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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Test Drive: Lime's electric scooters are fun and easy, but are they practical for Chicago commutes?

Posted By on 07.31.18 at 06:00 AM

Lime's electric scooters are being tested in Chicago. Are they here to stay? - LIME
  • Lime
  • Lime's electric scooters are being tested in Chicago. Are they here to stay?

Will Chicagoans all ditch their bikes, cars, and public transportation to zip around everywhere on lime-green electric scooters over the next few years?

It's doubtful, but the contraption is an amusing if mildly frightening way to traverse the city in short bursts. I felt like a kid for a day—and a minor celebrity—after a couple of impromptu test drives (scoots?) of the two-wheeled, long-handled devices over the weekend. The California-based company Lime parked a few dozen of its GPS-enabled Lime-S's near the Fiesta Del Sol festival in Pilsen as part of a public demo. There were four of them in a neat row right outside my apartment building, and I couldn't resist trying them out.

It certainly wasn't difficult to get started: I downloaded the Lime-S app and got authorized through Facebook and Apple Pay in less than two minutes. The app borrows your phone's camera to scan the bike's QR code to activate it. When you see the electronic display turn on, then you just hop on. I found the process considerably easier and faster than getting a new Ventra or Divvy pass.

Costwise, Lime-S falls somewhere between the CTA and ride sharing through Lyft or Uber. At $1, it's cheap to start the thing up, but the additional 15 cents per minute can add up quickly if you're not careful. My 3.4-mile round-trip from Pilsen to Chinatown took 28 minutes and cost $5.20 (though I got a $1 off from a promotion); my later five-mile trek from Fiesta Del Sol to Wicker Park Fest took 35 minutes and cost $8.25.
My Lime-S route from Fiesta Del Sol in Pilsen to Wicker Park Fest. The ride cost $8.25 for almost five miles. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • My Lime-S route from Fiesta Del Sol in Pilsen to Wicker Park Fest. The ride cost $8.25 for almost five miles.
One of the first decisions I had to make: Where's the most appropriate place to actually ride the thing? The street felt like a weird place for a compact scooter that resembles an adult version of a child's toy, but so did the sidewalk, where I could have really annoyed (or even knocked into) pedestrians. I settled on staying within marked bike lanes, but even that felt awkward—like I was invading someone else's turf—so I tried to travel quiet residential streets instead.

The novelty factor of seeing someone on an electric scooter is ultrahigh right now, which is why I kept getting distracted by pedestrians and car passengers bombarding me with questions while I was riding: Where did I get the Lime, how they could get one, how much it cost. Some just wanted me to know how fun it looked. "Damn, dude, you look like you're from the future," one guy yelled at me as I passed by his Saturday-afternoon barbecue.
The moment-to-moment experience of actually riding a Lime is thrilling—maybe too much so. You barely have to move your body: one flick of the thumb on your right hand on the throttle zooms the scooter along with ease, and your left hand squeezes a brake to slow it down. I got an adrenaline rush early on, especially after I cranked the accelerator to the max while crossing the 18th Street Bridge over the Chicago River.

I managed to break 21 miles per hour, and at that speed I felt like I was on a theme-park ride or a grounded version of Marty McFly's hoverboard from Back to the Future 2. It was fun, sure; it was also wildly unsafe. Going the maximum speed on a Lime could be OK on a flat track with a smooth surface, but not on our postapocalyptic Chicago roads riddled with sharp cracks, cavernous potholes, and loose rocks and litter.

On a thin, lightweight scooter, you're much more exposed than on a bicycle, and more balance is needed to stay upright—I found it nearly impossible to ride it with one hand. (Then again, this was my first time on a scooter in two decades; maybe I'm just out of practice.) Through trial and error, I discovered that somewhere between ten and 12 miles per hour is a reasonable cruising speed, but even then I once accidentally hit the edge of a pit in the pavement near May and 21st Street and thought I might fall off.

Lime demoed some of its e-scooters in Pilsen near Fiesta Del Sol over the weekend. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • Lime demoed some of its e-scooters in Pilsen near Fiesta Del Sol over the weekend.
One problem I ran into was with the battery indicator on the scooter's display. On my second ride, the device couldn't make up its mind—it kept intermittently flashing between one and two bars to indicate the amount of battery left. I received a notification on my phone telling me I needed to park soon before my scooter went dead, but I ended up squeezing two more miles out of it.

My favorite part of the e-scooter is that it's dockless—the same aspect that makes it so controversial in other cities because of all the scooters that wind up cluttering the sidewalks. After making it to Wicker Park Fest, I was able to abandon my ride on the sidewalk ten yards away from the festival's entrance. If the city of Chicago mandates that Lime outfit the scooters with "lock-to" mechanisms of the sort required for its dockless bikes, the scooters will be a much less attractive option.

As it is, once the thrill wore off, I'm not sure how much I'd actually use e-scooters if they were fully adopted in Chicago. Transportation experts say scooters make the most sense in cities for areas that are too far to walk to and too small for public transportation to access. But for me, that puts them in the same category as iPads, a tweener form of technology that feels unnecessary if you've got an iPhone and a laptop. For short trips I can walk or take a Divvy (and get some exercise in the process), and for longer trips, Limes feel impractical and overpriced, especially when you can take a car-share service for nearly the same price.
A first-person view of riding a Lime-S. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • A first-person view of riding a Lime-S.

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Jean-Pierre Melville's brooding cinema surveyed on FilmStruck

Posted By on 07.31.18 at 06:00 AM

Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai
  • Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai
French director Jean-Pierre Melville is featured this week on the streaming channel FilmStruck. Beginning in the 1940s, he created a body of work that furthers the brooding quality of American film noir, and his films influenced everyone from the French New Wave directors to Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino. Check out these five key Melville features:

The Silence of the Sea
Melville made this film, his first, in 1948 on a minuscule budget and without securing the rights to the famous resistance novel (by Vercors) it was based on. It's an allegory of French-German relations during the occupation, played out largely in a single sitting room where a German officer (Howard Vernon) bares his soul in endless monologues for his silent, unwilling French "hosts" (Nicole Stephane and Jean-Marie Robain). The minimalism of the material anticipates Bresson, while the theatrical dash of the staging suggests the strong influence of Orson Welles. Though too often abstract and rhetorical, the film is sustained by mood and visual resourcefulness; it's a strong debut for Melville, who went on to become one of the great eccentrics of the French cinema (Bob le Flambeur, Le Samourai). In French with subtitles. 88 min. —Dave Kehr

Bob le Flambeur
This light, breezy 1955 heist film is probably the least characteristic movie Melville ever made. It replaces his sternly fatalistic philosophizing with a benign, genuinely comic spirit, and his rigidly classical style yields to a pleasant informality. Yet the characters—professional gamblers, craftsmanly safecrackers—and their code are recognizably Melvillian, and the portrait of Pigalle after dark is superbly evocative and romantic. The plot—a gambler on a streak of bad luck plans the robbery of the Deauville casino—is largely lifted from The Asphalt Jungle, though the suspense has been wittily inverted: we're made to hope that the robbery doesn't come off. In French with subtitles. 100 min. —Dave Kehr

Two Men in Manhattan
Melville brings his particular brand of moral rot to New York City for this hard-boiled mystery (1959), which feels like a Hollywood release but trades in such taboo elements as prostitution, lesbianism, and full-frontal nudity. A reporter from the French press agency (Melville in his only starring role) is dispatched to track down a vanished delegate to the United Nations; accompanied by a greedy and unfeeling paparazzo (Pierre Grasset), he follows a trail of sexually available women back to the missing diplomat, but the truth is unpublishable. The story is full of Melville's ethical shadings and complications, and the nighttime street scenes, shot by Nicolas Hayer, are dazzling, a foreigner's delirious vision of Manhattan after dark. 85 min. —J.R. Jones

Le Samourai
Melville's 1967 story of a lonely hit man (Alain Delon) is stylish and elegant, though not really the holy writ that Quentin Tarantino and John Woo have claimed. Though Melville sustained himself with American-style thrillers in the last decade of his life, his best versions of American noir arguably remain the earlier ones in black and white (my own favorite is 1966's Le Deuxieme Souffle). This one certainly has its moments (particularly the coordinated police chase through the Paris Métro), but its women characters are faintly ridiculous, while the men are mainly suave icons. Henri Decae's brilliant color cinematography finds something metallic blue gray in virtually every shot, and the film is alluring as long as one remains captivated by its mannerist and slightly monotonous style. Despite a hefty (and fabricated) quote from The Book of Bushido about the loneliness of the samurai, this is all about attitude and machismo rather than soul, which is why it winds up feeling somewhat flat. Based on Joan McLeod's novel The Ronin. In French with subtitles. 101 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Le Cercle Rouge
Melville's austere heist film, made in 1970, was his next to last; it opens with a Buddhist aphorism about fate binding two men to meet again, and ends with a police chief pronouncing all men ultimately guilty. Two prisoners return to society—Corey (Alain Delon) has served his sentence and is released, while Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) escapes from a speeding train. They team up with a sharpshooting ex-cop to mount an exquisite jewel theft. Melville renders the taciturn crooks and corrupt inspectors with the nocturnal blue palette that is his signature. Key action points are edited with finesse, but the denouement, with its dutiful hail of gunfire, is heartless and mechanical. With Yves Montand, André Bourvil, and François Périer. In French with subtitles. 140 min. —Bill Stamets

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Alexa Meade's Become the Masterpiece installation lets the subject be the art

Posted By on 07.30.18 at 09:29 AM

Alexa Meade in the midst of her installation Become the Masterpiece - ISA GIALLORENZO
  • Isa Giallorenzo
  • Alexa Meade in the midst of her installation Become the Masterpiece

We can all enjoy art, feel it, reflect upon it, and even participate in creating it. But be it?

That's what Alexa Meade's work is about. Part of 29Rooms, a traveling exhibit that just closed its sold-out Chicago stay, Meade's area included two lively backgrounds and an assortment of garments and accessories for attendees to try on and assume a pose in. You could witness the transformative power of clothes in the process: as they stepped in front of the painted wall, people's attitudes immediately shifted, becoming more confident and performative. And indeed, "the concept for 29Rooms was to create an activation that allows participants to step into a psychedelic world, shed self-consciousness, dress up and become the work of art," Meade told me.

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Everyone's a sucker at a new kind of traveling circus—the Instagram trap

Posted By on 07.30.18 at 06:00 AM

Orange Is the New Black star Dascha Polanco at Refinery 29's 29Rooms - JEFF SHEAR/GETTY IMAGES
  • Jeff Shear/Getty Images
  • Orange Is the New Black star Dascha Polanco at Refinery 29's 29Rooms

Look closely and you could see exhaustion etched on the smiling faces of those frolicking inside a bubblelike room advertised as the World's Largest Indoor Confetti Dome.

It was a sweltering July afternoon, and there was no hint of air-conditioning in this warehouse along a quiet stretch of Elston that was temporarily housing the pop-up exhibition Happy Place. That didn't stop a college-age couple from taking turns tossing bucketfuls of colorful shreds of paper in the air. A nearby attendant hit a button and hot oxygen blew out of holes in the floor, swirling the confetti all around them.

The visual effect was striking: it was as if they were figures encased in a real-life human snow globe. That's probably why the pair were so eager to snap photos of each other. The tall, thin blond boy didn't even hesitate to put his iPhone back into his pocket during confetti gathering, using it instead as a makeshift scoop so he could keep recording every conceivable moment. And then suddenly the air stopped flowing, the confetti fell to the floor, and the pair walked wordlessly to the next room.

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Trans woman Strawberry Hampton reports continued assaults while detained at men’s prisons

Posted By on 07.30.18 at 06:00 AM

Strawberry Hampton - THE BLACK LOOP
  • The Black Loop
  • Strawberry Hampton

Strawberry Hampton, a transgender woman currently serving a ten-year sentence for residential burglary at Dixon Correctional Center, the fourth male prison she's been transferred to within the year, filed new claims against the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) on July 17 stating that she's been sexually and physically assaulted by inmates and prison guards, and requesting she be transferred to Logan Correctional Center, a women's prison.

But her harassment at Dixon is only one episode in the ongoing abuse she claims to have suffered while in IDOC custody, according to her complaints. Hampton's lawsuit, filed on her behalf by the MacArthur Justice Center and the Uptown People's Law Center, argues that the IDOC has inappropriately assigned her to a men's prison, stating that  Hampton's "physical and emotional well-being are in jeopardy at Dixon, and will be in any men's facility."

"The IDOC has never articulated any reasons" for why they won't transfer Hampton, said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People's Law Center, on Thursday. "The most they've said is that women sometimes get harassed in prison, so there's no guarantee she'd be protected."

Hampton has lived as a woman since she was five and has continued to do so through her incarceration. She is chemically castrated, and her testosterone levels are a fraction of the average male's.

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The film Eighth Grade and more of the best things to do in Chicago this week

Posted By on 07.30.18 at 06:00 AM

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
  • Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade

There are plenty of shows, films, and concerts happening this week. Here's some of what we recommend:

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Friday, July 27, 2018

Black Caucus members eject protesters from fund-raiser, call themselves ‘gangsters’

Posted By on 07.27.18 at 06:00 AM

Protesters with the #NoCopAcademy campaign stage a die-in outside the Aldermanic Black Caucus's annual fund-raiser. - @NOCOPACADEMY
  • @NoCopAcademy
  • Protesters with the #NoCopAcademy campaign stage a die-in outside the Aldermanic Black Caucus's annual fund-raiser.

"Black Caucus, Black Caucus
They don’t really care
Black Caucus, Black Caucus
Always backs the mayor
Black Caucus, Black Caucus
They don't vote with us
Black Caucus, Black Caucus
Now your time is up!
Now your time is up!
Now your time is up!"

So chanted a cluster of young people gathered outside the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus's annual fund-raiser at a Loop cocktail lounge Wednesday evening. Just an hour before, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability released body camera footage of the June 6 police shooting of 24-year-old Maurice Granton Jr. Inside the lounge, more activists from Black Lives Matter, BYP100, and other groups confronted black City Council members about their support of the Chicago Police Department. Ardamis Sims of GoodKidsMadCity and Assata's Daughters interrupted remarks by 34th Ward alderman Carrie Austin shouting "No cop academy! No cop academy!" in protest of the city's plan to build a $95 million, state of the art police training facility on the west side.

"Shut up," Austin bellowed in response. The fund-raiser attendees erupted in cheers of approval. "Goodbye!," she shouted as Sims was pushed out of the lounge by security. "We're here to have a good time; if you want to protest take it outside."

"They must not know we got gangsters in here," 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran chimed in, egging on the crowd. Last year Cochran—a retired police officer who's been indicted on fraud, bribery, and extortion charges—announced he wouldn't be running for reelection.

"If anybody else wanna protest you better take it outside," Austin said, laughing. "'Cause I guarantee you ain't seen no gangsters like this city's aldermen."

All of this was caught on video by other protesters inside the lounge. Watching in the crowd outside were also the sisters of Granton Jr.

Joanna Varnado, Granton Jr's 31-year-old sister, said she'd come to the protest that night in the hopes of hearing a response from aldermen about the killing of her brother. Since the incident, she said her family hadn't heard from any elected officials. "I just wanted some answers," she said. "Everybody knows my brother was murdered, and I wanna know how [the aldermen] feel."

Her impression, she said, was that "they didn't care. Some of them were drunk. They was in there partying, eating, dancing, laughing." It stung especially hard, she said, because these were black officials. "These are our people. When you see stuff like that it's like, Is there gonna be justice?"

Varnado said she appreciated the support of the youth protesting the event. "They showed us love and respect for my brother—it felt good," she said.

Sims, a 21-year-old from Washington Park, said he wanted to interrupt the gathering of aldermen because "they were talking about stuff that didn't relate to us, our people, our community." Sims remained at the protest, chanting, and helping with the die-in outside after being ejected. Watching the video of Austin and Cochran's comments later, he said he was hurt. For the aldermen to call themselves gangsters seemed particularly crude to him given the violence in the city. He says it was a reminder that young people need to be registered to vote and to be self-reliant: "Use your head, think, 'cause we all we got."

Austin didn't return calls for comment. Cochran, reached at his ward office Thursday, laughed when asked what he meant when he referred to the aldermen as "gangsters."

"It was a joke," he explained.

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Lake Shore Drive marchers: Here's the real lowdown on the city's budget

Posted By on 07.27.18 at 01:57 AM

Tio Hardiman, Reverend Gregory Seal Livingston, and Eric Russell, organizers of the August 2 march intended to shut down Lake Shore Drive - SAM CHARLES/SUN-TIMES
  • Sam Charles/Sun-Times
  • Tio Hardiman, Reverend Gregory Seal Livingston, and Eric Russell, organizers of the August 2 march intended to shut down Lake Shore Drive

With activists Tio Hardiman and other activists preparing to march on Lake Shore Drive toward Wrigley Field next Thursday, demanding more equity in city spending, I figure it's as good a time as ever to make sure west- and south-siders are wise to a little scam called the tax increment financing program.

Oh, yeah, I see eyes glazing over as I write this.

That typically happens when I mention tax increment financing. The sleepier you are, the less you're paying attention.

So, to your first question: What's "tax increment financing?," otherwise known as TIF(s)?

Boiled down to the basics, it's in effect a surcharge slapped on your property tax bills that generates well over $500 million a year.

Property-tax payers think the money's going to schools, parks, police, etc, but it really winds up in bank accounts largely controlled by the mayor. It's his favorite source of slush.

As I may have pointed out a few times over the years.

This year, the generous property-tax payers of Chicago have funneled about $660 million to the TIF bank accounts, according to the latest report by Cook County clerk David Orr.

That's up $99 million from the $561 million in TIF money we gave the mayor last year, and up nearly $200 million from the $461 million we gave him in 2016. All told, Mayor Rahm’s TIFs have scooped up about $1.68 billion in property taxes in the last three years, even as he was swearing up and down that there wasn't enough money for schools or mental health clinics.

Man, you can open a lot of mental health clinics with $1.68 billion.

So your next question is: How can the mayor get away with running a slush fund of such proportions? And the answer is that a powerful mayor can get away with just about anything so long as no one’s paying close attention.

And, well, in all due respect, south- and west-siders, when it comes to TIFs, you've done a lousy job of paying attention.

The TIF program is intended to subsidize development in poor, blighted communities that without the sweetener of TIF assistance would find it hard to get any development at all.

Alas, instead, as you can see in Orr’s latest report, most of the TIF money goes to more upscale and rapidly gentrifying communities in and around the Loop.

It's the poor communities TIFs are supposedly intended for—like Englewood, Roseland, Austin, and North Lawndale—that get the least amount of TIF money.

A point I recently made with regard to the 79th Street TIF, where Saint Sabina, the church of Father Michael Pfleger, is located.

How does the mayor get away with spending so much anti-poverty money in neighborhoods that aren't poor? Like I said, folks—it pays to pay attention.

As you can see, I can go on and on about TIFs. It’s one of my favorite subjects—I’ve been writing about them for more than 30 years. I have to admit I'm impressed by the utter audacity of this mayor—and the one who went before him—for even trying to pull off such a scam.

Of course, they have many enablers—like most members of the City Council. With a few exceptions—what's up, Alderman Scott Waguespack?—they'll let the mayor do anything he wants with TIFs, so long as every now and then he slices them a little piece of the pie.

Though if they're south- or west-side aldermen, it's more like a crumb.

Can anything be done to end this scam, or at least redirect more money to the truly needy?

I suppose. But, first—you have to be paying attention.

For instance, a few years ago a group of public school parents from the Raise Your Hand Coalition learned that the mayor planned to spend $55 million in TIF dollars building a basketball arena for DePaul and a hotel for Marriott in the south loop.

They raised a ruckus, demanding that he not spend money on DePaul while he was closing public schools.

In response the mayor took away the TIF money from DePaul and Marriott.

Of course, he largely replaced it with assistance from the state. And he wound up spending the $55 million on Navy Pier, which as I never tire of mentioning, is neither poor, blighted, nor a community.

Can he get away with doing that? Well, he did. The sad news, folks, is that the biggest municipal crimes in Chicago are the ones that are apparently legal.

A final word of warning . . .

If you raise a ruckus about TIFs, be prepared to hear a whole lot of gobbledygook from the mayor and his favorite aldermen—speaking of things I've written about one or two times.

They're betting that if they fill your ears with misinformation and doublespeak, you'll get confused and you'll just go away. So they can go back to taking money for the poor and giving it to the rich.

I don't blame them for thinking this way. They've been getting away with it for years.

But you organizers calling for the heads of Mayor Rahm and police chief Eddie Johnson can take a tip from me: Questions about TIFs are to Rahm as water is to the Wicked Witch of the West.

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Neckbeard Deathcamp go viral with a black-metal takedown of neo-Nazis

Posted By on 07.26.18 at 04:46 PM

The cover of White Nationalism Is for Basement Dwelling Losers - COURTESY OF NECKBEARD DEATHCAMP
  • Courtesy of Neckbeard Deathcamp
  • The cover of White Nationalism Is for Basement Dwelling Losers

On Saturday, July 21, a trio of anonymous musicians operating under the name Neckbeard Deathcamp self-released an album of raw black metal called White Nationalism Is for Basement Dwelling Losers. The band's artwork mockingly co-opts white supremacist symbols, including the death's head made infamous by the SS (recast as a portrait of Rick Ross) and the Nazi eagle (with a penis for a head and a Pepe cartoon instead of a swastika in its talons). The song titles further clarify the album's targets: "Incel Warfare," "Please Respond (I Showed You My Penis)," "The Fetishization ov Asian Women Despite a Demand for a Pure White Race (Outro)."

Black metal has long had a problem with toxic ideologies: its love of paganism can easily provide cover for neo-Nazism, and its nihilism can be a pose to camouflage white supremacy and misogyny. These days the Internet is a thriving nursery for this kind of right-wing extremism, and Neckbeard Deathcamp take aim at a wide swath of it: 4chan edgelords with Pepe avatars, smug Proud Boys, redpilled incels, fake-ironic Kekistani white nationalists, and more. The band's imagery and lyrics are so extreme that sometimes they seem like a joke, but at least they're a joke at the expense of people who ought to be mocked.

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