By Ted Kleine
When First Ward alderman Jesse Granato got a call from StreetWise's Charles Frago last June, he expected the reporter to ask him for a quote on homelessness. Instead Frago, who was writing a five-part series on gentrification in the West Town neighborhood, wanted to talk about several thousand dollars in campaign contributions Granato had received through companies in which real estate developer Mark Fisher has a stake. Why, Frago asked, did the donations, which accounted for a fifth of the funds Granato received in 1996, always seem to coincide with rezonings favorable to Fisher's companies?
Frago says Granato told him he thought the biweekly StreetWise only covered homeless issues, then offered a few petulant answers. "If you're insinuating that I did anything wrong, then you're greatly mistaken," Granato told him.
A week later, in the June 16-30 issue, StreetWise ran the story under the gloating headline "StreetWise Exclusive: Caught in the Act." Frago wrote, "In 1996, Granato received $39,000 in donations, of which $32,200 was itemized. Of the itemized donations, $12,000, over one third of the total, came from developers, construction companies and homeowner associations. But that is nothing new for Chicago politics, nor is it illegal. What does raise eyebrows is that $7,000, more than half of that $12,000, came from three entities in which one man, Mark R. Fisher, appears to have a substantial interest."
In Chicago journalism you're not a player unless you've caught an alderman, and StreetWise had finally bagged its trophy. The paper has been around for five years, but the Granato story was its first attempt at investigative journalism. Frago had discovered the campaign contributions while researching how rising rents in West Town--especially in its Wicker Park pocket--have shunted poor Latinos out of the neighborhood, in some cases into homeless shelters.
The story ran in the first issue overseen by editor Brendan Shiller, who was hired as an associate editor last February. Since taking over in May, he has transformed StreetWise from an innocuous newsletter for the homeless into a journal of urban politics. Six months ago, StreetWise looked like a dreary community-college paper, with outsize black-and-white photos and a sloppy layout. Its news columns were dominated by vendor autobiographies, reviews of greasy spoons, and features on SRO hotels. Interesting to the homeless maybe, but most of the paper's customers were buying it out of charity.
"It was mostly people's personal stories," Shiller said recently at StreetWise's new South Loop office, which still smelled of fresh paint. "For a couple of years, when it first began, it didn't have much of an editorial focus, and it didn't have too many standards. I saw its appeal as being among service providers. There wasn't a whole lot of information, and it wasn't very entertaining."
Shiller added color photos and recruited vendors to write columns on such things as sports--though also on astrology, personal advice, and spirituality (The Way of the Mystic, by Prince I'Keem Agape-Onaiwu, who says he's a member of an exiled South African royal family and is selling StreetWise as part of a round-the-world spiritual journey that will next take him to Tibet).
More important, Shiller decided StreetWise should report on the causes of homelessness, not just its effects. So the paper has been watching how the city spends its money. He believes aldermen favor neighborhood redevelopment projects that produce kickbacks in the form of contributions from developers and other businesses that benefit from the new construction. "The big money is going to contractors instead of the CTA," he says.
In October StreetWise ran a cover story on the CTA service cuts, also written by Frago, that focused on the elimination of the 104 bus to Altgeld Gardens. Frago wanted to demonstrate how losing a bus line was making it even harder for residents of the isolated south-side neighborhood to get to work, so he took a round trip from the South Loop to Altgeld using the new route recommended by the CTA. "It took four hours," he reported. An accompanying graph showed that the city of Chicago contributes $5 million to mass transit, while New York chips in $300 million.
In July, in an issue on the push to require businesses with city contracts to pay a "living wage" of $7.60 an hour, Julie Dworkin noted that after the Taste of Chicago the city hired a private firm that paid homeless people $6 an hour to clean up the mess. "Two years ago," she wrote, "the City paid the clean-up workers directly, and they made $8.00 an hour."
"When you talk about the media in the city in general, there's not as much energy to go out and get this information," says Shiller, who wears a Public Enemy cap around the office. "Most young reporters who have the energy might not have the know-how. And older reporters who have the know-how might not have the energy. Hopefully we have the energy and some of the know-how."
Shiller, who's 26, learned his urban radicalism and his savvy about Chicago politics from his mother, 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller, who started her political career as an organizer with the Heart of Uptown Coalition and is now one of the few independent members of the City Council. (She was the only alderman to vote against Mayor Daley's budget last month, saying it didn't include enough money for the poor.)
The young Brendan was introduced to politics when he attended affordable-housing demonstrations with his mother. "She's been involved in all sorts of development and displacement issues in Uptown for 30 years now. The issues I'm involved in, they're obviously a lot of the same issues."
Shiller, who grew up in an apartment near Montrose and Broadway, says he saw homeless people every day just walking around his neighborhood, including families who camped out in cars in a nearby vacant lot. "I distinctly remember two of those cars, one of them a station wagon, a family living in there--a grandfather, a mother, a father, and two kids." In 1988 that lot became a tent city, temporary home to several hundred homeless people protesting the city's unwillingness to build low-cost housing in Uptown. When the police arrived to clear it out, Shiller's mother, who was by then an alderman, was one of four people arrested.
"I know those people in Uptown," says Shiller, who now lives at the corner of Lawrence and Clarendon, which he says is within a half mile of five shelters. "When I walk past the homeless shelter, eight out of ten faces are people I recognize. They're people I knew 20 years ago, when I was a kid and they had families."
While Shiller was at Whitney Young High School he published a paper called "Voice of the Next Generation." One issue, he says, inspired students at six high schools to boycott classes to protest their lack of say on the local school councils.
When he was 17 Shiller dropped out of school and took a job as a darkroom attendant at Justice Graphics, a print shop that also produced an urban affairs publication called "All Chicago City News." Shiller began taking pictures for it and writing articles on police brutality and homelessness. Within two years he was managing editor.
In 1994 Shiller decided to get a college degree. He enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where the student body is 99 percent black. "It had a good communications program," he says, shrugging. He points out that being a member of the white minority at Howard wasn't much different from being a Jewish kid in Uptown, a neighborhood of Latinos, blacks, American Indians, Vietnamese, southern whites. "I think growing up in Uptown I was a fairly color-blind individual. I lack some [race] consciousness. I only ran into two or three other white folks at Howard. None of them was living in my dorm. I wasn't tight with any other white folks at Howard."
After unsatisfying stints as a stringer for the Chicago Tribune and as a waiter at Leona's, Shiller joined StreetWise, then was promoted to editor after his predecessor, Lisa Ely, resigned to take a job at a gospel music magazine in Los Angeles. "Brendan takes us deeper into the precipitants of homelessness," says executive director Anthony Oliver, who hired Shiller. "For example, public policy, how that creates homelessness. I think he helped strengthen our pursuit. I wanted to cut deeper into the issues so that our readers would be able to understand the realities of the city."
Shiller has also been expanding the vendors' editorial contributions. In June, for instance, he gave Vadii Ellis, a five-year StreetWise veteran, his own sports column, Full Court Press, which features Ellis's picture and the motto "All the Sports News That Ain't Fit to Print." Ellis, a lifelong sports nut, has interviewed Bulls trainer Chip Schaefer and reported on a Cubs game from the press box at Wrigley Field. StreetWise doesn't have a lot of clout, so an interview with Sammy Sosa fell through. But Ellis plans to profile Frank Thomas.
Ellis says public relations people are surprised to hear from him, but they're learning that "we can report on a vast variety of things now. People have noticed the difference"--including his customers outside the Walgreens at 2317 N. Clark, where he hawks the paper. "They say it's better, it's more enjoyable reading. I don't have to work as hard--people buy the paper for my column." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Brendan Shiller/ StreetWise columnists Verne Coooper and William Holt photos by Cynthia Howe.