Steve Bogira grew up in a blue-collar family on the southwest side. While attending Northwestern University on a Chick Evans caddie scholarship, he wrote several profiles for the Sun-Times and Tribune Sunday magazines–about a newstand vendor at State and Madison, a South Shore woman who was leading boycotts of her daughter’s overcrowded school, a singing peanut vendor, and the CTA’s most veteran busdriver.
After college, he wrote features for the Tribune for three years. Then he left the Trib for the Reader because he wanted to write regularly about uncelebrated Chicagoans in overlooked neighborhoods. In his early Reader stories, he described a family’s first communion celebration in Pilsen, detailed the bleak conditions for childbirth at Cook County Hospital, and recounted the lives of four Chicagoans buried in a potter’s field.
More than 30 years later, he’s still writing those kinds of stories for the Reader.
With the help of an Alicia Patterson fellowship, Bogira also wrote Courtroom 302, a chronicle of one year in one courtroom in the criminal courthouse on Chicago’s south side. The book was anthropological. Through portraits of defendants and courtroom staff, Bogira showed what was typical of a criminal courthouse. Instead of headline miscarriages of justice, he described “how justice miscarries every day, by doing precisely what we ask it to.” The price of those daily miscarriages, the book demonstrated, was borne mainly by African-Americans. Courtroom 302 won the Society of Midland Authors award in 2006.
Bogira, who was a stay-at-home father and taught infant-care classes at Michael Reese Hospital, has often focused on poverty’s special impact on young children and their parents. For the better part of a year he charted the path of three homeless families headed by young mothers who were friends. He recalled in intimate detail the life and death of a west-side teen mother who perished in a fire after saving her two children. He’s written about teen fathers as well, and about the emotional and neurological damage caused by child abuse and neglect. He’s also written with empathy about less sympathetic subjects, including violent offenders.
Lately he has written analytical stories and posts for the Reader about what he considers Chicago’s most fundamental problem—its racial and economic segregation. His coverage of race won first place last year in beat reporting from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.
Though his recent writing has been more diagnostic, Bogira is not chiefly a pundit. He prefers to examine poverty from the inside out, through the lives of the people he listens to and observes. He hopes to tell many more of their stories during his next 30 years at the Reader.