“I don’t think I’ve ever been to the City Hall press room,” says Ben Joravsky over coffee and a bagel at a North Side Starbucks. “I don’t even have a press pass.” Mind you, if you’ve followed Joravsky’s work in the Chicago Reader over the past 25 years, you know that he is something of a lone ranger among the city’s press corps. While the political talk of the town can often get bogged down in triviality, sniping, and the horse-race coverage of elections, Joravsky, 54, has devoted his career to tackling the most numbing subjects: arcane city budgets, byzantine property taxes, zoning minutiae. “It’s like forcing your kid to eat his vegetables,” he says.
Joravsky has practically single-handedly called out Mayor Daley on his use of tax increment financing districts, or TIFs. He first wrote about TIFs in 1987, back when they were part of an obscure program put forward by Harold Washington to spur development downtown. Since then, TIFs have become Joravsky’s calling card, and his unvarnished writing and compelling narratives continue to hammer home the point: A program intended to aid troubled neighborhoods has been diverted to thriving developments, taking tax dollars from schools, parks, the county, and other places that really need them. “I’m obsessed with money and how the city spends it, and whether public dollars are distributed sensibly, fairly, and equitably,” he says.
At Starbucks, I ask him, only half seriously, “Is this a TIF district?” He spins around in his chair and looks at the intersection of Irving Park Road and Damen Avenue. “Yes!” he says, practically yelling. “As you can see, Starbucks only goes to the most blighted communities. What a scam!”
Politics aside, the Connecticut-born, Evanston-reared Joravsky is also a huge sports fan, crazy about the Bulls and high-school basketball. Years back, he even wrote the literary spinoff to Hoop Dreams. Would he ever want to cover the Bulls instead of politics? “Hell no!” he says, shaking his head. “Who wants to hang around with a bunch of jocks? I don’t even hang around City Hall.”
Illlustration: Luke Wilson