Man on the Street

On The Media 
8 November 2002
Transcript [mp3]

BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The Chicago Housing Authority is tearing down 50 residential highrises which have come to symbolize 40 years of policy failures. The gang-plagued buildings will be replaced by low-rise mixed-income developments. Journalists are considered outsiders in these neighborhoods, and covering their final days is difficult without inside help. Fifty-four year old writer Jamie Kalven has taken on that mission. He operates a public housing web site called from a South Side Chicago tenement that is literally being torn down around him. On the Media's Ron Feemster has the story. [FADE AMBIENT SOUND/WORKMEN THROWING OBJECTS INTO DUMPSTERS]

RON FEEMSTER: Outside the first floor office of, workers hurl doors, cabinets and broken wall board out 7-story windows into dumpsters. Rusty stoves and smelly refrigerators line up in the courtyard waiting for the scrap hauler. On his web site, Jamie Kalven covers an abandoned community.

JAMIE KALVEN: It's an effort to contribute to the public discourse about public housing by way of a specific place -- we try to do stories in such a way that we raise issues that have broader implications for the Housing Authority as a whole and in some instances for national housing policy. But we always want to be sure that our reporting grounded in the particulars of this place.

RON FEEMSTER: Residents call this place The House of Pain. It's part of Stateway Gardens, a South Side public housing development that once boasted eight residential highrises. Six weeks ago, four were still standing when Housing Authority representatives went door to door looking for squatters. DSH

WOMAN: [KNOCKING] Hello? Housing. Hello? How you doing? Good! We're here from housing. You know the building is closing on Monday. Do you-- We have DHS here. Do you need any services or any assistance?

RON FEEMSTER: Moving squatters out is among the final steps before a building is demolished.

JAMIE KALVEN: Our offices have been in a first floor, 5-bedroom unit in 3544 South State Street, a building that was completely vacated in preparation for demolition. We're sort of living out the last days and hours of this, of this building as its only inhabitants.

RON FEEMSTER: Jamie Kalven's office, now located in one of two buildings awaiting the wrecking ball, feels like an old-time settlement house. It's home to a public health outreach program and a job placement center. Social workers and legal clinics hold office hours. His stories document the lives of residents who move through the office - a rhythm and blues singer who left the stage to mother an autistic child. A woman who squatted at Stateway and supported ten grandchildren on security guard wages. The pain of young men who are banned from their homes after drug arrests on Housing Authority property. Jamie Kalven wants these stories to get out.

JAMIE KALVEN: I've felt it very important to be a point of access for journalists who wanted to talk directly with residents. If you haven't really established a set of relationships in, in a place like this, these are hard stories to cover. And so we've looked for ways to facilitate the work of other journalists, and we're completely non-proprietary about our work.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: The other hat that Jamie wears, of course, is that he also is an organizer down there.

RON FEEMSTER: Writer Alex Kotlowitz has turned to Kalven to guide him through Stateway Gardens.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: He's working with people and he knows whose stories are more credible than others; he knows who to talk to; who to listen to. And so he has this insight and this perspective that I think most other journalists don't have.

RON FEEMSTER: Chicago Sun-Times reporter Kate Grossman profiled Stateway Gardens squatters in one of many pieces based in part of Kalven's sources. The same day, Kalven posted a squatter story on View from the Ground. Although Grossman relies on Kalven for sources, access and even perspective, she knows his input comes with a point of view.

KATE GROSSMAN: He definitely has an agenda, and it's not as if he call-- every time he calls me up with something that he's bugged about or that he thinks the Housing Authority should deal with I'm going to write about it. Because I know that he's got his own agenda. But he's --I've worked with him enough that I trust his judgment.

RON FEEMSTER: Kalven introduced Chicago literary icon Studs Terkel to Pete Heywood, a reformed Stateway gang banger profiled in Terkel's book Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The story is posted on the View. Terkel remembers walking through Stateway Gardens.

STUDS TERKEL: It was quite an experience going through the dark corridors, and there were a lot of drug guys around, druggies-- guys selling things. Hollering--what's the word?--Hound dog or--?

RON FEEMSTER: The "word" is Dog Face. That's the brand name of heroin that was sold in the building.

STUDS TERKEL: It's a phrase through which they contact those who buy, and those who buy are primarily middle class whites. You see them coming through in their Porsche's and SUVs. And envelopes are exchanged. All this is going on as I'm passing the corridors, and my guide, my Cicerone, the Virgil to my Dante [LAUGHS] is, is Jamie Kalven! They look at me, shadowy figures. Then they see Jamie and their eyes light - Oh! Jamie! [LAUGHS] And he was my pass.

RON FEEMSTER: Kalven's unlimited access to Stateway Gardens has not come without a price.

JAMIE KALVEN: There are a lot of down sides to this. I mean here we are in this bunker, squatting in a doomed public housing building. I'm scrambling to get money in the bank so our phones don't get cut off in the next 24 hours. On the other hand, I have complete freedom to go at stories the way I want to.

RON FEEMSTER: Kalven says his greatest compensation is the day to day satisfaction of immersing himself in what he calls a fabulously interesting and important story. Like the residents he covers, Kalven is moving from a demolished building to a condemned one, half a block down State Street. For On the Media, I'm Ron Feemster. [MUSIC]