Smile Politely

WORST 2017

BEST week has turned into quite the culmination of good feelings over the course of a handful of years doing the series, but with that absolutely brings up feelings of “UGH” within the group of Editors that run this mag. We are so excited about what is happening here so often, but we’ve found that many times, we’re kinda pissed about certain components of the community. Everywhere has flaws, and if you choose to ignore those flaws, nothing will improve without discourse.

That’s our mantra in a lot of ways: we’re not even remotely perfect, so let’s own it, shall we? There’s nothing wrong with that.

So when it comes to the WORST column each year, we have to make choices. We make choices about what we’re willing to stick our necks out about and say, “you know what, this is REALLY upsetting”, or “you know who sucks?”, or “ugh, I can’t believe this is something that happens here.”

The list goes on and on in a lot of ways. We’re jaded, without question. I think that happens anytime you look at something close enough, no matter how much you love and care about it — you see the flaws across the board. We’re here to talk about some of those things, as we’ve continued to do over the course of the few years we’ve been doing this WORST column.

It is most definitely a fun one, but damn if it doesn’t wear us out a bit. We hope you don’t get too worn out reading this, but maybe you’ll take a look here and say, “oh yeah, I know what you mean!” or even better yet — “No no no, I disagree, and here’s why.” 

That’s kind of the best, if you ask us. Thanks for sticking it out with us this year, dear reader. — Patrick Singer

WORST attempt at political discourse
Illini Republicans Bake Sale

Okay this one was easy. Because seriously. This had asshole written all over it. To refresh your memory, the Illini Republicans decided that a great way to create discussion about affirmative action at the University of Illinois was to have a bake sale that charged different ethnicities different prices for baked goods… more for Asian-Americans, less for African-Americans… to prove a point about how they feel the university prioritizes applicants.Their aim was to “start a conversation”. Well that it did, about how obnoxious their little exercise was. Thankfully, we have a university community that stepped up with counter-sales, my favorite being Crescendo, an RSO that promoted their counter-sale with an I’m Not a Quota campaign on social media. You want to have an intelligent and thoughtful conversation on the merits affirmative action? Fabulous. But don’t generalize the experiences of students who you don’t know and apparently do not wish to learn about. (JEM)

WORST victim of the state budget (or lack thereof) THIS year
Courage Connection

Last year, the budget impasse in Springfield claimed R.A.C.E.S. as a victim, causing them to significantly reduce their services because of lack of funding. They are still working to rebuild. In April, we learned that Courage Connection was in danger of closing it’s doors for the same reason, lack of funding from the state. Courage Connection provides vital services for some of the most vulnerable in our community, women and children who are dealing with homelessness and the threat of domestic violence. The carnage increases with each year, social services and education being two of the hardest hit areas in the state and it looks like we’re about to enter year three without a resolution. On a positive note, the announcement from Courage Connection created a groundswell of support for the organization. Earlier this week, the Junior League of C-U announced it would be matching donations to Courage Connection up to $50,000. If successful, that would close the $100,000 gap they are currently facing. (JEM)

WORST new sculpture
Humpty Dumpty at Esquire

Although I will admit that the publisher of SP has a point about “art starting conversations”, I must dis-respectfully dis-agree with his stance on this egg. It’s not a good egg. In fact, I’m kind of pissed that I have to give it even more column space than the two positions it has already secured in BEST. 

ARTS: The only conversations I hear about it are, “Eeew, that creeps me out,” and “OMG — is he stoned?” Maybe kids love it, I don’t know, but kids love all kinds of weird things that aren’t actually good: Pinkalicious, eating their own boogers, Shopkins. 

CULTURE: OK, it was funny to dress him up as stoned, but Colorado Springs has a sculpture from this series and they pranked it so much harder — “stolen, replaced, dented, urinated on, vandalized with peanut butter and cigarettes, and finally, last fall, beaten so badly with a metal object that he was finally taken down,” reports R. Scott Rappold of the Gazette. As far as expressing ourselves regarding this art, I think we’re a distant second place; then again, I didn’t research every single one of the cities that owns one.

Oh? You didn’t know? Our Humpty is not even close to original. The Minnesota artist who created him — you know, the one who also is responsible for the Jester outside of Seven Saints, the one Seth Fein wants to “vandalize and do bad things to” — has been cranking both these babies out for years. They’re not just awful, they’re spreading, and we’re not just sloppy seconds, more like sloppy ninths. 

It’s ugly, it’s creepy, it’s tacky, it’s poorly stationed, it’s twice the Public Art League has made the conscious decision to financially support an out-of-state artist who makes skeevy sculptures. WORST. (RK)

WORST omission from the BEST Arts 2017
Dance-related content

Back in 2016, I had an Arts writer who loved and knew a lot about dance. This year, she had life to live and I had no one to fill the gap. As I went through the season, I wanted to include more dance content, but other than The Nutcracker and the visiting Russian ballet, I didn’t have the manpower or the knowledge to cover Dance well. Illinois’ Studiodance and November Dance always prove unique and interesting: whether they’re dancing to the Illiac machine or combining fashion with dance, taking on mental health, or myriad other explorations of body in space. Dance is something that’s beautiful to me, but a little out of my grasp, and I would love to have a writer who has something intelligent to say about the medium. But I was taught that if you can’t say something smart, don’t say nothin’ at all, so on behalf of Smile Politely Arts to the entire C-U Dance community, my deepest regrets. (RK)

WORST new concert series
SoFar Sounds

I want to be clear about one thing, before I go into it. The young fella that runs our local chapter of Sofar Sounds is destined to be great. You can just tell. By now, I feel like I know it when I see it, having spent the past 12 years or so working in this arena. Whatever Landen Rosenbloom chooses to do next, he will be great at it.

But what he’s doing right now is volunteering his time for a pretty incredible scam, for all intents and purposes. 

Sofar Sounds didn’t reinvent the house show. They just appropriated it. They branded it, and sold it to both venture capitalists and consumers with precision. It’s successful for two reasons. At this point in time, everyone is hungry for something that takes us away from our devices. From this very screen you are reading now. Additionally, I believe we all just want some sort of mystery. Something secret. Something where we feel like we are in on the caper.

So it’s no surprise to me that people are willing to fork over $15-$30 with the press of a thumbprint having no idea who is performing, where the show is being held, or what sort of people we will meet. 

If you have no idea what Sofar Sounds is, I implore you to read this article.

It’s spot on.

Fact is, if you are producing a show, you should always be willing to showcase your numbers to the performers, and pay them a fair cut of the take. I learned that early on, and never forgot it. Every venue is different. Every room, every production, every organization, has different expenses. It’s broad, and that’s OK.

For a show with literally almost no expenses, in a home, with no PA, and no hospitality being offered, with a promoter rep that is working as a volunteer, this deal should be 85% to the artists and 15% to the promoter.

But Sofar Sounds is paying a flat fee of $100 (up from $50 as of a couple of weeks ago after a slew of bad press), regardless of the artist performing, or the number of tickets sold. At a show where 50 tickets are sold, the artists are walking with less than 50%. On occasions where they are selling 100+ tickets, it’s even worse. This is not healthy for live music, especially right now, more than ever.

Consider that before you buy a ticket to a Sofar Sounds show. If you want to see a legit house show, you can just… find one. There are myriad house shows happening in town, all the time.

That’s the way it has been since the beginning of time. (SF)

WORST debut of a restaurant
Hamilton Walker’s

This one is tough to write. Over the past couple of years, we’ve made it a point to avoid posting wildly negative reviews of local restaurants to the best of our ability. It’s a slippery slope. On one hand, these are people with jobs, people who try hard. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know how difficult the job is. The two years I spent cooking on a line was enough for me to learn that it is a profession that is worthy of respect.

On the other hand, how will writing anything positive about a restaurant carry any true credence if we don’t ever talk about what isn’t good, and why it isn’t good? 

As I stated above, a slippery slope. 

You’ll notice, we simply haven’t run a review of Hamilton Walker’s.

But this is the one day of the year we point out what we think is the WORST about Champaign-Urbana, and given their massive marketing campaign, the multi-million dollar build out, and what I know about classic American steakhouses, here is my quick review:  

The place just falls flat. It has all of the makings of what could be a great steakhouse. But corners were cut in the very wrong places, and most importantly, it appears as though the consultants they hired don’t have a clue about what they hell they are doing.

Don’t get me wrong. The people there are kind. The menu reads as it should, given what they were shooting for. The prices are in line with what I’d call reasonable, given the nature of the restaurant, and the scope of its intentions.

But it doesn’t work, for a lot of reasons, but mostly because the food being served isn’t up to snuff. Not even close, really.

Of course, I could write out a list of what’s wrong, but I am really not interested in trying to snipe every single thing I’ve seen in my multiple visits. The list is too long, and I am already sort of asking to be barred from walking in the door by even writing this now. And that is a hard pill to swallow because I think that the bar and its lead bartender, Josh, is one of the tops in town.

I feel badly for having to say so, but at the risk of sounding pretentious as hell, I don’t think it’s too late to make the appropriate changes and right the ship, so to speak.

So I am really going to only state one thing, as an honest piece of advice, for the ownership to consider moving forward: immediately fire your consultants. Take a trip up to Chicago, and go dine at Bavette’s on Kinzie. Eat there a few of times, perhaps. Look around. Check out the decor, the furniture, the light fixtures, the ice cubes. Taste the steak. Order the wedge salad. Notice the lighting. You’ll see it. 

It’s different. There are reasons for that and all of them can be applied down here, without question. (SF)

WORST live music decision
Urbana Sweetcorn Festival and Taste of C-U booking only local acts

At a glance, it would seem like a decent idea for some of C-U’s festivals, struggling as they are, to save money by scrapping their tradition of seeking out well-known national acts in favor of filling their musical components with local talent. Instead, the organizers behind these events have made a very short-sighted decision, and here’s why: The problem is that the national live music was, fortunately or not, the biggest draw that these events had. Without a big name band to appeal to an audience, all that remains is overpriced food and some sunshine – two things that are easier to obtain outside of a festival. In fact, the removal of big acts means that literally EVERYTHING the festivals are composed of can be found elsewhere for less money and less trouble. There will officially be zero reason to go to these events, and they can’t make money when there are no attendees. They effectively shot themselves in the foot. (JTM)

Here’s a fact, having consulted, booked, and produced both of these events one or more times within the past five years: they lose money. 

But it isn’t because of the cost of the national acts, or because of the expenses to produce large stages, both technical and personnel. 

It is because in today’s festival bubble, one that has become untenable and is literally bursting as we speak, it is no longer enough to simply rely on concessions to succeed. It requires sponsorship. A lot of it. And that’s why this news was so disappointing to learn about. Both organizations — the Urbana Business Association and the Champaign Park District — are fully equipped to raise the necessary funds to not only make these events solvent, but to make them sustainable. Hell, the Champaign Park District is a taxing body. If any organization should be able to make it work, it would be them. 

As Julia references above, without live acts of national stature, neither of these events offer much of anything except fair foods and the hope of decent weather. We have a County Fair for that, and even they know damn well that it is the programming they book that is the real draw. From the Demo Derby to whatever emerging country act to the tractor pull. It is the events within the event that makes festivals like these work.

Both of these events could be total gems.

The dwindling audiences were only ever combatted with solid bookings like Kansas, Soul Asylum, Parliament, and yes, even Smash Mouth. The music doesn’t have to appeal to everyone. But it has to appeal to enough, to some. Even if those acts are washed up, by hipster standards. I’ve had a super fun time at both events over the years predicated solely on the fact that there was something interesting on a stage in the city I live in. I danced my ass off to Eddie Money. 

Oh well. My prediction is that neither event exists in 2018. And I just don’t see how that is a good thing. We have a dearth of placemaking events in Champaign-Urbana as it is, and losing these, no matter how much money they are currently hemorrhaging, won’t help us along as a community. Don’t scrap them — embrace them. Find good ways to help them succeed. The solution is there. They just need someone to fight for them. (SF)

WORST corporate-localized scheme
Yelp C-U

Yes, it is true — the almighty Yelp was founded by Jeremy Stoppelman, an extraordinarily successful entrepreneur and graduate from the U of I. The site is a very polarizing one to say the least — many people despise it because it runs, in a significant fashion, by pay-to-play type exposure for restaurants wanting to utilize it to get in touch with restaurant-goers. 
Of course, I am one of many, many people that use Yelp from time to time, it is a pretty useful tool especially in places where you’re unfamiliar with the landscape. There are lots of pros to the site because it provides a ton of information that is immediately accessible by the user. For that, I applaud them. Nice job!
With all that said — the “community ambassadors” that are “employed” by Yelp have historically been relentless towards restaurant owners and operators — almost to the point of harassment in a lot of ways. There’s a documentary coming out about Yelp and the dark side of their advertorial nature, and when it comes to a local Yelp C-U ambassador, perhaps it isn’t totally their fault for accepting this role of perpetuating Yelp’s brand at a community level. 
However, “exposure” being offered in return for working alongside Yelp’s local delegate seems vague at best and malicious at best. Certainly restaurants and businesses don’t have to partner with the local Yelp ambassadors, but exchanging sponsorships for your festival or event in exchange for “trade” via a newsletter, or a Tweet, or something of the like is just inequitable. Downright leeching off of the event to out-brand the rest — without spending a dime supporting the event or businesses they are aligning with. Yelp doesn’t sponsor events in this way, sadly — or from what I’ve gathered to this point, at least. The multi-billion dollar company just wants to infiltrate the community level to perpetuate their model. That’s all.
If you’re harassing business owners that you’re not supporting the businesses, you’re in the wrong. Not only that, by not spending with Yelp, it’ll just decrease their amount of views, and not showcase ratings properly — the list goes on and on about the site.
Don’t you see that Yelp only gives a shit about C-U through a conduit like this in order to take money from your pockets? Open up your eyes, if not. (PS)

WORST nuisance
Pedal pubs

Listen, I’m all for fun. I like having a few beers; I like biking around. Independently, they’re both objectively great activities. I would probably even like doing both of them at the same time, but I don’t, because it’s a bad idea. The two don’t mix, or so I thought…

Apparently, over the past year, this concept of drinking and riding a very slow-moving, semi-bike-like structure down some of the busiest streets in town has become commonplace because not one, but two different peddling bar companies have popped up in Champaign-Urbana.

At first, it was a novelty. It was fun to see them in the street because they were new, and a relatively interesting concept. Over time, however, they’ve become one of the most annoying nuisances to the townspeople of Champaign-Urbana. Whether it be walking past and getting hollered at by a bunch of drunk bros who are out for Chad’s birthday, or getting stuck behind one in traffic (like the fire truck I saw yesterday), I’d wager to say that most people in C-U find the novelty to have worn off – or maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go tell someone to get off my non-existent lawn. (BH)

WORST neighbor
The people who live across from Cowboy Monkey and above V. Picasso

Are you kidding me? Noise complaints? You are going to move into the apartment across from the epicenter of the most densely populated bar scene in all of downstate Illinois, and you are going to call the police about noise complaints?

Fact is, I do not know who these people are, and while I appreciate what they are seeking in a residence, they might think about subleasing as soon as possible and just moving out. Lots of people want peace and quiet at night. I know I do.

That’s why I live in a neighborhood, not in a commercial district, and certainly not from one of the busiest bars in the entire state for half the year. 

You have to be fucking kidding me. (SF)

WORST thing to have to come to terms with about living here
(The lack of) corporate funding

Honestly, we just don’t have enough of it. What you are seeing is the end result of Trickle Down Reaganomics, and it’s not working. Some communities have it better. Their billionaires pour money into the community, and as a result, there are more things to do, places to go, parks to be at, artwork to admire, and so on and so forth.  

But not here. Not even close. And while I am not going to single out any one of those billionaires right here, or even point to some of the wealthiest corporations around, you probably know who they are.

And in the face of the worst economic failure a State has ever seen, we need their help, now more than ever. We have a Children’s Science Museum that needs serious funding. We have park districts that can’t keep (at least one) of their splash pads open past 6pm. We have a woeful amount of public art programs. We have organizations like Courage Connection in dire straits. We have school systems that have to literally beg the community for a nickel here and a nickel there to even allow them to compete on a State level.

C’est la vie. It’s still a great place to live. I love it here. It just sucks that the few that can afford it, don’t really put in jack as far as placemaking and true charity goes.

No, the tax money that comes in from people coming in for training and staying corporate owned hotels is not charity. That’s just business. (SF)

WORST place for a food truck to park
Dragon Fire Pizza — across from Pizzeria Antica

I am all for food trucks. I have argued for them, and for their place in town for as long as I can remember. I hear the other side of the argument, of course — it’s valid — but in the end, I believe in the idea that anyone should be able to start something from scratch and work hard and make a living for themselves. Chalk up Cracked, Caribbean Grill, and Pandamonium as amazing success stories, borne out of that very notion.

No, this isn’t about food trucks. This one is about basic respect.

Dragon Fire Pizza is super good. In fact, it’s one of my favorite pizzas in town. Fantastic snacks, my friends. But seeing them parked literally across the street from Pizzeria Antica on the regular bums me out. There are plenty of places to park the truck, all over town, and while I understand that there is no law against them doing it, you’d hope that somewhere, deep down, they’d think to themselves, “Is this what we would want, if the situation were reversed?”

I don’t think they would.

Hey, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. I get that. But we all get to make choices. I wish that Dragon Fire would make a different one. (SF)

WORST drink trend
Bottomless Mimosas

If you just read the title of this entry and said, aloud, “What!? She’s crazy!” then this is not for you. Please keep scrolling.

For the rest of you, hear me out. Let’s take it back to the beginning, with Mimosa-gate 2016. In addition to loathing the addition of the –gate suffix to any size and scope of scandal, I shake my head and roll my eyes at the fact that Big Grove Tavern (in)advertently created a situation in which there could be mass confusion and serious feelings regarding a champagne and orange juice cocktail. The entire situation was stupid. (You can read about it here.) Bottomless whatever is usually a way to get rid of overstock, or to hook you on something else. It’s a classic, and well-documented marketing ploy.

I have a number of thoughts about this trend, and for clarity, I’ll list them here, in no particular order:

  • Getting trashed on sugary alcoholic beverages is a terrible idea. Remember that night in college? No, of course you don’t. But I bet you remember the hangover the next day.
  • Getting trashed on sugary alcoholic beverages at 11 a.m. on a Sunday is bad form.
  • No one wants to puke up Eggs Benedict.
  • You definitely don’t want to puke up any of the following: spicy food, seafood, biscuits and gravy, or meat.
  • Your need to “get your money’s worth” is creating a longer wait time for me.

When is bottomless anything ever a good idea? Never. The answer is always never. (JH) Photo by Jean Lee. 

WORST time to go shopping
Saturday morning, Urbana’s Market at the Square/Common Ground Food Co-op

Urbana’s Market at the Square is a Saturday morning staple for many, and each year I’ve been here it’s become bigger and more expansive. There are many reasons to be pleased by this — more producers, more food trucks, more programming — it’s fantastic.


If you’re heading to the market and Common Ground on a Saturday morning for some shopping, it’s a mess. The parking lots surrounding Lincoln Square Mall are packed, and there are kids and strollers and families and dogs and ladies with big hats moving in and out and around the cars. I can’t believe that there hasn’t been a maiming in those parking lots, though I’m sure there has been plenty of damage done to vehicles. Oh, and did you check the weather? It’s 9 a.m., 85 degrees with 78 percent humidity.

Once inside the market, the kids and strollers and families and dogs and ladies with big hats are shopping for produce and crafts and all the things you’re there to get. Getting to the things you know you need and want can be challenging. You’re inevitably stuck trying to maneuver around the people who are moseying and strolling and in no rush. Some of the food truck lines can get pretty lengthy, and getting to the last row can be an obstacle course of ducking and weaving in and out of foot traffic. Once you get your breakfast, the seating areas are usually full, so you get to do your daily calisthenics to sit down on the curb and eat your food.

But there are your neighbors! Or your friends! Or people you know, but would rather not speak to! Do you say hello? Or do you turn away, because in addition to being sweaty and tired, you’ve just slopped breakfast on your shirt? It’s a tough decision. 

Shall we even talk about the pressure to arrive early in berry season? To fight with your neighbors over strawberries and raspberries? It’s scandalous, really. So let’s just say that you miss out on the berries, so you stop in Common Ground to round out your produce from the market, and to pick up a few more things for the week. Half of those folks meandering the market paths are now doing the same in Common Ground — and those aisles are much, much smaller. Once you finally make it out, you’re back in that hellish parking lot, with the kids and strollers and families and dogs and ladies with big hats.

Even though Urbana’s Market at the Square and Common Ground Food Co-op are among the BEST, shopping on a Saturday can truly be the WORST. (JH)

WORST editorial decision by Smile Politely
Calling U.S. Representative Rodney Davis names

You saw this coming, right? At least, I hope you did. Fact is, unlike other publications in town, we’re always willing to consider the error in our ways, and when appropriate, we can find the space to consider a multitude of opinions and feedback. So, I will just go ahead and state that I now regret allowing our editors to refer to Rep. Rodney Davis as a “human slug” or a “shit for brains” in the past. 

What you were seeing was the frustration that comes from feeling bullied, and not being given a chance to engage in discourse. That doesn’t excuse it. There are better ways to go about it. 

Personally, I don’t know Davis. I am certain he has good qualities as a human. I have seen photos and videos of him and his daughter together, and being a parent myself, I can only imagine that whatever I feel towards my kids, and towards my parents, aligns with the way they feel about one another as well. We’re human. 

Sometimes, in the face of extreme political opposition, it’s easy to let your frustration get the best of you. 

In this case, I think that’s what happened. 

Regardless, Rep. Rodney Davis has aligned himself and his political positions with one of the most detestable and downright nasty people to ever step foot into the public sphere. Our President, Donald J. Trump, appears to be mentally unstable, and have a severe case of Narcissism. That our Representative in Congress is unwilling to push back against him is deplorable, in my view. 

That, in and of itself, puts Davis in the same category. His policies are tone deaf at best and outright dangerous at worst. The current GOP — both its slate of politicians and its policy — are some of the most horrific in history. They appeal to the worst part of our social fabric, and to the deadliest component of our personality, as human beings: fear. 

Surely you’ve seen the “Unseat Rodney Davis” magnets around town by now, but in case you didn’t, here’s a synopsis of why over 250 people physically showed up to protest his open office hours in April:

Oops. Sorry, had to. I think it’s in bounds. But I digress… 

Again though, Rep. Davis is a human being, no matter how incomprehensible his policies might seem to a lot of people. That humanity was on display this week after he literally dodged bullets and found safety when a lunatic gunman shot at the bi-partisan baseball practice they were having in Alexandria, VA. on Wednesday.

He was quoted as saying that “It’s my breaking point, we have to end this.” On this, we concur. My dear friend, former SP editor Robert Hirschfeld, and I were talking about this very thing earlier today, and he perfectly nailed what I want to say to Rep. Davis:

“Rodney, even if it’s disappointing that ‘this’ is your breaking point, that it took your involvement in an incident… even if that speaks ill of your capacity for empathy, I would still welcome your assistance and greet you with open arms if you want to work on this problem. But I also need to know what exactly you think “this” is that needs to be stopped and how you plan to stop it? Rhetoric is not enough here. And I want to know how you plan to change yourself.”

We aren’t going to let up on covering the Davis campaign, and spoiler alert, we’ll likely endorse (for the first time ever in Smile Politely history) his opponent. But I think we can put the schoolyard taunts to the side from here on out. 

After all, a bully only wins when their subjects allow them space to do so. In this case, we’re just going to allow him to be himself. I trust that he’ll do more damage just being who he is, moreso than anything else. 

After all, he has already given us some things that are great, and those certainly deserve recognition:

Have an awesome still-shot for meme-making. It’s just perfect, innit? (SF + BH)

Contributors to this article include Seth Fein, Patrick Singer, Boswell Hutson, Jessica Hammie, Rebecca Knaur, Julie McClure, and Julia McAnly.

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