Oh, you know we have to do this. It’s not something we take lightly, of course. But we either point out some of the WORST about this community over the past decade, or our BEST lists don’t mean much. We are good for very little if we never turn our attention towards what was painful, and what could improve.

And it is painful to write these entries, every year. We don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, or to criticize, and we certainly do not intend to make fun of anyone. We try to punch up, as it were. But from pain comes growth, and from growth, possibility. I could pontificate about this philosophical paradigm further, but instead, will offer you a selection from one of my favorite poets, Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese author, who wrote a book called The Prophet that continues to hold value each year that I stay alive.

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses
your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its
heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

— Seth Fein, Publisher

WORST Attempts at Food Porn: Local Restaurants

The advent of the internet has done wonders for food. Look at those amazing cheese platters and fancy doughnuts and idiotic milkshakes. Behold the wonder of colorful cookies and vegetables and gooey mac and cheese. But with all technology, there is a risk of user error. And boy, so many things can go wrong when you’re photographing food to share on the internet. Our local restaurants, bless their little hearts, try so very hard to post enticing photos of their dishes, to showcase the awesomeness they create, but sometimes, it’s a big fat fail. Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder (as I pointed out last year), but there is a standard: it shouldn’t look like partially digested cat food. If this sort of thing floats your boat, check out this wonderful sampling of terrible food photos above. (JH)

Photos by [redacted]

WORST Ongoing Issue: Chief Illiniwek

If you are a regular reader of Smile Politely, then you know that we have made our position on the Chief quite known; you can find examples here, here, and here, and those are just within the past few years. If you want all of the reasons that the Chief is problematic, you will find them within those articles.

I’d like to speak to this as someone who, in the not too distant past, was a fan of the Chief. You wouldn’t have to go very far back to find photos of me in my Chief shirt. As a rather die hard Illini basketball fan and season ticket holder back in the day, I clapped along with the Three-in-One, folded my arms, shouted “Chieeeef” in that deep voice as he walked off the court. I continued doing those things even after he was “retired” in 2007. I didn’t see what the big deal was. At the time, I thought, “It’s not like he’s some caricature. It’s TRADITION. It gives people warm fuzzy memories. It’s about school pride.” Yada yada yada. I was one of those “well meaning white people” who thought “gosh, aren’t there so many other things that we should be worried about?” Over the past few years, that way of thinking has changed. Basically, I started listening. And reading. And processing. And realizing my privileged role in all of this, and in a lot of things, actually, but we’re focused on the Chief here. School pride and tradition and warm fuzzy memories don’t matter if an entire group of people are being marginalized and silenced. And that’s it. The debate should end there. 

The fact that this topic is STILL a thing, at the end of 2019, is absurd. Are we seriously still having panels and commissions and reports and sit downs with “both sides” about this? Please, University of Illinois, let’s lay this to rest, once and for all. It’s been an excruciatingly long ripping off of a band-aid, slowly yanking each hair, and it’s time to just rip the fucker off and deal with the short-lived pain of that act, rather than continuing to beat our heads against this wall of indecisiveness. New mascot or no new mascot, buck up, make a decision, and quit enabling the ghost of the Chief so we can all move on with our lives. (JM)

Photo from Getty Images

WORST Design Aesthetic: Skyscrapers in Campustown

The newly formed skyline in and around Green St. in Campustown is a showcase to both residents and visitors that we are, indeed, a city. Towns do not have upwards of a dozen buildings over fifteen stories tall that tower over its people. Towns do not house literally hundreds and hundreds of people inside of one singular building, in hundreds of bedrooms, with hundreds of kitchens.

Our skyline is a showcase that we have grown into ourselves, as a city. It is something to revere, theoretically, and conceptually.

Sadly, the physical presence of these buildings are a punchline around these parts, a bad joke. No one, and I mean literally not one person, who has come back to visit, or who has arrived here to decide if they want to stake a career, has walked down Green St. and looked up and said, “That is beautiful" or "That’s absolutely stunning.” Rather, at best, they might just mutter about how much things have changed. 

That the City of Champaign does not have a commission to regulate design and aesthetics for new construction is deeply troubling, especially given our history. At present, it appears that developers can essentially submit what they choose, and get approved without any formal process that guides what the building will actually look like.

I've heard politicians state that it's not worth it to scare off developers with undue demands that may cost them money. Well if it's a game of chicken, at least play the game. And in the end, you wish they'd remember that people want to build here for a reason. We're a growing and affluent community, by and large. We should at least ask that the structures built that are visible for miles and miles are pleasing, and dare I suggest it, memorable and perhaps even beautiful. Chicago seems to get it.

I understand that this sort of thing is difficult, and requires attention, which ultimately requires resources and money. But if we are alive for one purpose, in the end, it is to improve upon what we’ve been given.

We were once a community that paid special attention to aesthetics. This is a city that was built by brilliant people, designed specifically to house young people for 4-6-8 years at a time, and hopefully, perhaps, for a lifetime. The ghosts of Abramovitz, Royer, Weese, and Ramey don’t creep in the shadows. They stand as our centerpieces. We associate our homes and our lives with these iconic structures, because they offer us more than their utility.

Fortunately, we’ve got a few good examples of what a tall building should look like. I have always been pleased by the design of 309 Green — The Whopper — the first new tower to go up. Balconies add a dimension to any square building that gives it life, and offers us a chance to breathe in the air. Rooftop decks do the same thing. The new building on 6th and Green looks like it will be a good step in the right direction, with a dark glass facade, and attention paid to its ground level shops. Core Spaces truly seems to give pause before they build, and for that I am grateful. Green St. Realty does a nice job too, quite frankly, and they get better as time goes on. The JSM Marriott hotel on 6th and Green has a nice brick facade, and this is a good step in the right direction. 

But that doesn't change what we’re now stuck with: a collection of mostly pedestrian and lazy towers. They overshadow the amazing work below it; the majesty of Krannert Center; the futuristic vision in the building formerly known as Assembly Hall; the rugged shoulders of Memorial Stadium; the bucolic perch of Urbana High School.

We do not have to grow in this way. We can be better than this. And we should all want that. (SF) 

Photo by Andrew Dunham

WORST Business Owner: Dennis Toeppen

I’ve written about Dennis Toeppen so many damn times. If there is something related to Toeppen or Suburban Express (the latter being news from SE’s grave) comes across our "desk" at Smile Politely, I might just have to pass on it because enough is enough already with ole DT.

The disgraced business owner of Suburban Express (which is now out of business, perhaps cementing him for this category), Dennis Toeppen has a horrific resume. He sent horribly racist messages to patrons of his business many times over the years. Enough times to make him literally go through this ridiculous PR stunt where he went to China(!) to act as if he actually cared about Chinese students that utilized Suburban Express. He did all of this even though it was made abundantly clear he despised these patrons of his business, and thought these reasonable individuals were just being a pain in his ass. Please read about it here so you can understand a bit more if you're unfamiliar with the situation.

It is really too bad all of this happened, because it definitely didn't have to be this way. I understand being frustrated with customers, but these reactions by Toeppen were just straight up unreasonable.

Eventually, Suburban Express was sued into submission by the Illinois Attorney General, which was enough to get it shut down. I truly hope I don’t have to write anything further about Toeppen and Suburban Express in 2020. I don’t think my heart can handle it. (PS)

Photo by Dennis Toeppen

WORST Loss to the Community: Queer Spaces in C-U

For far too short a time, Champaign-Urbana enjoyed a wealth of gay-owned and gay-friendly spaces that we could call our own. I remember weekly drag shows at Chester Street Bar; Emerald City Lounge’s concerts, talent shows, Taco Tuesdays, and Sunday brunches; The UP Center’s annual film festival and its busy, almost daily, calendar of events. I remember celebrating marriage equality with friends at Boltini Lounge, and protesting with U of I’s LGBT Resource Center. These are cherished memories. While The UP Center and LGBT Resource Center are still out there doing great things, there is now a noticeable absence of queer spaces in C-U. 

I noticed the shift in attitude regarding the need for gay/lesbian-only spaces in the mid 2000s. Suddenly, “A for ally” was tacked onto the alphabet: LGBTQA. I remember telling a friend that the “LGBT pub crawl” with “allies welcome” on the announcement wasn’t actually “LGBT” if everyone could come. It was just a cool pub crawl. That was an unpopular thing for me to say. I even felt the need to discuss it in an article about Pride:

Queer people need spaces and events that we can call our own. We will always gravitate to these spaces. And if we move to a place that doesn’t have them, we will form them, no matter how small. Or we will travel to them (I attended pride festivals in Chicago and St. Louis before we had The UP Center). We always will. And it won’t matter that we’re accepted, or that we live in welcoming, supportive, gay-friendly cities. We’ll want these spaces and events. We’ll need these spaces and events.

And the reason for this is that (in this sense, at least) we’re just like everybody else. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t, at one time or another, seek out others who have similar beliefs, interests, experiences, pasts, etc. We do it for support and comradery. All people have things about themselves that place them in a minority from the larger group. It can be who they are ethnically, or racially, or (in this context) sexually. Or it can be a health issue or disability. Or something terrible, like abuse or grief. Or a particular spirituality or political ideology. Or it can be something fun like a particular sport, or SCA, comic-con, role-players. Do any of you know competitive bridge players? If you do, then you know what I’m talking about.

We’re just doing what everyone else enjoys doing, gathering with others with whom we share important, meaningful experiences and identities.

Soon enough, those LGBT gatherings became “gay friendly” gatherings. Eventually, they simply faded away. I came of age during a time when lesbian- and gay-only spaces were necessary. Not just wanted or loved, but necessary. Same-sex couples, as a rule, had nowhere to go but safe, gay-owned places, if they wanted to be themselves. While today’s queer youth enjoy much more freedom, it's still important for these spaces to exist, and it's sad to see so many of them gone. For an amazing deep dive into the history of queer spaces here, read this. (TN)

Photo from Chester Street Facebook page

WORST Local Governing Body: Champaign Unit 4 School Board 2010 - 2015

We did a lot of reporting on the Unit 4 referendum debacles of the past decade. We chimed in on strikes and potential strikes because of stalemates between school board and teacher’s unions. In short, it was an absolute mess. The school board in Champaign's Unit 4 were the worst local governing body of the decade, and trust me, they had plenty of competition between District 116, the County Board, and Champaign City Council. But they take the prize. 

Before the (mostly) new board was voted in, the previous twenty years had been rough for Unit 4. I will not take you down a winding road, recapping the worst of the Arthur Culver years and the Consent Decree, and I am not going to rehash the endless river of shit that was laid before us by the school board in the first half of this past decade, either. You can read about it again it if you wish

The good news is that we’re in a much, much better place now. This new school board has been more than excellent, on the whole. There are things about which I’ve disagreed. Nothing will ever be perfect. But we did pass a referendum on a 70/30 margin that included robust input from the community, and that kept our young adults where they belong for the foreseeable future. Keeping Central Central was at the center of a comprehensive facilities upgrade, and they got that done. It appears as though the next contract negotiation with CFT will be smooth, at least by comparison to previous ones.

And for that, we should be thankful and grateful to the people who did that work for nothing more than the good of the community. I certainly am. (SF)

Photo courtesy of WILL / Illinois Public Media

WORST Economic Initiative: Video Poker Lounges

We recently wrote an editorial about this, which pretty clearly explains our feelings. Here’s the gist: The prioritization of video gambling represents the lack of concern by city leadership for those who fall victim to them. Saying that people have the “freedom” to spend their money as they wish in this situation presupposes a conscious choice to ignore the negative impact on the community; this mentality by our representatives indicates they would rather have the city earn money off of the machines than curb a culture that preys on people for profit, or find more cogent alternatives to a lingering budget problem in the city.

I think this is less about bars and restaurants adding them, though it’s not awesome, but lounges like the one pictured above, that seem to pop up with frightening regularity, do nothing to enhance the culture of our community, and they serve a sole purpose of extorting money from people, many of whom don’t have that money to spare, as evidenced by their geographical distrubtion. (JM)

Photo by Patrick Singer

WORST Continued Publishing Tactic: Mugshots on The News-Gazette

We’ve touched on the topic of mugshots enough in the past: we published an Editorial Board piece about the meaning of them, and they were among the WORST of 2018. As early as January of 2015, we were calling it out. Though the company has been sold to CMG, we don’t envision this going away anytime soon. 

Sadly, this has become a profit center for the newspaper, reporting on people’s lowest moments. This sits adjacent to actual good reporting that’s done there that has an important place in the community. There’s plenty of news that discusses what you would see in a general police blotter in The News-Gazette, and while that’s their prerogative as a business, utilizing mugshots to make money is just wrong and immoral. Users can scroll through page after page of mugshots, each page littered with pop ups and banner advertising. We all know that people are going to click on mugshot articles because that’s what we’re programmed to do — focus on dramatic events that cause a stir. Many of the mugshots are related to arrests that haven’t even determined whether or not a person is guilty. 

With the rise of clickbait-for-profit on the internet throughout the decade, this is just poor form that doesn’t move the dial forward for our community in any way whatsoever. It is a practice we’d love to see discontinued, but don’t imagine that will happen any time soon. (PS)

Photo by Patrick Singer

WORST Elected Official: Joan Dykstra

This isn’t intended to be a personal attack against Ms. Dykstra, though I reckon it will be seen that way by people who know her. I’ve made my peace with that. Her thirty year career in public service, from County Board member to Savoy Village trustee to Village President is certainly something to acknowledge. That sort of commitment to a community speaks volumes about her interest in it, and I hope what follows does not diminish that fact. 

Admittedly, I’ve only just spent an hour with her, listening to her speak about the future of Visit Champaign County, a deeply important and hard working organization that relies upon funding from mostly taxpayer dollars. She didn’t have much to offer except that she didn’t think there was much use for it, particularly if it meant we were all going to have to chip in a few more bucks to help it thrive. In fact, she didn’t seem to think that anyone had much use for anything if it was coming from tax dollars, honestly. Ironically, she was a school teacher before she retired to politics.

For that sort of thing, that sort of perspective, it’s a shoulder shrug from me, and a chuckle. Most conservative politicians treat taxation like it were a syringe filled with leprosy, just waiting to dissolve us, and strip us of our “freedoms.” This is kooky talk. Even thoughtful right-wing people recognize that there’s value in what taxation accomplishes for us. I mean, at a minimum, they sure do like that big shit military prowess, do they not?

No, this sort of attribution is only awarded to an elected official that proudly promotes and sings the praises of bigots like they are brave, or worthy of reverence. Forget Donald Trump or Rodney Davis. They are at the tail end of their careers upending this nation, if there’s any will or luck left in this potentially great nation. Instead, we can just look at her post above about Andrew Minik, a former University of Illinois student who was impeached by the Illinois Student Government for a variety of reasons. He was also a Regional Field Director for Rodney Davis, but he ultimately got his start with an organization called Turning Point USA.

It’s pointless for me to try to educate anyone at this point about why Charlie Kirk and his brood of misfits are literally trying to dismantle what America is supposed to be about. This is why we are where we are. The debate is over. Sides are chosen. This is the new body politic. TPUSA is a disgusting organization who are hellbent on rewriting the constitution to fit their narrative, and their narrative doesn’t leave much room for improving the lives of people that have been marginalized for centuries in this country.

That the Village President of Savoy would proudly claim that a disciple of TPUSA is a "DYNAMIC speaker" and “someone to watch” with wild enthusiasm, the inference being that he is going to continue to be a voice and a presence in our elections and influence the electorate, is appalling. 

Oh Savoy… is this really the best you’ve got? I doubt it. Unseat this person, the next chance you get. (SF)

WORST U of I Scandal: Steven Salaita Firing 

A lot has been said about this situation (here, here, and here, for example). I’m not going to rehash all the details — you can find them yourself. The firing of Steven Salaita is among the worst offenses recently committed by (former) Board of Trustees and administration at the University of Illinois, because it undermined the autonomy of the American Indian Studies program and it did irreparable damage to relationships with current and future faculty. It also cost the University more than two million dollars, nevermind the damage done to the man’s life and career. Ultimately, though, it’s another example of how the University of Illinois has dismissed marginalized voices and perspectives. (JH) 

Photo from Steven Salaita's Twitter 

WORST: Rodney Davis

I feel like this entry needs a preface, one that addresses this news that came out yesterday, lest the following words be conflated with the words of an idiot who left a threatening message on Rodney Davis’ voicemail. We have been incredibly critical of Davis, and with good reason. Never, let me repeat, never have we condoned violence or threats of violence, and we never would. We hope, as seasoned readers of Smile Politely, that you would know this. But, it is the internet after all and believe it or not, some folks don't read critically. Part of our job is hold our elected officials accountable, especially when they are bad ones, and we will continue to do so. 

Yes, you read that correctly. Not WORST congressman, or WORST politician, or WORST taste in music, just WORST.

Rodney Davis has been our representative for the better part of the decade, but it’s really been the last few years, as he has affixed himself right to the side of an unabashedly racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, bottomless pool of corruption and yet also incompetance that is our current president. We really gave him hell in 2017, so much so that admonished ourselves for resorting to name-calling because yes, name-calling is a bit childish, Trump-ian in fact, and feeds into Rod’s continued over-usage of the phrase “vitriolic rhetoric.” A phrase that only seems to be applied to his opponents, never the man at the top. However, when it comes to criticizing his actions, it's all fair game. After carefully examining the evidence — you can do that yourself here, here, here, and also here — we’ve come to the conclusion that Rodney Davis is actually the WORST. (JM) 

Photo by Steven Pratten

WORST City Council Votes: Plaza Park 2014 + 2018

In 2014, the Champaign City Council voted down a proposal from city staff to redesign the parking lot that sits at the intersections of Washington and Neil, and Neil and Main. You know the one. It is triangular in shape, and backs up against The Orpheum Children’s Science Museum, Collective Pour, Meyer Drapery, that gym for rehabilitation, and Soma.

In 2018, they voted to pass a proposal that would start the process of turning it into a plaza, but not until there was access for automobiles and parking, to accommodate the businesses that sit out front.

In both cases, these were terrible decisions, the worst council votes taken over the past decade in either city. But let it be known: both Tom Bruno and Deb Feinen championed this project, both times, stating that they wanted what city staff recommended, on both occasions. They are exempt from any of the criticism that follows.

The reason it stands as the worst is that it is emblematic of a much bigger problem we seem to be struggling with as a community. We are not investing in the future of our people, into our mental health. This is not just about the people living today, but the people who will come after us. The future is going to be defined on how much space we can create for us to be together, in person. When we govern, we should govern for both ourselves, and for those coming up behind us.

The graphic you see above is the final rendering of what was proposed by MKSK, the design firm hired to create the blueprints for the Plaza Park. It is not even remotely effective or well planned, if you consider what the programming goals were supposed to be.

1. There is no defined or creative space for people with families to bring their children to play together outside. The open area with turf is forgettable and basic.

2. There is no consideration for how allowing any sort of motorized vehicle into the plaza (outside of emergency access) will completely dissolve the identity of its function. People do not celebrate and cherish parks and plazas where cars are driving by, looking for a parking spot. Yes, I realize it can be shut down to traffic. But that doesn't change its identity. With parking, it's still primarily a parking lot.

3. There is no thoughtful and low cost programming like an urban dog park, designed to bring us together over something we can all love. Is there anything in the modern world that brings us together like our lil fur babies? No! There is not.

4. Finally, and perhaps most annoying of all to me, they’ve positioned the "stage" — if that's what you want to call that poorly designed piece of shit — next to the existing and very successful One Main Plaza, which can play host to hundreds of patrons from KoFusion (for now) and Big Grove Tavern (to stay). This is a stage intended to present amplified music, primarily. These are people who are eating dinner and sharing conversation. And they put the stage next to it. You have to be pretty much brain dead to design something this ineffective.

I mean, even if you decided to point the band or performance north, away from the seating areas, the outcome is the opposite of what you want in a venue. 

I cannot impress upon you enough, dear reader, how disappointed I was with the final design of this Plaza Park proposal. Everything about it ended up the opposite of what it could have been, or should have been. The lead planner from Champaign on the project tried and tried to get council to hear them. Instead, they got steamrolled by the owner of a drapery shop and the owner of a geriatic gymnasium. We all had to stand by while the current crop of elected officials embarrassed themselves, as they seem to love doing these days, in front of people who know more than them, and have more sense about what should come next for the city. 

The city staff is at the direction of the elected or appointed city council. If they want anything to get done, it comes from intentional discussions with those who will be voting on it. To be clear: this is the design that the city council ultimately wanted, not what city staff wanted. That's the new way in Champaign, it appears. And it represents an extraordinary lack of foresight about the future of our how our community, and the world, is going to materialize. 

We should have built this parking lot into a plaza twenty years ago. We could have, of course. But we didn’t, and for the same reasons then, that exist today. It is deeply upsetting.

Nevermind for now, though. I will tell you more about it in the year 2040, while we are riding in autonomous electric vehicles of various sizes, as we reminisce about back in the day when we used to complain about the price of gas, the value of “working” as an Uber driver, and something called "looking for parking."  (SF)

WORST Place on the Internet, Locally: WCIA’s Facebook Comment Section

It’s been a few years since I wrote about how bad the commenting on WCIA’s Facebook page had gotten, but it is still terrible. Spaces like this make being on the internet absolutely intolerable, and it's worth pointing out how awful these keyboard warriors can get. 

I'll reiterate what I said last time: The trolls truly come to play on that playground of racist bullshit, and WCIA feeds them with posts like this. Or, more recently, controversy baiting wording like this

Who are these avid terrible WCIA commenters sitting on the toilet reading their phones and choosing to destroy another person or group of people before going back to the police blotter? Can we just end this Facebook.com website once and for all please? It is exhausting. (PS)

Screenshot from WCIA Facebook page

WORST Comprehensive Coverage: Smile Politely

We couldn’t really look back at the last decade and not take a look in the mirror, so to speak. As a very small operation with a very limited budget, we just can’t cover everything, and we miss things all the time. We aren’t great when it comes to covering events for and about and prioritizing small children. We aren’t great when it comes to reviewing all of the art or music events in town. School boards and city governments? They haven’t been our beat. We want to be better at thinking and writing about race and gender and class, and the ways those identifiers have real world, real life consequences to our community members. We want to publish writers with different life experiences than our own (white, middle class, college educated) ones. We want to provide a virtual space where anyone in C-U can see themselves reflected in the editors, writers, the events and restaurants we cover, the people we interview. 

We feel very privileged to be able to do what we do, and we genuinely appreciate any and all feedback, even if it’s constructive criticism sans the constructive part. As we move forward into SP’s second decade of coverage, we hope to get better. In the meantime, though, we’re fine with you calling us the WORST. (JH)

Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Tracy Nectoux, and Patrick Singer contributed to this article.