Signs of the season-CTA Holiday Train!

One of the great holiday traditions of Chicago visited our neighborhood the Chicago Transit Authority’s Holiday Train.  This train decorated with holiday lights and with an open carriage carrying Santa and his sleigh. The train is greeted at each station by families, children in strollers all looking to capture that special holiday photograph or video.


Holiday Train arrives at the Rockwell Station. Photo credit: Jane Rickard




The train will return to our area tomorrow linkage to the full Brown Line schedule here.

It is a fitting way to start our Holiday images.

Santa himself arrives in his sleigh. Photo Credit: Jane Rickard



CTA Holiday Train

The annual visit of the holiday train on the Brown Line is expected on three days this year. However, a time schedule for the train has not yet been announced.

The Brown Line will share Dec. 1-3 with Orange Line riders, according to preliminary news releases from the CTA.

The train includes lights both inside and outside the cars and a sleigh riding Santa on a flat car.

For more information.

Ridership flat as slow zones grow

Go-slow zones on the Brown Line have increased by about 5,000 feet since June.

Go-slow zones on the Brown Line have increased by about 5,000 feet since June. Source: Transit Chicago

Reports from the Chicago Transit Authority show that slow zones, trackage where trains must reduce speed, increased over the summer, a period of traditional work on the rail system.

The monthly reports indicate 22.8 percent of the Brown Line was a slow zone as of October 5, the most recent reporting date. That represents 22,412 linear feet of rail, the report indicates.

The line had reported 17,301 feet of slow zone on June 7, reports indicate.

Summer slow zones could be caused by construction and repair of the rail line. However a report on October 5, 2010 indicated just 17,203 feet of slow zones.

Average weekday ridership in the stations in the Ravenswood area declined 3.59 percent month-to-month in the June to July period. Then improved by 0.29 percent in the July-August period.

Year over year the line has shown growth in ridership with the new stations at Montrose and Irving Park showing double digit growth.

Brown Line ridership has not recovered to June highs. Source Transit Chicago

Brown Line ridership has not recovered to June highs. Source Transit Chicago

CTA ridership is up about 5.8 percent overall from 2010.

CTA ridership is up about 5.8 percent overall from 2010. Source: Transit Chicago

Brown Line platforms need $175K of repair

Brown Line wood decks are deteriorating at a rapid pace, victims of a decision to protect them from fire instead of weather, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.

The fire retardant is actually making the wood softer and easier to damage, the report says. As a result, the platform decks will need replacement.

Read more at the Chicago Tribune.

Ridership on Metra UP North down 12.7%

CTA ridership continues to climb, while Metra ridership on the UP North line fell, reports show.

CTA ridership continues to climb, while Metra ridership on the UP North line fell, reports show. Credit: Patrick Boylan

A report on ridership on the Metra rail system indicates riders are abandoning the Metra UP North line, even as rider growth continues on other lines in the system and the CTA.

Ridership on the line that serves Ravenswood is down 12.7 percent in May 2011 and 6.8 percent in the year that ended in May the report indicates.

May is the most recent ridership report available from Metra.

The results are more remarkable because the UP North line stands out in its loss of riders. Overall, the system reports 0.5 percent fewer riders in the previous 12 months. However the UP North line has lost more riders as a proportion of total ridership than any other line.

The line, which had been the third most popular line in the system, dropped 662,651 riders in the twelve month period, about 6.8 percent of its ridership, giving way to the UP Northwest line as the third most popular line. The next most popular line following the UP North is the Rock Island.  The Rock Island line serves 46.8 miles of route with 68 trains, according to Metra.

The UP North line serves 51.6 route miles with 70 trains.

CTA Brown Line ridership growth in the same period increased 7.1 percent on a year-to-date basis. The comparable loss for Metra UP North is a loss of 7.8 percent of ridership.

CTA reports indicate that June ridership is also up on the Brown Line, 7.6 percent year-to-date.

The CTA reports indicate more than 342,500 additional riders can be expected to use the seven Ravenswood area CTA stations this year over last year. The total expected ridership on the Brown Line through the seven Ravenswood stations is expected to be 5,185,000 if the trend continues through the end of the year.

Total CTA train ridership through the seven stations will surpass 5.1 million in 2011 if the current trend continues.

Metra has not done a detailed analysis of the Ravenswood station in several years. However it has stated that it is the second busiest station on the UP North line based on zone ticket purchases. More than 10,511,000 passengers were reported by Metra to have used a UP North train in the agency’s latest annual report. Based just on averages, it is likely that the number of passengers using the Ravenswood station was at least 420,448 in the year ended June 30, 2010.



Redistricting should be transparent and honor recognized communities of interest

A Bulldog Editorial

Two weeks and a holiday exist between now and the end of the regular session of the Illinois General Assembly. The Statehouse is abuzz as it passes a controversial education reform bill and grapples with the legacy of financial mismanagement from two convicted former governors. But the elephant in the room is redistricting. And so far it is going unnoted. Using redistricting the politicians will be selecting the voters they want to vote for them. Oh! You thought you selected the politicians to represent you? That is a nice thought and worthy of a third grade essay. No. As the Bulldog has been discussing, the process for determining how our neighborhood will be represented is well underway. It is being purposely hidden from your view. And, it will all be over in two weeks. During May a redistricting plan only requires 60 votes in the House and 30 votes in the Senate to pass. In June, the same plan will need a 3/5ths majority of each chamber for passage. In other words, if the plan, which is not yet public, is not passed in the next two weeks, it will require Republican votes for passage. To suggest there isn’t a map shows arrogance and conceit. Yet, that is the claim of certain insiders and the Democratic Party leadership. Activists have been demanding for months the legislature reveal maps that insiders now say they have seen. The activists are demanding at least a week to respond to the proposed boundary lines. So far that call has gone unanswered. The insiders laugh at the naivety of activists and the press and our readers and thousands of other citizens in this state. We demand transparency. Who the hell do we think we are? THE STORY SO FAR As The Bulldog noted, a coalition of Asian, Hispanic and African American groups called the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations have developed a comprehensive map that would increase representation of Hispanics and potentially of Asians without costing the African American community any representation. In Ravenswood the maps offer two versions. In each map plan Deb Mell will be forced to run in a district that is new to her. That is of concern to the LGBT community. Only three members of the General Assembly are openly gay. Mell is one of those reps. The LGBT community is not a protected minority. As Jacob Meister notes in an editorial in “the Census Bureau did not bother to collect data on LGBT individuals and families.” And, as The Bulldog has noted, gay activists believe that although certain retail areas, particularly in Uptown and in Boys Town, are associated with the gay community, gays are spread throughout the community and drawing a line to describe an area as being gay is not going to happen.


That said, we also look at our Mission Statement. We interpret those words to mean we should give voice to persons without voice. We believe that the LGBT community, although it has not received legal status as a protected minority, deserves protection by persons of good will. Therefore, The Bulldog supports map proposals that offer minorities and the LGBT community districts in which the minorities can run candidates with a good chance of winning. But that doesn’t guarantee a win. And, we find gerrymandering the map to get rid of an opponent offensive. We believe that has happened to Mell with the proposals by the United Congress. So, although we support the goals of the United Congress, and in general support the proposed map of the UC, we urge change.


The Bulldog is calling on the Statehouse to move the line for the 40th legislative district proposed by the United Congress in such a way that Mell’s home continues to be within the 40th district boundaries. We urge persons to oppose Mell in an open and fair primary and election if they don’t like her politics. And, we note that we have taken Mell to task in the past for working to keep opponents off the ballot using election law. We pledge to watch Mell carefully, but also watch her opponents. Everyone should play nice. End the Gerrymandering.

  1. The Democratic map should be revealed NOW. We do not buy that the map doesn’t exist. Government should be about transparency, not secrecy.
  2. A Hispanic majority district in the area of Albany Park/ Avondale and Irving Park should be established as outlined by the United Congress.
    1. That district should NOT carve out the home of Rep. Deborah Mell.
  3. If a house and/or senate district with Asian influence can be created, as outlined by the United Congress, it should be created.
  4. We believe there are several strong reasons to tie the following neighborhoods together in the same district due to existance of several separate groups that coexist:
    1. Ravenswood Manor
    2. Ravenswood Gardens
    3. Greater Rockwell
    4. Lincoln Square
    5. The portion of Ravenswood between the Chicago River, Foster, Lawrence and Lincoln Ave.
  5. We believe the tandem of a corridor along Lincoln Ave and the Brown Line should form the backbone of a district of common interest.
  6. We believe the eight  retail/residential areas below should each be kept in a single house and single senate district
    1. St. Ben’s
    2. Roscoe Village
    3. Bowmanville
    4. Budlong Woods
    5. The six corners of Lincoln/Belmont/Ashland
    6. The six corners of Lincoln/Damen/Irving Park
    7. Wrigleyville
    8. Southport Corridor
  7. We believe that the natural boundaries created by the Chicago River, industrial areas and cemeteries should be used to draw lines and that any legislative district representing this area not include any part of the suburbs.
  8. The entirety of the campus, offices, parking facilities and future development of Swedish Covenant Hospital should be intact within a single district.

The Bulldog editorializes that legislative districts be drawn to create majority Hispanic districts, an Asian influence district and protect the boundaries of nine communities of interest.


The Bulldog is a for-profit enterprise. It is also a hyper-local news effort that had to define what were its communities of interest. The concept of communities of interest should be taken into consideration by the legislature. It is a concept that received a lot of attention during the legislative hearings that have led us up to this moment. Ravenswood is represented by two State Senators holding powerful leadership positions: Senate President John Cullerton and Sen. Heather Steans. We believe that the leadership will act to protect the districts of these two leaders despite any protest made by anyone. That said, The Bulldog claims expertise in defining what the communities of interest in Ravenswood are. We believe that the purpose of the Democratic Party to protect Cullerton and Steans can be met and the needs of the community protected too. We are using our editorial voice, an expression of the community of writers and photographers, because someone must stand and state these principles to the legislature before it is to late. We urge Cullerton and Steans to consider that our community will be better represented if certain the following are considered prior to finalizing the map.

  1. A Hispanic majority district in the area of Albany Park/ Avondale and Irving Park should be established as outlined by the United Congress.
    1. That district should NOT carve out the home of Rep. Deborah Mell.
  2. If a house district with Asian influence can be created, as outlined by the United Congress, it should be created.
  3. In general there are a number of significant boundaries present in the area that prevent easy community building. They provide opportunities to create boundaries.
    1. Rosehill Cemetery.
    2. Graceland Cemetery.
    3. St. Boniface Cemetery.
    4. The small cemeteries north of Wrigley Field.
    5. The Metra/ UP North Line is also an appropriate boundary, except as noted.
    6. The combination of the Addison Industrial Corridor, Lane Tech High School and the former property of Riverview.
  4. The Chicago River should form a boundary.
  5. The map should recognize that there are communities of interest in Ravenswood that are centered on retail districts and transportation nodes. When possible, the retail districts and the transportation nodes should be intact within a district.
    1. One of the most important distinctions for Ravenswood residents is the proximity to the Brown Line. This transportation feature is common to several neighborhoods. It ties together Ravenswood Manor and SouthEast Ravenswood and gives reason for the strange “L” shape of Ravenswood.
    2. A second key feature in this neighborhood is the Metra Line.
    3. A third key to the area is Lincoln Ave. It appears that the district drawn in 2000 which is now represented by Cullerton centered on Lincoln Ave. That district is relatively cohesive and shares many interests.
    4. In the case of both senate districts, we believe that they should remain entirely within the boundaries of the City of Chicago.
  6. The Ravenswood neighborhood is, in general, a neighborhood that has a small number of protected minorities. However, that does not mean it doesn’t have distinct ethnic differences.
    1. A German community of interest, the rump of what was once a much larger German community, still exists, centered on Lincoln Ave., and in particularly we find anecdotal evidence this community continues to exist near Lincoln Square.
    2. A Greek community of interest exists. As is the case with the German population, this is an ethnic group that is losing its population as new generations move out and new groups move in. We find anecdotal evidence this group continues to exist along Lawrence Ave from the area near California Ave to Western Ave. This area includes the church of St. Demetrios.
    3. Former Yugoslavia community. We find anecdotal evidence, based primarily on the existance of bars serving the community, that this recent group exists in the area of Lincoln Square.
  7. Key retail areas should not be divided into separate legislative districts. We point to Chinatown as an example of how poorly served a business district can be if it has more than one legislator. We point, in our own area, to Andersonville, which is divided among several wards, as an example of terrible planning during redistricting.
    1. The Lincoln Square retail area is a two block radius area centered at Lawrence, Lincoln and Western.
    2. Bowmanville, which has no significant retail area, nevertheless should be kept together.
    3. Budlong Woods is a distinct area and should be kept together. In the not to distant past, this neighborhood would have formed a boundary due to its being a farm. Current maps call for this area to be included in the proposed Asian influence district.
    4. Andersonville should not be divided again. It is generally defined by Clark Street from near the corner of Ridge to south of Foster.
    5. Ravenswood Manor has more in common with the Ravenswood Garden community across the Chicago River than many other contiguous communities. They should be in the same district. In some areas these two communities are considered to overlap Greater Rockwell which itself overlaps Lincoln Square. It shouldn’t be an issue to keep these small neighborhoods together.
    6. St. Ben’s is a distinct area and should remain together. We define it as the area within two blocks of the church/ school complex at Leavitt and Irving Park Rd.
    7. Roscoe Village is a distinct area and should not be divided. We define it as an area within two blocks of Roscoe running from Western Ave to the Metra railroad.
    8. In addition, we see retail areas forming communities of interest around Wrigley Field, Lincoln/ Irving and Damen and Belmont/ Lincoln and Ashland. The city has definitions of the two retail areas that the six corners define. Wrigley, in our opinion, is the area that receives a significant economic impact due to the proximity of the ballfield, or about two blocks from the intersection of Clark and Addison.
    9. In general, public elementary school attendance boundaries should be kept intact.
    10. In general, larger communities, such as Ravenswood, Uptown, Lake View and Rogers Park should be kept in one legislative district.
  8. Now, joining the chorus, The Bulldog has shown its map. We want the leadership to show its map.

WHAT IS THE LAW? The basic requirements for a legislative district, according to the Federal government are:

  • Federal Voting Rights Act. Provides protected minorities that could create districts of 50 percent or greater population proportion with protection from practices of cracking and packing to dilute their strength.
    • States and municipalities cannot do “too much” to compensate for race. However, they may not use redistricting to dillute the voting strength of minority populations. The fine line between whether a plan leans on dilluting minorities or makes the election accessible often sends plans to court for adjudication.
  • Gingles Factor. A court test based on the Federal VRA provides that to prove a section 2 VRA violation
    • The minority group is sufficiently large and geographically concentrated to make up a majority district
    • That the minority group is politically cohesive
    • That the white majority votes together to defeat the minority candidate
  • One person, one vote
    • Baker v Carr, 1962 court decision held that districts have to have roughly equal population

In addition, Illinois has a Voting Rights Act. That law mandates the following:

An alternative majority Hispanic district proposed by the Illinois Hispanic Agenda also excludes Rep. Deb Mell’s home. Credit: Illinois Hispanic Agenda
  • Contiguity.

Districts cannot include “islands” that are not geographically connected in some manner to the district (for example on real islands, there needs to be a transportation link such as a bridge or a ferry to the rest of the district).

  • Compactness.

The boundaries of the district can be measured by a number of measures. Let’s summarize this limitation as calling for the districts to be able to withstand tests that their boundaries are logical.

  • Nesting.

Illinois uses a system in which two Illinois House Districts are associated with each Illinois Senate District.

  • The state law created three categories of districts for the legislature to consider:
    • Crossover districts- Districts where a minority is large enough to elect the candidate of its choice provided the candidate receives support from voters outside the minority.
    • Coalition districts- Districts in which more than one minority can form a coalition to elect a candidate of their choice.
    • Influence districts- A district where a minority can influence the election even if its preferred candidate cannot be elected.
  • Encourages ‘communities’ of common concern
    • May be ethnic, religious, based on transportation, sexual, etc.
    • Legislature will act not to break up (crack) such communities

In addition, let’s layout a few other specifics.

  • Majority Hispanic districts are generally higher in the proportion of Hispanics than majority white or black districts due to a skew in the average age of the population: more of the population is too young to vote and there appears to be lower participation in the election process among Hispanics. 65 percent is considered necessary to create a majority Hispanic district.
  • While there is some information available about single-sex households, in general information about LGBT communities is not based on census data.
  • In Illinois the location of incumbents homes are taken into consideration. This is not true for all redistricting efforts. Iowa, for example, uses a computer that does not consider incumbent addresses in its plan.
  • Illinois has a history of using redistricting to punish potential opponents of incumbents. Famously, in the redistricting of the South Side following the 2000 census, a young Illinois Senator, Barack Obama, was redistricted out of Congressman Bobby Rush’s district.
  • Illinois also factors in political loyalty of a district. Specifically, Illinois legislators look at voting along party lines in previous presidential, US Senate and state executive offices.
  • The final consideration  is that the legislature is asked to take communities of interest into consideration. A community of interest can be any self-defined group. For example:
    • Ethnic groups
    • Religious groups
    • Groups based on employment (e.g., farming, auto parts, colleges, etc)
    • Communities of LGBT and similar sexual orientation and identity
    • A town or neighborhood
    • Communities that are defined by infrastructure (such as use of the Brown Line)
  • Gerrymandering is the act of remapping to give an unfair advantage to one political group. The Federal Voting Rights Act protects minorities against racial Gerrymandering.
  • Cracking. Diluting a group. A violation of the VRA for protected minorities if it harms the ability of minorities to elect representation
  • Packing. Concentrating a group. A violation of the VRA for protected minorities if it harms the ability of minorities to elect representation


  • Tues., May 31 Last day to pass reapportionment by 50% +1 of membership
  • Fri., June 3 Gov. Pat Quinn must receive reapportionment legislation
  • Thurs., June 30 Last day to pass reapportionment by 3/5ths of membership vote
  • Wed., Aug. 10 Last day for eight member commission to submit a reapportionment plan
  • Wed., Oct 5 Deadline for nine member commission to submit a reapportionment plan
  • Early November Candidates begin passing petitions for office under the reapportionment

Mayor’s Farewell Tour Stops at Welles Park

On a sunny Friday morning, as the world watched the British welcome the latest addition to their royal family, Chicagoans from three north side wards bid adieu to royalty of their own.

Neighbors gathered at the Welles Park playground, across the street from Queen of Angels Roman Catholic Church, to hear Mayor Daley's farewell address to the 32nd, 33rd and 47th Wards. Credit: Camille Whitworth

Mayor Richard M. Daley, winding down his 22-year reign, continued his farewell tour of Chicago’s neighborhoods, thanking the residents of the 32nd, 33rd and 47th Wards by dedicating the newly renovated Welles Park.

Students from several neighborhood elementary schools, including North Park and Queen of Angels, tried out the new playground equipment while the mayor, area business owners, and outgoing alderman Gene Schulter recapped the improvements made to the north side wards during the past two decades.

The mayor is proud of the upgrades made to the city’s buildings, sidewalks and parks with regards to accessibility for people with disabilities, including the renovation of eighteen stations on the CTA’s Brown Line.

Daley is especially pleased with the cultivation of the Chicago River for canoeing and other recreational activities. “Who would ever think twenty years ago that we would be talking about the great asset that is the Chicago River? Which it is!” he proudly exclaimed.

The environmentalist mayor also acknowledged the American Indian Center for their environmental programs, Oscar Mayer Magnet School’s garden project, and the Lincoln Square Farmer’s Market for bringing organic produce to the north side.

Alderman Gene Schulter and his wife Rosemary, Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, and State Representative Deb Mell join Mayor Daley at the dedication of the newly renovated Welles Park. Credit: Camille Whitworth

Daley praised the Household Chemical and Computer Recycling Facility, which not only offers proper disposal of hazardous substances, but provides employment opportunities for ex-offenders.

The mayor stressed the importance of reading to children and adults alike, touting the building of almost sixty new libraries in the city, and the renovation of the Sulzer Regional Branch. “If you take advantage of libraries we won’t have to talk about another generation of children that we’ve lost,” he declared.

“And of course, the Old Town School of Folk Music, what can you say about them?” asked Daley, a question which was answered with a round of applause. “Artists are people we should really respect,” implored the mayor, because they “provide a better quality of life for all of us.”

Bau Graves, Executive Director of the Old Town School, credited the mayor for encouraging the school to move into the long-vacant Hild Library building on Lincoln Avenue in 1998. “There was a question whether our small institution could fill the facility,” Graves recalled. “But we are now the largest community music and arts school in the United States.” The school has begun an expansion project that will more than double their capacity.

Bau Graves, Executive Director of the Old Town School of Folk Music. Credit: Camille Whitworth

Other representatives of the small business community who thanked Daley for his hands-on involvement and assistance with bureaucratic red tape included Yolanda Luszcz, co-owner of Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessen, and Joel Nickson, Chef and Owner of Wishbone restaurant.

“We have been blessed with a mayor who has a passion for our neighborhoods,” said Reverend Nicholas Zook, Pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Concordia Place, which offers preschool, child care and after-school programs, as well as exercise and wellness programs for seniors. He cited the mayor’s attention to detail as a reason for Concordia’s ability to expand their programs and provide services to more area residents.

Liz Griffiths, Director of Economic Development of the North River Commission promised to continue Mayor Daley’s tradition of expanding the city’s green spaces and public art. She looks to the May 19th ground breaking of the Sculpture Park & Healing Garden in Ronan Park on the river at Lawrence Avenue as the northwest side’s answer to Millenium Park. “Our ‘Bean’ is a Cambodian goddess standing on a crocodile, which sits on a lotus flower,” Griffiths declared, to the delight of those gathered.

Daley insists that the energy of this city is found in young people and immigrants.

Neighborhood elementary school students listen to Mayor Richard M. Daley's farewell address. Credit: Camille Whitworth

He recounted a meeting with a Turkish immigrant who owns a textile plant on Belmont Avenue with 150 employees. “He said he has twenty-four ethnic groups in his plant. He said it’s the best quality workforce that anybody can have,” Daley recalled. “It’s a specialized textile industry. They make drapes and everything else. And he ships them all over the world right from Chicago.”

The mayor, who will pass the torch to Rahm Emanuel on May 16th, concluded his speech by expressing his gratitude to the people of his beloved hometown. “I thank you for the great honor of serving you for twenty-two years. I thank you for the commitment that all of you have made to our city, to our schools, to the environment, and yes, to the quality of life. God bless you and thank you.”

Lincoln Square Featured in Debut Novel

Kathryn Simpson always knew she wanted to be a writer. When she moved from Colorado back to her home state of Missouri, and later to be near her husband’s family in Illinois, the drafts of several novels she had started went with her.

But unlike most frustrated novelists whose masterpieces sit in a desk drawer, or on a hard drive, never to be read by anyone not related to the author, Simpson saw her tenacity pay off last year when her first novel, The Farmer’s Story, was finally published, nine years after she wrote the first line.

“I started it in 2001,” says Simpson. “The first line of the story just came to me one day. I wasn’t even thinking about starting a book, I just had the thought: ‘The farmer stares at his two worthless children.’”

Kathryn Simpson, Lincoln Square resident and author of "The Farmer's Story". Credit: Camille Whitworth

The 38-year-old theater major had done some writing for a newspaper and an alternative press magazine, but she always came back to the novel. “I started writing and then I would walk away from it for a period of time because we would move or I would be focusing on something else,” Simpson recalls. “I would convince myself that it was a ridiculous pursuit, but it was always there: ‘One day I’m going to finish this book.’”

The Farmer’s Story tells the tale of John Johnson, a southern Illinois farmer whose wife’s dying wish was that he reconcile with his estranged adult children, Marie and Johnnie. So the farmer travels to Marie’s home in St. Louis, then to Johnnie’s home in Chicago, where they confront the tragedies that had torn them apart. It’s a fast-paced, tightly-woven story that provides both funny and sad observations about human nature while keeping the reader wondering what will happen next. There’s not much that can be revealed without spoiling the many surprises that unfold along the way.

Johnnie lives in Lincoln Square, the neighborhood Simpson and her husband, Ryan Otto, have called home since 2004. “When we moved up from Missouri, we stayed with my mother-in-law [in the suburbs] for a few months while we looked for a place. We researched all the neighborhoods, and this is the one we wanted. We love the trees, the Square is awesome, the Brown Line is right there, and we have great neighbors.”

Simpson’s affection for the neighborhood inspired scenes at two area restaurants. Johnnie and his girlfriend take his father to the Chicago Brauhaus [a Welles Park Bulldog advertiser] for dinner and dancing. The next morning, the two men head to the Horseshoe for Sunday Bluegrass Brunch, where musicians from the Old Town School of Folk Music perform.

No, the Horseshoe doesn’t serve brunch anymore, and you can’t smoke inside like the Johnsons do after they’ve finished their meal. But the novel is set in 2002, long before the smoking ban.

It doesn’t seem like 2002 was all that long ago, until you notice other small details: Johnnie calls the Davis Theater to get showtimes, instead of checking their website. While riding the Brown Line to work, he listens to Dave Alvin on a Discman, not an iPod.

"The Farmer's Story," 181 pages, AuthorHouse. Jacket design by Kevin Schnabel.

The novel is set eight years earlier than its publishing date, not because Simpson felt nostalgic for the good old days, but because that was when she began writing it. “Once I started writing about the farmer at that time, I felt like to change it would have been disingenuous,” says Simpson. “Which is interesting because I started my next book, Standing With Buffalo, even earlier – in 1996. But I’ve gone back almost to the drawing board with that one, so it’s set in the present day. Now there are cell phones and text messages.”

Where does Simpson find the will to keep working on a novel she started fifteen years ago? Last year, just as she was getting ready for her first book signing in Chicago, she began to experience extreme dizziness and nausea, which led to a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. “I’m still getting used to everything that goes along with this, but I’m much more fortunate than many people with MS,” says Simpson. Although she has started a drug protocol that should stop the progression of the disease, the incurable aspect of MS gives her a sense of urgency. “Since there are some cognitive and vision issues that go along with the location of my lesions, I’m very anxious that there’s a clock ticking.”

But even before the diagnosis, long before the symptoms began, Simpson was eager to find a way to become a full-time writer. “In 2009, I’m crabby, I’m frustrated, I just want to write. So my husband says, ‘I will figure out a way for you to just write, so give notice.’ And I did. I left my job as an office manager for two restaurants down in the [Fulton] Market District and he found a way to allow me to just write.” Otto, an office manger for the Chicago region of AFLAC, became the sole breadwinner. “He’s very supportive. I’m more fortunate than I probably deserve to be.”

Simpson gave herself a regimented writing schedule and a goal of finishing the novel in 2010. “I thought, we’re taking this tremendous risk by me being unemployed right now. We’re living off of the meager savings that we have, so I’m going to take as much advantage of this as possible.”

The book was finished in May. Simpson immediately started sending the manuscript to publishers. “I was trying to attract agents, I was doing all of the things that you’re supposed to do when you’ve finished a book, which was…”


“Exactly. I started doing more research, I started looking at all the options, regarding the traditional publishing industry. What were the odds? What was going to happen?” Simpson worried. “We’ve gone and done this. My husband sacrificed all these things to make it possible for me to finish it, so I have to get it published.”

Like most aspiring writers, Simpson had a prejudice against self-publishing. “I always thought, ‘If I’m going to do it, there’s going be a publisher. There’s going to be somebody who tells me that it’s good.’” But the longer the manuscript sat there, unpublished, the more Simpson started to think that self-publishing wasn’t such a bad idea. “I thought, now that it’s done, I can’t just sit and wait for someone to tell me it has value any longer.”

Simpson found a self-publisher in Indiana, AuthorHouse. “They came from the traditional industry and they didn’t like what was happening with it, and that’s why they started their own company,” Simpson explains. She believes working with AuthorHouse was the right decision. “I just felt a really positive vibe from them, and still do. I would use them next time.”

Now it’s Simpson’s job to sell the finished product. “It’s not like we’ve got thousands of dollars that we can invest in getting the whole PR push. So that’s why we’re totally doing it guerilla warfare over here,” she laughs.

Simpson’s been fairly savvy for an amateur marketer. She negotiated a book signing at Borders Books & Music in Uptown during Thanksgiving weekend (on one of the busiest shopping days of the year), gave a presentation to junior and senior high school students in Bismarck, Missouri and held a book signing at Bauhaus Kaffee in nearby Farmington. She has formed relationships with independent booksellers in the neighborhoods where the novel is set, and has sent courtesy copies to media outlets across Illinois and Missouri.

“All it would take would be for one copy to fall into the right hands,” sighs Simpson. “But forgive me, if one more person tells me that it needs to get to Oprah, I will stab myself,” she laughs. “Of course! I would love for that to happen, but that’s not how it works.”

Not that she’s complaining. Simpson is happy to finally be living her dream. “I’ve been very fortunate. It would be weird now if something suddenly came easily.”

In addition to Standing with Buffalo, which is about a sous-chef and the death of a father, set in Arkansas and Missouri, Simpson has started two more novels: Good Men, about some seemingly unrelated men who turn out to be related through strange circumstances, which takes place in the 1950s in northern Illinois and Wisconsin; and one more book set in Lincoln Square entitled The Brown Line, about young woman who steps in front of a train at the Western stop, the people who are witnesses to the event, and the ripple effects.

The Farmer’s Story is available locally in paperback at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square and at Women & Children First in Andersonville. Or it can be purchased online (hardcover, paperback or electronic) through, Amazon or Borders.

For more information, see Simpson’s website,

Merle’s— for sale

The signs are on the wall that Merle’s Coffee Shoppe on Francisco may be sold. Literally, the restaurant located adjacent to the Francisco Brown Line station on Manor and Francisco Avenues has put multiple signs up announcing the place is for sale. “Serious inquiries only.”

Owner Jeff Scoughton did not want to talk about the sale to The Bulldog. Merle’s, located in the business center of Ravenswood Manor, is one of two restaurants at the rail crossing. The other restaurant is First Slice Pie, located just north of the tracks on Manor. First Slice opened over the summer.Francisco v Rockwell

The 11 shop commercial area is somewhat similar to the 23 shop commercial area surrounding the Rockwell Brown Line stop because of its location servicing an El stop. A large playlot called Manor Park sits in a triangle between Francisco and Manor Avenue attracting families throughout the day.

Like Rockwell, which has the Greater Rockwell Organization, the Manor has an established community organization, the Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association. But while Rockwell seems to speak of vitality, the Manor Crossing business district seems to say I’m dying.

Perhaps the line of empty store fronts on Francisco facing the park make the statement. For rent signs face the sidewalk as the pedestrian walks south from the CTA stop. They are broken only by Merle’s and a dance studio that seems filled with young families.

Although the portion of closed shops is similar at Rockwell, many of the storefronts there do not advertise their condition. Several are simply closed, with no sign of being available for rent.

The Bulldog stopped a number of pedestrians on Manor to ask about Merle’s. Merle’s has a good Yelp* rating, with 22 persons giving it an average rating of four of five stars. (See The Bulldog’s review of Merle’s). Yet many of the pedestrians Sunday said they wished Merle’s well, but had never been inside.

“It’s good to have it open,” one person told The Bulldog. “But I haven’t warmed to it.”

“I think it’s a real neat little neighborhood place,” Rita Battles said. “I’ve been there a couple times and the food was good.”

The classic rock and roll from Merle’s speakers rolls over the Francisco stop and across the crossing gates. A mural faces the platform. Merle’s doesn’t define the neighborhood, but you ask yourself what would happen if Merle’s became Rod’s or Deb’s or Starbucks? What if it closed?

“It’s wonderful,” Tamara T told The Bulldog about Merle’s. “It needs to stay local. If it closed it would be awful.”