Gay Paper Divides Again; Where Are the Silent Smoke Detectors? | Media | Chicago Reader

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Gay Paper Divides Again; Where Are the Silent Smoke Detectors?

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Gay Paper Divides Again

Jeff McCourt was telling us that half of each week's 22,000-some copies of Windy City Times get distributed in 77 bars. And all but seven of those bars are for men.

It's a predominantly male readership, and McCourt believes a loyal one. He insists the Times won't be threatened by the new gay paper in town, which will be introduced June 4 by its predominantly female staff.

Strictly lesbian papers in Chicago have consistently fallen flat, but editor Tracy Baim insists Chicago Outlines will neither be nor become one. Her pledge, "It's going to be for everybody," is worth respecting; Baim has demonstrated a real ability to put out a paper men will read. Until she quit this month, she'd been Jeff McCourt's editor of Windy City Times.

From a ragged beginning, Windy City Times grew impressively in its year and a half under McCourt and Baim; it offered tough, literate reportage nestled in enough advertising to actually turn a profit. For the profit, credit McCourt, a former options trader who poured his own money into the Times and personally sells 70 percent of the ads.

For the tough, literate reportage, credit Baim. Now she tells us she wants Outlines circulated regionally, she wants it more accountable to its readership -- she speaks of a community-based board of advisers -- and she wants it to be more attentive to "groups that are oppressed in our community." She questions McCourt's "style." It's a vague bill of particulars but so what! Successful partnerships end all the time because at least one of the partners thinks he or she could accomplish even more alone.

Jeff McCourt complains about the way it happened. His attorney, Greg Freidman, got a call early this month from another attorney, Jill Metz. Metz said she was representing Scott McCausland, a wealthy business consultant and chairman of the board of Gay & Lesbian Horizons, a social services agency, and Nan Shaffer, a veterinarian. They'd heard McCourt was looking to get out, and they wanted to buy the Times.

"I said that was news to me," Freidman told us. "I'd never seen Jeff more enthusiastic about the future of the paper." But he passed the offer along to McCourt, who wondered how anyone even knew that Freidman was his lawyer. He had never heard of Metz; he asked Baim if she knew her at all and Baim said she didn't.

But in the space of three days, it all came out. Baim had been rounding up investors. Between McCausland, who put up over half the money, and Shaffer and a couple of other people, herself included, Baim had $100,000. If McCourt didn't sell, she was going into business against him. Assistant editor William Burks and assistant advertising manager Jill Burgin would join her. So would an indefinite number of other employees and contributors. On May 7, Baim gave notice. The May 14 issue was her last.

Baim told us that having her lawyer talk to McCourt's lawyer was the "professional" way to go about things. And she said McCourt really had seemed despairing in recent months, looking and sounding like a man who needed a change. McCourt has certainly been through a cruel year. Last January, his lover died of AIDS; more recently he was beaten in his office by intruders.

"I heard him state it several times -- 'Where am I going to be in six months?'" Baim told us. "At our anniversary last September, a speech he gave, he said the paper right now was B-minus, and when it was A-plus he wouldn't be around. . . .

"We're not motivated by such gloomy predictions. We're motivated by positive stuff!"

McCourt's new acting editor is Albert Williams, whom we know well and greatly admire as a contributing drama critic at the Reader. There were other slots to fill -- for example, book editor Jorjet Harper and columnist Yvonne Zipter both followed Baim -- but McCourt insists he has everything covered. "Very much a splinter not a split," he said. Baim, on the other hand, said McCourt doesn't realize yet how bad his losses will be.

What troubles some gays about this divorce is that history is repeating itself -- and just a month before Gay Pride Week, when the community should march as one. In 1985 the staff of GayLife walked out on Chuck Renslow to found Windy City Times. The rap against Renslow was that he was hooked into too many deals to run a credible paper. McCourt is proud that since he took over his only activity has been the Times. He likes to wonder if the head of an organization like Horizons should be the new paper's largest investor.

We think both Baim -- daughter of a former Chicago Defender editor and great-grandniece of Clarence Darrow -- and Williams are capable of producing some of the better journalism in town. We did worry that Baim put herself at a disadvantage with the name Outlines, which does not speak to us. Baim marveled at our obtuseness.

"In our community," she told us, "being 'out' is a very positive thing to be in life and writing."

Where Are the Silent Smoke Detectors?

We have been dropping in on downtown Chicago's fine hotels in recent days. Every one we've visited was breaking the law.

Last June the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance requiring hotels and motels to make available silent smoke detectors. Instead of the usual screech, smoke triggers either a strobe light or a vibrator on these gadgets. Thus they alert people with impaired hearing.

The ordinance did not even take effect until January 1, 1987 -- plenty of time, we'd say, for the hostelries to comply. After all, alarms adequate to the new law are no further away than Reliable Fire Equipment in Alsip, which sells a portable plug-in model for $195.

But no. Not available here, we were told by the reception desk at the Marriott; and at the Allerton, the Sheraton Plaza, the Westin, the Hyatt Regency, the Americana Congress, and the Ambassadors East and West. They're on order, said the Ritz-Carlton and the Knickerbocker.

The Park Hyatt, Drake, Palmer House, Blackstone, Executive House, and Chicago Hilton & Towers all told us they provided the alarms, most of them built into specially equipped "handicapped rooms." But the ordinance requires one detector for every 50 rooms, and some hotels don't have enough. A Hilton clerk, for example, said his hotel has one handicapped room per floor -- and we counted 79 rooms on floors there.

Also required by the ordinance is the notice "smoke detectors for the hearing impaired available" posted at the front desk in letters at least three inches high. We did not see this notice anywhere.

"If people go into a hotel and don't see a sign, the detectors won't do them any good," said Sharon Gamache of the National Safety Council.

In 1970, fire broke out at the Conrad Hilton (now the Chicago Hilton & Towers). Smoke blanketed the ninth floor, whose rooms were full of deaf youngsters who had come into town for a Bulls game. Two youths died of smoke inhalation; 36 were injured.

The two dead teenagers (the parents of one testified at City Council hearings last year) were found in a corridor. Would a strobe alarm in their rooms have saved them? Perhaps not. Clearly the new ordinance is a small step forward; safety experts such as Gamache speak of "hard-wiring" silent alarms throughout hotels and putting special telephones in rooms so that in an emergency the hearing impaired can communicate with the front desk.

But, observed Gamache, just stating the obvious, "Even to be woken up is better than to sleep and possibly die in a fire."

Enforcing our new ordinance should not be hard. Fire Department examiners already require desk clerks each year to demonstrate what to do in an emergency. On the same trip to the front desk, the examiners could see if the notices were in place. But that's not their assignment, so they don't.

The office of the Corporation Counsel told us the job belongs to the Department of Inspectional Services -- the people who make sure the sprinklers work and hotels are generally up to code. But the Corporation Counsel must have forgotten to tell Inspectional Services. When we called there they told us we should be talking to the Fire Department. Or maybe the state.

Our suggestion to the gentlemen of the Fire Department and Inspectional Services: There's a law on the books. Laws are nuisances. On the other hand, this one's there to save lives.

Be sports! Enforce it together.

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

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