Neighborhood News

“De Tocqueville talks about the two strains in the American spirit, one Ben Franklin individualism and the other Jefferson-style democracy,” Hank De Zutter reflected, “and he warns that too much individualism is going to make the country ripe for despotism, a top-down “this is best for you.’

“And what would mediate that, prevent that from happening, would be more citizen participation–what’s called activism now,” he continued. “Smaller units, whether they be public or private, that allow you to put your arms around something you can govern. The small-town spirit in the big city.

“Anyway, what I’m suggesting is this is a worldwide story that has a lot of local angles and is infinitely more interesting than who’s the new head of Streets and Sanitation.”

De Zutter’s “worldwide story” is the struggle of common people to create and control local institutions. It’s Tiananmen Square writ small, and it’s a lonely beat; when De Zutter was writing Neighborhood News for the Reader in the early 80s, he did not have to worry about colliding with other reporters. Each new head of Streets and San is sure to make the morning paper; but the campaign of some ad hoc neighborhood group to clean up its own streets not only won’t be reported, the papers might never hear of it.

But that’s just a rule of thumb. It’s not how it has to be.

Kup broke the rule last month with this item, which has not a celebrity in it:

“A block club in Bucktown, aroused by wide-open drug dealing in its neighborhood, is taking action in its own hands. The club members will block off the 2100 block of North Hoyne to hold a protest meeting Friday night in front of the alleged drug house. The police have been informed of the protest, and permits have been granted for the protest rally.”

Where did this news tip come from? Margie Korshak damn sure didn’t phone it in. Kup got it from “Newstips,” a community tipsheet that De Zutter and Thom Clark are now publishing at Malcolm X College. It’s one of the services that De Zutter and Clark’s Community Media Workshop has set in motion to prevent a news vacuum in life beyond the lakefront.

“The media–like the politicians–praise the neighborhoods in general, but ignore them when it gets down to nitty-gritty specifics,” declared De Zutter and Clark in a letter this spring to community leaders. “They have no sense of neighborhoods as networks of people, as communities in action–only at best as places to find ethnic restaurants or occasional festivals.”

De Zutter and Clark asked the local leaders to let them know whenever their groups did something eventful. That’s how the Bucktown action showed up in Kup. David Cristeal, director of the Near Northwest Neighborhood Network, mentioned to De Zutter the rally his block club was planning against drugs. Bells went off. De Zutter, who’s worked for daily papers and knows what they want, recognized “the proverbial good story–righteous rage, confrontation, the “good people’ trying to take back the streets in a novel way.”

“Newstips” alerted the media. Kup picked up the item, and the Tribune’s Bill Recktenwald spun out the theme into a long survey titled “Throughout city, public rises up against gangs.” In Bucktown, says De Zutter, “morale blossomed. They needed to know that someone outside . . . thought that they were doing something important. It turned a neighborhood confrontation into a crusade, and it may be inspiring others in the city to imitate their action.”

Last year, De Zutter ran some workshops for the MacArthur Foundation, which wanted the neighborhood groups it funded to learn how to handle the media. The workshops generated more than 100 news items and gave De Zutter ambitions. He asked the foundation for more money, and he and Clark established the Community Media Workshop at Malcolm X, where De Zutter teaches English and journalism. They run workshops on such things as writing press releases and talking on camera, send out “Newstips,” and are compiling a directory that will be as complete a list as they can make it of community groups and their representatives and reporters who do neighborhood stories–so each side will know whom to call on the other.

Said Clark, “I will say, part of the heightened interest on the part of groups that have participated so far harkens back to John McCarron’s series in the Tribune last fall.” This was the survey that found the neighborhoods full of obstructionists and kicked not only their butts but also the butts of the philanthropies that funded them.

“Funders in particular, community groups in general, have understood one reason they’ve been victims of a bad press is that they haven’t done their job in getting the word out,” said Clark.

For six years in the mid-80s, Clark edited The Neighborhood Works, a pushy little antiestablishmentarian monthly paper whose editorials (by Clark) attacking the proposed world’s fair a few years ago won a Lisagor Award. The Community Media Workshop is an idea he and De Zutter hatched, Clark says, “over several years of Friday night poker games.”

If they can find the bucks, they want to hold a conference that will bring together journalists and community leaders “to learn how to communicate across the divide–if indeed there is one,” Clark said.

Well, is there?

“I think there has been,” he said. “But I will say I’m really encouraged by the interest journalists have shown in the work we’re trying to do here.” Simply put, what reporters are always looking for turns out to be what the neighborhood groups had all along but didn’t know how to package. “They’re looking for good stories,” said Clark.

“I hope something that can be spun out of this,” said De Zutter, “is a more normal way of placing and training city kids in the media.” As far as he can see, the media have lost touch with the city’s streets. “Where is tomorrow’s Royko who’s the son of a bartender?” he wondered. “I know they’re out there. I have my kids [at Malcolm X] write about city stuff, and some write with wit and wisdom about areas that reporters think are dead now. They think there’s nothing happening.”

Coda: The Cuban Salsa Crisis

Thanks to the U.S. State Department, we can look forward to a peaceful weekend in Grant Park. Orquesta Aragon, Fidel Castro’s notorious cha-cha-ing cat’s-paws, won’t be there at Viva! Chicago to infuriate one portion of the audience and subvert everyone else.

Stalemated by the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, which invited the 50-year-old Cuban orchestra to Chicago’s first major public Latino music festival and refused to disinvite them, the local Cuban-American lobby persuaded the State Department not to give the musicians visas. As Susan Borges explained in the Tribune:

“They’re agents, even if they don’t know they’re agents. They give the impression that what they bring is art. What they bring is Communism.”

Painful as it may be to yield to this kind of thinking, State’s intercession might be for the best. A happy occasion such as a pan-Hispanic music festival doesn’t need politics riddling it. (This reasonable point was made in the Sun-Times column that George Munoz contributed to the debate 12 days after State acted. Why wade into a controversy before it dries up?)

But counting ourselves among the suckers who expected more art than treachery from Orquesta Aragon, we asked musicologist Chuy Negrete to tell us about what Chicago isn’t going to get to hear.

“I understand politically why the Cubans here don’t want them,” said Negrete, “but it’s a loss to musicology, it’s a loss to ethnomusicology from my point of view. . . . It’s a style of music as only they can do it, you know? They represent the root of Afro-Cuba. Where the other groups are fusion groups, you know, like Ruben Blades, from Panama. So it’s going to be a loss.”

Chuy Negrete, aka Dr. Jesus Negrete, Berkeley PhD, kicked off Viva! Chicago at the Cultural Center Thursday with a couple of slide-and-music shows, Images of Mexican Labor and Mexican Women and Their Music, that he’d created originally for the Smithsonian. Friday he emcees an afternoon of local groups at Daley Center Plaza.

In 1978, Negrete went to Cuba. “I went with Hazel Dickens, who did the music for [the movie] Harlan County, U.S.A., Ruben Blades, Bobby Valentine, Holly Near, Roy Brown. . . . It was the 11th World Festival–the international music festival.”

Have trouble getting there? we asked him.

“Well, we had to go through Canada.”

We supposed that he saw himself either as a symbol of Yankee imperialism or as a symbol of freedom and democracy.

“I went as an entertainer,” Negrete recalled. “My purpose was to go and show them what ‘corridos’ are, to expose them to the international community. It’s from the verb correr [to run]. It’s running verse, and corridos are to the Chicano what blues are to the black man. Last year I won the Chicago music award in Houston, Texas, for the corrido of Hurricane Gilbert. I’m thinking of doing one now on this guy Linares, who took his son off the breather.”

During that trip to Cuba, Negrete got to hear Orquesta Aragon perform. “They were our hosts. George Munoz–he had that article in the Sun-Times–it’s valid, they do represent the official. But we get to hear Soviet groups, the ballet comes, Soviet jazz groups come–they’re not very good. That’s the reality.

“The Cubans,” said Chuy Negrete not without respect, “are reaching into the State Department and saying ‘Don’t give them visas.’ The Cubans are a powerful group.”

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