chance Stony Creek will never get built, assuming the real estate cycle does what cycles do...

If the Campton folks want support in Elgin, they will need to present a palatable alternative to large-lot homes. The Corron-Meissner Savannah is just waiting to be proposed.

Concert hall study - what's taking so long?

They were supposed to be finished in February. If you were wondering, the concert hall that seemed to impress the city council the most was the Schuster center in Dayton, which is unfortunate, because if they hire Cesar Pelli I won't support the project. Then again, I probably won't support it anyway. With the Centre bleeding red like a stuck pig, I don't think Elgin can afford the risk of undertaking any project on the scale proposed.

Enough "Schock and awe" already

But you can't save everything, so the general rule should be that we should only preserve things that have a use...

To that end, it follows that it is a silly waste of public money to save largely useless items like the Lindbergh School on Shoe Factory Road and the Meadowdale Raceway tower at Raceway Woods in Carpentersville, among others....

You see, that's why we have museums. We put old things in there so we can go look at them and if they are too big to fit in the museum, we take pictures so we can see what it once looked like without wasting time, effort and money better spent on the here and now...

And worse, we use public funds to do that, thereby forcing every taxpayer to share in someone's private obsession. (source: Elgin Courier 4/23/06)
I don't know about the Lindbergh School or the Raceway Silo, the two structures with which Mike Bailey's editorial is primarily concerned. I don't think I've seen them and can't comment on them.

I do think he is mistaken in saying that historic preservation should be just a private obligation, and that only buildings "with uses" should be preserved.

The Parthenon became "useless" 2,000 years ago. Thank Zeus that Mike Bailey wasn't around then to salvage the marble for a more useful building! Not every city can have a Parthenon or a Hagia Sofia or a Chartres Cathedral, but every city must have some kind of monument, something it can call its own. Such landmarks are what give people a sense of place and pride of place. Mr. Bailey may think otherwise, but condos or shopping malls can never replace the churchs, the barns and old homes built by our fathers and hallowed by time.

One man may own the First Universalist Church building, for example--the bricks may belong to him, the title in his name. But its presence belongs to all of us. It is our history, Elgin's history. It's our heritage. And who would sell that away so cheaply?

City of Elgin has a lot of new employees

There was some discussion of iron grates over the windows on the Fulton Street Parking Deck. The parking deck is about as ugly as can be. Iron grates would be lipstick on a pig. The best option is to plant as much creeper (or ivy) as possible, and soak it with Miracle Gro. Hopefully that will hide the building

But the best part of the article was in the last few paragraphs:

Also at Wednesday's meeting, council members are scheduled to take up a proposal to spend up to $21,000 to offer all 1,100 full-time, part-time and seasonal city employees tickets to a Kane County Cougars minor-league baseball game and a picnic dinner.

The last time the city held such an event was 2002.

"We have a lot of new employees," said city spokeswoman Sue Olafson. "We need to show appreciation." (source: Elgin Courier 4/25/06)

They have a lot of new employees. I wonder why. The city will soon represent half of Elgin's GDP. I flipped through their Parks & Recreation catalog the other day. Am I the only one amazed at how many businesses the city has gotten itself into? I mean they're in the preschool business for goshsakes!

Where will it end?

"Social order" gone awry

But nothing deflates a thriving club scene like repeated unheralded visits by a local constabulary intent on upholding "social order." ...The raids often last far beyond the 1 or 2 a.m. closing hours. They have rarely netted any violators.

But these attempts to regulate Thai teenagers' behavior have severely limited the nocturnal activities of over-20 clubbers and have of course been devastating for the clubs they frequent. Ministry of Sound, Tantra and Mystique have closed, and 87 is dead. Only Q Bar and Bed Supperclub remain active, and David Jacobson, co-owner of Q Bar, says that they survive partly because no new international investors will risk coming onto such an unpredictable club scene to provide competition. "Bangkok is a dead town," he said. "It was one of the most fun places in Asia." (source: New York Times 3/1/06)

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the man behind this "social order" campaign, was recently evicted from office through a "people power" movement. Might the same happen to councilmen who cater to Elgin's Taliban clique?

Topinka leading Blagboy

April 24, 2006--In the race for Illinois Governor, Republican State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka now leads Democratic Governor Rod R. Blagojevich 44% to 38%. In March, Topinka led 43% to 41%. (source: Rasmussen Reports)
I'm glad Topinka won the primary, because somehow I doubt that any of the others would have been able to best Blagojevich. But the amazing thing is that the nation's apparent disenchantment with the GOP has not affected this race. Either people really hate Blagojevich or the GOP is not drawing as much flack as one would have expected--in Illinois at least.

That doesn't mean Billie Roth can get away with not having a website...

Nice school building

This is Townline Elementary School in Vernon Hills. Why doesn't U-46 build schools like this?

Portman building goes up in Schaumburg

If you travel I-90 at all, you've noticed the convention center that's gone up in Schaumburg. I was really surprised to discover that this is a John Portman project. I guess the notorious RenCen developer is still popular.
The hotel and convention center consists of a 500-room hotel, a 100,000-square foot (9,300 sm) exhibit hall, a 28,000-square foot (2,600 sm) ballroom, plus junior ballrooms and meeting rooms. The convention center is designed to allow for an expansion of the exhibit space by approximately 150,000 square feet (14,000 sm). The project is enhanced by a 2,400-seat performing arts theater, providing an exceptional entertainment venue for hotel guests and the residents of the greater metropolitan area. (source: Portman web site)
The 2,400-seat theater is interesting. So is the new 11,000-seat Sears Centre Arena. I wonder what impact these new projects will have on Elgin.

At 18,500 seats, Allstate Arena is a larger venue in a different class, but is still likely to lose a lot of business to the Sears Arena. But for Elgin, the Sears Arena might actually be positive if it brings 11,000 people per concert/event. The city will have to figure out how it will bring these people across I-90 and into downtown Elgin. Elgin could be the biggest winner in this bargain. Hoffman shells out the money for the project, and hopefully Elgin collects on the traffic.

City manager blog

Davison, Michigan's city manager keeps a blog. Will Femi Folarin follow suit. Check it out.

Good job, Elgin police

After 13 months of investigation and undercover work, police on Thursday began rounding up 85 street and midlevel drug dealers — a move authorities say will help reduce crime throughout the city this summer...

However, many of those targeted were not found in the initial sweep.

"You hope for the best" on the first day, Theriault said, adding that more people likely will be picked up today and in the coming days.

"As word gets out, they will disperse around the area," making them more difficult to find, Theriault said. (source: Elgin Courier 4/21/06)

Glad to hear they're hard at work. The only thing I had to wonder about was why the Courier reported this before they'd finished rounding everybody up. Heads up, guys, the cops are coming!

Elgin blog celebrates anniversary

I neglected to mention that James Jordan recently celebrated a year of blogging. He often has beautiful pictures of Elgin on his Points of Light blog. Do check it out if you haven't been there recently.

Congrats, James!

Chris Bailey's editorial on the Figueroa Mission

Usually impeccably attired and old enough to have a son in the U.S. military, Elgin City Councilman Juan Figueroa wouldn’t be my first choice to conduct a covert reconnaissance mission at a young adult night club.

But infiltrate The Mission in downtown Elgin he did, and what he reported to the city council afterward might have been the debriefing that finally ended the odd harassment of an entertainment milieu that seems to have been following the rules all along. (source: Daily Herald 4/23/06)

Right on. David Shelton is a V.I.P., and we've been treating him like some kind of jerk. If Elgin is serious about a 24-hour downtown, Mr. Shelton must be respected and encouraged. Nightlife is one industry that Elgin can actually dominate. This is where places like St. Charles, Geneva or South Elgin cannot compete. If we get nightlife, we'll get restaurants, corner stores, shops, and so on. We can't clamp down on one thing and expect that it doesn't affect other things. A city is a fabric, an ecosystem. We have to think in terms of ecology.

“I’m not sure the city wants to be associated with something like that,” said Bob Gilliam back in 2002, when a couple of constituents complained about some slightly risque pictures on a Web site advertising The Mission. (source: Daily Herald 4/23/06)
I'm sorry, Bob, the city has no right to tell women how to dress. Terms like "scantily-clad" or "risque" really have no place in City Hall. They're always used to describe women, and are by their nature sexist. Women have the right to dress as they see fit. Let us not impose a Taliban code of attire upon them. Elgin is an American city not a mullah-cracy.

I hope that this recent development does signal the end of Taliban rule. Perhaps now we can seriously talk about a revival of a popular music tradition in Elgin.

Unilever jerks

The city is close to striking a deal to buy the sprawling factory at the northeast corner of Highland Avenue and State Street (Illinois 31) for just more than $4 million, according to several people with knowledge of the arrangement. (source: Elgin Courier 4/21/06)
With $40 billion a year in revenue, Unilever is one of the world's largest companies. $4M is a drop in the bucket for them, and they're forcing us to buy their eyesore. Never mind that nobody else would want to buy it, and never mind that they claim to be great philanthropists.

They build an eyesore in our downtown, put people out of work, force us to buy their eyesore, wipe their hands clean and walk away.

Let's make sure Unilever never does business in Elgin again. I have never seen such an example of corporate greed and insensitivity.

Let them know how you feel about this.

One Dundee please

The One Dundee movement has a website. Check it out. Take the survey and support the merger. Let's clear some of the clutter off the map. Maybe this will spark a One Elgin movement in South Elgin. South Elgin's water reeks of chlorine. Need I say more?

Endangered building

The handsome building on the corner, which obviously has been carefully restored, is now in danger of demolition. The Great American Family Diner spent $137,000 to move into this building last year. The mayor and other members of the city council actually attended the ribbon-cutting when they opened. A few months later, they declared the block up for grabs. Maybe they didn't like the food?

Bring back some brick roads

I took this picture in Dekalb. I thought it would be great to see brick roads like this in Elgin. Not everywhere, of course, but perhaps a few in the historic districts and in the downtown.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Observations from a train trip to Chicago

I took the train into the city last Thursday morning to attend a CSO rehearsal (Mussorgsky Pictures, Rouse Rapture and Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell). It was my first train trip into the beautiful city of Chicago in perhaps several months, and gave me a chance to make some observations.

Such as...
  1. The Fox River has apparently warmed up enough to stink. If the Fox River stinks at the train station, then what good could come out of spewing more stinky water into the air with a fountain in the river? The fountain that Councilman Kaptain is suggesting may force us to roll up our windows as we cross the Kimball Street Bridge. I'd rather keep my window open.
  2. Just about every city/village along the train route has one or more new condo developments recently completed or under construction.
  3. Of all cities between Elgin and Union Station, Elgin looks the best and most liveable. (Of all places, Elgin is the second most liveable--the most liveable place is the Mars chocolate factory!)
While I was in the Loop, I made a stop at the Prairie Avenue Bookshop. They have an outstanding collection of books on urban planning and design, urban renewal, etc. Definitely worth a visit for ideas about what we can do in Elgin.

Jane Jacobs is dead

The lioness of urbanism now walks the streets of the ethereal city.
Jane Jacobs, a giant among urban critics and enthusiasts who died on Tuesday aged 89, spent her entire career fighting for one deceptively simple principle: leave the cities alone and let them develop by themselves.

In many ways, Jacobs's tireless fight for the organic, spontaneous city - for wide sidewalks, old buildings, a mix of businesses, semi-supervised children at play, and trees - was ahead of its time...

But in retrospect, Jacobs's message initally surfaced as a final warning, nearly coinciding with the dawn of government-sponsored neighbourhood-razing and cement-pouring...

Jacobs's countless suggestions about preserving street life were ultimately ignored. Numerous cities cited in her study - Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit - still wear the excesses of ill-advised renewal spending. The Back-of-the-Yards neighbourhood on Chicago's south side earned Jacobs's praise as poor but vital; today, it scarcely exists. (source: Financial Times 4/25/06)
It's a good time to read her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) if you are unfamiliar with it. It's required reading for anybody who has any interest in or is involved with cities, urban renewal or urban planning.

New York Times
Financial Times
ABC News

Monday, April 24, 2006

Let's get the Vermeer Quartet in Elgin

Just got back from Dekalb, where I savored a brilliant performance of Beethoven's Opus 18 No. 2 by the Vermeer Quartet. It was better than a thousand pounds of Scharffenberger semi-sweet. It was bliss. The Vermeer can take a quartet that is not one of Beethoven's best and make it sound like there's nothing better. How do they do that?

I smiled the whole 35 minutes home. I can't believe I'm that close to the Vermeer Quartet! I've loved the Vermeer since college. I had no idea they were in residence at NIU. And I can't believe Elgin hasn't managed to get them to do a series here. To hear the Opus 132 in the acoustically-perfect rotunda of the First Universalist Church...what a dream that would be!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Reader response to Third Floor article

I decided to spontaneously search for old articles on the legendary 3rd Floor, and could not believe less than a month ago an entire article was written dedicated to it and the early Elgin punk rock scene. I just really wanted to thank the author of this blog for bringing back some amazing memories, and spreading the word of a little known venue and scene that did so much for Chicago music...your article made my week, easy. -- Dan T.
What a joy. Thanks to John Emerson again for an excellent article about the Third Floor.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Should Kane County keep buying development rights to farmland?

Back to the "farmland preservation" stuff. I felt uneasy the first time I read about Kane County's policy of buying development rights to farmland. I'm sure you've felt the same way about certain things, when you start wrinkling your nose and sniffing the air like a rat, because something just doesn't smell right. Well, Kane County's farmland preservation policy never smelled right to me.

I think I'm starting to understand why. I mentioned one issue--how the policy could impede small farms--in a previous entry. Now I want to discuss another issue, a financial one.

Now, the Courier article states that the county has paid up to $5,000 an acre. $5,000 is a lot of money for farmland. According to USA Today, the average price of farmland in Illinois last year was only $2,900.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Kane County is paying market prices for land in rural corners of the county, but is receiving only development rights to the land, not the land itself. Who's getting a good deal here? Is it any surprise that this program is very popular among area farmers? A 200-acre farmer could collect a million dollars and give up essentially nothing, just the possibility--which may well be remote--of building houses on the land...some day.

My view is this, if Kane County is going to shell out up to $5,000 an acre--what appears to be the actual market value of the land, they had better get the land, not just development rights. Sure, farmland is nice, but so are prairie, woods and trails. The latter--incorporated into a forest preserve--are far more accessible to the public than farmland, and better for the environment.

More about this issue later...

Spring flowers blooming

Bluebells, purple violets, white violets, and dogtooth violets all bloomed in profusion today at Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve.

Wow, a wild turkey feather!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Blogging marathon

If you're wondering why there are so many entries today, it's because I have a huge backlog of entries/links I've wanted to blog. Never got to it. My own stuff sort of has low priority, because I want to respond to news first, because if I sit on it it will no longer be timely.

So this was a marathon suggestion to work down the backlog, and hopefully give me an entree to blog some original stuff. I actually hate responding to news...

Maybe some one can give me a hand?? You can do the news stuff and I'll do the "my own ideas" stuff. Email me. It's elginite at

Windfall for Kane County farmers

Despite dwindling financial resources, Kane County looks like it will devote between $1.6 million and $2 million to farmland preservation this year...

Kane has preserved about 3,000 acres of farmland since 2000 by buying development rights on the land.

The county pays the landowner as much as $5,000 an acre for those rights. (source: Elgin Courier 4/14/06)
Do the math, and that's up to $15M given to Kane farmers for farmland preservation. I can't help but wonder whether such a policy is actually wise. I love farmland, and I like the idea of preserving farmland. But there's just something that makes me uneasy about this idea of the county buying development rights. And I'm not even sure why I'm uneasy.

One thing I'm concerned about is what farmland actually means. When the county buys "development" rights, does that mean that any subdivision of the farmland is prohibited? I think that subdividing farmland into smaller farms would be a positive. In my view, the more smaller farms there are around here the better.

Smaller farms are much more likely to raise speciality crops or organic livestock, produce artisanal cheeses and so on, all of which can be brought to market in Elgin or other farmer's markets in the Fox Valley. If we had a farmer's market with products like that, it would be a huge draw. A lot of successful downtown revitalization efforts coalesced around such public markets.

Large farms are very unlikely to engage in any of these activities, because they view themselves as agribusinesses that produce commodity products: corn, soybeans, etc. But if these farms were divided into smaller farms, farmettes or even one-acre four-acre homesteads, the mentality and philosophy of these farmers would be completely different. They would be much more oriented towards the consumer markets directly east of them, and produce the kind of specialty products that are in high and increasing demand due to the nation's new obsession--courtesy of cable tv's Food Network--with cuisine and "slow food."

Small farms in Kane County would allow us to--for the first time in a long time--tie local agriculture into Elgin's economy. I think even people in Chicago would flock to Elgin if we could pull that off. Elgin's proximity to agricultural land has always been one of the things I liked best about Elgin.

But so far, we have been unable to make that proximity felt. If you go to Elgin's Harvest Market now, you wouldn't get the sense that Elgin is next to an agricultural region. There just aren't a lot of products being brought to market by area farmers.

The problem is that the area farmers are too big. They have big farms and they produce commodities, not products that can be sold at the local farmer's market. Any policy that will allow these big farms to be broken up into small farms would be a big positive in my view.

I wonder whether the county's policy of buying development rights will make it harder to do this. How would the county define a one-acre four-acre homestead or farmette? Would that fit their definition of agriculture or would they say it's residential and hence prohibited development?

Strange Courier article on Ruth Munson

The Courier published a very unusual article under an equally unusual headline ("Munson: Verdict won't hurt her") in the wake of the George Ryan conviction.
Rep. Ruth Munson, who must overcome a challenger this fall to keep her seat in the General Assembly, said Monday she did not think former Gov. George Ryan's conviction would stain her candidacy.

Munson, a Republican like Ryan, was appointed to office in December 2002 and said she never met the former governor.

"I think I saw him from afar once," she said. (source: Elgin Courier 4/18/06)
There's absolutely no connection between Ruth Munson and George Ryan. Who knows why the Courier decided to single out Ruth Munson out of all the Republican candidates in Elgin elections and write this bizarre article, the point of which is...oops there is no point.

I think the article's publication was an honest mistake, but in other areas of the country in other publications and other elections, this article would have been seen as a low-calorie version of the "Politician denies beating wife" story. Not the kind of story that inspires confidence in the media.

Umm, about U-46?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $21 million to the Chicago Public Schools system on Monday to set up a more challenging curriculum in city high schools that will better prepare students for college and boost graduation rates...

The "transformation project" is part of a focus that includes Renaissance 2010, an initiative that closes the lowest-performing schools and replaces them with smaller schools free from many district controls.

The foundation started by Microsoft Corp.'s chairman and his wife has invested more than $65 million in the Chicago district and $1.3 billion nationally, Vander Ark said. (source: Daily Herald 4/18/06)
$65M for Chicago about a few million for Illinois's second-largest school district? Elginite to Connie Neale: No more coffee breaks for grant writers.

Newspapers in trouble

New York Times Co. (NYT.N: Quote, Profile, Research), McClatchy Co. (MNI.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Tribune Co. (TRB.N: Quote, Profile, Research) on Thursday posted sharply lower quarterly earnings on high newsprint costs and depressed advertising sales.

The results from the three large publishers underscored the troubles faced by the industry, including circulation declines, high costs and competition for advertising money from the Internet and other new media. (source: Reuters 4/13/06)
I wonder how the Elgin Daily Courier and the Daily Herald are doing. In any case, they shouldn't blame me for the "competition for advertising money from the Internet and other new media." In all my months of blogging about Elgin, I've collected the handsome sum of $1.62 in advertising revenues.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Good news for Elgin nightlife

Councilman Juan Figueroa checked out the Mission in downtown Elgin, and was satisfied that no laws were being broken.

That’s why he asked the city council Wednesday to remove the sunset clause on the club’s Young Adult Night permit. Ultimately, the recommendation to renew the permit without a sunset clause passed with only Bob Gilliam voting against it.

The change means club owners will appear before the liquor commission to have the permit extended instead of seeking a blessing from the entire city council. (source: Daily Herald)

This is great news for all who want to see downtown Elgin as a vital urban center. The city council has done a lot to make the nightlife business a losing proposition for entrepreneurs, but hopefully this is a signal that their attitude is now changing.

I hope Mr. Figueroa will take the lead on the city council as a downtown Elgin advocate. Specifically, I hope he pushes the council to live up to the stated goal of the Center City Master Plan to make downtown Elgin a "24-hour city."

You don't need trees for a forest preserve

They're finally doing some work at Spring Creek Forest Preserve.
Trees were taken down on this plot and another of similar size to become part of a 110-acre grassland, according to the partners in the $55,000 project — Cook County Forest Preserve District, Audubon-Chicago Region, Bird Conservation Network and Citizens for Conservation. (source: Elgin Courier);
Some people are upset about the trees coming down. What this article highlights is the fact that you need grassland in a forest preserve. There's an idea floating out there that farmland is somehow not "woods" and therefore shouldn't be acquired by the forest preserve district. In fact, farmland is usually perfect for prairie restoration. This is why I think the Stony Creek site is an ideal acquisition for the Kane County Forest Preserve District.

Dundee merger

Every now and then, West Dundee's [Village President] Keller said, someone raises the possibility of combining East and West Dundee into a single community.

"After a while, you just think, 'Yeah, right,'" he said.

Affecting such a plan might be how residents view their hometowns, Keller said.

"We are always tied up with our own identities," he said. "If we lose our own identities, there is always a concern." (source: Elgin Courier)

What identities? Nobody even knows the difference between the two. People who have been living in the Fox Valley for decades still think that West and East are just terms of convenience and that there is only one municipality called Dundee.

I hope they merge.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Pass the pit bull ban

The City Council seems to be backing down on the pit bull ban, which is too bad. It's one of their best ideas.
After dozens of pit bull owners packed the city council chambers Wednesday to register their opposition to recent talk of banning the breed here, the likelihood of a ban seemed to diminish, as Councilman Robert Gilliam, who first brought up the possibility three weeks ago, said he was reconsidering his proposal. (source: Elgin Courier 4/13/06)
My guess is that most of these pit bull owners were from out of town. The article does say that a bunch of people were from an Elk Grove Village-based organization.
Linda Wyka, president of the foundation and the owner of two pit bulls, said that while "everybody makes them out to be a bad dog, a mean dog," pit bulls are "really a family-oriented dog."
Nobody ever disputed that they are family-oriented dogs. So long as you are in the family. In fact, how many dogs do you know bite the hands that feed them?

It's not even a matter of whether they're more likely to bite you or not. They're a tool of intimidation, favored by drug dealers and gangbangers. This isn't a constituency that the city council should be catering to.

Think of the image problem pit bulls create. Other communites with no histories of gang activity may get away with pit bulls walking the streets, but in Elgin they just serve as a reminder of the gangs that once plagued certain areas of the city. If Elgin is concerned about its image, then a pit bull ban will be effective, costless and disgruntle very few people.

Elgin's silent majority wants the ban. Pass it.

New condo conversion ordinance

The Elgin city council is discussing a new condo conversion ordinance.
[Elgin Mayor Ed Schock] said that in general he is looking at the ordinance as a way to both keep people safe and "to make sure that the price points aren't so low that it's an invitation for a problem." (source: Elgin Courier 4/11/06)
I would love to hear the mayor elaborate on how low price points, or affordable housing, are an invitation for a problem. I'm sure Elgin taxpayers would love to know exactly why they are subsidizing luxury condominiums and townhomes.

The downtown plan

Mayor Schock reminds us of the downtown plan.
Elgin Mayor Ed Schock said the plan is to use city amenities to bring in residential developments, which in turn will draw new commercial businesses.

"We're putting in all this civic infrastructure," he said, "and in addition to all the new amenities, the primary purpose is to bring in private investors. If you want people to live downtown, you have to give them a reason." (source: Elgin Courier 4/7/06)
So the plan is to bring 3 different groups into the downtown:
  1. Commercial businesses
  2. Residents
  3. Private Investors
"We are now replicating much of what (Schock) has done in Elgin — successfully, I hope — in Aurora," [Aurora Mayor] Weisner said.
I hope somebody tells him about the Planner's Blight.

Annex Pingree Grove?

Pingree Grove sent out an advertisement seeking applicants to become the growing village's first police chief. Once filled, the part-time position will be the first and only one in the yet-to-created Pingree Grove Police Department. (source: Elgin Courier 4/8/06)
Shodeen's Pingree Creek is essentially in Pingree Grove. It may even be bigger than Pingree Grove, so perhaps it is best to either let Pingree Grove take Pingree Creek or annex Pingree Grove. With the annexation, they won't have to worry about building their own police department.

Downtown Elgin - Douglas Avenue

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Blame the building

In the previous week's editorial, Mike Bailey chucks a petard over at the camp of Centre critics.

Most recreational endeavors do not pay for themselves. Swimming pools, for example, routinely lose money...The same could be said for other municipally funded recreational endeavors. A municipal golf course seldom pays its own way because cities tend to keep the greens fees lower than private courses to enable local residents to play. (source: Elgin Courier 3/26/06)

Isn't it enough that the city spends tens of millions of dollars constructing such facilities? Let's just take golf courses, for example: Just the first phase of the Highlands of Elgin golf course cost $7.5M. Second phase? $9M. And the city has agreed to give Bowes Creek $7M to build a golf course in their subdivision. That's $23.5M right there. We spend a tremendous amount of money to build these facilities. Isn't that enough of a subsidy? Must we also operate them at a loss? And for whose benefit? It doesn't seem financially prudent or fair, if you ask me.

Lords and Wing parks generate very little money for the city and cost huge amounts of tax dollars in upkeep and maintenance, playground equipment, labor, etc. Yet no one suggests that we should sell the parks...

I think the difference is that parks are open to everybody at no cost. The Centre if it was run by a nonprofit, as I understand it--at least as far as property tax in Illinois is concerned, would not even be granted tax-exempt status because it doesn't serve everybody, only its members and those who can pay the fee. Unless it had a fee waiver system in place, the State of Illinois would not consider it a charity.

Parks and recreational opportunities are amenities for the community and are subsidized by the taxpayers in this and every other city. So are many other amenities. Libraries don't pay for themselves. Taxpayers subsidize them. Neither do schools, and neither will The Centre.

We would not want to be without the library, the parks or the schools simply because they don't pay for themselves. Same with The Centre.

I think the difference here is that parks schools and libraries have dedicated revenue streams, specifically allocated to them by taxpayers. When they want to build a new library or build new school buildings, they put it on the ballot and take their campaign to the people. With the Centre, not only was this not specifically allocated by taxpayers, but the city council resisted every attempt to put it on the ballot, probably realizing that they would not win approval from the people.
Mistakes were made. The building is too large to be efficient and has too many open areas that are costly to heat and cool and cannot be programmed to produce revenue.
When you've run out of people to blame and don't want to blame yourself, blame the building. Classic. It's just surprising that Mr. Bailey, one of our watchmen, should go for it.
But The Centre probably will never pay for itself, and any promise that it would may have been the biggest mistake of all.
Well up to recently, that was a big mistake. But I think the bigger mistake would be for the people of Elgin to decide that losses are acceptable.

Every year that the Centre loses a million dollars is another year that a worthy cause in this city will not get the money it deserves. Losses at the Centre must not be tolerated. City officials must not be allowed to get away with blaming the building for their own failure to properly manage the businesses they have gotten themselves into.