How To Save a Historic Building from Becoming a Parking Lot

Here in my hometown of Joliet IL, we have several architectural gems in the old downtown along the east bank of the Des Plaines River. Prominent among these is the acclaimed Rialto Theatre, which I’ve written about previously in my stint as a citizen journalist for the Joliet Herald-News.

The Rialto Theatre, Joliet IL, c. the late 1920s (Photo: Legends of America)

The Rialto Theatre, Joliet IL, c. the late 1920s (Photo: Legends of America)

Often referred to as the “Jewel of Joliet,” the Rialto is one of the most ornate and fantastically splendid theaters in the US that dates from the golden age of movie and vaudeville house construction in the 1920s. It is an inseparable part of Joliet’s civic identity — not to mention one of the things that kept the struggling downtown district from withering away in the post-industrial era.

Given this history, it’s shocking but probably not surprising that when the Rialto was only about 50+ years old, it was nearly demolished to put in a one-square-block parking lot in the late 1970s (a dark time indeed in Joliet’s history when unemployment in the city reached 25%). Fortunately, this travesty of architectural desecration did not happen. This excellent story by Bob Okon of the Herald-News explains why.

Dorothy Mavrich, Credited with Saving Rialto, Dies

Dorothy Mavrich at the Rialto in 2008 (Shaw Media)

Dorothy Mavrich at the Rialto in 2008 (Shaw Media)

JOLIET – Dorothy Mavrich, who led a grassroots effort to save the Rialto Square Theatre from demolition, died Tuesday afternoon.

Mavrich, 94, decided at a point in the 1970s when the Rialto, now called the “Jewel of Joliet,” appeared headed for demolition that the theater should be saved.

She stood on street corners with a can to collect money and raise awareness, led fundraisers, and persisted in pursuing the Rialto owners to the point that one labeled her a “crackpot.”

Some over the years have disputed whether she got more credit for saving the Rialto than deserved, pointing to former state Rep. LeRoy Van Duyne’s influence in bringing in state money to ultimately close the deal.

But Mavrich is widely seen as the leader of the cause and the person most responsible for preserving the Rialto.

“There’s no doubt that she started the groundswell, the grassroots effort to save the place,” said James Smith, chairman of the Will County Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority that oversees the Rialto.

“She was a little lady with big ideas,” said Lynne Lichtenauer, a longtime friend who joined the cause early and later became executive director at the Rialto. “If it were not for Dorothy, the Rialto Square Theatre would not be on Chicago Street.”

Lichtenauer was with Mavrich when she died at the Joliet Area Community Hospice home. Mavrich had a stroke last week, Lichtenauer said.

She noted that Mavrich not only worked to save the Rialto, but later led the creation of the Cultural Arts Council of the Joliet Area, which provided more than $400,000 in local funding for the arts.

Mavrich was a piano teacher for 50 years. She taught at the old Joliet Conservatory of Music, located across the street from the Rialto. She told The Herald-News that she was at a concert listening to the Rialto pipe organ when she was inspired to save the theater.

“I thought, ‘My God, I can’t believe they’re going to tear this down for a parking garage,'” she told The Herald-News in 2013 as she was about to receive an award from the Joliet Area Historical Museum.

Mavrich’s persistence was evident in a story about her insistence on seeing Robert Rubens of the Rubens family, which owned the Rialto and whose name is on the sign today. Lichtenauer said Mavrich finally walked into Rubens office when there was no secretary to keep her out.

“She said, ‘I’m Dorothy Mavrich.’ He said, ‘You’re the crackpot everybody keeps telling me about,'” Lichtenauer said.

Eventually Rubens gave his blessing to Mavrich’s preservation effort, Lichtenauer said. And she later helped get the Rubens name back on the Rialto sign.

Mavrich loved telling the story, said Smith, who heard it many times himself.

“She was such a diminutive little lady,” Smith said, “but she was a powerful person.”

The Rialto Square Theatre Foundation, the organization that raises money to support the theater today, issued a statement saying, “Our community has lost a guiding light – Dorothy Mavrich, the lady who saved the Rialto.”

Posted in Architecture, Arts, History, Humanities, Joliet, Land use | Comments Off

Encountering the Wild: Meditations and Musings from Crested Butte, Colorado

On a hike outside of Crested Butte CO, Sept 2014, during the Relative Wild writers' workshop

On a hike outside of Crested Butte CO, Sept 2014, during the Relative Wild writers’ workshop

This past September, I joined a group of writers convened by Gavin Van Horn (of the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago) and John Hausdoerffer (a professor at Western State Colorado University and the director of WSCU’s Headwaters Project) for a much-anticipated writers’ retreat in the beautiful mountain town of Crested Butte, CO. The idea was to gather invited writers together to shares conversation, ideas, outlines, and initial jottings as a means of kicking off a new book project to be co-edited by Gavin and John called The Relative Wild. As they describe it, this is a collection of stories and essays that

will explore how human and ecological communities co-create the wild. The “myth of the pristine” — that nature is most valuable when liberated from human presence — is quickly being supplanted by “the myth of the humanized,” the assertion that nothing is untouched by human influence, and therefore one may embrace ecosystem change, even extreme changes, as “natural.” We suggest that both of these myths deserve equal scrutiny, and that one way to do so is by celebrating the common ground of the relative wild: the degrees and integration of wildness and human influence in any place.

Slate River valley near Crested Butte, Sept 2014 (M. Bryson)

Slate River valley near Crested Butte, Sept 2014 (M. Bryson)

Having participated in a previous CHN writer’s retreat at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for the forthcoming book City Creatures (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015), I know firsthand how extraordinary an opportunity it is to take time out from the busy schedule and harried demands of ordinary life to mingle with talented and creative writers all focused on a common project. The fact that the Relative Wild gathering transpired in a beautiful mountain setting at the autumnal equinox was even better. Over the course of two and a half days, we had many great conversations, took hikes in the stunning mountains and valleys outside of Crested Butte, ate meals together, used quiet time for writing and reflection, and engaged in several productive and inspiring writing workshop sessions led by the esteemed naturalist and prolific nature writer, Robert Michael Pyle.

My planned contribution to the book will be co-written with Mr. Michael Howard, the Executive Director and founder of Eden Place Nature Center in Chicago, and is tentatively entitled “Cultivating the Wild on Chicago’s South Side: Stories of People and Nature at Eden Place.” What follows below is an example of the writing we were assigned to do at writers’ workshop. Here, Bob Pyle challenged us to closely observe and meditate on our immediate surroundings and experiences in Crested Butte that weekend, and to write about them as evocatively as possible. Whether or not we connected these observations to our planned essay/story topics for the book was optional. His writing prompt — to start with the phrase, “Encounter, here . . .” — was both deceptively simple and (for me) highly challenging. This is what I wrote.

Three Encounters (in response to Bob Pyle’s writing prompt)
by Mike Bryson

Encounter: Crest Butte, CO

Aspen forest (M. Bryson

Aspen forest (M. Bryson)

September 21 — We leave our lodge on foot here in town, walk for what only seems to be a few blocks (hardly far enough to go anywhere at home), and suddenly, we’re on a mountain trail. We hike high above the winding Slate River, through intermittent stands of turning-gold aspen. I gawp at the massive bulk of Mount Crested Butte, Gothic Mountain, the interplay of rock and tree line, the contrasting beauty of the valley, the rich topography that is overwhelming in its newness and scale.

The damp, rich, loamy smell of the forest, though, makes just as strong an impression. Aspen leaves are scattered on the trail, gold, green-dappled, as beautiful as mountains. My companions, old friends and new, chuckle at my boyish “golly gee” reaction to this place. I am a rube in this wilderness, as stupefied as a farm boy in New York City.

September 22 — After dark, I gather six aspen leaves of varying size and hue, each jeweled with perfect drops of rainwater. I blot them dry in my room, press them between the pages of Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers without End. It’s comforting to know that my wife and children will consider this a worthy gift upon my return.

The central IL landscape: Daniel farm, Woodford County, fall 2013 (L. Bryson)

The central IL landscape: Daniel farm, several miles southeast of Metamora, Woodford County, Oct 2013 (L. Bryson)

Encounter: Metamora, IL

Reeser family reunion at the Mennonite Heritage Center, east of Metamora in central Illinois’ Woodford County. The heart of Illinois farm country, just northeast of Peoria, soils built by centuries of deep-rooted prairie growth, decay, regeneration. Corn and soybeans now dominate this quiet land, the rolling soft green hills of the Mackinaw River valley belying the fact that this is in part a built environment, made and maintained with tractors and chemicals. The ditches and streams here are as vulnerable to nitrogen runoff from the seasonal applications of anhydrous as Oh-Be-Joyful Creek is to heavy metal contamination from the Daisy Mine upstream of Crested Butte, Colorado.

After our family’s potluck dinner and visiting with elderly relatives over rhubarb pie and weak coffee, we walk over to a half-acre prairie restoration dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Christian Reeser, a Swiss-German immigrant who lived and farmed to age 104. Once much of Illinois looked like this. Tallgrass prairie: 1/100th of one percent remains.

Encounter: Chicago IL

September 17 — Eden Place Nature Center, in the Fuller Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Michael Howard and I sit and talk in the trailer that serves as office, classroom, conference area, and tool shed at Eden Place, a 3.4-acre farm and nature center wrought from the desecration of an illegal waste dump in the middle of a residential area in one of Chicago’s poorest, smallest, most isolated, and most polluted neighborhoods. Outside, goats bleat, chickens fuss and cluck, two ponies graze quietly.

Eden Place Nature Center, Sept 2014 (M. Bryson)

Eden Place Nature Center, Sept 2014 (M. Bryson)

The early stages of an oak savannah and prairie restoration take up the north half of this refuge, the only bona fide nature center on the entire south side of the city. Modestly sized and brightly painted barns stand against the tall concrete embankment of the railroad that runs along Eden Place’s western border. Exhaust-streaked trains, passenger and freight, clatter by at short intervals. Too often, freight lines stop and idle here, engines rumbling, diesel fumes thick in the air. Raised-bed gardens sport squash, beans, peppers, tomatoes, herbs.

“What is this book supposed to be about again?” Michael asks. “Remind me. I’m sorry — this has been a long week.” He is exhausted by his new job at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, but relieved to have stolen a few rare moments of down time at Eden Place. An oasis in the city.

“The Relative Wild,” I reply. He nods, looks thoughtful.

“When we created Eden Place,” he said, “the thought was this: if we build it, the wild will come.” And so it has over the last fifteen or so years. Red-tailed hawks. Migrating songbirds. Raccoon, opossum, skunk. White-tailed deer, seen in the damp mist at two in the morning. Urban wild amidst an imposing hardscape of pavement and gravel, humble houses and gritty vacant lots, cut off and bounded by physical barriers of twelve-lane expressway, railroads, abandoned industrial yards. Build it, the man says. The wild will come.

Crested Butte, CO
September 23, 2014

Posted in Arts, Chicago, Events, Faculty, Field Trips, Humanities, Literature, Urban ecology, Urban nature, Wildlife | Comments Off

The “Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future” Project: An Online Convergence of Teaching & Research

JESS journal coverLast month, my article entitled “Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future: Student Research, Social Media, and the ‘Edge City’ Suburb” appeared online (12 Dec 2014) in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Science, the publication of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences and one of my professional tribes. This anticipates the essay’s print appearance in the journal’s forthcoming special issue on Integrating and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Sustainable Cities and Regions. You can access a pdf of the article here.

During the Fall 2014 semester at Roosevelt University, undergraduate students from two of my Sustainability Studies classes — SUST 210 Sustainable Future (online) and 240 Waste & Consumption (honors) — contributed over 30 blog posts on news and topical developments in urban/suburban sustainability in the Chicago region, thus continuing the site’s blogging tradition when we launched the site as a SUST 210 student research project on Earth Day 2011.

In addition, these classes conducted in-depth research on sustainability efforts and waste-related environmental justice issues in several dozen communities, both locally and across the US. The fruits of this research will be posted in coming weeks to the Community Profiles and Environmental Justice sections of this site, so stay tuned for what will be a significant expansion of the SSF website. To date, the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future (SSF) project includes 163 blog posts and 100 in-depth essays on a wide range of sustainability issues, problems, and solutions. The vast majority of this content is student-authored, which is a cool demonstration of the value of the site as a learning tool and educational resource.

Members of my SUST 240 Waste & Consumption honors seminar (Fall 2014) on a field trip to Canal Origins Park and Bubbly Creek, Chicago IL (Sept 2014)

Members of my SUST 240 Waste & Consumption honors seminar (Fall 2014) on a field trip to Canal Origins Park and Bubbly Creek, Chicago IL (Sept 2014)

Posted in Classes, Education, News, Research, Roosevelt, Schaumburg, Students, Sustainability | Comments Off

Register for Spring 2015 Classes

Advising and registration are now ongoing (since Nov 1st) for the Spring 2015 semester at Roosevelt. RU students, please look over the Spring 2015 schedule using this coursefinder, check remaining course requirements on your curriculum checksheet, and email or call your assigned academic advisor with your planned schedule and any questions you have about your upcoming classes. Your advisor will provide you with an RU Access registration code so you can register.

Sustainability Studies courses offered in Spring 2015:

SUST 210 Sustainable Future (Chicago, M 1-3:30pm, Bryson)
SUST 220 Water (online, Jones)
SUST 230 Food (Chicago, T 6-8:30pm, Gerberich)
SUST 240 Waste (online, Bryson)
SUST 310 Energy & Climate Change (Chicago, W 6-8:30pm, Flower)
SUST 340 Policy, Law, & Ethics (online, Hoffman)
SUST 390 Sustainable Campus (Chicago, W 3-5:3pm, Bryson)

December is a super busy time of the academic year, but don’t neglect getting in touch with your advisor; it’s the best time to get signed up for classes. For additional useful info, see this Advising Resources page here on my website.

Best of luck during finals week!

Posted in Classes, Education, Roosevelt, Students | Comments Off

A Good Day for Strategic Sustainability Planning

The first RU of three sustainability planning workshops on 26 Sept 2014 (photo: M. Radeck)

The first RU of three sustainability planning workshops on 26 Sept 2014 (photo: M. Radeck)

Just a short note here to acknowledge what was a very productive day yesterday at Roosevelt. Several faculty, staff, and students gathered in WB 1017 to celebrate the completion of the university’s first-ever Strategic Sustainability Plan. We went over the plan’s highlights, discussed a communications strategy to coordinate our follow-through on initiatives the plan’s major goals map out, share conversation about our personal interests in contributing to this ongoing work, and ate a delicious lunch.

This was the third and final planning workshop in a series of three half-day sessions that started on Sept. 26th. In less than two months, we collaboratively drafted a 30-page strategic plan that sets the stage for RU’s sustainability work the next 2-5 years! That’s a pretty good job, if I do say so myself.

The Plan still requires final proofing as well as official endorsement from the upper administration, and we hope to have that in hand soon so we can release the final version to the university community. In the meantime, you can read Friday’s draft here as a pdf document.

I want to acknowledge the co-leaders of this planning process — Paul Matthews, Assistant VP of Physical Resources; Tom Shelton, Sustainability Coordinator in Physical Resources; and MaryBeth Radeck, SUST major and Independent Consultant/Facilitator — for their work in this endeavor . . . particularly MaryBeth, who organized led the workshops and took the lead in project communications and document editing. Also worthy of praise are SUST majors and Physical Resource sustainability associates Beeka Quesnell and Mary Rasic, who helped immensely with the workshop organization and set-up; and the many students, faculty, and staff who participated in the workshops. (Their names are in the draft plan!)

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Two Canadian Filmmakers Drop by for an Interview

Kyle Lennan and Geoff Norris (photo: J. Liebregts, durhamregion.com)

Kyle Lennan and Geoff Norris (photo: J. Liebregts, durhamregion.com)

This past Sunday, Toronto-based independent filmmakers Geoff Norris and Kyle Lennan came by my house in Joliet to interview me about the long-simmering Peotone Airport controversy in agricultural lands south of Chicago in Will County, IL. Norris and Lennan have been making a film about the proposed Pickering Airport project in the rural areas near Toronto, which has resulted in the government seizure of property and demolition of homes over the past several decades despite no tangible progress on the airport’s construction.

The story bears an eerie resemblance to that playing out in eastern Will County within the vast stretches of prime Illinois farmland near the rural villages of Peotone, Monee, and Beecher. Geoff and Kyle came across my op-ed series about the Peotone airport written for the Joliet Herald-News up through 2012, and were kind enough to include me as a local voice from the community on their road trip to the Chicago area, where they also filmed local activists/opponents to the project.

Posted in Agriculture, Economics, Land use, Peotone, Politics, Social justice, Transportation | Comments Off

Headwaters Conference / “Relative Wild” Writer’s Retreat

Western State CO Univ

Western State CO Univ

Today I’m en route to Gunnison CO, home of Western State Colorado University, to participate in the 25th annual Headwaters Conference sponsored by the university’s Center for Environment and Sustainability. This year’s conference focuses on the notion of “The Relative Wild,” and features a keynote address by acclaimed poet Gary Snyder as well as a full day of presentations and discussions on various aspect of wildness. I’m speaking tomorrow as part of a panel discussing the “urban wild” — in particular, the experience of urban nature and its relation to kids and environmental education.

Crested Butte, CO

Crested Butte, CO

On Sunday, I join a group of writers convened by Gavin Van Horn (Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago) and John Hausdoerffer (WSCU Headwaters Project) for a long-anticipated writer’s retreat in nearby Crested Butte. We’ll be sharing ideas, outlines, and initial jottings to kick off a new book project to be co-edited by Gavin and John that’s tentatively titled The Relative Wild — a collection of stories and essays that, as the editors describe it,

will explore how human and ecological communities co-create the wild. The ‘myth of the pristine’ — that nature is most valuable when liberated from human presence — is quickly being supplanted by ‘the myth of the humanized,’ the assertion that nothing is untouched by human influence, and therefore one may embrace ecosystem change, even extreme changes, as ‘natural.’ We suggest that both of these myths deserve equal scrutiny, and that one way to do so is by celebrating the common ground of the relative wild: the degrees and integration of wildness and human influence in any place.

Having participated in a previous CHN writer’s retreat at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for the forthcoming book City Creatures (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015), I know firsthand how extraordinary an opportunity it is to take time out from the busy schedules and harried demands of ordinary life to mingle with talented and creative writers all focused on a common project. The fact that this is happening in a beautiful mountain setting at the autumnal equinox is even better!

Posted in Arts, Conferences, Humanities, Literature, Sustainability, Urban nature | Comments Off

RU Offers “Four Freedoms” Student Fellowships for 2014-15

The Four Freedoms Fellowship offers Roosevelt University students a unique opportunity to develop leadership, public speaking, and advocacy skills to effect change on critical issues. Throughout the academic year, selected Fellows will participate in a series of interactive trainings to deepen their knowledge of the political landscape, learn effective strategies to influence decision-makers, and be able to powerfully articulate their personal stories as a tool for change. Trainings will take place on Friday mornings at the Chicago Campus starting on Sept. 26th.

Four Freedoms Fellows will be awarded $750 in the form of financial aid that will be divided between the Fall and Spring semesters. Both undergraduate and graduate students from all academic disciplines are encouraged to apply. Fellows will have the opportunity to take a leadership role in advocacy efforts at Roosevelt and have occasion to represent the University at press conferences or events with elected officials.

Interested students may apply here. The deadline for submitting online applications is Sept. 10th, 2014. For questions about the Fellowship, please contact Jennifer Tani, Assistant Vice President for Community Engagement at RU, at jtani@roosevelt.edu or 312-341-2375.

Posted in Education, Roosevelt, Scholarships, Students | Comments Off

Delta Institute Internship Opportunity for Fall 2014 or Spring 2015

The Delta Institute has posted an opportunity for a Development Intern for either the Fall 2014 or the Spring 2015 semester this coming academic year. Check out its website and the detailed description below for position details and application deadlines.

DELTA Inst Development_Internship_Description_April-2014

Posted in Education, Great Lakes, Internships, Students, Sustainability | Comments Off

Water, Climate Change, Science, & Literature

This month one of Chicago’s public radio stations, WBEZ (91.5 FM), has kicked off a fascinating and timely series about water, science, and the humanities. It’s called After Water, and according to the series’ website, the project asks “writers to peer into the future—100 years or more—and imagine the region around the Great Lakes, when water scarcity is a dominant social issue. It’s a cosmic blend of art and science . . . [that will feature] stories, research, photos and more.”

Professor Gary Wolfe

Professor Gary Wolfe

Kicking off the series this week was a Morning Shift conversation on WBEZ with my longtime Roosevelt colleague, Dr. Gary Wolfe (the guy who hired me, by the way), one of the world’s foremost authorities on the literature of sci-fi and fantasy. Gary was in the house to talk about the emergent genre of “cli-fi,” or fiction about climate change, and its relation to water issues. Not only was Gary completely at home in this milieu due to his many years’ experience doing his own radio show in Chicago, “Interface,” but this gig was an apt follow-up to his teaching of a Special Topics SUST 390 seminar this past spring entitled “Sustainability in Film and Fiction.”

I look forward to following the stories and images within this unfolding After Water series, as it’s a great example of the need to integrate science and the humanities in constructing compelling narratives about the crisis of climate change, a subject I addressed briefly in this short essay from last summer.

Posted in Arts, Chicago, Education, Faculty, Humanities, Literature, Roosevelt, Science, Sustainability, Water | Comments Off