Category Archives: Chicago

New audio interview with squatter

Frustration over the angst of interviewing people who I can’t just “call up” sank in temporarily. Mike, one of the squatters, never showed up at the cafe we had planned to meet at days before. I brought some reading material as I waited, half-expected the circumstance.

I’ve been in contact with ChiTown Daily News in hopes they may pick up this project I have been feverishly working on. With some free weeks in between graduating from college and moving to San Francisco, I made it my goal to continue working on this video. The only thing is, both squatters, Mike and Antonio, have been harder than ever to reach. So, as a young, eager journalist with not a whole lot to lose, I waited for a few days outside of soup kitchens, homeless shelters and church doorstops. My patience paid me with a visit from Antonio outside the St. Vincent DePaul church Thursday morning. There, he caught me up on a debacle he had gotten into with his girlfriend, his nights sleeping out on the lakefront and the possibility of moving back to New Orleans with the police on his tail feather (he says he has been accussed of a theft that he knows nothing about).

The video below is an updated version with better audio quality. I am hoping that ChiTown Daily News picks this up. It’s a timely and pertinent story that needs to be heard.


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No signs of squatters

Since my first post on squatters in relationship with the foreclosures of the Lincoln Park/Bucktown area, I’ve had 4 oppotunities to follow Mike and Antonio as they jump from one vacant building to another. Here is the video I’ve made of those interviews thus far:

I’ve been in contact with ChiTown Daily News to publish this video on their website, the problem is the sound though. When I made the video above, I used the HD video feature on my Nikon D90. However it’s built in mic made it hard to hear my subjects and there was no option for an av input. So now I’ve invested in a high-quality portable mic (Handy Recorder H2) that records the ambience of the scene and has the capability of hooking in an external mic, like a lavalier. Prepared with my equipment this morning, Mike and I had made previous arrangements to meet at a cafe so I could get some better sound clips to sync to some previously recorded B-roll. He was a no show. I waited outside of the St. Vicnent DePaul soup kitchen in hopes I would see him or Antonio there. Nothing. I’ll try again tomorrow, but I’m running out of time. In two weeks I’ll be in Montreal, then moving to San Francisco for a one year volunteer program.

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A look inside where DePaul’s campus dining stocks up on fresh produce

Peter Testa startied loading produce on his father’s delivery trucks at the age of 12. Although, he never ended up going college, he knows how to get good grades-in eggs, tomatoes, lettuce and 1200 other kinds of fresh produce, that is.

Continuing in the family tradition since 1912, Testa is the third generation president of Testa Produce, a premier food service distribution facility in the Chicago Metro area. DePaul’s Chartwells Dining Services has been a customer of Testa for 10 years. Testa’s other customers include O’Hare airport restaurants, five-star hotels, and hundreds of Chicago restaurants.

With a contract that is negotiated every few years, Testa continues to supply 100% of Chartwells’ fresh produce. That means the lettuce on your cheeseburger, tomato on your salad and egg in your omelet at one time saw the inside of Testa’s facility.

Times have changed since his grandfather, an immigrant from Italy, first started selling fruit and vegetables from a horse and buggy, but the ethic and passion for providing high quality and sustainable food has not.

“Customers, like Chartwells, have initiatives to purchase from local farms,” Testa said. “I can tell you that supporting the local farmer is first and foremost for Testa during the Midwest Growing Season.”

The Midwest only has a short season compared to other areas of the country, Testa explained in his weekly Market Report. Out of all the crops grown in Illinois, only 1% is produced is for food for human consumption. The rest is for Ethanol or Commodities. Illinois still falls short of Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s locally grown food production.

“The neighborhood farmer’s markets are not a good gauge of what’s going on with farmers in Illinois,” Testa said, calling attention to the difficulty of getting more farmers to grow different crops.

“The problem is money and distribution,” Testa explained. “If a farmer does grow, say, beets and he wants to bring them to Chicago and he is 200 miles away, he doesn’t want to fool with trucking and delivery because of the time and money involved. At the same time, if I were to buy these beets, I have to make sure they are safe or grown under GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) procedures.” This is just one of the standards farmers have to pass in order for Testa to buy product from them.

For Testa, sustainability means a way farming. Although that lettuce on your hamburger or cherry tomato may have been grown under GAP procedures, it does not necessarily imply that it’s organic, or in other words pesticide and hormone-free.

Testa acknowledges that most people, particularly students, may not be concerned about what it takes to get that food to your fork.

“Americans are so used to walking inside the grocery store that they don’t think twice about where their food came from. If they knew, I think we’d all have a better appreciation.” Testa is working to connect his customers to their food by offering farm tours this summer.

Chartwell’s initiatives towards sustainable practices are in line with Testa’s philosophy. However, with over 1600 other customers Testa realizes that not all of them have a similar environmental mentality-and that he still has a business to run.

“My main job is to figure out what everyone wants. I push local and organic food on customers like Chartwells. Some are resistant. There’s this perception that organic is more expensive.” With Testa’s buying power and knowledge of production costs, he is able to buy what would have been $45 for a crate of organic apples from a farmers market for $25.

Chartwells controls costs and limits spikes by working with Testa’s weekly market prices. If the price of those cherry tomatoes in your salad were to go up, then Chartwells would have to eat the cost and not raise the price for the DePaul community, Stacey Shaw, Chatwells’ Central Region Marketing Director, explains. “We would call Peter and ask how long he expects the price to be high. Then we are able to plan out our menu for that week,” Shaw said.

Food service is about a consistent product and price, but that does not always come easy. Beans were $10 last week, but $50 this week due to the amount of rain and the difficulty of getting into the fields.

“Every morning I wake up and wonder what is going to go wrong. Whether its salmonella outbreaks in Mexico, hurricanes wiping out banana plantations in Central America or even too rain in Midwestern bean fields,” Testa said. “Mother Nature controls the deal in end and sometimes customers don’t like to hear that.”

As if these weren’t enough concerns to fill his 15-hour work day, Testa will break ground-and Chicago history-with the construction his new, innovative “green” facility. At 1.2 million and 265 ft., his plans for an on-site wind turbine will a first for the city of the Chicago. It will also be the tallest structure on the South Side.

In addition, he plans to install a green roof, a 5,000 gallon rain-collecting tank for septic water, solar hot water system, local produced and recycled building material, and LED lighting-just to name a few. Overall, his building is projected to use 50% less energy than what a traditional building of that demeanor would have cost.

Chartwells was the first customer to congratulate and thank him for his socially and environmentally responsible building plan, while other customers were concerned that this would mean that might have to pay more. “My prices will remain competitive.” Testa affirmed. “I’m just thinking long-time. I won’t see a return on this building for at least 10 years, but it’s worth it. You could say I’m a little bit in love with Mother Nature.”

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Report back from 2009 Chicago Green Festival

Alice Waters, founder of Edible Educations, was a no show at the Saturday session. Although disappointed, it was near the end of a long eight hour day of taking photos and sitting in sessions ranging from Amy Goodman to one on how to make your biofuel. I was ready to go home and had a 25 minute bike ride from Navy Pier to Lincoln Park to mull over the day.

Two trained volunteers sorting trash

Two trained volunteers sorting trash

Overall, the sustainable event planning and preparation was impressive. There were  facilities manned by volunteers to seperate recyclables, compost and waste product throughout the floor. At one station, I spoke with two teenagers from different Chicago Public High Schools. “I am learning about how recycling can help protect the planent in science class,” Kimberly Hood said. “Today we were taught what we can reuse and what to throw out,” affirms her friend who was trained amongst the hundreds of other volunteers who were trained to take and sort people’s garbage from the festival.

The number and variety of non-profits represented over the weekend showed the many layers of environmental justice and consciousness. NeighborSpace, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving lands for public use, like my garden for instance was one instance (check out interview in video). It seemed though, that the majority of the floor was taken up by vendors trying to sell you their eco-friendly product. From make-your own soda so that you didn’t have to by aluminum or plastic packaging to Fair Trade apparel, there were consumer opportunities at every corner. Although I was intitially confused at the divorce between frugality and eco-friendly habits, the Green Festival’s philosophy highlights necessity. Only buy from vendors if you need it, and know that your dollar will be making less of a carbon footprint. So, I bought myself a Fair Trade graduation/summer dress, something I needed anyway and probably would have wound up buying from H&M.


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First footage of squatting

I am interviewing a couple of squatters for my next video project. I met one of the squatters, Antonio, 42, last September in the St. Vincent DePaul soup kitchen where I serve and he eats his meal almost every morning. We befriended one another and with time I began to learn more about him–like his ongoing history of squatting in Chicago houses and apartments. Most recently, he and his friend discovered a two story empty house in Bucktown. There they lived, with limited suspicions from neighbors, and free cable and electricity. Squatting is by no means is a new story. However, the way Antonio described his situation and reasons for squatting sounded unique and I wanted to learn more. So I decided to follow this and see if a story would develop.

I was a bit nervous about going there by myself (one of my roommates bailed) and thought that I was taking a unnecessary risk . Still, I hopped on  my bike with camera, extra batteries, notebooks, and tripod in bag as I headed for the house. They were expecting me at 6pm. We would be cooking dinner  with the some chicken I picked up on the way.

When I found the place, I knocked and was asked to quickly get inside. I got a tour of the vacant and stripped house, which to my suprise Antonio and his roommate Mike made “homey” with their personal items and photos hanging on the wall next to their sleeping mats.  I asked for permission before filming. Slightly nervous, I was guided into the bleak, dimmly lit kitchen to start dinner. Both of them were eager and willing to answer the questions I had, even personal ones about their family and difficult past. I am frustrated that I didn’t have them turn the radio playing in the background turned down. When I replayed the footage later, their voices were difficult to hear. The lighting was def. not the best either. I need to interview them when there are no distractions around.

I never felt like my life was in any kind of danger, although I wondered at times if and why I belonged there.

When I saw Antonio at the soup kitchen today he told me that the real estate agent showed up at the door 20 minutes after I left, saw them and called the police. Antonio and Mike were waiting to go back to the house this morning to grab their personal items before heading into a new house Antonio spotted a few weeks ago as a back up. He was in a rush to get going, but I plan to see him again in couple days at the soup kitchen

I feel like I may be on a wild goose chase, but I haven’t lost interest, so I will keep on it and see what happens.

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Ode to open, public spaces in the City


Spending an enjoyable weekend outdoors, from gardening, biking, guitar playing to good ol’ conversing with friends is reminder of how important safe, clean and abundant public spaces are in the city.


I visited my garden and saw Dominque, my plot neighbor (pictured below), for the first time since September. I felt nostalgia creep in as we caught up with one another and then began to share our ever-so-exciting plans for our gardens this year. I could insert here how geeky our conversation got, but instead I’ll end with words from a fellow gardener last year.

We come from the earth, we return to the earth, and in between we garden. -Anonymous


Later in the afternoon, I had to stop by one of West Town/Wicker Park’s oldest bakeries–The Alliance Bakery (1736 W. Division). Although it’s passed through different owners in the last year, the bakery has held on to it’s Polish roots since the the early 1900s (date not exact, but definetely before 1920). A new addition to the bakery this year included a large lounge area in the next door building. It’s a quiet and comfy environment to bring your laptop and work while enjoying a yummy pastry with a cup of coffee. However, the warm sunshine and cool breeze from the lake made it a perfect day to enjoy Alliance’s outdoor patio (picutured below).


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It’s a ‘Happy Friday’…especially on a bike

Critical Mass, September 2008

The best way to check out Chicago neighborhoods is in on a bike–along with hundreds of other riders who have taken over the once car filled streets.

Critical Mass is a monthly bike ride that occurs on the last Friday of every month. All riders, from anarchists to working professions, families to young hipsters, biking activists to just plain biking enthusiasts come together in the hundreds, sometimes thousands (depending on the weather) as part of a world-wide movement. Riders meet at Daly Plaza downtown at 5:30pm before taking to the streets for the next three hours as a symbol of political activism or just as an act to spread “Happy Friday” cheer. Inevitably, a flock this large will run through red lights and block traffic (some drivers give a peace sign, others the finger). Police officers on ATVs escort riders on the route through Chicago’s neighborhoods. No route is ever the same each month, thus, drivers can never truly plan where they may be held up. For many bike riders–this is the beauty of the ride.


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