A columnist's farewell

12/12/2012 10:00 PM

By Bonnie McGrath

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If this were my real December column, this is what it would be about: the new bike lane on the west side of Printers Row, along Dearborn. I would be saying how hideous and abominable it is. How the city has ruined one of the loveliest and most sensible urban expanses in its midst: A wide street that gently dips on both sides for parking. By shifting its scale and moving the west parking lane toward the middle of the street, I would write, the urban beauty of Printers Row has been destroyed. The strong brick buildings lining either side of the street were all they could be because of the streetscape. But now they won’t be.

I would be talking about how the bike lane looks like permanent messy construction. Or like some big shot is having a huge party in his loft, and for the night is being allowed to let his guests double-park.

But the bike lane isn’t what this column is going to be about. It’s going to be a farewell instead. Unfortunately, this is going to be my last column for the Chicago Journal. After 12 great years serving this neighborhood, the Journal packs it in today. It’s the end.

My tenure actually started with a neighborhood dispute in 2001. For several years, a group of garden club members and landscape aficionados had collected money from the 11 homeowners associations in Dearborn Park II, from Roosevelt all the way down to 15th Street. It was for neighborhood beautification, they said. It suddenly came to light that the group had “fired” the Chicago Park District, whose work they didn’t like, and was spending most of the money it collected on a private company that was providing basic park maintenance at Cottontail Park. When one of the homeowners associations decided not to donate, they didn’t get the grass on their side of Cottontail Park mowed. Which brought the matter to a head. A lot of meetings were called to order before the Park District came back to do what the taxpayers paid them to do. And the money collected has been spent only on neighborhood beautification ever since.

It was at one of those meetings where things were being thrashed out that I met Brett McNeil, the first editor of the Chicago Journal. He asked if he could call me later that night to get background information on the matter; I’d been involved from the start. We talked a long time. After he got his quotes, he asked about me. I told him that I was not only a lawyer, but a journalist who had written her own column for one publication or another since the 1980s — including in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and the Illinois Bar Journal — and that I’d been a regular contributing writer for the Chicago Bar Association magazine, as well as the Chicago Reader for many years. He said, “Why not write a regular column for us?”

And so I did. My first column was published in May 2001. It was about neighborhood disputes, and in the long run, how they help a neighborhood grow and prosper.

I have written this column through a succession of editors, including one who had been a journalism student in my department at Columbia College, where I teach, and two who were ironically sons of friends of mine. Haydn Bush, as a toddler, would run around the coffee table at a mutual friend’s house chasing my toddler daughter, while his parents and I chatted. (That daughter, by the way, has delivered the Chicago Journal to our neighbors for the last 11 years.) And current editor Ben Meyerson was also the son of friends. His dad used to brag about him at journalists’ parties when he was a little boy; his mom is a lawyer and we know each other from when we were both candidates for Cook County judge.

The Chicago Journal has tied its communities together this past dozen years like a tightly knit potholder. I know that on a list of “needs” that once circulated in the South Loop many years ago, a community newspaper topped the list. And not too long after that, CJ came along and more than filled that need. The Journal has been like a local version of “Walter Cronkite.” Something everyone saw. And no matter how many opinions there were, we were all at least working with the same true set of facts.

And then came the blogging. Almost four years ago, editor Micah Maidenberg asked if I’d be interested in writing a blog, because CJ was unveiling a new and improved website. I said sure; anyone who’s anyone today has one. My blog, “South Loop Observer” gave me the opportunity to enter the rarefied world of the blogosphere. When I got comments, I loved it. When I didn’t, I wondered why. And when they were nasty, I wondered who. The Chicago Journal made things very easy for me.

But there are a million other things to thank this newspaper for, other than giving me a column and a blog and letting me say whatever I want. Not the least of which was getting to know its publisher Dan Haley, who I hope I can call my friend forever, long after the Journal goes to sleep today.

The opportunity to allow a journalist to speak out about her world for almost a dozen years is a dream gift. And let me say that never during those years has anyone ever asked me to hold back, change a thought or tinker with a perspective. I know I have probably offended advertisers (or potential advertisers) in some fashion during the years, but never, ever, ever, ever has anyone at the Journal asked me not to. The people who work at the Chicago Journal are truly a part of the Fourth Estate, doing things the way they should be done.

I have the utmost respect for each and every one of my editors and colleagues, because I know what they accomplished through the past 12 years hasn’t been easy. To identify and report on community issues isn’t a skill that’s learned overnight, but those who worked at the paper were excellent at reporting as much news as possible. And then some.

And so it goes. Things end. People move on. Good things die. And there are many reasons why.

But neighbors, please look at the glass half full. Our community had a chance to bond through these pages. To learn how each other ticks. To see how the municipal government works. How it could work better, and how we could work better. We learned these lessons because these pages brought those lessons to us by letting us communicate in a most splendid way. Our neighborhood will never be the same for having had the Chicago Journal.

That goes for this columnist, too. For having worked for the Chicago Journal, I will never be the same. I am so much better.

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By lorraine schmall from South Loop
Posted: 12/16/2012 11:10 AM

Oh, no. How will I ever get my truly local news? What do I care what is trending? I am oblivious to what MSN decides is important for me to know. I have been here 5 years reading the Journal from beginning to end, and always happy to read Bonnie McGrath, who felt like an old friend before I even met her. But thanks...to her and to the staff who produced such a wonderful paper for so long. Perhaps we need a town crier, standing on State and Roosevelt, to fill us in on neighborhood news.

By Carole from South Loop
Posted: 12/13/2012 10:41 AM

Bonnie...I am so sad to be reading your last column in The Journal. The paper will be missed by so many people. But, once again, you have given me so much to think about. You, my friend, have saved the best for last! P.S. Speaking as one of "the four" - perhaps you might publish your columns in a book????