“In academia, we tend to think of writers as a bunch of dead people–mostly dead white males. My goal as a teacher is to make these dead writers real,” says Fred Gardaphe, an English professor at Columbia College. “We can’t meet Theodore Dreiser or Nelson Algren, yet these people have such an impact on the way we look at Chicago literature.”

Sensing a growing distance between texts and students in his English composition and “Chicago in Literature” courses, Gardaphe, along with two fellow instructors at Columbia, is trying to create an alternative image of Chicago literature with the newly formed City Stoop Press. City Stoop’s first publication, New Chicago Stories (edited by Gardaphe), is an anthology of short fiction by 12 Chicago writers–some well known (Maxine Chernoff, Sara Paretsky, Paul Hoover), others soon to become better known.

Gardaphe, Karen Osborne, and George Bailey, inspired by their students and the city to create literature for readers beyond as well as within academia’s walls, used the Spike Lee method of funding for New Chicago Stories: City Stoop Press’s first endeavor was launched not from a platform of grants or corporate funding but from credit cards.

The result incorporates Gardaphe’s editorial experience, Osborne’s underground publishing experience, and a mutual fascination with multiethnic literature.

“What you will find in this collection is a multicultural neighborhood in print, a neighborhood which has yet to surface on Chicago streets, one which is perhaps still years away in a city that touts its culturally plural makeup while still enforcing rigid boundaries between segregated neighborhoods,” wrote Gardaphe in the book’s introduction.

The Stoop founders wanted to present Chicago writers who do not conform to the traditional Chicago school. “We were out to debunk this notion that the Chicago writer is an “Algrenist’ or a “Studs Terkel,”‘ Gardaphe says. But like the work of both Algren and Terkel, the stories in City Stoop’s first collection have a distinct Chicago flavor–the kinds of stories that are exchanged by folks sitting on their stoops on warm evenings.

The city’s eclecticism is well represented in New Chicago Stories. In Scott Mutter’s black-and-white cover photograph, Michigan Avenue appears to be supported by columns that stand within the card catalog section of a library–a metaphorical montage of street smarts and book smarts.

Inside, Chicago’s racial and cultural schizophrenia reveals itself. “The Untouchables,” by Maxine Chernoff, addresses the subtlety of a community’s homophobia in her story of a girl who forms a friendship with a lesbian gas station attendant. Angela Jackson’s “The Blue Rose” tells of one night in the life of a black college girl, blending past and present, blues and gangs, superstitions and sexuality:

“The Blues I remember from sounds spilled across the kitchen floor, pouring out the doors of the tenement on our street, seeping through the walls of Mrs. Wilson’s Beauty Salon, next door to Mr. Boyfriend’s place. Those blues singers I never saw (except on posters), like torn cats licking their wounds, healing on their tongues.”

Although City Stoop holds no allegiance to political correctness, political issues permeate the book. Paul Hoover’s “Demonstration,” from his novel Saigon, Illinois, paints the scene of an antiwar demonstration on State Street during the 60s. In “The Man Who Loved Life,” Sara Paretsky turns from her familiar penchant for mysteries to address the abortion issue from the perspective of a rough, patriarchal figure.

Throughout the book, the classes remain conspicuously working and lower. In Thomas J. Keevers’s “Thanksgiving Day in Homicide,” a brief, poignant look at a cop’s beat on a cold night, the city’s lack of compassion merges ironically with the sometimes deceptive traditionalism of the holidays. “Litvak,” by Tom Johnson, is a story of alcoholism and industrial pollution. Johnson’s writing style reflects the working-class life-style of his characters:

“Boy, could he barbecue. . . . He’d take those smoked cats along with some potatoes sliced up really thin and wrapped in foil after he’d buttered and peppered them real heavy, and he’d throw the cats and packages of ‘taters’ on his old grill that was caked so thick with grease and soot that you could have tarred a roof with it, and he’d work his magic.”

Clearly, City Stoop is trying to bridge the expanse between “high culture” and “low culture.” To make the book accessible, the typeface is slightly larger than usual. City Stoop Press has also held readings at Prologue, an alternative high school for dropouts that also runs a literacy program for the homeless.

“We see the city’s schisms: economic, homeless, neighborhoods, lack of communication, barriers, and crimes,” says Osborne. “The whole thing tends to create a sense of powerlessness. You ride the trains and see this chaos and you think, ‘My god, what can I do?’ Well, you can work with church groups or community groups–you can somehow communicate. Part of the motivation for this book was to make interaction a possibility.”

“There’s a survival aspect to our philosophy,” says Bailey. “It’s critically important for people living in our changing society to know one another.”

Their next endeavor, West Side Stories, to be edited by Bailey, will present a new set of perspectives on the city. “When people think of the west side they think of Wicker Park, K-Town, Austin–you know, black,” says Bailey. “The west side is incredibly diverse, but the diversity is sort of a secret to a lot of Chicagoans.” City Stoop also plans a South Side Stories.

Some of the contributors will be reading from New Chicago Stories Sunday at 7:30 at Dreamerz nightclub, 1516 N. Milwaukee; admission is $3. There’s also a 7 PM reading Thursday, January 24, at the New World Resource Center, 1476 W. Irving Park. The book, $8.95, is available at Kroch’s & Brentano’s, Guild Books, Barbara’s Bookstore, Unabridged Books, the Columbia College bookstore, and the Platypus and Great Expectations bookstores in Evanston.

For now, the address of City Stoop is Gardaphe’s own stoop, in Ravenswood: 4317 N. Wolcott, Chicago 60613. For more information, write him there or call 477-0927.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.