Sunday, June 1, 2014

A New Generation of Live Work Space on Halsted




On the outside, this building looks like a lot of the mystery buildings on Halsted Street, like someone has forgotten they own it, or like they’ve inherited it from their grandparents and they aren’t sure if it’s worth anything yet.

But if Halsted’s other mystery buildings are, in fact, anything like this one, that’s good news for the near term fortunes of the street, because this one has been humming with plans for several years.  Visible progress was slowed by structural problems and hurdles in the Chicago codes, but now they’re cleared, and behind the frontier-town façade the building’s insides are being rapidly rebuilt from the basement floor to the rafters.

When renovations are finished in July, there will be 2 second floor apartments, a maker of traditional Italian sausage in the basement, and a giant live work space on the first floor - that’s a legal live work space, so if you’re in the market for one you should get in touch with the owners now.  [Or you can inquire by phone at 773-724-1594.]

Kevin Sheehan and Bobby Lyons were both born and raised in Bridgeport. So were their parents -- Bobby’s family were cops, Kevin’s were tavern keepers. They have been close friends since grade school, they lived their wild youths together, though they’ve both settled down a lot since then.

A few years ago they started tossing around the idea of buying a building together.  They considered buying a bar out in Mount Greenwood, which seemed like a good source of easy profits, but the potential for easy profit gave way to other considerations, and if this project has one defining characteristic, it is something more like a long term view.

A Sticker Appearing Around Halsted Street
The building they finally bought, in 2011, was the first bar Kevin’s family owned in Bridgeport.  His grandfather’s brother opened it before Prohibition.  It’s across the street from Schaller’s, which holds the oldest active liquor license issued in Chicago, and a few doors south of the 11th ward office.

Kevin’s father ran his own tavern on Union and 38th Street, kitty corner to where the Shinnick’s tavern still operates today. Kevin’s cousin Jack Sheehan, who married a Schaller, still operates his tavern near 35th Street on Halsted – next to the former site of Bridgeport Tattoo, whose owner once talked admiringly about wanting to tie his business in to a traditional neighborhood like Bridgeport, though he’d lived a more itinerate life himself and he’s since shuttered the shop.

One of Kevin’s uncles ran the bar at 3707 S Halsted when Kevin was a kid – he’d lived in the apartment over the bar his entire life.  After he died, the family sold it to Richard Mossman, a bricklayer they knew, who rezoned the parcel to accommodate plans for a lofty 4 story condominium development he hadn’t got around to building before the market crashed in 2006.

By 2011 Mossman had a For Sale sign in the window, and Kevin and Bobby called him up to inquire.  They knew if they bought it they would have to put time and money into it -- the building had settled and shifted over the years, the whole frame tilted to the side.  But it’s in the same corner of Bridgeport where they have anchored their lives, and it has sentimental significance. Kevin’s says his father, who has passed away, had thought about buying it, and he would have been glad to know the old building was back in the family.

Once they owned it, they went back and forth a couple times about how to proceed.  At first they got permits to renovate it, they thought they could take down a couple exterior walls and salvage the others.  For awhile it looked like they might have to tear the whole thing down and start from the ground as a new construction project.  City codes would have required them to move the structure back 15 feet from the sidewalk, and from its original foundation, which they were willing to do, but they needed a new set of permits, and the permit process dragged on through the fall of 2013. 

By December they decided to go ahead with the renovation, which they already had permits for.  They tore the insides out, down to the exterior walls; their contractor looped chains around the top beam in the north wall of the frame, and workers on the ground in the lot just south of the building pulled the whole thing straight with come-alongs.  They nailed in some reinforcing carpentry and let it stand for a month to make sure it stayed straight, then they built the interior framing that will help hold it in place over time.

Meanwhile, one of the most brutal winters in memory blasted the structure with freezes and thaws and eventually caused the foundation, exposed when they took out the floors, to crack. At this point, other investors might have turned, snarling, on each other and sued their contractor; Bobby and Kevin made parallels to the metaphorical significance of building a life on a strong foundation, and their contractor, whom they’ve known for years, proposed to split the cost of the repair.


When it’s all finished, the building will have a pretty new masonry façade facing Halsted Street.  Bobby will move out into one of the apartment on the second floor, and Mike Botica, another friend from the neighborhood, whom they’ve known for years, will rent the basement to make sopressata, a dry cured Italian sausage.

Mike makes sopressata using old family recipes he learned from his wife’s Grandma Theresa.  He says they used to hang their sausage in a spare bedroom, leaving the windows open so it could cure in the cold.  He first started helping out when he and his wife were still dating.  When Grandma Theresa saw he had an interest, she sat him down and taught him her recipe, and handed over her grinder and her press, which he still uses – they’re each over 100 years old.

Right now, Mike makes his sopressata for friends and family as a hobby, but it’s “a hobby on steroids” --- last year he made 1,200 pounds of it in a 3 day operation that brought up to 30 people to his house at a time.  Setting up all the tables and equipment is a project in itself: moving it all out from his garage into the basement at South Halsted will allow him to make the set up permanent, and also to install a walk in cooler and de-humidifier.

Eventually he would like to get all his licensing lined up and open a business – he says he’d try selling it mail order first, and if that goes well, he’d like to open a deli on the first floor of Bobby and Kevin’s building.  It would require changing the zoning back to commercial, but he’s already discussed it with Alderman Balcer, and the Alderman was enthusiastic about the idea.  They both remember a time when South Halsted had more storefronts on it – including Granata’s, next door to the Ramova Theater, which Mike describes as something like Conte di Savoia on Taylor Street, not as large, but very successful.

All that would be several years away, come July, the 1st floor space will be ready for other uses.  Mike says Kevin and Bobby have chosen an ideal location – with the new homes being built out from Donovan Park on the west, and some of the most stable blocks in Bridgeport to the east.  The Halsted renaissance might seem slower to advance than its residential one, individual investments might take time to mature, but the foundations are good.




Monday, March 10, 2014

On the Industrial Frontier




Ten years ago the little strip of 37th Street between Morgan and Racine was not broad and smooth and wide open like it is today.

There were more buildings on it -- the Joslyn plant sprawled the whole length of a city block -- and the street itself was narrower.  Its rolling pavement was a ruin of asphalt patches, all broken into potholes and crumbling to gravel, with stretches of the old paving stones showing underneath.  A set of rail tracks ran across it -- they were operational just up to the verge of the street, but the railcars that used it all stopped before crossing.  And somewhere underneath all that ran a very old water main -- it was broken, and it was also legally inaccessible, so it was going to stay broken for awhile.

But my friend John didn’t know that when he bought the three story warehouse at the middle of the street.  He saw industrial heritage and the opportunity to build something new.

  


I’ve told this story before.  At least the practical version, about the progress of a real estate project. About how John bought it, in 2002, with documents in hand from the city, promising to repair that water main, and from the railroad, detailing their plans for re-activating the track where it crossed the street and ran alongside the loading docks at the back of his building.  The rail siding was a feature central to the interest of the drywall distributor who was going to lease the whole first floor, and pay the rents that would help finance John’s plans to subdivide the other stories into small spaces for metal fabricators, makers and artists.

And how, after he bought it, the railroad’s lawyers squashed the idea of a grade level street crossing – too much liability risk (even though the same tracks run through the middle Racine a few blocks away).  And how the city’s plans to repair the water main were stalled by the significant detail that the city didn’t own the street.  The street was still owned by the company that originally developed the Central Manufacturing District, now a huge multinational, whose lawyers had other things to do than manage the sale of a scrap of street in Bridgeport – an inconvenient bit of industrial heritage.  It would take 3 years before they’d complete the sale and another year for the city to repair the main.

And how John still ploughed forward anyway, doing renovations himself like a really ambitious home improvement project, and attracting tenants, even before there was water, and about the cast of characters who passed through that place, from the outlaws who prowled it before he bought it, to the cast of bikers, missionaries, machinists and other curious parties, including myself, who were drawn in by John’s evolving vision for rebuilding something exciting from waste stream recycled materials, and by his skill for telling a really good story.

For a long time it wasn’t clear if he’d be successful.  He has been.  Though it took him 6 years to finish it, and start looking for the next project, which he found in the Stockyards.  He’s pursuing that one gradually too – time allows synergies to develop.
















When I first tried to write about John and his building I had a hard time making a coherent story out of it, because by then I’d already spent 3 years down there, shoveling rocks and hauling debris into dumpsters, and listening to John and all the guys who came through to see what kind of progress he was making.  At night I’d pedal north, exhausted and filthy and weirdly satisfied, and the next morning I’d write down everything I could remember because every detail seemed really important.

Partly I liked it just because in my regular life, I worked at a desk and didn’t have a lot of opportunities to operate simple things like pallet jacks – I thought it was absolutely astounding that even a relatively small person could maneuver loads of material, even machine tools weighing thousands of pounds, across floors and around corners with a simple hand operated device.

But I thought it was a story about everything: the ups and downs of industry, the twists and turns of human ambition, man’s strange relationships with the stuff he manages to accumulate in this world.  There was one scene in particular that stands out in my memory -- it reminds me how the building was an opening, or a lens that made things visible that I couldn’t usually see.  It was a Sunday afternoon spent in the basement, it was cold, like it is now, and beautiful.




When John first bought the building, that basement was like a dungeon.  The windows were covered with plywood, its corners and concrete columns were clotted with cobwebs, the floor was covered with sediment that had been left after he’d pumped an inch of standing water off the floor.

Water would continue to seep back in from a phantom building next door.  When the other building was standing, it had shared drain pipes with the Lowe warehouse; after it was gone, water still entered its old pipes and backed up a drain at the bottom of the elevator shaft in John’s building. Eventually, he’d rent office space to the engineering firm that rebuilt the drainage system for the whole district.  In those early years, though, he was pumping the seepage through a hose that carried it up to a set of plastic drums on the first floor where he’d use it to operate a flush toilet.

Meanwhile, water had seeped into the tank of fluid that ran the hydraulic elevator, turning the oil into a greyish foam that spread through the lines and into the piston that raises and lowers the elevator cage.

On this particular afternoon, John was down there in the elevator pit – where everything was covered with a thick coat of slime that stank of mold and motor oil.  He had clamped a floodlight on the elevator door, which opened horizontally like 2 iron jaws, and the muck at the bottom glistened in the light.  He wasn’t intimidated by the fact he’d never fixed an elevator before – he’d basically do it by taking it apart to see what was inside, and he’d do most of it with nothing but a pipe wrench and a big allen key.

The plywood had been pried off the basement windows, and the sun was streaming in overhead.  I was sweeping sediment off the floor.  It filled the air in a sunlit haze, and the otherworldly chords of a Romanian women’s choir filtered through the space.  Every now and then, John’s voice would rise from out of the pit, exclaiming after he’d opened a line and found it was still in excellent condition inside.

And while we were down there, Santa stopped by.  Santa had been proprietor of Scooter World, a business selling used motor cycle parts that had once occupied at least 2 floors of the building, though he’d lost control of his inventory before John arrived on the scene.  He still came around to see what kind of progress John was making.  He knew a lot about the building – what had broken and how they’d fixed it before.  And if John had some scrap he wanted to get rid of, Santa would take it off his hands.

This afternoon, he fell to chatting about how he’d started Scooter World back in the 1960s, when motor scooters were very popular.  He’d started it as a repair shop, and neighborhood kids would hang around the shop and learn how to fix stuff by watching Santa do it.  He says scooters came out in a new model every year, and you could harvest parts from old bikes people would abandon in the alley when they got new ones.

As his inventory grew, he moved from one space to the next, before arriving at the old Lowe warehouse on 37th Street, where he spread over several floors.  Now Santa looked back with nostalgia on the glory of his inventory, which had whole departments dedicated to seats, or gas tanks or carburetors.  Gesturing around, he described how the basement was filled with wheels from every kind of vehicle, from lawn-mowers to bikes.

Then the guy who owned the building died, and left it to his daughter, and his daughter let her boyfriend Cowboy move in.  Cowboy engaged in a lot of destructive pastimes before he finally went to prison.  Santa said it was for beating an old man to death for the money in his pocket, which turned out to be $37 and change.

But his real complaints about Cowboy came after Santa fell behind in his rent, and Cowboy started selling off his stuff. Because Cowboy didn’t know what anything was worth, or he didn’t care.  He’d sell parts worth hundreds of dollars for a fraction of their value in quick cash.  He’d squandered Santa’s glorious collection, accumulated over decades, it still rankled with Santa now.




After they were both gone, other guys, friends of John’s, would come through that warehouse with new collections.  Their skill sets reflected the era of industry where they’d pursued their careers; it was their collections that reflected what they’d been able to make of it all.  They weren’t accumulations of wealth, in fact they often turned out to be cumbersome objects hung round their owner’s necks, but they were fascinating to look at, to sort through, they seemed to be testament to something – to their owner’s ability to see possibility, though not necessarily their ability to grasp it.

So Santa and Cowboy both came through in the frontier days, the long interim between when the Central Manufacturing District was first built, at the cutting edge of modern industry, and when John arrived a century later to rebuild it for a new industry revival.  In that interim, Cowboy saw a vacuum for a chaotic career on the semi-legal fringe; Santa saw opportunity dealing in other people’s junk, sifting out gradations of value that could only be realized if you were willing to learn what it was all worth to the right buyer.

John’s friend Richard was a machinist.  His employer kept luring him back from retirement because his skill set can’t be hired anymore.  His collections included heaps of stuff you could buy at hardware stores, but also elegant wooden chests filled with antique instruments, sets of drill bits and dies that had been hand tooled, and a growing collection of machine tools he was buying up at fire sales and hauling to John’s building as more and more businesses shut down – some of them still had appendages from when they were hooked up to steam engines.

His friend Matt’s favorite job had been working for a company that made elaborate props – fiberglass trees that were really waitress stations, things like that.  He wanted John to fill the warehouse with craftsmen who could build objects in any material – wood, glass, metal, fiberglass – and he got him started, referring some of his earliest tenants.  Matt’s collections were accordingly eclectic: boxes of glass lenses the size of saucers, a long tray of beads and semi-precious stones, antique furniture he might someday repair and dozens of wood-framed windows he planned to someday build into a greenhouse.  His friendship with John nearly sank under that collection, he underestimated how much time we spent hauling it back and forth across the floors to get at windows John was replacing, or to core holes where he’d run new plumbing stacks through the floors.

John’s era was in high-tech end of industry.  He built virtual sets for industry trade videos using motion tracking technology originally developed for making smart bombs – it’s probably archaic now, it was a little tenuous back then.  You could build any fabulous set you could imagine, but if the tracking mechanisms lost their place the human talent could appear to go skidding across the virtual carpet, or the whole set would shiver behind their backs.  The industry turned out to be tenuous too – the company John worked for spent millions on bleeding-edge technology they were betting would become standard for the industry, and when it did, the price came down and they found themselves competing with guys working out of their basements.  Eventually, the founder would sell his business to a big media company.

But by then John’s building was up and running with water and utilities, and he’d sorted through a whole range of new age, low tech possibilities – the drywall distributor lost interest when the rail siding fell through, but then the Italian cookie company and the green architects considered moving in, and even though they never did, one by one the glass finisher, the metal workers and the artists started renting.  When the building was fully occupied, he moved on to the next one, which he bought a few blocks away.

That afternoon in the cold, in the basement, when John was banging around the elevator shaft, and the women’s voices filtered through the sun-lit haze, while Santa told wild stories of the frontier days, the whole place hummed with possibility.  It was more vivid because it was built from stuff that was workable with simple tools and human sweat, and because it resonated with the efforts and imaginings of all the guys who’d passed through there before, whether they’d been successful for a time or not.



Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Modern Jazz and New Vision for the Public Library



Frank Chapman has had a long career as a jazz pianist, playing in the be-bop style of Charlie Parker.  He shakes off the suggestion that jazz is for sophisticates, he says be-bop came out of dance halls.  In fact, he learned to play it in jail, where he found himself as a 19 year old, surrounded by older musicians from Saint Louis and Kansas City.  They’d all been locked up for drug charges, not violent crimes; they passed the time playing modern jazz.

For 30 years after that, Chapman played in New York, the nation’s jazz capital, but he has lived in Bridgeport since 2011, and one day soon, he will perform a show at the Richard J. Daley branch of the Chicago Public Library (3400 S. Halsted).  The date has not been nailed down yet, but it will be the next in a series of music shows for adults that Branch Manager Jeremy Kitchen launched last fall.  It grew out of an experiment in programming at the Chicago libraries.

The explosion of the internet has inspired some creative soul searching among librarians in general.  A public repository of books seems less necessary to supporting a literate public, now that the internet gives easy access to oceans of information.  Libraries have found new roles, like providing digital access, and promoting informational literacy – a step beyond the ability to read, informational literacy includes the ability to find what you want from out of the superabundance, to evaluate and use it.  And the physical library is still a great asset.

Recently, researchers at Heidelberg University ranked 31 world class library systems, from Stockholm to Sao Paulo to Singapore, based on features that contribute to the vitality of the Informational City.  The ranking gave equal weight to features of the digital library (like e-documents and digital reference services) and the physical library (particularly its architectural presence, and its spaces for learning, meeting, play and work -- the book collections weren’t one of the factors on the list).

After all, the Information Age has not been built on media alone.  It is said that the advent of the printing press and the wide circulation of new media helped give rise to a new kind of public sphere.  People began to understand themselves to be part of a common conversation -- they might be geographically dispersed and socially stratified, but they were also participants in the ebb and flow of public opinion.  Books, pamphlets and newspapers made that common conversation possible.  But so did the coffeehouses and clubs where they were debated and discussed.




When the Heidelberg researchers ranked world library systems, the Chicago libraries came out first among the cities in the United States, and third in the world, after Vancouver’s and Montreal’s.  Chicago scored slightly better as a physical library than it did on the digital scale.  That’s testament to decades of capital investment.  Mayor Daley’s Library Commissioner, Mary Dempsey, enjoyed overseeing the construction or renovation of 44 libraries in the 75 branch system.

Then Mayor Emanuel came in on a promise to be tough about the budget, and he seemed to see the library as an easy target for cuts.  He first proposed to make half his staffing cuts from library personnel, even though library operations represented just 3% of the city budget.  Commissioner Dempsey resigned.  Emanuel picked an IT executive from the San Francisco library system to replace her.

But Commissioner Brian Bannon has shown no interest in replacing Chicago’s physical libraries with a cheaper collection of e-books. Several of his technology projects make spaces for new patrons, like the YOUMedia Center for teens, and the MakerLab, a temporary skunkworks project that won a Chicago Innovation Award last year.

In fact, Bannon has outsourced a big piece of the library’s IT work, signing a 3 year contract with BiblioCommons to maintain a state of the art digital catalog system.  He told Library Journal that the contract wouldn’t just provide a better catalog, it would cut the need for in house technical expertise so librarians could spend more time curating the collections and engaging the community.

In June, the CPL Foundation won a million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to try a more innovative way to develop library programs, in partnership with a firm called IDEO, and the Aarhus Library system in Denmark.  Aarhus is a city a tenth the size of Chicago, but it’s known worldwide in library circles for its progressive programs.  IDEO is a high profile innovation consultancy known for its “design thinking” approach.

Design thinking explores what people want, and how they actually use things, and proceeds by trial and error: you don’t spend months analyzing a problem and drafting an ideal solution, you start by brainstorming a bunch of ideas, trying them out, discarding the ones that don’t work without wasting too much time on them, and building on the ones that do.




Jeremy Kitchen has been particularly active with the library’s experimental programs.  He served as children’s librarian at the Richard J. Daley Branch in Bridgeport for 7 years; he was promoted to Branch Manager shortly before Commissioner Bannon was hired in early 2012.  Last summer, Kitchen was part of a team who traveled to a library conference in Aarhus, and got a glimpse of the Danish model firsthand.  Some of Aarhus’ innovations deploy digital technology in new ways.  But Kitchen says what struck him most was the role the libraries played as community space.

The Danes stood back to reassess the purpose of their libraries too, back in 2010, which was also a time of budget cutbacks.  They determined they wanted their libraries to cultivate a society of innovation to further Denmark’s globalization goals.  Libraries would be places of learning, but also places of creative inspiration, fueled by participation in arts and performance, and just by putting patrons into contact with other people who might have different tastes and opinions than their own.

Under the Gates Foundation grant, the Chicago libraries tried 3 prototype projects with broadly similar aims.  Kitchen organized one of them at the Daley Branch in collaboration with the Valentine Boys and Girls Club: it was a sort of creative projects fair for teens.  The library auditorium was set up with stations where the kids could try different activities.  Some involved technology – like a station with musical instruments and music apps that are available free on the internet.  Kitchen says the most popular stations were analog – like the electric typewriter with a long scroll of paper in it, where people could add a sentence or two on an Exquisite Corpse style narrative.

Since then, Kitchen and the team have continued to take the design thinking model on the road, trying out projects at branch libraries in other neighborhoods.  In one of them, a group of teenage boys took selfies.  That was at Legler Library in West Garfield Park - one of the city’s grandest regional libraries at the center of one of its most dangerous neighborhoods.  The teens were all tattooed.  So is Kitchen -- his forearms are covered with colorful kid-friendly designs from his days as a children’s librarian, including a gentle looking giraffe, and a unicorn with a balloon.  They ended up trading stories and documenting their tattoos.




Though “documenting” suggests a structured purpose, Kitchen emphasizes the project was deliberately unstructured because the point is not to recreate an instructional environment like school.  The point is to engage the kids in a project they want to do, to encourage them to see the library as a resource they want to use, even as a safe place to hang out.

Kitchen, who was once a social worker, says the young men who came in for the project don’t have a safe place to hang out – they’re immersed in an environment where one bad decision, their own or someone else’s, could change their lives at any time.  His description of the way their surroundings limit their lives hints at the value the library could have if it could open a sense of access to a broader sphere.

Media alone doesn’t do that – the kids already have access to media.  Last summer Wired magazine published a feature about how social media helps inflame gang violence in Chicago neighborhoods, it can just tie people in to a vicious feedback loop.  We all need some sense of a larger world, a sphere of possibility that extends beyond the place we’re standing at any given moment.  The Danish model of the physical library as an inspirational space seems to aim for something like that.

Back at the Daley Branch, Kitchen says the idea to open the auditorium as a neighborhood performance space was directly inspired by his visit to Aarhus.  The music shows aren’t curated performances that the public ought to hear; they are an opportunity for a creative neighborhood exchange.  The first show, in October was by Fast Decay, a punk band from Back of the Yards.  Kitchen says 50-60 people attended, including small children and senior adults – many of whom would probably never hear punk rock in its usual habitats.

Next, you’ll have the opportunity to hear Frank Chapman perform modern jazz.  It sounds like a promising show, whether you’re already a jazz fan, or just open to hearing something new.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Making the Neighborhood Safe to Cure Meat





In the coming weeks, the garages and cold basements of Bridgeport will be hung with sopressata.  Hundreds, even thousands of pounds of it will dry cure in cold air in an age old preservation technique.  And as it cures, John Schultz will re-calculate the future of Mr. Spanky’s, his restaurant at Shields and 31st Street, where he’s been selling dry cured bacon from locally raised hogs for just over a year.

A few months ago, the bacon business was so good Schultz was looking for ways to expand production and sell through other outlets, but he was challenged by a regulatory environment geared for the mass production of big food.   Now he’s shuttered the restaurant for the season, and is just running his catering business, which delivers fresh salads under the name Foodism Chicago.

If you miss Mr Spanky’s well cured pork, you can taste it again downtown, where he’ll be selling pork buns, bacon and breakfast sausage at The Nosh, a roving Chicago food market designed to promote small batch, artisanal food.  The Nosh will be held at Block 37 every Thursday and Friday in February and March.

Schultz knows his career is in wholesome local foods, but he is still exploring the best way to make it a business that supports a sustainable life.  He grew up in a restaurant family in Joliet, and he crossed the country as chef for the Ringling Brother’s Circus.  He first opened his catering company at 335 West 31st Street 9 years ago.

About 5 years ago, he started making bacon from his house.  He could accommodate up to 100 pounds of meat a week there, which dried down to 50 pounds of finished bacon.  At first he was selling it at farmer’s markets on Saturdays and Sundays, but before long he was selling all 50 pounds at one market.  It was either scale back to fewer markets, or scale up with more meat.

Through connections of a former employer, he gained access to the banquet kitchen of the Irish American Cultural Center, where he was working with 400 – 500 pounds of meat a week.  He says he could take in 1,000 pounds a week in the space he has at Mr. Spanky’s, if he took out a wall and had a bigger cooler.  But space and a willing customer base aren’t the only considerations.

Spanky’s has been making bacon as a restaurant, which allows Schultz to sell food he makes directly to the end consumer.  In order to sell it through someone else, through another restaurant or a grocery store for instance, he would have to be licensed as a processor by the Illinois Department of Agriculture.  The State says it tries to be flexible, it looks for end results, like the washability of surfaces, the smooth flow of product, water, and air through the facility, but Schultz says that would still translate into rules about the size of his drains and the material on his floors, and he’d have to develop a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan – a test-validated manual of sanitary practice specific to his facility that can cost $10s of thousands to create.

Schultz looked at hiring someone else who had already obtained licensing to process his meat.  He says there are 3 or 4 processors in Illinois who share his interest in sustainable food and do the kind of dry curing he’d like them to do, but they are at capacity making their own product.  In the end he found a family owned enterprise that has been curing bacon with traditional techniques for generations, and will use his recipes to prepare his product – but he had to go to Kentucky to find them.

He still gets his pork from a small Illinois farm.  He has developed a relationship with his farmer, so he can buy just the parts he wants.  He says it took him 5 years to get there, for the first 4 years he had to buy the whole hog, or a whole side of a hog.  He’d make bacon from the bellies, and make a lot of sausage from the rest.  He suspects that effectively caps the market for local, sustainably raised meat into the future - most people don’t have the freezer capacity to buy a whole animal at a time, they need a middle man to cut up the carcass and distribute the parts.





Schultz’s experience pretty much sums up what people mean when they talk about building an infrastructure, not just a market, for sustainable local food.  In Chicago, that agenda will be advanced a little further at the Good Food Festival and Conference, which will convene at the UIC Forum March 13th- 16th.  Now in its 10th year, the Conference aims to build the unromantic but necessary structures to support growing demand for sustainably produced local foods: making connections between investors and small food business, building wholesale distribution chains to bring local food to market, and advocating revisions to a regulatory structure built to supervise mass production, so that it can monitor small producers effectively, without squashing them.

A couple years ago, participants on a panel of farmers and marketing companies that sell locally raised meat all seemed to agree that the biggest brake on the growth of the market for their product was a bottleneck in the processing and distribution parts of the chain.  Those middle segments have been emerging.  In Chicago, a handful of small butcher shops have been joined by Red Meat Market, an online hub where meat buyers and end consumers can source local, sustainable meat.

On-line and off-line forums buzz about how web based marketing can be supplemented by a network of meat hubs that would aggregate product, and facilitate its travel between producers, processors, distributors and buyers in real space.  For that network is to continue to grow, regulators will have to allow it.  There is some disagreement about what, if any, special considerations that would require.

For instance, people have been curing meat with salt and dry air for hundreds, even thousands of years.  Residents of Bridgeport seem to consume great quantities of home cured sausage without getting sick.  But that doesn’t mean salt curing can’t go wrong.  Salt slows the growth of bacteria by taking water out of the meat.  But some pathogens are salt tolerant, and salt levels in the product must be sufficient to stop bacteria growth.

Few would argue they don’t want the food they buy from someone else to be monitored at all.  According to Food Safety News, makers of cured meats should monitor pH levels, water activity, and the potential for cross contamination between foods in a kitchen.  But do they need a fully validated HACCP plan?  When Madison, Wisconsin based Underground Meats launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to create a HACCP plan for making dry cured salami, they estimated it would cost $40,000.




Underground Meats developed their first HACCP plan with help from food scientists at Madison based Oscar Mayer.  They launched their Kickstarter campaign in September to develop an open sourced plan that could serve as a template for other small salami makers.  HACCP plans must be specific to each operation, they can’t be borrowed wholesale, even by makers of the same product.

But as Underground Meats told Food Tech Connect -- big producers regularly share their HACCP information, it’s the smaller ones that keep their plans proprietary because of the disproportionate expense. Underground Meats hopes its open source plan will level the playing field for small operations, and build community among producers and farms.

As that community grows, leveling the playing field may mean more hybrid enterprise, combining the functions of a restaurant and processor like Mr. Spanky’s has hoped to do, for instance.  It might also pave the way for some of Bridgeport’s sopressata to make its way out from the garage.