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Emerging Power Players

Who’s Got Next?

Keep your eye on these bold, innovative Chicagoans. From politics and activism to art and architecture, they’re poised to make big changes in their fields—and beyond.



Photo: Lucy Hewett

THE GRIDIRON PHENOM

Jordan Howard

Running back, Chicago Bears

There were 1,313 reasons to pay attention to the Bears last season. That’s the number of rushing yards rookie Jordan Howard had, second most in the league. And—check the tape if you want—most of those runs were accompanied by a geeked-out play-by-play announcer exclaiming something along the lines of “And Howard bulls forward!”

The way Howard describes how he racks up yards, he makes it sound like something you or I could do: “When your momentum is going, the defense is doing a lot, but they really can’t stop you.” Emerging power, indeed.

Like any true sports hero in this city, the Alabama-raised Howard, 22, had to fight to get here. He played his third and final year of college football at Indiana (Big Ten, sure, but not exactly a powerhouse). And that was only after his first school, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, completely shut down its team. On draft day, Howard watched his name slip to the fifth round before the lowly Matt Forte–less Bears deemed him good enough for third on their running back depth chart.

Howard didn’t know too much about Chicago before he got here. “I thought we were going to be in the city,” he says, alluding to the place he spends most of his time, the Bears’ practice facility in Lake Forest. But Chicago seems just right for him. For starters, it’s home to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, an organization he works with to honor his father, who died of the disease when Howard was 12. And then there’s the fact that we desperately need Howard—if we want Sundays in the fall to be any fun.

Looking back at the three games before he earned the starting running back role last year (a year in which he wound up being selected for the Pro Bowl), Howard says, “I feel like if I would’ve been playing a little bit earlier on in the season, I might have made a bigger impact in some of those games.” He’ll get his chance in 2017. —Mark Bazer

Photo: Lucy Hewett

THE GOING-OUT GURUS

Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner

Founders, Heisler Hospitality

Things just seem to fall into place for Matt Eisler (left) and Kevin Heisner. They met by chance 10 years ago, when Eisler, then a budding bar entrepreneur, was looking for a contractor and Heisner, who happened to be a builder and designer, was looking for work. It’s been serendipity ever since.

After that fateful meeting, every project undertaken by Heisler Hospitality—the group’s moniker is a portmanteau of its founders’ names—has been a hit. Bar DeVille, Queen Mary Tavern, and Estereo, to name just three, have succeeded because hospitality savant Eisler, 41, pounces on properties in buzzy areas and gives them distinct themes, like he did for the British-Indian beer hall Pub Royale or the upscale hunting lodge Sportsman’s Club. Heisner, 47, then handles the aesthetics, making sure the spaces look cool—at Estereo, the bathroom is covered in disco ball tiles—yet not kitschy.

Now the two are upping their culinary game. Bon Appétit named Pub Royale one of its 50 best new restaurants in 2016. Their new quasi-vegetarian West Loop spot Bad Hunter has won plaudits both in our pages and in the national press. And late last year, in a serious coup, the pair lured Michelin-starred chef Jared Wentworth away from his perch at Longman & Eagle to helm their Wicker Park restaurant Trench.

Next up, they’ll be taking over the former Smack Shack space in Google’s West Loop building and installing a cocktail bar with yet another high-profile new recruit, the legendary New York bartender Jim Meehan. Meehan and Eisler got to talking a while back, and it turns out Meehan’s from Chicago and had been looking for a way to return. See? Serendipity. —Carrie Schedler

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Photo: Taylor Castle

THE TV MOGUL

Teri Arvesu

Vice president of content, Univision Chicago

When Teri Arvesu was in sixth grade in Miami, her mother wrangled a visit to a taping of local TV anchor (and future Chicago newscaster) Marianne Murciano’s morning show. Sitting in the control room, surrounded by monitors and the rapid-fire directions of headset-wearing producers, Arvesu felt her heart racing. “There is nothing like the adrenaline rush of the control room,” says Arvesu, now 39. “I thought, This is what I want to do.”

Arvesu wasted no time. By 16, she was working as an intern at the Miami studio of the Spanish-language network Telemundo. In 2003 she switched to Univision, Telemundo’s main competitor, eventually moving to the network’s Chicago affiliate. By 2013, with multiple regional Emmys under her belt for news reporting, she had worked her way up to news director. In March, she and her news team won a prestigious Studs Terkel Award, and during Arvesu’s tenure, Univision’s 5 p.m. newscast was the most watched in Chicago among 18- to 49-year-olds—in any language. During this year’s February sweeps, nearly a third of the total share in that age group tuned in.

Early this year, Arvesu was promoted to vice president of content for Univision Chicago, an intensely demanding new position that oversees both the affiliate’s news operations and its creative services department, which handles branding and advertising. Arvesu has essentially been given a mandate to shape the future of one of the most influential media outlets in the country.

These days, Arvesu spends more time in meetings than on the set, but she likes to sneak into the control room whenever there’s breaking news. “It’s still my favorite place to be.” —Nissa Rhee

Photo: Lucy Hewett

THE MASTERS OF LIGHT AND SPACE

Range Design

Architectural firm (Principals, from left: Patrick Johnson, Mason Pritchett, and Casimir Kujawa)

Small-scale commercial architecture too often feels cheap or cold, or it strives for ersatz hominess with barn wood and antiqued mirrors. Range Design & Architecture offers an antidote to all that. The striking interiors conceived by this bustling 10-year-old firm are clean yet full of warmth—and entirely free of pretense. Take the Promontory, the restaurant and music venue that opened in Hyde Park in 2014. The two-story space is flooded with natural light, which gets softened by ranks of wooden planters and ceiling-suspended wooden sculptures by the Chicago artist Angel Chavez. The room soars with verticality, and the boundary between interior and exterior is all but erased, yet the Promontory still feels intimate.

What Range Design does better than arguably any other firm in Chicago is make spaces for makers: an airy and inviting taproom for Logan Square’s Hopewell Brewing Co., for example, or the soon-to-be-completed ArtHouse in Gary, Indiana—the latest project by Theaster Gates, with whom Range Design created a groundbreaking installation for the 2010 Whitney Biennial. Currently, the architects are working on redoing the Skyline Showroom in the Merchandise Mart, collaborating with high-profile artists and designers to create an expanded space for customized consumer design. They’re also launching a new line of furniture: utilitarian, replicable, and—like everything the firm creates—utterly beautiful. —Anjulie Rao

Eve Ewing and Ike Holter Photo: Taylor Castle

THE POLYMATH

Eve Ewing

Sociologist, essayist, artist, and poet

Ignore Eve Ewing at your own intellectual, political, and cultural peril. The 31-year-old education scholar, scribe, and artist has got a lot to say, and people—including her 50,000 Twitter followers—are listening. In the past two years alone, the Logan Square native has coedited a fiction anthology, contributed to a collection of breakbeat poetry, served on the board of a major youth organization, and written features and opinion pieces for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Times.

By the end of next year, the Harvard alum and former schoolteacher will have released a collection of her own poetry and prose, seen the production of a play she wrote with poet Nate Marshall, assumed an assistant professorship at the University of Chicago, and released her much-anticipated book When the Bell Stops Ringing: Race, History and Discourse amid Chicago’s School Closures (University of Chicago Press), which promises to propel her directly to the center of the heated debate over the fate of public education in America.

“I want teachers and policymakers and students to have something to hold in their hand when they’re fighting this fight,” she says of the book. “I think my role is to be an amplifier, to be a bullhorn, to be a storyteller.” Ewing is all those things and more. —Hannah Nyhart

THE TRUTH SPEAKER

Ike Holter

Playwright

“I’m a Chicago fucking teacher, nothing shocks me, you stupid prick. Nothing shocks me.” These blistering lines, from Ike Holter’s 2014 play Exit Strategy, are fired off by a battle-hardened teacher on being informed that the city is shutting down her public school. They exemplify Holter’s unparalleled ability to capture Chicago’s urban poetry while tackling its most contentious issues: school closures, gun violence (Prowess), police brutality (The Wolf at the End of the Block). “A lot of people hear my dialogue and say, ‘Oh, that’s so crazy, so poetic,’ but that is how people talk,” says Holter. “People talk in verse without realizing it.”

By tapping into that, the 32-year-old recipient of a $165,000 Windham-Campbell prize from Yale University has become one of the city’s hottest playwrights. “He’s political but also super theatrical and funny,” says Tanya Palmer, the Goodman Theatre’s director of new play development. “He’s reflecting Chicago as it is now in all its complexity and disparity, but he’s also crafting a world filled with hope.” —Novid Parsi

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Photo: Lucy Hewett

THE CONTENDER

Bridget Gainer

Cook County commissioner, 10th District

At a glance, Bridget Gainer looks like an old-school Chicago politician straight out of central casting: Irish, red-haired, green-eyed, Catholic-school-educated on the South Side. But with a résumé packed with activism dating back to her youth—including grassroots work with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in the 1990s and a mentorship under educator Geoffrey Canada, of Waiting for “Superman” fame—Gainer, 48, may just be the new face of political leadership in this city.

The Cook County commissioner for the North Side’s 10th District says she’s “thought about” a bid for mayor in 2019, though she’s coy when asked if she’d run against Rahm Emanuel, whom she supported in 2011, or Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, with whom she championed a sick-leave law. A lot of people are hoping she will.

Gainer’s ambition is undeniable, but it’s ambition backed by accomplishments. Her position on the county board—which she readily admits is the “least sexy” unit of local government—has offered her an “enormous ability to get stuff done,” she says: “You’re talking to people all the time. You see and touch issues and you don’t get to avoid the hard things, but you also get to see the good stuff. It’s like being a community organizer, but more people return my calls.”

Foremost among those accomplishments: the creation of the Cook County Land Bank, a four-year-old program that acquires vacant properties in distressed neighborhoods and resells them to developers for rehabilitation and reuse. So far, Gainer says, more than 400 homes have been rehabbed by some 135 small developers, most of them black or Hispanic.

Gainer plans to run for the county board again in 2018. That would still give her time to enter the mayoral race. For now, she’s trying to embrace an aspect of the political arts she hasn’t spent much time focusing on: self-promotion. “We spend a lot of time doing things,” she says, “and now we’ve got to spend more time talking about everything we’ve done.” —Carol Felsenthal

Photo: Lucy Hewett

THE STAR MAKER

Marisa Ross

Casting director, Chicago Justice and Chicago Med

Thanks to Marisa Ross, many of Chicago’s most promising actors can stay put instead of heading to Hollywood. Ross, the casting director for NBC’s Chicago Justice and Chicago Med—as well as Fox’s The Exorcist and APB and Showtime’s forthcoming The Chi—has connected dozens of local actors with primetime roles. In the three years since she migrated from Los Angeles—where she was the casting director for the long-running CBS series How I Met Your Mother—Ross, 41, has become Chicago actors’ greatest champion, using her West Coast connections to nurture a host of rising stars.

A few years ago, she cofounded the SCOUT Chicago Festival, designed to introduce emerging Chicago talent to Hollywood agents and producers. Teri Dean, a senior vice president of casting at NBC, credits Ross and SCOUT Chicago with putting numerous local actors on her radar. “Marisa is a uniquely kind human being,” says Dean. “If she believes in somebody, she’ll do everything she can to make sure they’re seen in the best possible light.” Adds Marisa Paonessa, an agent who represents more than 350 Chicago-area actors: “We are extremely lucky to have her here. In my 12 years as an agent, there has never been this much work.”

Ross intends to keep it that way. “Chicago is a great city. You should be able to live here and do what you love.” —Brian Golden

Photo: Taylor Castle

THE STREET-STYLE PROPHET

Joe FreshGoods

Clothing designer

Joseph Robinson, better known as Joe FreshGoods, gained national fame earlier this year when longtime supporter Chance the Rapper volunteered to model the 30-year-old designer’s Thank You Obama collection: a line of tees that pay tribute to the former first family. And yet, even with a recently announced NikeLab collaboration and a growing base of influential fans—Anna Wintour among them—FreshGoods remains an unapologetic defender of Chicagoans’ reputation as practical dressers. “Chicago is more blue collar,” he says. “It’s not flashy. It’s not like a Harlem dude or a downtown L.A. cat. I think people either get it or they don’t.”

Unlike his contemporaries in the booming streetwear scene, where jeans and T-shirts now command couture-level prices, FreshGoods keeps his tees, hoodies, and jerseys affordable. (His Obama items go for between $35 and $150 at thankuobama.us.) The clothes sell out fast, thanks to his ability to channel touchstones of the political and cultural zeitgeist (Donald Trump’s disastrous Chicago rally, Prince’s death, Kanye West’s ill-fated Saint Pablo tour) into meme-worthy designs (like his bestselling “Fuck Donald” tee) while those story lines are still burning up social media. “I really feel like I’m the CNN of clothing in America,” he says. —Miles Raymer

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Photo: Taylor Castle

THE TOP TOQUE

Noah Sandoval

Chef, Oriole

Lots of places aspire to be the next Grace or Alinea. Because of Noah Sandoval, Oriole actually is. In a little more than a year, the 36-year-old chef has turned this West Loop hideaway into the most acclaimed new restaurant in the city. Sandoval’s remarkable cooking emerged so fully realized that multiple local critics, including Chicago’s own, gave Oriole four stars right off the bat—practically unheard of for a spot so new. Michelin awarded it two stars. And Food & Wine recently honored Sandoval as one of the country’s best new chefs. All this for a guy who’s just starting to hit his stride.

Sandoval first attracted attention at the gluten-free restaurant Senza, and even with one hand tied behind his back, he managed to produce dishes exquisite enough to earn it a Michelin star. At Oriole, with both hands free (you can watch them at work through windows in the dining room), Sandoval has created a cuisine that’s technically dazzling but also warm and unpretentious. “I want everyone to be able to understand my food,” he says. “I want people to trust me.”

Sandoval may well be the city’s next three-Michelin-starred chef. Book a table now before the star chasers start flying in. —Carrie Schedler

Photo: Lucy Hewett

THE UNBUREAUCRAT

Anna Valencia

Clerk, City of Chicago

Anna Valencia wants the city clerk’s office to be more than just “city stickers and operations.” Rahm’s 32-year-old new appointee and former campaign staffer has a loftier vision: “I really see it as a welcoming center and that link between the communities and government.”

She didn’t have to wait long for a chance to put words into action: This spring, when the mayor introduced an ordinance to provide municipal IDs to undocumented immigrants, the formerly incarcerated, and the homeless, he tasked Valencia with implementing it. The country’s new political climate has only deepened Valencia’s resolve to use her office as an engine of change on hot-button issues. “I think for a lot of women, the election really hit them—what do I do, how do I speak up, how do I impact and resist what’s happening nationally?”

By all appearances, Valencia, a native of southern Illinois and the first in her family to graduate college, has the kind of full-throated support Rahm could only wish for—she got two standing ovations from City Council members during her swearing-in ceremony, glowing coverage in the Tribune, and a headline in the Sun-Times that read “A Star Is Born.” Senator Dick Durbin, whose 2014 reelection campaign Valencia managed, had similarly unequivocal praise: “I entrusted my political future to her. When she tells people things have to be done, they rally around her.” Suddenly the title “clerk” has fresh cachet. —Esther Kang

Photo: Taylor Castle

THE RISK TAKER

Britt Nolan

Chief creative officer, Leo Burnett

“The secret is to guzzle your own Kool-Aid in the beginning,” says Britt Nolan, recalling how he handled being made Leo Burnett’s new head creative last year. “I constantly had to remind myself that there was a reason they put me in this role.”

Promoted from within following a seven-month search, the 38-year-old wasn’t the safest choice for the legendary ad shop. But after some of his boldest gambits—such as Allstate’s long-running Mayhem character and the high-concept stunt of launching an Airbnb-rentable version of Van Gogh’s The Bedroom for the Art Institute of Chicago—proved immensely successful, Nolan edged to the front of the pack. “The thing that drove the popularity of the Van Gogh room is everybody’s love of selfies,” he says. “Who doesn’t want a picture of himself in that room?”

Though he’s shown a knack for tapping into the power of crowd-sharing—his work often catches fire on social media—the suburban-dwelling father of four is also a child of the ’80s who appreciates how classic campaigns like Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” seeped into the public consciousness. That’s what makes Nolan unique: his ability to create memorable, enduring advertising within today’s disposable, ADD culture.

“Ideas have a shorter shelf life than ever before,” he says. “You need to own your moment.” And now that Burnett, which lost longtime client McDonald’s in the United States last year, has recently scored a slew of new accounts, including Jim Beam and Special K, Nolan seems poised to own his. —Rod O’Connor

Photo: Lucy Hewett

MR. FIX-IT

David St. Pierre

Executive director, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Every time rain pours into a storm sewer or a company flushes waste into a local waterway, be glad that David St. Pierre came to work that day. The head of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago—one of the world’s biggest handlers of wastewater—has transformed what had been a struggling, er, backwater of city bureaucracy into one of Chicago’s most forward-looking and innovative agencies.

When St. Pierre, 57, started at the district in 2011, it took an average of 90 days to resolve a service call. Now it takes 45—and with 150 fewer workers. In 2010, the district’s financial reserves were being drained fast. Now its emergency fund has been replenished, and the district has been able to invest in giant new reservoirs and pioneering water treatment technologies. It has also lowered its carbon emissions and will, by 2023, be one of the first energy-neutral water reclamation systems in the world.

What’s more, the district is now capturing—and selling—large quantities of methane for use in low-emission trucks and buses. And in 2016, at the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant in Cicero, St. Pierre oversaw the opening of a massive new facility for recovering phosphorous—a pollutant that is also a crucial component of fertilizer—from wastewater. The sale of the chemical will eventually bring in around $4 million a year. Want more good news? Thanks to St. Pierre’s stewardship, the district’s once-sick pension system should be 100 percent funded by 2027. “Change can happen dynamically with very little chaos,” says St. Pierre, “so long as you lay out a vision and a plan.” Take that, Springfield! —Ted C. Fishman

Derek Eder and Amanda Lannert Photo: Taylor Castle

THE OPEN-DATA EVANGELIST

Derek Eder

Founder, Chi Hack Night and DataMade

Here’s the scene: More than a hundred geeks are crammed into an office space on the eighth floor of the Merchandise Mart on a Tuesday night, clacking away at their laptops. But surprise! They’re not playing World of Warcraft. They’re do-gooders diving into a mountain of city government data to try to make something useful out of it, from building a database of local volunteer organizations to compiling resources for recent parolees. This is Chi Hack Night.

“They come for the tech and stay for the civics lesson,” says Derek Eder, 34, who helped start the weekly event in 2012 and is a founding partner at the open-source tech company DataMade, which builds apps to help journalists and advocates. Eder is also a founder of Open City, a collective that creates online tools for promoting civic transparency—including Chicago Councilmatic, which allows users to track City Council legislation.

The Chi Hack Night tradition has spread to other cities and into new niches. “There have been hack groups for immigrant rights, public schools, transportation, women’s health, and climate change,” says Eder. For him and his fellow white-hat hackers, transparency is contagious. —Joel Reese

THE GAME CHANGER

Amanda Lannert

CEO, Jellyvision

In 2001, as sales of the once-hot CD-ROM party game You Don’t Know Jack were dropping off in the face of a new generation of digital games, Jellyvision was so broke that then-president Amanda Lannert had to lay herself off. “I had to write a severance letter to Amanda from Amanda,” the 44-year-old tech pioneer recalls with a rueful laugh. But then she made a pivot: She took the irreverence, smarts, and humor that made Jellyvision’s interactive game a monster hit and poured those qualities into Alex, a digital assistant that walks employees through their 401(k)s and insurance benefits.

Now, more than 850 companies use Alex, and Jellyvision has upward of 350 employees. The company just purchased the Seattle startup FlexMinder and got $20 million from Updata Partners, a Washington, D.C., investment fund. Through it all, Lannert has stuck to a simple philosophy. “We take the business seriously,” she says, “but not ourselves.” —Joel Reese

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Photo: Lucy Hewett

THE SOCIAL JUSTICE VISIONARY

Charlene Carruthers

National director, Black Youth Project 100

Locate the intersection of activism and intellectualism in Chicago and you’ll find Charlene Carruthers. Wading into the fray with a bullhorn or standing behind a university lectern, this 31-year-old queer feminist community organizer—a native and resident of the South Side with a master’s in social work—has become the clearest voice of Chicago’s new school of social justice activism. In the four years since she became the national director of Black Youth Project 100, the Chicago-based grassroots collective has grown fourfold and added eight chapters. And in the wake of the 2014 Laquan McDonald shooting, it has become a model for direct action movements around the country. “Charlene challenges us to rethink what we mean by political power,” says historian and veteran activist Barbara Ransby. “She has been a catalyst for unleashing the power of black youth in the city.”

What’s next for Carruthers? “A lot of my focus has been on moving out of the way,” she says, emphasizing that she wants to usher in a new crop of leaders. Her latest undertaking is a book she calls “a practical guide on how to organize.” The description is probably a bit of an understatement. If Carruthers’s work up to now is any indication, her book will be hands-on, in-your-face, and indispensable. —Darryl Holliday

Photo: Lucy Hewett

THE STUDIO WHIZ

Peter Cottontale

Music producer

Standing behind Chance the Rapper at the Grammys in February, having accompanied the artist to the stage for his third award of the night, Peter Wilkins—a.k.a. Peter Cottontale—was the picture of calm. But inside, the 25-year-old producer was a wide-eyed kid. “If you’d have told me when I was 12 that I’d make the best rap album of the year, I’d have been like, ‘Dog, you’re tweaking.’ ”

Not since Steve Albini recorded Nirvana’s In Utero has a local producer wielded so much influence. As Chance’s musical director, arranger, and keyboardist, Cottontale, who grew up in the South Side neighborhood of Pullman, is responsible for the buoyant, complex style that has become a defining characteristic of Chicago hip-hop. “My job is to turn ideas into audio,” he says. “When someone comes in and says, ‘I want a violin here,’ I figure out how to ornament it.”

His eclectic sound blends everything from funk to new wave, and he has begun working with artists outside of Chicago, cracking iTunes’ Top 50 earlier this year with pop newcomer Johnny Balik. “There are a lot of assumptions that come with being a black musician from the South Side—like, ‘Oh, you play R&B, right? You play trap, right?’ ” says Cottontale. “Hearing that for so many years just made me want to try every type of music outside of that.”

Despite the newfound attention, Cottontale still spends way more time in the studio than in the limelight. “Some people play video games. Some people watch TV. My friends and I, we come together and make music.” —Matt Pollock

Photo: Taylor Castle

THE ORGANIZER

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa

Alderman, 35th Ward

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who became Chicago’s youngest alderman after unseating longtime incumbent Rey Colón by a whopping 2-to-1 margin in 2015, has no patience for political back-scratching. “Very quickly I realized that it’s difficult to reach a critical mass of like-minded aldermen who can push the mayor in a certain direction,” says the 28-year-old former community organizer. So he did what he knows best: He organized. Mobilizing his constituents—who live in Albany Park, Logan Square, and several other Northwest Side neighborhoods—he established United Neighbors of the 35th Ward.

Today the 109-person-strong group knocks on doors, holds meetings, calls lawmakers, and undertakes other grassroots initiatives to advance Ramirez-Rosa’s progressive agenda, which emphasizes, among other things, immigrant rights, antigentrification measures, and term limits (he intends to step down after a second term, if voters give him one). Many see in Ramirez-Rosa the future face of civic-minded governance. “I think he has the potential to one day be the mayor, a U.S. senator, a governor even,” says former mayoral contender Jesús “Chuy” Garcia.

For now, Ramirez-Rosa has plenty to do at the local level. “Marginalized communities are told that they don’t have the ability to govern themselves, that they need some rich white man,” he says. “I don’t believe that at all. I believe in small-d democracy—participatory democracy.” On that count, he is walking the walk. —Esther Kang

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