The Fine Arts Building, a Fiery Preacher & More

                         Billy Sunday laughs

Old photographs have always sent me in search a long-gone building, a forgotten graveyard, and the homes of the rich and infamous (I’m looking at you, Al Capone)

I recently combed through the online Chicago Daily News photo archive to craft a tour of Chicago that would take curious parties by the Fine Arts Building, the former Bush Temple of Music, and a fine cocktail lounge named after the legendary preacher Billy Sunday.

Go on and take a look at this brief tour and I imagine you’ll be digging through the Daily News archives soon enough for your own journey around Chicago.


Dear Robert Loerzel: How Do You Tweet?

What’s the goal/mission of your organization’s Twitter feed?

My Twitter feed, @robertloerzel, doesn’t represent an organization — it’s just me! As a freelance journalist, sometimes I tweet or retweet links for media outlets I’ve done work for (Crain’s Chicago Business, the Chicago Tribune and WBEZ, among others). But I’m not getting paid to tweet. A few of my tweets are self-promotional, giving people links to stories I’ve written or photos and blog posts from my own website,, which is mostly concert photos and reviews.

But I also retweet a lot of other stuff — some people would probably say I retweet too much, but I can’t help myself. And so, what is the goal or mission? It’s mostly just trying to share what I find interesting, important, amusing or appalling in the world around us.

What are your other responsibilities?

As I mentioned, I’m a freelancer. My work is a mix of reporting, writing, arts criticism, copy editing and photography for a variety of media outlets, and I’ve written one book, “Alchemy of Bones: Chicago’s Luetgert Murder Case of 1897” and I’ve been working on another book for the past 11 years. I also run a couple of other Twitter feeds: @midlandauthors, the feed for the Society of Midland Authors, a nonprofit organization for Midwestern authors where I currently serve as vice president; and @new_in_chicago, an account dedicated to promoting the weekly “New in Chicago” column that I write for the Crain’s Chicago Business website.

What’s the mix of tweets you like to send out on any given day?

I don’t plan out any particular mix of tweets for a day. It’s basically whatever grabs my attention as I look over the tweets coming in from the many, many accounts I am following (5,907 as of this moment). On some semi-conscious level, I do try to maintain a certain balance of different subjects in my tweets and retweets. On a given day, my Twitter feed will probably include some Chicago news as well as national and world news, quirky stories from random corners of the planet, articles about journalism and the media, cool pictures, historical tidbits, indie rock news, stuff about literature, art and movies, plus things I’ve seen or overheard on the streets of Chicago. When there’s a big breaking news story, I might go into mega-retweeting mode and put out a lot of updates on a situation — I did that during the manhunt after the Boston Marathon bombing, and when tornadoes were hitting downstate Illinois, just to mention a couple of examples. I retweeted so much during the tornadoes that Twitter suspended my account for a few hours! Amid all of this stuff, I also reply to other people’s tweets, including friends I know in real life as well as people whose tweets I find interesting or worthy of a smart-alecky response or some praise. I’m not a huge sports fan, so I don’t tweet all that much about sports, unless I find something especially interesting or amusing — and I don’t watch reality TV shows, so you won’t see a lot of tweets about that, either.

How do you interact with other organizations in (or outside) of your field?

Interaction is such an important part of having a good presence on Twitter. For me, it’s mostly retweeting other people’s most interesting updates, crediting other people for their tweets and having mini-conversations with them on Twitter.

What’s the most valuable aspect of Twitter for you?

I don’t know how much Twitter benefits me professionally. I know that some other journalists notice my tweets, though that doesn’t necessarily translate into me getting any work as a result of it. (There’s at least one time that happened, when the Chicago Reader asked me to cover something I’d tweeted about.) I just think of Twitter as an important part of how I interact with the world around me and keep track of what’s going on. It’s not unusual for me to find out about a concert, play or film via Twitter, enriching my cultural experiences. And it keeps me informed about news in a lot of far-flung areas, which is helpful in my line of work.

What types of social media software do you use to manage your Twitter account?

I switch back and forth between Tweetdeck, the Twitter website and the Twitter app on a variety of devices: my home iMac, a MacBook Air, an iPad, an Android phone and newsroom PCs. What I’m using at any given moment affects how I see Twitter and how I tweet. My favorite interface is using Tweetdeck on my iMac, where I can see several columns at once: notifications of people retweeting my tweets and replying to me; a list that I keep private of 400 or see Chicago friends and major Chicago-related news accounts; the general Twitter feed of nearly 6,000 accounts that I’m following, which scrolls past quickly like a ticker tape; and the columns for my other accounts, @new_in_chicago and @midlandauthors.

Have you ever had any new and compelling partnerships come together via Twitter?

No real partnerships — unless you count things like people asking to use my concert photos, which happens from time to time.

How you respond to critics/complainers on Twitter?

I don’t get complaints all that often. I try to avoid tweeting links to any news stories with questionable accuracy or sourcing, but on a few occasions I slipped and posted a hoax from some other source. That usually prompts someone else to point the problem. When that happens, I’m glad to address the controversy with a follow-up tweet or delete a previous RT, if that’s appropriate. Sometimes, a tweet will prompt a political discussion. I don’t generally spend a lot of time on Twitter debating issues. I retweet some counterpoint tweets as a matter of fairness. Other times, I find it’s better simply to ignore these rejoinders. Once in a while, people question why I’m tweeting so much about a particular topic. (“Why so much about Rob Ford?”) There isn’t much to say in response to that other than: Hey, I find this stuff interesting. If you don’t, feel free to ignore it.

Do you ever sponsor any special events (Tweet-chats, etc) to get a bit of buzz going around?

Never done it. Maybe I will someday.

What are your go-to-Twitter feeds in your field? For fun? For Chicago goings-on?

For staying up on Chicago news and goings-on, I especially like these Twitter accounts. I’m leaving out institutional Twitter feeds for news organizations and focusing just on the individuals here. I’m also leaving out the many great Twitter feeds I follow from beyond Chicago. (And I’m sure I’m leaving out some great people!) But here goes, in no particular order: @craignewman, @walldo, @peternickeas, @ourmaninchicago, @RogersParkMan, @calumet412, @ErinMeyer1, @NinaMetzNews, @pkmonaghan, @dmihalopoulos, @mikelansu, @marklebien, @raypride, @MisterJayEm, @RobertFeder, @AnnDwyer_Crains, @jesshopp,  @thomasfrisbie, @SennettReport, @zoegalland, @AGarciaPhoto, @stevevance, @4danlopez, @BeachwoodReport, @JoshatNRDC, @imLeor, @LynnBecker, @emmillerwrites, @mickeyd1971, @marcusleshock, @RiotFest, @natashakorecki, @dhinkel, @pang, @BrianBernardoni, @superanne, @whet, @samarov, @bellwak, @romenesko, @timhorsburgh, @tracyswartz, @kdc, @TedMcClelland, @schlikerman, @dansinker, @me3dia … oh, and some guy who calls himself @theurbanologist.

How does you cover your feed? 24 hours a day? Weekends? Holidays?

As I said, this Twitter feed is just me, no company, no pay. I try to keep an eye on how much time I’m spending on it. You’ll notice some long gaps when I don’t tweet much, which probably means I’m ensconced in some other work for a while. Or sleeping. (Yes, I do sleep.)

Any “aha” moments in your Twitter usage? Great revelations? “Uh oh” moments?

I’m having trouble thinking of any specific “aha” or “uh oh” moments, but I recall discovering early on in my use of Twitter how fascinating and useful it is to use Twitter to monitor breaking news from your city and all over the world. And when I’m interested in a particular story, I sometimes search Twitter for what people are saying about it, which often leads to great comments and links from people I never would have encountered otherwise.

If you have more than one person responsible for your Twitter account, how do you keep the voice & tone consistent?

It’s just me. Even though it’s just one person, keeping the voice and tone consistent may still be an issue. If I’ve been retweeting news from a tragic or disturbing news event, I’ll probably hold off on saying anything lighthearted on a different subject. But sometimes, these sorts of jarring juxtapositions happen. I feel like that’s a reflection of how our lives and our world are filled with these contrasts.

Who would you like to see interviewed next for this feature?

Well, any of the people I mentioned earlier would be great. How about @robertfeder? I like the way he puts out multiple tweets on the same topic, promoting a news item from several different angles.

How does your organization promote your Twitter feed throughout your industry?

I don’t really promote it all — other than including an occasional link from my blog to my Twitter feed. Tweeting itself is a form of promotion, I suppose.

An Urbanologist’s Tour of Boston’s South End


I’ve been writing about Boston for a number of years and it’s always fun to revisit the South End neighborhood. Here’s my latest profile of the area, which includes stops along the Southwest Corridor, the Chandler Studios, and the cocktail offerings of Wink & Nod

Oh, Littleton, Your Magic Charms Are All Around

I’ve spent plenty of time wandering the coastal towns of New Hampshire, so it was with no little fanfare that I recently journeyed up to the White Mountains to cast my gaze on these fine precincts.

Of course, New England has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quaint small towns and I’ve been to many in the course of my travels. I was more than pleasantly surprised when I arrived in Littleton to find a flourishing and robust Main Street, a lovely river nearby (hat tip to the Ammonoosuc), a covered bridge, a new brewery, and a temple to all things saccharine.

What follows is my highly subjective and rather opinionated guide for the curious traveler to Littleton. Enjoy and feel free to use it in any season and for any reason.

A Saccharine Superlative


In your hometown, you might have a candy shop or two. Every town has one and some of them boast of a gargantuan gobstopper or a super sour tangy blue raspberry chew or two. But what about the World’s Longest Candy Counter? Only at Chutters, my friends.

Located front and center on Main Street, Chutters has something for everyone (yes, yes, sugar free candy as well) and the counter is a thing of wonder. You’ll want to take a few minutes to get your bearings by looking over the glass jars full with lemon-flavored sour candies, a cornucopia of sour brite crawlers, and other treats. Fudge is also represented here and samples are dispensed on request.

As an experience, it’s quite unique and it’s almost as much fun to talk to fellow travelers about what they are looking to find. During my visit, I heard one woman make a request for a certain type of circus peanut. I was under the impression there was only the one type of brightly neon orange legume, but yea, the folks at Chutters knew what she was talking about. Come on by, pick up a few treats, and keep on perambulating on Main Street.

Then for Opera, Now For Memories of the Past

This fine fortress of building is the focal point of Main Street and its four-story octagonal tower is a lovely architectural detail. Finished in 1895, the Town Building has always been multi-purpose, as it has housed town offices, courtrooms, and a splendid opera company. Peek your head in to see the grand hall here and then wind your way downstairs to the Littleton Historical Society.

It’s a modest display space, but oh what wonders you’ll learn about from first-hand accounts, historic items, and other such ephemera! Tales of the 1927 flood, a dramatic train-wreck, the construction of grand new hotels, and the flotsam and jetsam of the town’s history abound in the museum. They also have a number of fine items for sale in their gift shop and the volunteers are excellent sources of information on local dining and more.

New Beers in a Fine Old Building

Just a short stroll off Main Street, an 18th century gristmill building is the old and fine innovation nerve center for the Schilling Beer Company. This venture is the brainchild of John Lenzini and Jeff Cozzens who found themselves with a passion for fermentation that led them to this corner of the White Mountains.

The entire complex is an engaging and welcoming mix of brewery, performance space, and taproom. Looking over the Ammonoosuc River is a fine way to enjoy a beer and children are most welcome, which is a plus for folks traveling with young ones. First up is the beer, of course, and you’ll want to ask for a few samples to get started. On the food side of things the Neapolitan-style flatbreads are stand-outs, and you can also get a number of sandwiches and burgers on pretzel rolls. Overall, it’s a warm and welcoming place and you can find more details about their beermaking philosophy and their hours right here.

Sweet Treats On the Side of the Road

During your wanderings around Littleton, you’d do well to stop on by Bishop’s Homemade Ice Cream Shoppe. It’s been an institution in town for over 35 years and they continue to rack up the accolades from Yankee Magazine and other venerated publications for their creative and fun ice cream flavors. You can get stalwarts like vanilla here, but why not branch out into banana cream pie, apple & spice, or their divine orange pineapple frozen yogurt? Whatever you pick up, have a seat inside and enjoy that treat, or in warmer months, sit a spell on their expansive porch.

An Encounter With the World’s Most Optimistic Individual

When someone is described as having a Pollyanna-like attitude, we know them to be universally optimistic and cheery. We should all be so lucky and Littleton happens to be the birthplace of Eleanor Hodgman Porter, who conjured up this fictional character who simply would not let any of life’s challenges dampen her spirit.

The original book came out in 1913 and it spawned a raft of sequels, Broadway productions, and most notably, the Walt Disney film starring Hayley Mills. In 2002, Littleton decided to pay homage to the spirit of Porter and her most celebrated character with this most joyous and wonderful statue. Try out the pose, bring some friends into the mix and don’t forget to duck into the library, which has some lovely artwork and gorgeous interior spaces.

There’s much more to do in Littleton and you’d do well to consider their most complete and well-illustrated walking tour, which highlights other local gems, such as the Masonic Temple and the recently renovated Thayers Inn. Before your visit, feel free to reach out to the Littleton Chamber of Commerce for additional travel tips, information about upcoming festivals, and more.

Happy travels and enjoy Littleton!

Jim Vrabel talks about “A People’s History of the New Boston”


Conversations about the future of Boston should always involve a bit of meditation about the Hub’s past.  Author and community activist Jim Vrabel has been a key part of this conversation for decades and he recently penned "A People’s History of the New Boston". In this work, he documents some of the grassroots struggles across the city in the 1960s and 1970s, including the efforts to hold back the expansion of Logan Airport, the ongoing debate about the Southwest Expressway, and the ways in which court-ordered busing transformed Boston.

What is that distinguishes your work from other previous histories of Boston?

Most histories of Boston concentrate on the founding of the “City on a Hill” and the Revolutionary War era.  They include a little bit about the China Trade, the industrial revolution, and abolition, then talk about Boston’s decline in the first half of the 20th century and its rebirth in the second half.  They usually rely on the “first families” or “great man” approach to tell the story and highlight the bricks and mortar improvements to the city.  A People’s History of the New Boston focuses on the last sixty years of the city’s history, with flashbacks to previous eras.  It tells its story from the grass roots level and shows how “ordinary people” helped turn the city around in the 1960s and 1970s and make Boston a morally better and more humane place.

As we look around Boston, the middle class has largely abandoned the city sometimes by choice, sometimes because they had no choice due to housing costs and so on. Is there anything the city or state government can do to retain its middle class?

I don’t think the Boston has been abandoned by the “middle class” so much as it has allowed the “working class” to be driven out.  For some reason, we seem to want to ignore the various gradations of class in society and pretend that there are only the rich, the poor, and everyone else in the middle.  In the 1960s, as John Vitagliano says in the book, “Boston was more homogenous back then, the blue-collar aspect was the common denominator.  The racial thing didn’t matter as much. It was kind of on the side.”  And as I say in the book, cities – at least American cities – are supposed to be ladders of opportunity.  If government – federal, state and local – wants our cities to work, it’s got find ways to preserve the working class rungs on that ladder so those below that can climb it to better lives.

You speak quite eloquently about the late Alan Lupo. For those who might not know his work, who was he and what’s his greatest legacy to Hub residents?

Alan Lupo was a local journalist who, first at the Boston Globe and then at other media outlets, became the champion for working people in Boston’s neighborhoods who were fighting for social and economic justice. “Because I grew up in a family and in a neighborhood that had no voice,” he once wrote, “I have tried in some small way to be a voice for those whose feelings are too rarely heard, or even expressed.”  In the 1970s, Lupo anchored “The Reporters,” a nightly news and public affairs program on Boston’s public television station that set the gold standard for local reporting.  He continually and eloquently paid attention to people who had long been ignored by the powers-that-be, and, in doing so, helped them to empower themselves.

I think when most people think about community development, the missing word in the middle is “economic”. How can community development do more than just be focused around monetary matters? Or should it be?

I agree.  “Economic” is usually missing in that discussion, and it’s probably the most crucial word of all.  If we don’t concentrate on supporting the kinds of industries and creating the kinds of jobs that poor and working class residents can gain access to, then cities are doomed to become places for only highly-educated and high-paid employees and the poorly-educated and low-paid workers who serve and clean up after them.  Promoting blue collar jobs is also the kind of issue that unites, instead of divides, people.  As Mel King recalled, when he and Chuck Turner decided to expand their campaign for minority construction jobs to all Boston residents, “it was foolish to let them play us off against one another.”

The story of Mattapan’s dramatic transformation is one that might not be familiar to many new Boston residents. Could you say a bit about the community and the broader significance of its transformation from the 1960s to the present?

In the late 1960s, Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood was singled out for the well-intentioned but poorly-designed Boston Banks Urban Group program.  B-BURG flooded Mattapan with federally-backed mortgage money to promote minority home ownership.  But in doing so, it allowed unscrupulous real estate agents and banks to victimize both the largely Jewish population it drove out and the minority families, who moved in, but after being forced to pay inflated prices for homes lost them to foreclosure.  As lawyer Larry Shubow, who had defended clients before Joe McCarthy during the “Red Scare” era, said at the time, “To take two populations and pitch them against each other … two populations at their most sensitive and naked edges being rubbed together… . They made it impossible to have an integrated community.”

Today much of the conversation in Boston is focused around school reform and reinvention, affordable housing, and access to jobs and transit. What are the other pieces involved here? Are there certain aspects that are being overlooked?

Those are the big issues facing Boston and other cities, but what’s missing is an emphasis on community building.  Identifying the right Issues and creating effective programs will only take you so far.  Unless we understand and support people the ways that people live their lives, raise families, and bind themselves together in neighborhoods, we’re ignoring the glue that holds cities together.

I think your chapter on “The Mothers of Maverick Street” is a masterstroke. Would it be possible for Logan Airport to expand at all today? This is a real question for most major metros, including the ongoing debate about the O’Hare expansion around Chicago.

Those East Boston women weren’t just fighting airport expansion but the Massachusetts Port Authority sending its traffic through neighborhood streets.  As their leader, Anna DeFronzo, said back then, “We were tired of begging the Port Authority to keep the trucks off Maverick Street, so one evening we had a meeting in here, and we decided this was it, and that someday I would give them a call and we would go out in the streets.”  By doing so, they forced the Port Authority to be a better neighbor, even though it has expanded Logan Airport since then.  But with the ocean on two sides and residential neighborhoods on the other two, it’s pretty much run out of room.  The best solution would be development of regional airports to handle the air traffic that doesn’t need to fly directly into Boston, but suburban and special interests are fighting that idea.

I’d like your thoughts on the greatest legacy to Boston’s neighborhoods from past mayors Tom Menino and Ray Flynn. Also, do you have any thoughts on Mayor Walsh as of yet?

Ray Flynn’s greatest legacy was to turn attention away from downtown Boston, where it had resided for three decades, return it to the neighborhoods and to heal the city’s racial and social divisions by bringing people together around the economic issues that unite them.  That’s why he was called the “Mayor of the Neighborhoods” and “The People’s Mayor.”  Tom Menino’s greatest legacy was to follow Flynn’s example and spend so much time in the neighborhoods and to keep the city running smoothly.  That’s why he was called the “Urban Mechanic.”  Marty Walsh, with his background and his relationships with organized labor, has the chance to make sure Boston keeps working – and that its residents, especially its young people, get the education, training, and jobs to see that it does.

What are the top three priorities for Boston in the coming decades in terms of on-the-ground physical planning?

Boston needs to add more housing, more housing density, and more affordable housing at various income levels throughout the city.  It’s got to add that housing along existing mass transit corridors, while improving and increasing the capacity of that mass transit.  Finally, the city has got to preserve or carve out areas for the kind of economic and industrial development that creates jobs for residents, who, at least initially, do not have college degrees.

Is gentrification as we see it today around the city less or more pernicious that “old school” federally sponsored urban renewal?

They’re equally pernicious, but gentrification is far more insidious and so harder to confront.  “Old school” urban renewal presented a big, obvious target against which people could organize and, because it was government-operated, a source from which they could extract concessions.  Modern gentrification is a much more subtle and diffuse threat, and one carried out by private agents.  But gentrification is buttressed by public policy, so people need to put pressure on government to change some of those policies so that they serve the entire public.