“Chicago’s neighborhoods have always been the city’s greatest strength." — former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, 1979 to 1983.
Maybe you remember me.
Back when Mayor Daley was still boss, I did a stint in the City Hall press room for the Daily Southtown writing about how the city works — a job that included field trips all over town to see Daley cut ribbons, shake hands and avoid tough questions.
For a while, I was the guy in the front row at CTA board meetings breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times about trains, fare hikes and Frank Kruesi.
And I had a desk at the Daley Center with a great view of the Picasso back when I told readers that Cook County Board President Todd Stroger had again made himself a laughingstock by hiring a steakhouse busboy who just couldn’t stay out of jail.
Those were great times that produced a lot of front-page stories. But the best beat I ever had as a newspaperman didn’t come with a press room desk, include press van field trips and boring government meetings, or put me this/close to the most powerful people in town.
I found some of my favorite stories while reporting on Chicago neighborhoods, the folks who live there and what they’re up against. A lot of those stories landed on the front page, too. But too often interesting tales of real Chicagoans got lost on the inside pages — and over the years became a rarity.
I live for telling those stories. They’re out there on the streets where we live, and you can’t find them when you’re chained to a desk.
I left that big paper on the river to get back to writing about the Chicago that you can’t see from City Hall. Real Chicago. If you live here, you know what I mean.
But if you’re a bit skeptical about a neighborhood news organization with a funny name that hails from New York City, of all places, I completely understand.
I was skeptical about DNAinfo.com at first, too.
Plus, we all know that New Yorkers can be — let’s not sugarcoat it — know-it-all jerks who thumb their noses at deep-dish pizza, among other Chicago things.
So that’s why, on behalf of our city, I took it upon myself to give the joint a proper Chicago vetting on my first day on the job.
I took DNAinfo NYC’s Managing Editor Mike Ventura — a Brooklyn man who likes beer, booze and giant sandwiches — to my favorite bar, the joint where Mayor Rahm Emanuel once wiped “schmutz” out of my beard, and ordered him a Schlitz “Tall Boy" and a shot of Jeppson’s Malort.
Malort, of course, is the most foul shot of swill Chicago can muster. It's a Swedish-style booze made in Chicago and only served here. Once a workingman’s shot, it recently became nationally infamous as our city’s hipster toast of choice, even though it tastes like feet and dirty baby wipes.
Brooklyn Mike rightly expressed concern when I didn’t order myself one. I insisted that I had nothing to prove and if this NYC online news venture was going to work in Chicago it was his duty to take a leap of faith — and the shot.
Without hesitation, he lifted the golden liquor to his lips, pounded it back and smiled — a grin that lasted only for a second.
Malort’s pungent aftertaste — black licorice, glass cleaner and horse urine — punched him in the palate.
Brooklyn Mike made a sour face, but I’m proud to report he didn’t choke, cry or vomit. And he’s still telling his pals in the Big Apple the story of his night of Chicago barroom bravery that earned my trust enough for me to find out that he's built an award-winning newsroom back in New York.
There's a thing about risks — whether we’re talking about my jump to DNAinfo or Brooklyn Mike’s Malort experience: If you don’t take the shot, you’ll miss out on a good story.
Brooklyn Mike and me — and the 20 DNAinfo reporters dispatched in neighborhoods all over the city — we’re in it for the stories. Our stories — even the ones the big papers don’t always find important enough to tell.
So, I hope to see you out in the neighborhoods — always “Chicago’s greatest strength.”
The stories we find there will be ours.