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Open Letter

Thank you for not speaking to me for an entire year when I was writing a column for the Sun-Times, often centering on the Chicago City Council. Truthfully, I can't remember exactly what I wrote to prompt such an uncharacteristic response from you. But I do know there were many at City Hall who wished they knew my secret.

I do recall the first time you yelled at me, back in 1998. You came over to the press box and screamed that you were going to report me to the Jewish Defense League for anti-Semitic writing, and I believe there was some talk of a possible JDL lawsuit.

This was because I mentioned, at the end of a column, your announcement to the Council that you and Ald. Berny Stone would soon visit Israel and the Western Wall.

"It is a custom to go in front of the Wall and wish certain wishes," you declared. "If any of you would like to put that wish on a piece of paper and seal it and give it to Ald. Stone, who is more religious than I am, we will be glad to place these pieces of paper in the Wall."

Now, this is what got you: An alderman standing near me muttered his wish - "Yes, that Ald. Natarus would quiet down a bit."

That was it. That was all it took. The odd thing about you, Ald. Natarus, was that you never shouted at me for the substantive critical things I wrote, only the throw-away lines.

For instance, after Ald. Lorraine Dixon died, I wrote a column about how impressive she was as president pro tempore. Dixon presided over Council meetings whenever Mayor Daley was out of the room, which usually included unpleasant debates. Nothing ruffled her. The only time I heard her sound alarmed, I noted, was when you said you were going to tell an Ebonics joke.

Rather than yelling at me personally, you went to the Sun-Times Building, found editorial page editor Steve Huntley, and yelled at him instead, insisting you never said anything about an Ebonics joke. It isn't often in this world that we are given the gift of being able to make one person completely, utterly happy. You gave me this gift. I'll never forget Steve's reaction when I told him I had it on tape. Later, you came back to the Sun-Times to hear Steve play the tape, and apologized for the fuss. Good times.

Now, your recent defeat in seeking a tenth term representing the 42nd ward is not quite on the same level as America throwing out Ford for Carter, Carter for Reagan, or even Bush I for Bill Clinton. Still, after 36 years, you've talked your way into the story of Chicago. Naturally you must wonder: How will history treat Burton Natarus?

Why wait. Let's get started right now.

I believe that future public assessments of you will, at least in part, be radically different from current common wisdom. This will not necessarily reach the level of Harry Truman's post-presidential transformation from small-time huckster to beloved common man. For one thing, it would be impossible to title any book by or about you Plain Speaking.

Throughout your public career, you have been vilified in two major ways: First, as a willing tool of out-of-control greedy developers, which has made you the enemy of preservationists; and second, as a buffoon endlessly fulminating about the petty grievances of urban life, which has made you the alderman most likely to say "poop" or its synonym on the Council floor.

On the first count, history is not likely to vindicate you. North Michigan Avenue is an architectural travesty, even if it features more tulips right now than Holland and Holland, Michigan, combined. It is only the most glaring example of your lack of architectural stewardship. If we think of you as a shepherd watching over a flock of historically significant buildings, you would be the boy who never cried "Wolf!". Even when the wolf was careening toward the herd in a bulldozer, with John Buck riding shotgun. I guess it's hard to yell when you're practically choking on $22, 864 in campaign contributions from real estate interests.*

However, I think people will someday come to laud your prescience in crucial matters like horse shit, dog
shit, overzealous street performers, and insane roller bladers. Am I the only person in town who has been nauseated by horse droppings, stepped in dog excrement, deafened by people beating on plastic buckets, and nearly killed by an errant roller blader? Of course, that didn't all happen to me in one day. But it could have.

Not long ago, I wrote about the person who let their dog defecate at the corner of 58th and Kimbark, thus ruining my ten-year-old daughter's favorite shoes. My idea then was to establish a city-wide DNA database of dogs, so negligent owners could be ID'd by the DNA in their dog's shit. I suppose some people would not treat that as a serious public policy proposal, but I think you would understand. Unfortunately, now it's too late.

You were right about driving and cell phones, too. It's ridiculous that the ordinance had to be watered down to allow people to talk on headsets, but hey - you tried. I'm beginning to think cell phones should be banned anywhere outside the user's own home, I'm that sick of them.

Until September 11, 2001, Rudy Giuliani built his entire political career on this type of stuff, and New York City is infinitely better off for it. But I'm not going to suggest that you should run for mayor now. That could still get you in trouble.

I sincerely hope you'll thrive in retirement. Spend time with your beloved dogs. Go whitewater rafting more often - you used to love bringing photos from your rafting trips over to the press box. You may miss the occasional yelling, because I think you enjoyed that part too. If so, give me a call anytime.


Cate Plys

* Developing Government Accountability to the People (DGAP), a citywide coalition of community groups, issued "Report Card for Chicago 2006" detailing campaign contributions to aldermen. Contributions from "Real Estate Construction Development and Management" totaled $1,758,760. Yours was the largest take from that pot, Ald. Natarus, at 13 percent.


Open Letter is open to letters. Send comments to And catch up with the classics in our Open Letter catalog.


Posted on May 10, 2007

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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