#918: A Word to the Millionaires

April 23rd, 2018

Never mind how I got it, but I have a bit of Tribune Tower. 

It’s a little bit of rubble picked up off the ground, unwanted by all but me. I saved some handyman the trouble of sweeping it into the trash. It’s an ugly bit of rock, an inch and a half of concrete with some real stone running through. Jagged and broken on one side, it’s still in the perfect shape of a corner on the other three.

It’s sitting on a bookshelf in my apartment now, next to two ocarinas, a framed autograph of 1982 Nobel laureate Bengst Samuelsson and a similar hunk of the old Chicago Sun-Times building. That one I got because I worked for a riverboat company that used to pump out its sewage into the Sun-Times press room line. While they were demolishing their old brick of a building along the river to make way for Trump Tower, I hopped inside one day and grabbed a piece.

Now I have a piece of the Tribune in honor of its demise.

In June, the Chicago Tribune newspaper will set up shop in One Prudential Plaza, abandoning its home of 93 years, the self-declared “most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world.” That’s going to become condos so millionaires and billionaires can buy themselves a slice of authenticity to change their socks in.

I have no illusions about the paper. It’s Republican-leaning even to this day. Much of the news is aimed at the suburbs. Its editorial board is reactionary and cowardly. It employs amazing journalists and then gives higher platforms and paychecks to Kass, McQueary and anyone else willing to hit the two notes of “people leaving Illinois” and “Democrats’ fault” over and over again like the world’s most tedious ocarina solo. It’s called “tronc.”

But it does beautiful work, when the ed board lets it. They exposed the unfair property tax assessment system that punishes people of color, and are up for a Pulitzer for their troubles. One of my favorite pieces of Chicago journalism over the last few years was an amazing photo essay following a child who had been shot, humanizing an issue too often covered in tallies. They hire amazing writers like Chris Jones, Blair Kamin, Clarence Page, Eric Zorn, Mary Schmich, Peter Nickeas.

They have documented this city for 171 years, 93 of which were spent in this stately tower downtown. Critics of the aging building argue it’s full of rats and cockroaches, but that won’t be true until June.

The rats want the sign.

It’s not enough to buy the building, selling of years of journalistic history condo by condo to the highest bidder. Los Angeles-based CIM Group and Chicago’s Golub & Co. are suing the Tribune, arguing they have the right to buy the illuminated gothic “Chicago Tribune” sign looking out on the river and keep it there, not as a beacon of the power and prestige of the news, but as decoration and selling point, a bug zapper luring in millionaires and billionaires with the kitsch of having a funky-cool sign for their downtown digs.

The real estate companies want to pay $1 for it.

The case is going through the courts, but in the meantime here’s my ruling: Millionaires and billionaires, no. You can’t buy the sign.

You get the building, you get the lovely spires and the lobby carved with quotes about the freedom of the press and the utter necessity of free speech. Sure, go on. Grab your mail there as you head up to to watch Netflix in your underwear in the newsroom and make cold cereal in an old darkroom. Knock yourself out.

But you can’t buy the sign. You can’t use your cash to force out the people who gave that name authenticity and meaning, then demand you get to call yourself what they were. You can’t gentrify the news.

My use of “can’t” isn’t a command. If I had power to force billionaire corporations to do the right thing, believe me that saving a particular piece of riverview property for a separate corporation would be very low on my priority list. “Can’t” is me telling the millionaires and billionaires what they’re trying won’t work.

If they win, which they might, they’ll have spent $1 to make a sign worthless.

I don’t give a crap about the succession of tycoons and corporations who have owned the company. I care about the ground-level employees, the photographers, writers, editors, pressmen, newsboys who worked to make that name worth something. Right-leaning, flawed, imperious, beautiful Chicago Tribune. Without the people who made the name worth whatever it’s worth, the building’s just a bit of stone, a trinket and memento sitting on a shelf.

Enjoy your purchase, millionaires. Enjoy shunting journalists south so you can play newsman in their leavings. Enjoy your $1 court win and wear the name on the sign like a child wears a novelty shop fedora to play reporter on Halloween. Like the child with the hat, the name’s too big for you. Unlike the child, you’ll never grow into it.

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