Looking at a National Movement of Grassroots Renewal

by David Lepeska

Over the next couple of weeks, The Atlantic Cities is exploring America's rebuilding efforts in a four-part series. Read the first installment here.

A couple of sharp-eyed Midwestern academics spotted the first green shoots of a national urban rebuild three years ago.

In mid-2009, Chicago sociologist and photographer David Schalliol and Milwaukee-based urban historian Michael Carriere launched a collaborative study of creative revitalization efforts in urban areas across the country, particularly those hardest hit by decline. They've since visited more than 30 cities and turned up nearly 200 outfits and initiatives, creating a national map of grassroots renewal, from Albuquerque to Providence.

"We're seeing this huge number of groups, this ubiquity of DIY development,” says Schalliol, who is working toward a sociology doctorate at the University of Chicago. “We seem to have reached a new moment, where this kind of community-based and community-directed activism is playing a larger role in shaping the possibilities and facilitating a variety of new opportunities, from play to work to food to housing."

Some are sustainable businesses looking to redevelop a fallen neighborhood, while others are slapdash, activist-bred pop-ups that quickly come and go. Many are small-scale, longer-lasting efforts – such as turning a demolition site into a park, or reclaiming unused or abandoned buildings for housing or recreation activities.

A handful of other observers have also picked up on this movement. The Street Plans Collaborative, a group of urban planners, designers and activists, recently published their second volume of Tactical Urbanism, detailing efforts like chairbombing, guerrilla gardening and Open Streets. And author and community revitalization analyst Storm Cunningham is writing a book documenting the global rise of citizen-led regeneration and developing a website to help support it.

To Schalliol, these community-led efforts mark an unprecedented shift in the way people respond to local problems. “Rather than going to city officials and asking for help,” says Schalliol, “there's an understanding that a) the funds may not be there, b) the response may be too slow, and that c) the community itself has the capacity to deal with it.”

One of Schalliol's favorite examples is Sweet Water Organics, a Milwaukee aquaponics outfit that transformed a derelict former factory into an innovative urban fish and vegetable farm. “It's dealing with de-industrialization, trying to re-envision commerce and community,” says Schalliol.

Unlike the nationally-known Milwaukee outfit Growing Power, Sweet Water hopes to sustain itself without grants or foundation funding. “It's trying to chart a new path, with a profitable business arm and a non-profit, community education element,” says Schalliol.

The Borg Ward, an all-ages music venue and arts space in the Milwaukee's Walkers Point neighborhood, has been providing space for up-and-coming artists in the former Borgwardt Funeral and Cremation Services building since 2007. (2010)

Some organizations think they're accomplishing more than they actually are, while others underestimate their impact. Whatever the case, these small-scale efforts are certainly no silver bullet for the problems facing former industrial cities today.

“We're not positing that this DIY work can or will make up for the lost revenues," says Schalliol. "But I do think they provide a variety of models for which we can see new ways of engaging larger systemic problems and in the meantime do quite a bit of local good. As a result of this national critical mass, I think there's more of an emphasis on these issues -- and that can lead to policy changes.”

In Chicago, urban gardeners helped alter municipal policy in favor of urban agriculture. And last year, the city of Milwaukee awarded Sweet Water Organics a $250,000 loan (although some are now questioning that decision).

Schalliol lives in Chicago and has spent a good deal of time in Detroit. Carriere lives and teaches in Milwaukee. Thus, the two have done a great deal of work in those three Midwest cities. Schalliol's photos, which accompany this piece, reveal a handful of the hopeful new initiatives and the devastation that preceded them, offering a glimpse of a region bottoming out and hitting the reset button.

After showing some of Schalliol's photos at a small Milwaukee museum early this year, the duo is looking to mount a major exhibition. They're also talking with publishers, planning to publish a book on the project next year.

originally ran on May 15, 2012 here

Welcome to the Rebuild Era

by David Lepeska

Over the next couple of weeks, The Atlantic Cities will explore America's rebuilding efforts in a four-part series. This is the first installment.

Speaking at a construction workers' conference in Washington in late April, President Barack Obama acknowledged that our highways are clogged, our airports overwhelmed, and our roads and bridges in need of repair.

"American workers built this country, and now we need American workers to rebuild this country," said the president. "Join us in this project of rebuilding America."

Leaders have been urging their citizens to rebuild at least since the ancient Greek statesman Pericles

Whether political point or post-downturn reality, the call to rebuild has been gaining traction among politicians, activists, businessfolk, and pundits, and it's about more than just infrastructure. If dubbing this an era of rebuilding requires some optimism, it might also be a necessity, particularly for American cities.

Leaders have been urging their citizens to rebuild at least since the ancient Greek statesman Pericles called his people to reconstruct their capital after Xerxes' burning of Athens in 480 B.C. Today, embattled European leaders invoke the better days to come. Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa recently laid out his Rebuilding Program for post-Mubarak Egypt.

Then there's the U.S. These last few years represent the country's most difficult economic period since the Great Depression. Yet our climb out of that earlier hole offers little to inform our current situation. The initiatives established under the New Deal – such as the National Recovery Administration, the Works Progress Agency, and the National Labor Relations board – focused on construction and industry and empowering American workers.

Today, Americans are struggling to recover not only from the devastation of the Great Recession, but also a loss of faith in financial institutions, housing, American manufacturing, even the very idea that hard work inevitably pays off.

Most low-skilled jobs are gone and never coming back, and in many ways, it's cities that have suffered most. Municipal governments are hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and facing bankruptcy. Vast neighborhoods have been hollowed out by foreclosures and blight.

While Detroit's magnificent collapse is widely known, Chicago, for one, has suffered a subtler decline. As reported in a recent OECD study on the Chicago region, overall job growth here has trailed the national average for decades. And from 1960 to 1990, more than 96 percent of new regional jobs were created outside downtown Chicago, the de facto regional capital.

That economic shift away from cities was the root cause of America's urban collapse. Starting in the 1950s, the middle class – and the American Dream – migrated from urban neighborhoods to the suburbs. Industry and corporations soon followed.

Ester Fuchs, director of Columbia University's Urban and Social Policy program, details the fallout in the latest issue of Columbia's Journal of International Affairs:

America’s great cities were left in economic free fall, with concentrated poverty, unemployment, high crime rates, failing public schools and severely deteriorating physical infrastructure, including roads, mass transit and parks. Academics and policy makers agreed that cities were irrelevant to America’s economic future; they would become places for poor minorities who could not afford to move to the suburbs. Urban policy became code for social-welfare policy.

Power players came to view cities as irrelevant to economic vitality. The reelection of Ronald Reagan in 1984, writes Fuchs, "showed it was possible to win a presidential campaign while losing the vote in America's major cities."

Now it's come full circle. Americans began returning to cities in the mid-1990s, sparked in part by Mayor Giuliani's turn-around of New York City. Today, both the U.S. and the world are more urban than rural. And just as we've come to accept that cities are the engines of the global economy, the economic downturn has pulled back the curtain on our long-festering national secret.

That explains why Chicago officials are worried that their city attracts a fraction of the information workers drawn to coastal cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, and why they've begun to focus on rebuilding.

In recent weeks, local and national observers have been debating Mayor Rahm Emanuel's innovative method of financing a city-wide infrastructure rebuild. The three-year-old Rebuilding Exchange hopes to change the way Chicagoans demolish and reuse housing stock, while the Rebuild Foundation is expanding its community-through-culture vision across the Midwest.

Of course, the local is national. At Chicago's Green Festival last weekend, Van Jones spoke about his new book, Rebuild the Dream, which lays out a vision to repair our government and renew the middle class. Similarly, Obama has made middle class revitalization a central policy goal.

A new non-partisan organization, Americans United to Rebuild Democracy, seeks to set Congressional term limits and clean up campaign financing in an effort to restore faith in elected leaders. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently acknowledged, “our country needs a renewal.”

Still, the latest jobs report shows sluggish growth nationwide, while new home construction remains particularly low in the Midwest. And construction workers, like those Obama spoke to last week, still can't find work.

Yet on the day of his speech, One World Trade Center became the tallest building in New York City. Just one small step on the way to 1776 feet, but perhaps an apt moment to mark the start of the Rebuild Era.

originally ran on May 9, 2012 at http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2012/05/rebuild-era/1948/

Twitter Boosts Chicago Cabbie's Business

by David Lepeska

for Atlantic Cities

Years ago, Rashid Temuri studied computer science during a short stint in college. By the time he created the Twitter account @ChicagoCabbie in 2011, he'd been driving a Chicago taxi for a decade and a half.

He planned to tweet responses to people's complaints about Chicago taxi-riding, hoping to increase understanding between riders and drivers. But when locals learned he was an actual cab driver, they started putting him to work. “People would Tweet, 'Hey, it would be awesome if you could come meet me and give me a ride,'” recalls the Karachi-born Temuri, who's lived in the Chicago area for 20 years. "So I started picking people up."

A year later, @ChicagoCabbie has more than 4,100 followers. Temuri has been covered by dozens of local news outlets and a handful of tech and international websites. "This whole thing is growing so fast on its own and it's become something I never imagined," says the 36-year-old. His workload has increased to the point that he often passes excess ride requests on to a half dozen colleagues he trusts.

It's a vital service. As a Chicagoan, I can testify that most calls to a taxi service in this city go as follows: an interminable wait on hold, followed by a meandering conversation with a customer service rep that ends with her saying a car might be available in the next hour and that they'll call back.

If and when the cab does turn up, the vehicle is often old and unkempt. Though not the world's first Twitter cab service -- a similar business launched in London a few years ago -- Temuri's is the first to focus on correcting his colleagues' mistakes, and the most technologically advanced. "I feel bad for my cabbie community, and I blame them for the way they behave," says Temuri. “My goal is just to make the service better.”

And how. When Temuri gets behind the wheel every morning, he announces it with a tweet. From there, anyone can track his location with Google Latitude. He responds almost immediately to ride requests (via text msg, Foursquare, email, yfrog and Twitter), sends out an iCal invite to confirm the call and turns up when he says he will.

His Ford Escape Hybrid is immaculately clean and smells like it. Riders can hop onto the free WiFi, or start up a chat with their host, who is happy to swipe their credit card on his iPad at drop-off. (Stenciled on the car's side is Flash Cab, the dispatcher from which Temuri still takes the occasional rider. Though at first uncomfortable with Temuri's freelancing, his bosses at Flash have since come around, probably because of the free publicity.)

If @Chicagocabbie has changed the way many Chicagoans think of, and order, taxis, it has also upended Temuri's life. After years of seeing taxi driving as a tedious fall back job, he's used it to return to his first love: technology. "I'm absolutely loving it now," says Temuri, "to the point that I'm about to start working on a new app."

Unable to reveal any details due to a non-disclosure agreement, he says he's helping a European technology firm develop an app that will improve and organize the taxi experience, for both riders and drivers. That would put it in competition with the likes of Uber, the mobile livery car service, and Taxi Magic – both of which Temuri seems to have improved upon by eliminating the middle man to cut costs and speed delivery.

originally ran May 4, 2012 at http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/05/how-twitter-helped-one-man-become-chicagos-most-popular-cab-driver/1927/

World's Eco-Friendliest Urinal Makes Yellow Green

by David Lepeska

for Atlantic Cities

While working on a class project, Eddie Gandelman wondered if the public restroom could be made a more comfortable, welcoming space.

"I think the urinal in public restrooms is one of the worst designed things," says Gandelman, a 22-year-old design student at the University of Cincinnati. He sought to brighten the space by adding plants. Then the light-bulb went off. "I was looking at my sketches and thought, 'Hey, that would be kind of cool if you could water the plants with your pee,'" Gandelman recalls of his ah-ha moment last spring. “I researched it and found that it could work.”

The result is When Nature Calls, a urinal that filters the sodium and acidity from urine via a three-step process involving activated charcoal, crushed limestone and greensand, then uses the end product to water plants.

It quickly attracted attention. Stories appeared last summer on popular technology and design sites and as far afield as the U.K., highlighting the concept's simple ingenuity and conservation of water and the environment. Feeling left out, many women asked Gandelman about a toilet version (not yet).

The concept of separating solid waste from liquid waste to use either or both as fertilizer is not new. Some 135,000 urine-diversion toilets are used in Sweden, where some of the collected urine is passed on to farmers. Some farmers in developing regions of China and other countries do the same.

But the concept has never been brought to the urinal, and the filtering and plant watering have never been so immediate – or timely. In recent weeks, Gandelman has been fielding calls from architects looking to incorporate his idea into their latest sustainable building designs.

Yet no prototype has been built; When Nature Calls exists only on paper. Gandelman recently spoke with an engineer and learned that the concept, as currently designed, would be very costly and difficult to develop. “My next step may be finding the right people with the right skills to take it to the next level,” he says.

A writer at Trend Hunter suggests restaurants use them to grow fruit and vegetables, cutting costs and carbon emissions simultaneously. Another possibility is installing the urinals in a public restroom in a city park. But rather than water plants directly attached to the urinal itself, as in the rendering, the filtered urine could be directed outside, to water, say, a flower bed.

“That would be a good and logical next step for it to go,” says Gandelman, who expects to graduate next month. “The plants could have a sign: 'This is being watered by urine.'”

Hopefully such a sign wouldn't inspire tipsy, full-bladdered bypassers to contribute to the cause.

originally ran May 3, 2012 at http://www.theatlanticcities.com/design/2012/05/worlds-eco-friendliest-urinal-makes-yellow-green/1916/

Rise of the Temporary City

by David Lepeska

for Atlantic Cities

While artists, activists and event organizers have embraced the pop-up phenomenon, urban visionaries have remained overwhelmingly concerned with permanence.

That may be changing, according to The Temporary City, a new book by urban planner Peter Bishop and environmental scientist Lesley Williams that outlines a greater appreciation for immediate outcomes and temporary activities among planners, architects, developers and city officials.

“An alternative approach to master planning is beginning to emerge,” the authors write.

Temporary uses are nothing new. Nearly all of the 200 buildings of Chicago's magnificent 1893 White City came and went within a few years.* And the reclaiming of public space has been going on for more than half a century, in free zones like Copenhagen's Christiania, a squatters' settlement founded in 1971.

The continuing economic crisis has curtailed development funding and increased unemployment, particularly among the young and educated. Many cities have lost sizable chunks of population, leading to vast swathes of vacant property. And today's constant communications capabilities have made organizing events much simpler and quicker.

Combine these with the appeal of time-limited exclusivity and you have a boom in pop-ups, like the recent weekend-long mall on Cambridge's Newbury Street, or the 10-day food truck park, with furniture, plants and a performance space, in Surrey, England.

These enrich urban life, acknowledges Bishop, but it's the grander, longer-lasting temporary projects that have begun to alter thinking in the field. Eric Reynolds of Urban Space Management created London's Camden Lock Market a few decades ago. Initially a group of temporary cart stores and retail outlets in and around vacant warehouses, it has since become one of the city's most popular markets and helped rejuvenate an overlooked neighborhood.

At Boxpark, in London's Shoreditch neighborhood, sixty shipping containers have been turned into shops with three or five-year leases. Opened in November 2011 on a site that is expected to be under construction by 2016, it's been called the world's first temporary mall, and exists in large part due to the open-mindedness of the landowners.

In 2010, the British magazine Property Week created a national campaign with the Meanwhile Project to find temporary uses for vacant sites and buildings affected by the downturn. Landowners and developers have learned that temporary uses can establish place and brand very early, increase property value, reduce or eliminate security costs, create a revenue stream and launch a key conversation. “It allows you to start a constructive dialogue with a neighborhood, and you can use that to remove some of the long-term risks to your proposals,” says Bishop, who created London's design and planning office in 2006 and now works as a director at Allies and Morrison.

Architects and planners are moving in a similar direction. London-based Tim Pyne Associates has designed the m-hotel, a stackable series of 500 square foot steel-framed living spaces for use on vacant sites for up to 10 years. And a book published last October, Temporary Architecture Now! adds Pritzker winners Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid, among others, to the trend.

Even long-term master planning has been altered, as in London's Royal Docks project. What began as an ambitious, hundred-million dollar development required rethinking after the 2008 downturn. As deputy chief of the London Development Agency at the time, Bishop helped recalibrate the plan to incorporate temporary uses, including a retail caravanserai and a honey farm, as catalysts for a new long-term vision.

Such adaptation could proliferate. Architect Magazine says the many massive stalled development projects across American cities "resemble lunar craters, spreading over entire city blocks." Temporary uses are generally eco-friendly. And all variety of creative industries, from advertising to art, fashion to film, music, performing arts, and gaming, understand their appeal.

Washington, D.C., is ahead of the curve, with its Temporary Urbanism Initiative. In many cities, barriers to municipal implementation include the need for owner approval, the slow cost of permit acquisition and restrictive zoning laws.

Bishop admits it's too soon to tell whether temporary urbanism is a passing fad or a lasting paradigm shift within the field. He plans to watch two key metrics in the coming years: the extent to which major colleges and universities incorporate temporary concepts into their curriculum, and uptake among municipal officials.

When the tap is turned back on, some profit-minded developers are likely to chase away the honey farmers and start pouring concrete. In the meantime, temporary urbanism offers an innovative way to use vacant space, generate revenue and boost property values in a downturn. “It broadens the tools at your disposal and allows you to do things at a time when it's bloody difficult,” says Bishop.

originally ran on May 1, 2012 at: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/design/2012/05/rise-temporary-city/1865/

A Budget by (and For) the People

by David Lepeska

for Atlantic Cities

It might be the hottest idea in democracy since the voting machine.

In an effort to cut wasteful spending and generate political support, cash-strapped municipal officials are turning to a process called participatory budgeting, which allows residents to devise and vote on small-scale infrastructure projects. Pioneered in Brazil, it's since been taken up by some 1,200 cities in just over two decades.

The American trailblazer is Joe Moore, alderman of Chicago's 49th Ward and the first elected United States official to invite his constituents to choose discretionary spending projects. In late 2007, shortly after he was nearly voted out of office, he attended a workshop on participatory budgeting during a social forum in Atlanta.

"I knew instinctively it would prove very popular with my constituents," says Moore, who credits his landslide reelection victory in early 2011 to the initiative. "I've been on the city council for 21 years, and this is by far the most popular initiative I've ever launched. I think it really struck a chord with people who felt they were not being listened to."

Moore's district is home to more than 60,000 students, artists, professionals, and immigrant families speaking some 80 languages. When he launched participatory budgeting in May 2009, he invited community leaders to join him at workshops led by the Participatory Budgeting Project, a New York-based advocacy group.

That November, Moore hosted a series of assemblies, including one in Spanish, in which he introduced the process to locals and explained his $1.3 million discretionary budget. Over the next few months, some 60 volunteer community representatives met regularly in committees on streets, public safety, parks and environment and other areas, to brainstorm, research and fine-tune possible projects. The groups ultimately put forth 36 proposals.

On April 10, 2010, more than 1,500 residents – age 16 and up and regardless of legal status – voted to implement 14 projects ranging from sidewalk repairs to bike lanes and racks, solar-powered garbage containers to street lights. Nearly 2,000 residents turned out to approve a handful of additional projects in early 2011.

Moore's favorite project so far is a series of murals local artists have painted on a dozen train underpasses. “They've brightened up the community with some really attractive art,” he says, explaining that residents voted not just to approve the project, but also held an artists' competition to choose the murals.

Retired salesman Sanford Goldman, 80 and a Rogers Park resident since 1957, served on this year's arts and innovation committee. "We all have differences of opinion but we worked very well as a committee," says Goldman. "It's been a pleasant surprise."

His committee ended up proposing four projects: 22 new underpass murals, at a cost of $121,000, the planting of more than 100 trees, "You Are Here" neighborhood information boards at Metra and CTA station entrances, and a new public garden in a little-used area alongside the railroad tracks. Residents will vote on these and 18 other proposals on April 28.

• • • • •

Participatory budgeting originated in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, created by The Workers' Party, a labor-friendly political force known for institutional innovations across Brazil. After taking power, the party put together a "popular administration" that sought to break away from the authoritarian tradition of public policies and hand budgeting power over to residents of the city. Months later, community members and delegates from across the city's 16 regions voted on projects that determined up to a fifth of the city budget.

The results there have been dramatic. By 1998, the number of residents served by a sewage system had nearly doubled, as had the number of children in elementary schools, and half the city's unpaved streets had been paved. As a result, The Worker's Party won elections across Brazil, and participatory budgeting spread across the country and through Latin America. The practice soon reached Europe, Africa, and Asia. The United Kingdom and Dominican Republic have since mandated the practice for local governments, and the United Nations and World Bank have named it a democratic best practice.

A recent New York Times story detailed the debut of participatory budgeting in four of the city's districts*, where residents determined nearly $6 million in public spending. Those interviewed said they had become more involved in their communities, but that skepticism of its impact lingered. Projects to be implemented in the Park Slope district include new bathrooms and technology funding for a few public schools, $80,000 for a composting group, major repairs to a pedestrian crossing and improved pedestrian paths for Prospect Park.

Some residents may question whether composting is as necessary as better school materials. Indeed, a key complaint of participatory budgeting as practiced in Brooklyn and Chicago is that it has forgotten the Brazilian concept's initial focus: giving the disadvantaged a voice in the management of their communities. An analysis by Area Chicago, an organization focused on building a socially just city, found that the process encouraged broader and deeper engagement with community issues. Yet it also found that:

Participation has been disproportionately skewed towards middle or upper-middle class and disproportionately white residents. This experience runs contrary to the reputation of participatory budgeting, known as a process often run by and for the poor and marginalized in Brazil and elsewhere. … Participation, or lack thereof, was a reflection of initial outreach efforts. ... In future years, more organizing is certainly needed.

Perhaps this helps explain the relatively low turn-out; 1,500 voters represents just 2.5 percent of the total population of the 49th Ward.

Another complaint is that implementation can be slow. Of the projects approved by 49th Ward voters in April 2011, none has begun construction (several are awaiting installation of a new gas line). Further, serious philosophical and ethical differences can divide residents, such as those in the 49th Ward who seek to move away from a car-based lifestyle and those who rely on frequent driving for their livelihoods.

But municipal projects are often slow to gestate, and disagreement is part of democracy. The vast majority of 49th Ward residents express favorable views of the initiative, and the PB Project is working with a handful of Chicago aldermen to bring participatory budgeting to other districts.

Residents of several other cities, including Greensboro, North Carolina, and Vallejo, California, are clamoring for participatory budgeting in their town. Moore advises municipal officials to embrace it.

"Participatory budgeting empowers people to make real decisions about their money, and it's transparent," he says. "Not only is it good public policy but it's good politics: by surrendering a bit of their power, officials will realize that it makes them more popular."

ran on April 23, 2012 at http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2012/04/budget-and-people/1790/

Chicago Non-Profit Wants Your Trash

by David Lepeska

for Atlantic Cities

Chicago's Rebuilding Exchange is looking to do two goods with one organization. The job-creation outfit, founded in February 2009, teaches its students how to recycle trash into a variety of furniture. "We're looking to create a market for deconstruction reuse and use it as a job training opportunity for disadvantaged communities," says Elise Zelechowski, the deputy executive director of the Delta Institute, which runs the Rebuilding Exchange.

Today, more than 100 people have completed the Rebuilding Exchange training, and 2011 revenue from sales of reclaimed wood, furniture and workshops topped $200,000. Zelechowski expects to double that total this year while diverting 2,000 tons of waste material from the landfill for recycling.

Until now, trainees have been recent prison releasees. Starting in June, a new partnership with the Cara Program will bring in people with a variety of barriers to employment, including homelessness, substance abuse, and criminal convictions.

Their training includes deconstruction, warehousing and woodworking. Of the first group of graduates, nearly 9 in 10 found work in retail, warehousing, furniture-making, or woodworking. One accepted a job with another development nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation, on the city's South Side.

About 80 percent of Rebuilding Exchange's waste material comes from renovations, the rest from deconstruction. The material is either readied for re-sale to local businesses or used by RX Made, a line of reclaimed wood furniture built by staff and trainees and designed by local professionals.

The line includes tables, chairs, coat racks and other pieces that can now be found at some of Chicago's hipper bars and restaurants, like Longman & Eagle, 2 Sparrows, Maria's Packaged Goods, The Southern and Bang Bang Pie Shop.

Nearly 100 volunteers help Rebuilding's 12-person staff organize deconstruction training and furniture-making, as well as several public courses and workshops launched last fall. Among the most popular are the Make-It/Take-It series, in which students make an end table, mirror, or bench, and take it home. About 1,000 people have taken the courses, which cost from $65 to $150 and last three or four weeks.

The organization also hosts DIY fairs and antique and flea market events at its warehouse headquarters near the Chicago River. Still, Rebuilding receives half its annual budget from donors like the Chicago Community Trust, Polk Brothers Foundation, and Boeing. Zelechowski is confident the balance will continue to tilt away from subsidies. “We've proved that this is a viable industry, a real business model, that when handled properly, materials in the waste stream can become valuable resources,” she says.

There should be more of those materials in the future. The board of Cook County, which includes Chicago and is the country's second most populous county, approved a new management plan for solid waste this week that emphasizes reuse and recycling.

A similar emphasis could be expanded beyond Chicago. The Construction Materials Recycling Association, based in Eola, IL, estimates that Americans generate some 350 million tons of construction and demolition waste each year, though EPA estimates are lower.

Recent studies from California, Washington, Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wisconsin suggest an average C&D waste generation rate of 1.7 pounds per person per day. Expanded nationally, these figures would mean the U.S. generates more than 500 million tons of C&D waste each year.

Accurate, recent data are hard to find, admits Zelechowski. But she's confident the foreclosure crisis has increased unused building waste. She's begun talking with people in Detroit and other distressed cities to help launch similar initiatives.

“We're really interested in working with community-based groups and municipalities in the Great Lakes region to emulate this model,” she says. “We've been at it for a while, we're still learning and continuing to innovate, and it's important to achieve some scale and make it competitive."

City Life, Recreated in the Sky

by David Lepeska

for Atlantic Cities

Antony Wood has a Blade Runner-like vision of our urban future, with zigzag skybridges linking super-tall buildings and vast green parks dozens of stories above the ground. Yet, as architects and developers link all sorts of towers in Asian and Western cities, it's starting to sound less like science fiction than 21st century reality.

“When I started this, people thought I was crazy,” says Wood, who studied skybridges in his 2003 dissertation and is now the director of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

"If we're going to make tall buildings socially inclusive, the only way we're going to do that is to connect them at height."

Around the world, some 190,000 people are moving to cities every day, or more than five and a half million people each month. By 2050, some 70 percent of humanity will live in an urban setting, according to a recent United Nations white paper that sees a need for 10,000 new cities to house three billion new urban inhabitants.

“We've got to recognize that we inhabit a different world now,” says Wood, who's also an architecture professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “The scale of the problem ahead of us is far greater than the problems we've already faced. If we accept that cities are going to get denser, and thus more vertical, we need to rethink our cities.”

For Wood, that rethinking begins with a broader conception of the ground level, where social interaction takes place and communities are built. Way up above, skyscrapers are primarily office, residential and hotel space.

“That's not a city,” says Wood. “If we're going to make tall buildings socially inclusive, the only way we're going to do that is to connect them at height, to allow us to introduce public zones in the sky and recreate the ground layer.”

The idea is not new. In the 1940s, the French-Swiss architect and urban planner Le Corbusier proposed building bridges and public spaces at height. But his skybridges were built at one or two stories, in Brutalist concrete European highrises after WWII, and the concept soon fell out of favor.

Wood envisions a series of bridges at 30, 50, even 100 stories, improving access and circulation as part of a network of towers. A school on the 57th floor of a building, for instance, would work only if it linked to family residences, a playground, a library.

• • • • •

“If this sounds farfetched, we only need to look at Hong Kong,” says Wood.

In 1965, the developer HongKong Land built an enclosed, air-conditioned bridge over Chater Road to connect the shopping center at the base of its Prince's Building to guests at its new Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The move proved a commercial success, and HongKong Land soon expanded the concept to its other buildings across central Hong Kong.

Other developers followed suit, and within a couple decades the Hong Kong government unofficially adopted the skybridge network as a planning tool. Today, skybridge-linked HongKong Land buildings connect nearly half a million square meters of office and retail space and encompass a population of over 20,000 workers. “You can walk several miles through central Hong Kong without touching the ground, in shopping centers, office towers, hotels,” says Wood.

A more recent example is Singapore's Pinnacle@Duxton, a seven tower, 50-story public housing complex designed by ARC Studio Architecture + Urbanism and completed in December 2009. Skybridges at the 26th and 50th stories link all seven towers and 1,848 apartments.

The 26th story bridge is for residents only and has a recreation center, jogging track, outdoor gym, children's playground and two viewing decks. The 50th story skybridge is open to the public and offers panoramic views of the city. Both hold up to 1,000 people at a time.

A couple miles way, the Marina Bay Sands is said to be the world's most expensive hotel, costing a reported £4 billion. Designed by Moshe Safdie and completed in mid-2010, the hotel's three 55-story towers are topped by a rooftop SkyPark, which includes an infinity pool that seems to stretch on forever, sundecks, palm trees, gardens and a restaurant. At 340 meters, the SkyPark is longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall.

Linked Hybrid, a Beijing housing complex completed in 2009, has the look of a Philip K. Dick fever dream. Set amid vast reflecting pools, this 220,000 square-meter, eight-tower compound uses translucent glass bridges to connect 700 apartments, a hotel, shopping areas, a multiplex, a kindergarten and underground parking.

Steven Holl Partners designed it as “an open city within a city.” The Council on Tall Buildings chose it as its best tall building overall for 2009, arguing that the project embodies "where the future of tall buildings and urban cities is heading.”

That future has begun to appear in the West as well. The Telekom Center is a six-tower, skybridge-linked office complex on the outskirts of Munich, completed in 2004. Skyways and catwalks connect downtown buildings in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Calgary and other North American cities. And of the seven finalist proposals for the new World Trade Center in downtown New York City, five incorporated skybridges.

The design ultimately chosen did not, speaking to the real challenges that skybridges present. Since 9/11, tall buildings are seen as terrorist targets. Security, generally handled at a ground floor main entrance, becomes problematic when people are entering your building at several points, such as in central Hong Kong. The engineering is also difficult because skyscrapers need to be free to move slightly at the top. The skybridge connecting Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers at the 41st and 42nd floors, for instance, is not anchored to the buildings but rather designed to slide in and out and allow the towers to sway several feet in high winds.

Wood counters that skybridges “are the way to make our vertical cities more sustainable.” Networks of tall buildings have the potential to reduce our total energy consumption by sharing power and facilities between buildings and creating green corridors in the sky.

"This is not about sticking a few bridges in the sky," Wood says. "This is about building a three-dimensional city, where these zones in the sky become the responsibility of the city."

The Accidental DIY Developer

by David Lepeska

for Atlantic Cities

Earlier this month, Chicago artist Theaster Gates invited a couple dozen locals over for a soul food dinner at one of three South Side houses he's rehabbed with the help of friends and a good deal of recycled materials. Collectively known as the Dorchester Projects, the renovated spaces have sparked a minor cultural renaissance in the long-neglected Grand Crossing neighborhood and become Exhibit A in Gates' mini-empire of urban revitalization.

“The larger cultural community has become excited about Dorchester,” Gates says moments before his guests arrive, “and the dinner table becomes a way of not only connecting people socially but creating new opportunities between people where there's need.”

The 38-year-old Gates is a fast-rising artist, known for re-purposed sculptures and curated events that often reference black history and political engagement. His work appeared in the 2010 Whitney Biennial and, last year, in a 40 Under 40 show at a Smithsonian gallery. This year, he served as the commissioned artist for the Armory Show in New York.

He's also developed, almost by accident, an innovative, arts-focused model of redevelopment that's expanding across the Midwest.

The story begins in 2006, when Gates bought a derelict former candy store in Grand Crossing, just south of the University of Chicago, where he'd accepted a job to promote arts engagement with the local community. By the time he'd rehabbed the space and moved in a few years later, his career as an artist had taken off and the housing crisis had punched the low-income neighborhood in the nose.

Grand Crossing's population declined by more than 15 percent between 2000 to 2010, according to the latest census. But rather than leave, Gates tripled down, taking advantage of depressed prices to buy the dilapidated house next door, an adjacent lot and a duplex across the street. One house became an archive and library for thousands of architecture and design books as well as an artist residence.

Another became a cinema space and a third a music listening venue, with thousands of vinyl records. Gates organized live performances, summer programs for neighborhood youth and, this spring, a series of ritualized Soul Food Dinners, which are part of the Feast exhibition at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum.

To manage and maintain the Dorchester Projects, Gates created the Rebuild Foundation in 2010. A team of artists, architects, educators, developers and activists, Rebuild has since taken over and begun redeveloping nine buildings in distressed neighborhoods in Omaha, Detroit and St Louis. The completed spaces will include a soul food restaurant, a pottery studio and several artist and performance spaces, as well as residences.

Plenty of hybrid art spaces across the country, such as Machine Project in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood, mix gallery shows with disparate events like cheese tastings and scientific experiments. But the Rebuild Foundation appears to be the only arts-centered, multi-city urban revitalization organization in the country. Gates, who holds a master's in ceramics, religious studies and urban planning from Iowa State, aims to disprove those who believe artists can't live and thrive in distressed neighborhoods like Grand Crossing.

Rebuild recently gained approval from the Chicago Housing Authority to transform a chunk of South Side public housing that's been vacant since 2006 into a 32-unit mixed-income community for artists (see top image). Just down the street from the Dorchester Projects, the redeveloped blocks would include a cultural center and shared studio and performance space.

At that dinner earlier this month, guests included writers, musicians, arts patrons, photographers, an anthropologist and an urban farmer. The menu – watermelon cocktails, fried frog legs, shrimp and grits, and chitlins, or sauteed pig intestines – had been put together by soul food expert Ericka Dudley and Michael Kornick, who owns MK Restaurant and has been called “one of Chicago's true culinary masters” by Esquire magazine.

“We have the power, with our collective brains, with our collective talents, our shared interests and our fiscal and thoughtful resources, to change a place,” Gates told his guests as dessert teacakes were served, “and I'm intentionally doing that here.”

Moments later, as wine glasses were emptied and goodnight embraces shared, Kornick and his wife Lisa announced that they planned to open a new restaurant and cooking school in the neighborhood.

originally ran March 26, 2012 at http://www.theatlanticcities.com/arts-and-lifestyle/2012/03/accidental-diy-developer/1581/

Jazz Age magazine becomes media experiment

by David Lepeska

in The National

One Sunday afternoon in mid-February, a mostly forgotten magazine from Chicago's Jazz Age resurfaced in a most 21st century way. "A secret no more," founding editors JC Gabel and Josh Schollmeyer tweeted. "Please welcome back into the world The Chicagoan."

Sold only at local boutiques, independent bookstores and 1920s-style pop-up news-stands, the 194-page ad-free publication quickly became an almost mythic object of desire. "I couldn't read my copy of @TheChicagoan on the train today because everyone wanted to look at it," local writer and filmmaker Kevin Elliott tweeted.

Friendly notices appeared in local and national media outlets. As the number of available copies dwindled, Sarah Freeman, a local artist, expressed a twang of guilt: "The roommate and I both have copies of @TheChicagoan. I feel like we are hoarding a precious resource."

Nearly 5,000 copies sold out in a month, at $20 each, shocking even the men behind the operation. "The whole thing took on a life of its own in a really great, wonderful way," Schollmeyer said during a joint interview with Gabel. "Now we have to go out and make it a business."

Their experiment - building a newfangled, non-profit media outlet fronted by a biannual print magazine - is sure to be closely watched. For now, observers are mainly applauding the creation of a throwback publication in a throwaway age.

"So much has been lost in the print world that it's really refreshing and encouraging to see some brilliant, young, media-savvy guys get together and say, 'Let's try it this way'," says Robert Feder, a respected Chicago media analyst.

The tale of the original begins in 1926, with Chicago at its economic peak. Stockyards butchered 20 million animals a year. The city's population ballooned. Skyscrapers began to crowd the Loop, home to the world's largest building and its largest hotel.

Slums, squalor and racial conflict festered, too, and in the era of Prohibition, the gangster Al Capone held the city's newsmen in thrall. Enter The Chicagoan, published every two weeks in top hatted-trim and looking to counter "Hog Butcher to the World" and den-of-vice stereotypes with sophistication and high-mindedness.

Editors came and went and the writing often fell short of the high standard set by The New Yorker, founded the previous year and The Chicagoan's obvious model. Yet its art matched that of any contemporary, particularly the cover images.

One 1927 story examined Chicago as the capital of bootlegging, detailing the "multitude of blind pigs, speakeasies, drinking clubs and booze joints which harass the peace of the Second City". But as the years passed, the magazine, full of writing errors, attracted few noteworthy contributors. Readership declined as its editors chose to ignore the Great Depression and focus on what books to read, where to eat and shop.

In late 1933, Esquire appeared. Its first issue, marked by an urbane intelligence and work from Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Dashiell Hammett, sold more than 100,000 copies. Its second issue quadrupled that, and 16 months later, in April 1935, The Chicagoan closed.

Six decades on, the cultural historian Neil Harris stumbled across nine dusty volumes with "The Chicagoan" on the spine in a library at the University of Chicago, where he teaches. Struck by the magazine's artwork and seriousness, he looked it up and found no record.

"It was unknown," recalls Harris. "I'd been in Chicago for a few decades and had never heard about the magazine."

Harris and his wife worked for two years putting together a gorgeous, 400-page volume, The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age, published in 2008 by the University of Chicago Press. It reproduces one 1927 issue in its entirety, along with 80 full-sized cover images, and retells the magazine's history.

The tale soon reached JC Gabel, editor of Stop Smiling, a respected arts and culture magazine he launched at 19 years old in 1995. He wrote an essay about The Chicagoan, which never ran: in early 2009, Stop Smiling stopped printing, and Gabel took to freelancing. "I got out there and the marketplace was terrible," he recalls. "Everything became advertorial service industry slop."

In January 2010 he met with Harris, a media-world acquaintance, and talk turned to the failure of Chicago media outlets to run important, deeply reported stories. "Almost in jest we were like, 'Let's just restart The Chicagoan'." says Gabel. "It seemed like a pipe dream, but we talked to some friends in the media and all of them were enthusiastic about the idea."

Harris had exhumed and dusted off the corpse. Gabel began updating and reanimating it. At the urging of a friend he met with Schollmeyer, who directs digital content for Playboy and had also been bemoaning the decline of journalism in Chicago.

The two began to envision a smartly written and well-produced print publication with a strong online presence, and sought advice from the sages of Chicago media. "They were talking about using the highest stock paper, the best reporting and photos, printing long-form stories, getting the rights to some publication from the 1920s," Feder laughs, recalling an early 2010 meeting with the duo. "I thought to myself, 'If this ever makes the light of day, I'll be amazed'."

With a dusty, 1929 drawing of an old-time news-stand on the cover, the first issue contains 26 stories, including fiction and poetry, a profile of a local jazz musician and a look at atomic-age postcards.

There may be a few clunkers in the bunch, but Schollmeyer's 48-page oral history of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert - the Chicago film critics who became national treasures - more than offsets the price of admission. The 26,000-word article, which required more than a year of work, interlaces 50 interviews with key players to tell the story of the critics' combative relationship.

It exists mainly because Schollmeyer refused to accept the 3,000-word limit offered by local publications when he first shopped it around. The e-book, released in March, climbed into the top 120 sellers on Amazon and became a Kindle bestseller. "It's a masterpiece," says Feder, who is among those quoted in the story, "and it would not have seen the light of day in any other media."

But precisely what sort of medium is The Chicagoan? Certainly it is not its predecessor. The original focused on the high life. The revival is an intelligent response to a preponderance of similar content today. The first was born in the city's salad days, the second in tough economic times, with journalism at death's door.

The new Chicagoan also represents an embrace of two related but divergent trends. The rise of n+1, McSweeney's and Intelligent Life - all featuring smart, long-form writing and marketed as stylish objects with lasting value - testify to the first.

The second is an unavoidable reality of 21st-century life. "Everybody says, 'Why don't you just do the print thing and make it very bespoke and stick with that?'" explains Gabel. "That would be walking around with blinders on."

In November, the editors plan to publish their second issue and offer a $99 annual membership that includes two print issues plus access to web-exclusive stories, a monthly tablet-only article and public events. Their app will arrive around the same time, with a blog-laden website due next spring.

But Gabel and Schollmeyer are in no hurry. Printing the first issue and registering as a non-profit organisation cost nearly $50,000, paid for by donations from board members and staff. Now broke, they realise their vision needs time to take root and plan to launch fundraising efforts this month.

Contributors, staffers and bills require payment. "This has to be done very carefully or it becomes a boondoggle as a non-profit," says Gabel. "Look at what happened to CNC."

The week The Chicagoan launched, the Chicago News Cooperative, a three-year-old non-profit media experiment and partner of The New York Times, announced it would cease operations. CNC had sought to build an online portal for sharp local reporting. Schollmeyer, who made his name by turning the little-known Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist website into a national award-winner, is confident The Chicagoan can better navigate the shoals of 21st century journalism.

A March report from the Investigative News Network found that 75 per cent of all non-profit news efforts fail in their first year, in part due to poor planning and a poor grasp of new technologies. Those that succeed tend to grow at a modest rate and accept little foundation funding.

The Chicagoan may be on the right track. But CNC's demise remains a hurdle locally. "When we go to cultural institutions looking for funds, there's no way anybody's going to take the risk," says Gabel. "The money we need is not astronomical, but we're only going to do this if we can do it for real."

Gabel estimates The Chicagoan, which recently moved into sponsored office space in the city's Loop, would be sustainable with 20,000 annual $99 members, in addition to grants, subscriptions, sales and donations.

The editors claim to be "platform agnostic", or willing to embrace any format that works. "We want to do long-form, new journalism with high-end short fiction and break new voices about Chicago and the Midwest," says Schollmeyer. "That's our mission; how we get to you doesn't really matter."

Whether it ends up as a website that runs monthly e-stories, an irregularly published literary journal or something else entirely, its creators intend to stick to that mission.

This city has produced several noteworthy media outlets: Esquire and Playboy many decades ago; The Baffler, This American Life and Stop Smiling more recently. This summer, the satirical publication The Onion is moving to Chicago from New York.

Like the editors of that multi-platform outlet, Gabel and Schollmeyer are conscious of their brand. They understand their fanbase, its lust for a locally focused publication crafted with care.

They saw it firsthand a few months ago. "I can promise you that spirit we created will never be co-opted," says Schollmeyer. "If that means we only do one of them, so be it. It's going to be pure and beautiful and pristine."

ran in The National on June 19, 2012


Two Big Public Space Makeovers for Chicago

The Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

Chicago is set to transform a derelict elevated rail line that cuts across its North Side and an over-commercialized, showpiece tourist attraction on the lakefront into two of the city's most appealing public spaces.

The Bloomingdale Trail and Park and the makeover for Navy Pier, expected to cost a combined $185 million, both took major steps forward last week. After a year-long competition, a team led by New York-based James Corner Field Operations won the commission to redesign Navy Pier, the state's most popular tourist site, receiving unanimous approval from the pier's governing board.

The firm's most high-profile creation to date is New York City's High Line, an abandoned stretch of elevated railway transformed into a stunning park. In December, James Corner won the competition to design Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, alongside the primary venue for the 2012 Summer Games in London.

The challenge in Chicago is to shed the 3,000-foot-long pier's kitschy image without a wholesale reconstruction. Pier attendance has fallen slightly over the last decade, as visitors have flocked to Millennium Park, a half-mile away.

The 17-member team includes New York-based nArchitects, lighting artist Leo Villareal, and French botanist Patrick Blanc, known primarily for his vertical gardens. Of the remaining group of landscape architects, water and real estate consultants and graphic designers, four are from Chicago, including designer Bruce Mau, whose firm is based in Toronto but lives just north of the city.

The makeover, which is likely to undergo significant alterations before construction begins, is expected to cost about $85 million. Initial designs seek to create a sequence of appealing outdoor spaces along the promenade, including tilted lawns for recreation, a fountain that could spout jets, mist or a reflective sheet of water, and hanging gardens inside the pier's Crystal Gardens pavilion. The plan also adds a swimming pool with a sand beach and an amphitheater that would slope down to Lake Michigan level on the east end of the pier, with cantilevered overlooks offering views back to the city.

Navy Pier originally opened in 1916 and is expected to be remade in time for its centennial celebration. Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham devised the pier as part of his 1910 Plan of Chicago. His vision, according to Corner, was in part about "the creation of settings or stages, where people can come into close proximity with one another, interact with one another... in the context here of being out on the lake."

Corner's previous project, New York's High Line, cost $115 million, draws millions of annual visitors and has attracted more than $2 billion of private investment to the surrounding area, creating jobs and sparking economic activity.

That's what Rahm Emanuel is envisioning for the Bloomingdale Trail and Park. “We have all read about what the High Line has done for New York economically," he said at a press conference last week. "I hope this has the same impact.”

Emanuel said initial funding had come together for the $100 million project, which is expected to begin construction later this year and be completed by 2014. Designed by Arup, Ross Barney Architects and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the new park will have benches and foliage on either side of a two-way path.

It looks in renderings much like New York City's High Line, but will be nearly twice as long and with gentle curves and dips. It will also allow bike traffic and include several green space access points at ground level.

Besides offering expansive views across several Chicago neighborhoods, the new park will improve local transport links. The multi-use trail will connect the west side to areas near the lake and the Loop, and the anchor parks will link the trail to L train stations and major bus stops.

The Chicago & Pacific Railroad originally built this 2.65-mile stretch of rail line at ground level in 1872. After a series of accidents involving pedestrians, the tracks were elevated about a century ago, but have been out of use since the mid-1990s. Within a couple years, the determined and the curious will no longer be forced to slip through fences to use the space and enjoy the view.

Ran March 19, 2012:

Chicago Group Aims to Counter Anti-Islam Sentiment

The New York Times

February 23, 2012

By David Lepeska

As anti-Muslim rhetoric rises locally and nationally — some of it fueled by the presidential campaign — a group of Chicago-area Muslims is battling back, using tactics including a television ad campaign and public forums against bigotry.

Gain Peace, an Islamic outreach organization based in Chicago, spent $40,000 in December to counter negative portrayals and produce two television ads intended to promote Islam as a just faith. The spots, which will run through March in the Chicago area on Fox, CNN and TNT, depict friendly Muslim students and professionals and display a phone number and a Web site for more information.

“This is an election year and in the Republican primaries and elsewhere, generally we have seen more discrimination, hate and misunderstanding about Muslims,” said Sabeel Ahmed, director of Gain Peace. “We wanted to take it up a notch.”

During a political engagement workshop for immigrants on the near West Side early this month, Ahmed Rehab, the head of a Muslim advocacy group, urged attendees to fight attacks on Islam with accurate information about the Muslim faith.

“What’s worse than ignorance is misinformation, and that’s what I find Islamophobia normally falls under: It’s a process of miseducation,” said Mr. Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “But what can be done, can be undone.”

That un-do list has been growing. Last November, Pat Brady, the Illinois Republican Party chairman, urged the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the state’s leading immigrant support group, to expel CAIR-Chicago from its list of affiliated organizations. He cited “CAIR’s reported ties to Hamas terrorist supporters, its anti-Israel organizing and its tolerance for anti-Semitic discourse.”

The coalition declined and called Mr. Brady’s request “a descent into anti-Muslim hysteria.”

In the presidential race, both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have depicted Islamic Shariah law as a potential threat to United States sovereignty. One of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisers, Walid Phares, regularly warns that Muslims aim to take over American institutions and impose Shariah, a legal code based mainly on the Koran that can involve punishments like cutting off the hands of a thief.

Republican-sponsored bills in more than 20 states, including Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri, would ban courts from recognizing foreign laws, legislative shorthand for Shariah. Yet no United States Muslim organization is calling for the institution of Shariah.

Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the rhetoric might become more heated during the coming primary battles in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin. “In reaching out to your base, there’s a tendency to throw red meat out there,” he said.

The effect of these verbal attacks may go beyond the political. Hate crimes against Muslims increased nearly 50 percent in the United States in 2010, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation report released in November. That month, officials at O’Hare Airport fired a baggage handler who was accused of writing “Burn Islam” and “Filthy Muslim” on his Facebook page.

Officials from CAIR-Chicago plan to address anti-Muslim attacks from far right groups at their annual banquet next month. Leaders of the Nation of Islam are expected to respond to Muslim discrimination during the group’s convention at the United Center this weekend.

Gain Peace, which produced the television ads, is part of the Islamic Circle of North America, an Islamic education organization based in Queens, N.Y., accused by conservative groups of extolling terrorism.

“These TV ads are out there to fool people into thinking that Muslims are just like us,” said Constance Gavras, head of a Chicago-area chapter of Act! For America, a grass-roots anti-jihadist organization.

Mr. Ahmed, of Gain Peace, dismissed any connection between Islamic Circle and terrorism. “There is always a link people try to make,” he said. “But there is no proof.”

Mr. Redfield, of the University of Illinois at Springfield, said he thought the Muslim groups were smart to combat anti-Muslim rhetoric. “In politics, if you don’t define yourself someone else will,” he said. “They have to be proactive in terms of trying to neutralize ignorance and willful manipulation of negative opinion.”

Islamic Circle hopes to distribute the television ads nationwide.


Habibi: Gorgeous graphic novel comes up short

A book review for The National

By David Lepeska

Craig Thompson’s Habibi is a wonder: a rich, gorgeous and boldly ambitious fairy tale about love and spirituality, the ancient and the modern, East and West and the decline of the natural world. It’s also something of a disappointment.

Thompson first gained renown in 2003, with his semi-autobiographical debut, Blankets. That book recounted his blush of first love in rural Wisconsin and his decision to leave the evangelical Christian faith of his parents. It earned great acclaim and half a dozen awards. With his new work he has set his sights higher.

The story opens in an Arabia-like desert facing severe drought. Desperate to survive, a father marries off his daughter, Dodola, inexplicably named after a Slavic rain goddess, to a gruff, older scribe. He whisks her away and takes her virginity, then teaches her to read and write. One night, thieves ransack their house, slash the scribe’s throat, kidnap Dodola and sell her into slavery.

At the slave market she comes across an abandoned, dark-skinned, three-year-old boy, Zam. When Dodola escapes into the desert she snatches the boy and takes him with her, to raise as her “Habibi”, or darling. For nine years, they live in an abandoned boat beached on the dunes as Dodola sells herself to men in passing caravans in return for provisions.

The adolescent Zam follows her out one day and watches as she is raped, crouching in angry fear behind a camel. He curses himself, then goes out searching for food. “We could be reclaimed as slaves at any time,” she says when he finally returns. “[Zam] didn’t understand that our world was dying. People were crying out for water, but the sources had dried up,” Dodola thinks to herself. “However, the masses will need something to distract them from destruction ... and my body will still be a commodity.”

As the last in a series of images, we see Zam beneath Dodola’s closing thought: “This is the world of men.” When Zam goes out foraging a second time, Dodola is snatched up by bounty hunters who hand her over to a drooling, pot-bellied caricature of a sultan. She becomes his aphrodite, the favourite among his well-stocked harem.

That common Arab cliché is just one among a handful of Orientalist stereotypes in the book: desert caravans filled with rough merchants, dirty souqs, frolicking harem girls, despotic, turbaned leaders, subservient eunuchs. It’s often hard to tell whether Thompson is using them to titillate and entertain or to comment on their questionable use in ages past.

If Dodola is not being ravished by one man or another, she is being fantasised about. And unlike R Crumb and a handful of other popular graphic artists, Thompson clearly relishes form, shape and movement.

Dodola is a raven-haired beauty, with saucer eyes, broad lips and a petite, hourglass figure. As a youth, Zam is slim and dark, catlike. Fully grown he is massive, imposing, filling the scenes with his bulk. His size and blooming desire compound his fear of further hurting Dodola, making him uncomfortable around her after he witnesses her violation.

After her disappearance he goes out searching for her and falls in with a group of hijras. During the scene of their reuniting, years later, Zam flashes back to Dodola telling him the story of Noah and the flood.

Throughout the book, well-known religious tales unspool with regularity, often before a backdrop of phantasmagorical images or flowing Arabic calligraphy. In an apparent attempt to bridge the divide between Islam and Christianity, Thompson includes several stories shared by the world’s two most popular monotheisms: Adam, Abraham, Noah and others are mixed in with quotes from the Quran and bits from the Bible.

But as one who has lived and worked in the Arab world, I was left wondering: where are the Muslims? What’s missing from the religion in Habibi are the religious. To Thompson, the Arabic alphabet is protean and pliant: a shifting tapestry of symbol and anecdote that he wields to often glorious effect, highlighting the links between Arabic script and Islamic geometry and endeavouring to make Islam less foreign to his mostly Western audience. But he approaches religion with a certain detachment – perhaps a hangover from his distasteful experience with evangelical Christianity.

None of the characters is shown in prayer. None embraces Islam as a guide to living, a moral compass, or anything other than a well of stories to be dipped into as needed. For a book so laden with religion and spirituality, it’s all a bit soulless, as if the narrative takes place in the unruly idol-worshipping era of jahaliyyah, before the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed.

The actual when and where of the story seems fluid, shifting from medieval Arabia to something resembling 21st century Dubai in the space of a few pages: a lavish apartment in an under-construction skyscraper abuts a medieval souq where slaves are sold to the highest bidder. Beyond the Bible and Quran, Habibi incorporates references to the Arabian Nights and Scheherazade, poems from Rumi and bits of alchemy and astronomy.

As in Blankets, Thompson employs flashbacks and more than 600 pages of lush, graceful drawings in the service of a long, winding tale. But Habibi is far more sweeping, covering the bonds of servitude, the shame of fantasy, the complexities of love, the fragility of the environment, the ignorant greed of humanity, as well as Allah, the Prophet Mohammed and the possibilities of Arabic script.

Thompson is a dazzling artist and a fine storyteller, ranking among the finest graphic novelists today. But Habibi sets a nearly impossible target. Too much sensationalism, too much religious mumbo-jumbo and too little of the human spirit undermines the work. And in the end, the lessons of the narrative are ambiguous and possibly contradictory.

Still, being brought low by ambition is the least damning of literary failures. Habibi is a ripping yarn, often beautifully told. If Thompson tries too hard to pass it off as a moving and important work of art, it’s a credit to his skill that he nearly succeeds. Call it a marvellous failure.

Ran February 2012:

Why the US is disengaging from the Middle East

For The National

By David Lepeska

January 9 was no banner day for the US in the Middle East. In Baghdad, a series of bombs killed at least a dozen people and wounded more than 50, underscoring America's failure to establish security prior to the departure of its troops from Iraq.

In a speech in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad refused to step down despite months of increasing violence and international condemnation. "When I leave office it will be by the will of the people," he said.

Finally, Iran sentenced the former US marine Amir Mirzaei Hekmati to death for spying for the Central Intelligence Agency - the first time since the 1979 Revolution that Iran had ordered the execution of an American.

It would be hard to more clearly state the central thesis of Fawaz Gerges' forthcoming book, Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment, than with the events of January 9, 2012. "America's ability to act unilaterally and hegemonically, unconstrained by the local context, has come to an end," he said during an interview at Chicago's InterContinental Hotel last month.

Gerges, a US citizen born to a Christian family in Beirut, holds the Emirates Chair of the Contemporary Middle East at the London School of Economics. After focusing on terrorism in recent books - including 2005's bestselling Journey of the Jihadist and last year's The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda - his new work, out in May, returns him to a subject he has been writing about for decades.

"Obama is correct not to take ownership of the Arab uprisings, because we're seeing changes from within the region," Gerges adds. "You might say Obama is the Gorbachev of America's foreign policy in the Middle East."

The book begins shortly after the Second World War, when the US treated Arab countries dismissively, its eye towards Soviet containment. American support for the creation of Israel, the 1953 coup in Iran, the oil embargo of 1973, the Iranian hostage crisis, the US intervention in the Gulf War and George W Bush's policies in the wake of 9/11, all played their part.

"The US is seen as a supporter and sustainer of the autocratic order in the Middle East," Gerges says. "This culminated in the Iraq War, and reinforced the perception that the US cannot be trusted, that it was neocolonialist."

This is the legacy inherited by Obama, who sought a new beginning by offering respect and seeking broader engagement in his landmark June 2009 speech in Cairo. "No system of government can or should be imposed on any nation by any other," he said. "That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people."

Obama tends to hedge in this way, approaching contradiction. He denounced Bush's ideological promotion of democracy and hawkish international stance but has since backed intervention in Libya, expanded drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas and sent 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan.

Similarly, the Obama team hoped his outreach in Cairo would allow the US to "cut the umbilical cord to the Middle East", says Gerges. "From day one, they believed that America's future was in the Pacific, and believed the US was on a very costly detour in the Middle East."

At the time, national security adviser Thomas Donilon saw Washington's influence as too strong in the Middle East and too weak in Asia, according to Ryan Lizza. In his lengthy, widely read Obama profile in The New Yorker in May, Lizza argued that "the Arab Spring remade Obama's foreign policy".

Gerges would argue that it helped bring Obama's initial policy objectives to the fore. At first, the uprisings seemed to paralyse Washington. Obama sought to be on the right side of history, with the protesters, but also wanted to keep his allies. "They were caught napping," said Gerges.

After five days of uncertainty while protests raged in Tahrir Square, the US called for Mubarak to step down. Since his departure, Washington has supported the generals, backed parliamentary elections and mostly maintained its distance.

Yet the Obama administration has broken with decades of US policy to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood. In high-level meetings, officials at the State Department have received reassurances of the brotherhood's respect for human rights and interest in maintaining peaceful relations with Israel.

The shift is an acceptance of Egypt's new political reality, with the Brotherhood and the Salafist parties winning more than 70 per cent of parliamentary seats in the recent elections, and of Washington's reduced influence in the region. Even while continuing to hand over more than $1.3bn (Dh13.9bn) in annual military aid, Obama can make no demands on Egypt's leadership.

Gerges sees Egypt's Islamists emulating Turkey's moderate, highly successful AKP, and is less concerned about their religiosity or foreign policy than their ability to govern - a concern underscored by the chaos of Egypt's first parliamentary session this week. "I'm more worried that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood have no blueprints to resolve the major problems facing Egyptian society," he said, referring to a moribund economy, a lack of capable institutions and oppressed minorities. "In the next election, if Islamists don't deliver the goods - and most probably they won't, because the challenges are horrendous - I think they're going to do much, much worse."

In other countries facing uprisings, Washington had a hard time keeping up with events and constantly tweaked its position. In Libya, after leading the intervention "from behind", according to the received wisdom, since the killing of Muammar Qaddafi the US has generally disengaged. These days, Washington mostly equivocates: supporting regime change in Syria and Yemen, while maintaining friendships with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco.

It's a policy of do-very-little, and may be the best option available. Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco appear, for the moment, on solid ground. Violence in Syria has been on the rise, whatever the US policy, and Al Assad seems to be gaining confidence once more after the recent failed Arab League mission.

Washington's two great ventures in the region remain on the brink of failure. Iraq seems increasingly unstable since the departure of American troops and, in Afghanistan, attacks on US and coalition forces by supposed Afghan allies have peaked.

To suggest that stable, pluralistic political systems will emerge anytime soon in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria and other countries is simplistic if not downright ignorant. Right now may be the ideal time for the US to disengage from the Middle East, just as Arab countries, led by the people, become less predictable.

Gerges envisions a lengthy transition from authoritarianism to political pluralism, with bumps and detours lasting decades. "The Arab world has taken the first step in a million-mile journey," he said. "There's no regime that's immune to this new mood of empowerment, despite all the nonsense of the uniqueness of the Gulf states. Regimes in the Middle East will ignore this changed psychology at their own peril."

The theories in Gerges' new book are not revolutionary. Other observers have noted American decline, particularly Fareed Zakaria in his book, The Post-American World. And some of Gerges' ideas seem lifted directly from Lizza's Obama profile. But few have looked at these issues - American decline, shifting of priorities, Obama's equivocation - so expansively in light of the Arab revolutions.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, respected foreign-policy hand and national security adviser under Jimmy Carter, writes of the coming multipolar era and a likely vacuum of international leadership in his new book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. He warns of a less stable world, with a more aggressive China and a potentially chaotic Middle East. "It is imperative that the United States pursue a new, timely strategic vision for its foreign policy," he recently wrote, "or start bracing itself for a dangerous slide into global turmoil."

As Gerges expected, the new American vision looks eastward. In November, on a visit to Canberra, Obama announced a deployment of 2,500 marines to Australia, fortifying American influence in East Asia with an eye towards China's rise. The US has also been beefing up its forces in Guam, a Pacific island territory. In January, Washington renewed diplomatic ties with strategically important Myanmar and released a strategy statement that said "we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region".

This disengagement from the Middle East should result in less regional resentment about US influence. What's more, with the death of Osama bin Laden and the rise of the Arab voice, the era of the late Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb and jihadist terrorism may be coming to a close. For the most part, Islamists today - from Morocco to Jordan, from Egypt to Tunisia and beyond - seem less inclined to violence and, like the general populace, more appreciative of the pull of pluralism. "It's the first time in 600 years that Arab people have an opportunity to determine their own affairs," says Gerges. "The world is being born before our eyes."

All of which may alter the East-West dynamic that's part of the international landscape at least since 9/11. "There's always been this whole conspiratorial notion about the US being behind the Middle East," says Gerges. "Now we might finally see some healing and normalisation of America's relations with the Muslim world, and the Arab world in particular."

That healing is unlikely to be complete without a resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, countries facing new regimes are sure to have a hard time achieving stability without a degree of external assistance. Gerges hopes to see mini-Marshall Plans for Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, coming from Europe or Turkey, Iran or wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar.

One key international player is noticeably absent from this list. "What can the US achieve without the influence, without the resources?" Gerges wonders. "The Arab uprisings have starkly exposed the beginning of the end of America's moment there."

Ran January 2012:

Election Marks Next Phase of Egypt's Democratic Struggle

For The National, November 2011:

Barring an election delay, Egyptian voters heading to the polls next week could put their country on the road to becoming Turkey, that regional beacon of Muslim democracy, or Iran, that dark, authoritarian theocracy - or a military state somewhere in between. Some 6,000 candidates from over 50 political parties are running, but Islamist groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood are likely to gain a near-majority of parliamentary seats.

What they do with that power - whether they push for a more Sharia-influenced constitution, how aggressively they confront the military - may well decide the fate of the new Egypt. Few are better placed to assess the shifting political landscape than Gunes Murat Tezcur, who has studied Muslim political actors across the region, particularly in Iran and Turkey. If Egypt's Islamists hope to establish a legitimate democracy, he urges them to strike a balance: be patient enough to gain political legitimacy, yet stay vigilant for opportunities to confront the military.

"A reformist government has the best chance of reducing the power of the military when it is confrontational, but has also accumulated enough power to overcome the military's resistance, as in the case of Turkey," Tezcur says during a recent interview in his office at Chicago's Loyola University, where he lectures on political Islam and democracy.

Tezcur's book, Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation, applies moderation theory to Turkey's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the Reform Front in Iran. The theory describes the process by which radical political actors - such as Islamist parties, or socialist parties in Europe at the turn of the last century - begin to accept pluralist electoral politics and the rule of law and move away from provocation in order to win the necessary votes to gain office.

The AKP is among the most successful contemporary examples. "Here you have an Islamist party rising in the late 1980s ... and it soon became clear that they could not get the votes they needed to win elections," explains Tezcur, a 32-year-old Turkish national. "So a younger generation led by Tayyip Erdogan helped the party shift to a more centrist platform."

Today, the AKP's grip on power is practically unchallenged. In Iran, however, former president Mohammad Khatami and his Reform Front lost traction several years ago because "they failed to use their leverage to gain concessions from the Guardian's Counsel and other Iranian institutions," says Tezcur. "Ultimately they could not change the power structure."

The question, then, is whether Egypt's Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, can successfully navigate the shoals of transition like the AKP, or are doomed to smash against the rocks of authoritarianism like the Reform Front. Meanwhile, some western observers continue to question whether Egypt's Islamist groups are working towards liberal democracy at all.

Tezcur argues that, for Islamist parties, embracing pluralist politics and becoming more open-minded (ideological moderation), helps move along the process of democratisation. But becoming less confrontational and building coalitions (behavioural moderation), can be problematic. "Behavioural moderation is not necessarily conducive to democratic progress," he says. "In certain contexts, as happened in Iran recently, it actually hampers democratisation. This is the paradox of moderation."

He sees this tension between behavioural moderation and the process of democratisation as central to politics in post-Mubarak Egypt. Indeed, many have pointed to Turkey as a model for Egypt, both as a successful, modern Islamic state, and for its leadership, in the AKP.

Egypt has a powerful, politically influential military, as Turkey had for decades. In both countries, Islamist groups have been oppressed for long periods - the Muslim Brotherhood under Mubarak; the AKP before coming to power. Turkey's Kurds and Egypt's Copts have faced varying degrees of marginalisation for half a century. Finally, millions of secular, modern urbanites in both countries must accept that more conservative, more religious voters in smaller cities make up the balance of the population.

"Turkey is a model because of its success in politics, economics, foreign policy in recent years," says Tezcur. "But there are so many differences between Egypt and Turkey." Turkey has seven decades of mostly free and fair elections, while Egypt is having its first legitimate vote. Turkey's middle class is larger and more influential. And most importantly, there has never been a mainstream demand for Sharia.

Tezcur believes the Egyptian military is unlikely to gain the type of power long held by their Turkish equivalents, mainly because of the Kurdish insurgency. "Their argument is that 'We are fighting against the terrorists, the insurgents, so we need more power,' which basically means they can dominate the civilian government," says Tezcur. "Unless the Copts become insurgents, I don't think you'll have the same problem in Egypt."

Yet Egypt's military leadership, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), has been consolidating its power. Scaf generals recently drafted supra-constitutional principles that would increase military controls and leave the generals free of civilian oversight. Muslim political parties have vehemently rejected the principles, and tens of thousands of protesters returned to Tahrir Square last week calling for the military to reduce its grip on power. Back and forth clashes between protesters and security forces on the square - the most violent since the departure of Mubarak - have resulted in several deaths and hundreds injured.

The Scaf "has emerged as the most serious threat in the transition to democracy," Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote last week. "The military rules Egypt - and it intends to maintain its control indefinitely."

Some generals have begun to depict Scaf as the guarantor of Egyptian secularism - much the same role as Turkey's military held for decades. "We want a model like Turkey, but we won't force it," an anonymous Scaf general told The Washington Post in July. "Egypt as a country needs this to protect our democracy from the Islamists. We know this group doesn't think democratically."

Of course, the AKP has in recent years pushed the Turkish military from its lofty perch, from where it had muscled out a handful of civilian regimes since 1950. In consolidating its current position, the Egyptian military hopes to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from doing the same.

Still, a quick glance at the list of political players in Egypt reveals the AKP's influence: the Building and Development Party, Change and Development, and Equality and Justice, all Islamist parties; the Justice Party, a liberal group; and of course the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice.

"These groups look at the AKP as very successful, because it's kind of a cross-class party, with large support among merchants, traders and the middle class and also lower classes," says Tezcur. It has also managed to run a sizeable country rather well for a decade, and has made the military its subordinate. "For these Egyptian parties, this is the model."

Three party lists are most important: the Islamist Alliance, including Nour and the Islamic Group's Building and Development Party; the Democratic Alliance, led by the Brotherhood; and the liberal Egyptian Bloc, featuring the Free Egyptians and Social Democrats. Liberal groups and secular parties led by youths who fomented the revolution in Tahrir Square are expected to garner about a fifth of the total vote, while Islamist parties are likely to receive about half (40 per cent for the Brotherhood; five to 10 per cent for Salafis).

Once in power, Egypt's Islamist reformers are likely to fare better than Iran's Reform Front, as the Scaf has nowhere near the deep roots and influence of Ayatollah Khamanei and the Guardian's Counsel. Yet Iran still offers a cautionary tale for Egyptian parties: being patient is good, but being too patient could be disastrous.

"On the one hand, they may pursue a patient or gradual strategy in order not to provoke the military," says Tezcur. "The risk is that they miss unique opportunities and lose their influence over time. On the other hand, they may directly confront the military and risk repression." Another concern is how the Brotherhood and the Salafis will treat Copts and Muslim minorities. "The real challenge is more about how to protect individual liberties and minority rights," says Tezcur.

If Islamist groups are to achieve lasting success, their leaders must be charismatic, open to new ideas and willing to challenge the party hierarchy. About a decade ago, Erdogan appeared at the forefront of a new, open-minded generation of Islamists in Turkey.

When the Turkish prime minister landed in Cairo for a September visit, a Brotherhood-organised crowd of thousands greeted him at the airport with shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" Erdogan spoke of secularism and later met a handful of religious and political leaders, including Muslim Brotherhood chairman Mohammed Badie.

Details of their meeting were kept secret, but Tezcur thought Erdogan might have advised Brotherhood leaders to follow the example of the AKP, which held power for years before going after the most powerful generals. "He would tell them not to get overexcited, to be more strategic, and pursue your policies more patiently and gradually," says Tezcur.

Patience is likely to be a virtue for all the candidates. It will require more than four months of staggered rounds of parliamentary votes for all of Egypt's 40 million eligible voters to have their chance at the polls. Many observers are convinced the organisational strength of the Brotherhood will win out, and Islamists will gain a high percentage of the early vote. This could put the fear of Sharia rule in both the military leadership and liberal youth, sparking more widespread protests and violence.

Either way, Egypt's path to democratisation is only beginning. Tezcur says it takes years for a single party or group of parties to gain the strength required to stare down entrenched powers.

"It takes a couple of elections before you see which party becomes most prominent, which has the best social networks and can draw votes from the various sectors of society," he says. "In Egypt, there may only be a few opportunities on which to capitalise to achieve a breakthrough towards democratisation. If you miss them, who knows when they will next be available."

Ran November 2011:

Ayad Akhtar Bursts onto the Literary Scene

For The National

By David Lepeska

Ayad Akhtar’s writing career may have begun with a whimper, but aspiring writers and literary historians may someday study his early years for clues to his eventual meteoric rise.

In a freshman-year fiction class at the University of Rochester, in New York, Akhtar’s professor urged him to send one of his short stories to The New Yorker for publication.

“I never sent it, I was too scared,” the 41-year-old recalled during a recent interview at the American Theatre Company on Chicago’s North Side. “I felt I was going to be called out as a fake. So I stopped writing and didn’t write for seven years.”

Akhtar fell into theatre, teaching acting in New York and Europe before studying film and writing screenplays. He gained confidence, life experience and a firmer grasp of drama. Then, several years ago, he found his voice and tapped into a geyser of creativity.

His script for the 2005 film The War Within – in which he played the lead role – earned several screenwriting honours. More recently, critics have lavished praise on his debut novel, American Dervish, published last month. His first play has won mostly positive notices since its late January premiere in Chicago, and its producers hope to move it to Broadway. To top it off, another Akhtar play will debut in the United States in March.

“This is an embarrassment of riches that I don’t understand,” he says with a shrug and a bewildered grin. “I think this business, show business, is a business of attrition. Sooner or later your relationships, your craft and your voice will coalesce into something, but you have to stick it out.”

Born in 1970 outside Milwaukee, Akhtar grew up in a mostly white, well-to-do suburb. Both of his Punjab-born parents worked as doctors. Much like the parents of Hayat Shah, the 10-year-old, Milwaukee-reared protagonist of his novel, Akhtar’s parents maintained a certain distance from the local Pakistani community, and from Islam.

Today, Akhtar lives in New York City’s Harlem. He is slim and poised, with long, elegant fingers and a standard expression of Midwestern welcome. He moves with an actor’s deliberateness and speaks with the confidence of a man in firm grasp of his art.

“There was something about the Quran and stories of the Prophet that pointed at an unfathomable depth of experience,” he says, recalling being drawn to Islam at nine years old. Then he remembers a less austere touchstone from that period. “In the Empire Strikes Back, Yoda’s discourses on reality with Luke Skywalker resonated in the same way.”

A similarly open-minded approach to identity stands out in his work. In Dervish, a key Jewish character considers converting to Islam for marriage, while the young protagonist negotiates between the minimalist Islam of his parents, the devout Islam of a live-in family friend and the liberated Muslim adolescents of 1980s Wisconsin.

After swearing off writing, Akhtar transferred to Brown University, in Rhode Island, to study theatre. He earned a film degree from Columbia University and, by age 25, had become a struggling screenwriter.

“I worked with all these amazing producers and got beat up,” says Akhtar, citing executives from Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Pictures and Mark Burnett, of reality TV fame, among his mentors. “That four-year apprenticeship in writing screenplays taught me so much.”

The main lesson may have been a shift in perspective. After years of writing about external, less familiar subjects, he returned to his own life, to Pakistani-Americans, and writing became a joy. “At some point I realised I was avoiding who I really was, and that’s when people started connecting with my work,” says Akhtar.

Over the next eight years he wrote The War Within (with a Columbia film school classmate), American Dervish and his two plays, Disgraced and Invisible Hand. The day after his agent sent it out to publishers, the novel sold to Little, Brown and Company, a top literary firm, for six figures. Within a fortnight the rights had been snapped up in nearly 20 countries.

The plays may be a more difficult sell, with their grim portraits of contemporary Muslim life. In Disgraced, the cousin of the protagonist, Amir, advocates taqiyyah, or dissembling to protect one’s faith. In a recollection from his childhood, Amir’s mother spits on her own son for his adolescent interest in a Jewish girl – a dismissal he in turn passes on to the girl. Beaten down by the delicate politics of post-9/11 America, Amir ultimately destroys his marriage and his life.

In Invisible Hand, which opens next month at St. Louis’ Repertory Theatre, an American investment banker working on emerging markets in Pakistan is kidnapped by extremists who force him to generate his own ransom by trading stocks. The story draws a connection between violent extremism and the havoc wreaked by the global financial system.

Akhtar admits that his stage works – set in the post-9/11 world – are darker and less optimistic than his novel. “The plays are both pretty dystopian,” he says. “They pose dark questions about the realities of where we are politically.”

Kimberly Senior, the director of Disgraced, reads three or four plays a week and watches close to 100 every year. Yet she saw something new in Akhtar’s first play. “It blew me away,” she says, “I was shocked and couldn’t believe that Ayad had gone there. This is a story that hasn’t been told.”

New York’s Araca Group, which recently produced A View from the Bridge, starring Scarlett Johannson, co-produced the Chicago production of Disgraced with ATC and hopes to take the play to Broadway.

Akhtar is doing his best to stay grounded. He calls himself “deeply devout”. His disdain for bigotry against women is clear in his work, particularly in the character of Mina Ali.

Intelligent and strikingly beautiful, Mina is an undeniably charismatic presence in American Dervish. She is also a devout Muslim and, as Akhtar wrote in a recent essay for The Daily Beast, “subject – in tragic ways – to a patriarchal order with which she struggles”.

The New York Times described American Dervish as “effortlessly told” and “immensely entertaining”, comparing it to the work of Jhumpa Lahiri and Neil Simon. The latter reference greatly pleased Akhtar, who cites Jewish-American writers such as Simon, Woody Allen, Philip Roth and Jerry Seinfeld among his influences.

“I feel like they’ve given me a way to tell stories about a religious minority in the American project,” he says. “That’s really the sensibility that’s informed me more than any Muslim writers of my generation.”

In his writing Akhtar strives only to give pleasure and to be guided by the truth. It’s an artistic mandate that appears to be working. He’s completed his third play, a comedy. He’s talking to Hollywood about producing one of his screenplays. And he’s waist-deep into his next novel, involving a Pakistani-American artist living in Vienna. “It’s about young western Muslims dealing with identity in a very highly politicised environment,” he says. “Things in Europe are of course disastrous right now.” On a recent trip, says Akhtar, German border guards rudely asked only the Muslims aboard a train from Austria for their papers. Days later, a German villager, muttering under his breath, called Akhtar a “Taliban” and told him to get out of the country.

Much as Europeans are grappling with a staggering influx of immigrants and their unfamiliar culture, Akhtar sees Muslims the world over struggling to balance modern life with Islam. Some are moving towards a more fundamentalist interpretation, while others have embraced a more moderate stance. “The jury is still out as to what direction this is going to take,” says Akhtar.

Though his writing focuses on Muslim life in the West, Akhtar has a message for those looking to anoint him as the spokesperson for Muslim America. “People expect a writer to be a spokesman for a community,” says Akhtar. “I am not a spokesman for anything. I’m an artist, and I should be judged on how convincing my portrayals are.”

Ran February 2012: