Excerpted by the Green in the City fellows
Photo by Kimani Smith
Michael Hawthorne tells the inside story about the Dave Matthews Band’s very public toxic dumping. Hear more.
On whether Chicago is really green: We live in a city here with a mayor who has been duly elected and re-elected since 1989 and loves to say we are a “green” city. If you walk around a few blocks to Buckingham Fountain and you see the lake it sure looks all green and beautiful. But if you travel through the neighborhoods, it’s not necessarily so green. It’s a gritty, industrial city. There may not be as many factories as there used to be but there are plenty of those factories still running and there is also a legacy for what has been left behind.
On being effective on his beat: If you start asking elected officials what they’re doing about these problems, it’s amazing how much these elected officials will actually do and how they will respond. It restores my faith in [what] we learned in high school . . . and civics class about what democracy is all about. Because it will change if enough people stand up and say they want it to change. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes people like me or people like you asking those questions instead of the people we pay to look after us.
On community activism: Pilsen is a neighborhood like many others in the city where house came up right next to the factories. At night, when they were running these factories, people would complain [of] of clouds of smoke coming out of the factory’s windows that was built in 1923, I believe. The smoke tasted like metal. It turned out people didn’t just sit there and complain or called 311. They started doing their homework and figured out that the H. Kramer smelter was a huge source of airborne lead, and there’s no safe level of exposure to lead. It’s a problem predominantly in old houses that have lead-based paint but it’s also a problem if you have a factory in your neighborhood spewing out tons of lead every year. Of course, the factory said everything was fine, the city said everything was fine.
On persistence: But20these people didn’t take that as an acceptable answer. They paid a laboratory to actually go around the neighborhood and test soil. They found these huge levels of lead in the soil and in the playgrounds where the kids were playing. Finally, that made the federal authorities step in and, as part of a deal to make the feds go away, they agreed to clean up all their lead pollution. Now, would that have happened if regular people hadn’t stood up and said: “We’re not going to take it anymore.”? Probably not.
On how young journalists can make a difference: Young journalists can make a difference by conveying that information in an accurate and consistent fashion. It’s a lot of fun, despite the many sad and depressing angles. It can be very enjoyable and I think people respond to it. People responded to today’s story. Just knowing the fact that these pharmaceutical drugs are in our drinking water is kind of weird, whether it does something to us we don’t know. But the fact that it’s there and it catches people’s attention and they’ll call City Hall, that’s when we’ll be able to20do something about it.
On being unafraid: I’m just some guy from southern Illinois. I don’t have any special degree in chemistry or science. I’m a journalist, I just ask questions. So I read a lot and when I didn’t know something I wasn’t afraid to ask somebody who is way smarter than me to help me understand what was going on.
On your BS factor: The most important thing for you guys to keep in mind is basically to have a really high BS detector and question everything. There is this old journalism adage and it’s kind of silly but still true: If your mother says she loves you,20check it out. And it’s true.
On the three most important qualities for a journalist: Insatiable curiosity—you always want to learn more; never think that you know everything— you must read a lot, even really boring things; and, three, be skeptical about anything—it’s great to be skeptical, always be willing to ask questions.
On the negative views of the media: I don’t have a crystal-ball answer to that question. Let’s put it this way: I think that journalism is one of the few jobs where when people are mad, you’ve actually have done a good job. That’s not necessarily always true, but it often is.
On the importance of being a well-read public: I read about 10 different newspapers a day, plus as many blogs about different subjects, not just about the environment. Being well read can play against that feeling that media is such a boogieman. My thing is to always write about something people don’t know about and educate them a little bit about that and help them understand so that they do intelligent decisions.
On how the beat has changed his life: I don’t own a car. I got rid of all my non-stick pans; there is a chemical now in all of us because they used it to make non-stick pans. I just use stainless steel. I use natural cleaners. I buy more organic food smartly. There are certain fruits, for example, that are more prone to be filled with pesticides than others like strawberries and fleshy fruits. I ride the CTA more. I ride my bike more.