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The Little and the Beleaguered/Crossed Wires

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The Little and the Beleaguered

Life in the projects is an important story that did not so much repel journalists as defy them. How to approach it? How to frame it? How to hang on to readers with little sympathy and less empathy and no qualms about turning from so bleak a subject to anything else?

But seven years ago Alex Kotlowitz wrote "Urban Trauma," the closely observed account of three months in the life of a 12-year-old boy in the Henry Horner Homes, and in 1991 he followed this long Wall Street Journal piece with the book There Are No Children Here. As Kotlowitz said then, "Whatever you can say about adults, the children are totally innocent of what is."

Not only that, the innocence of children is universal. Their fall from grace simply varies by location. We could all imagine our sweet remembered selves buried alive in Henry Horner Homes.

"I don't think this book happens without Alex Kotlowitz's book," a writer named Daniel Coyle was telling us this week. The book Coyle has just published is called Harball: A Season in the Projects; it's about Little League ball at Cabrini-Green, and an article adapted from it appears in this issue of the Reader.

Early on, Coyle, who's a senior editor at Outside magazine, discussed his book with Kotlowitz, and he wound up with the same New York agent. But if Kotlowitz set a standard, Coyle doesn't think he founded a genre--a notion proposed by an admiring Sun-Times reviewer of Hardball who coined the phrase "Alex Kotlowitz syndrome."

"Inner-city children in danger--that's on the verge of becoming a cliche," said Coyle. "But I can't think of many other members of the genre in terms of nonfiction literature."

Inner-city children in danger became a preoccupation of the Chicago papers when Dantrell Davis was murdered at Cabrini-Green in 1992. What separates Hardball and There Are No Children Here from that largely admirable journalism is the books' painstaking observation of specific kids over time--which required not just going there but being there. Hardball adds an appealing strain of adult--the coaches, "white, college-educated young men with short hair, suburban backgrounds, and orthodontically corrected teeth." The kids remind us of who we once were, and, as Coyle observed, "the coaches are like we are."

He said, "Some of the reviewers have seized on this part of the book as sort of the hope element. It not only talks about the way things are but talks about the way things might be. I don't know if that's completely true, but there's some element of action. Something's being tried."

Thanks to Oprah Winfrey, Kotlowitz's book became a TV movie. With its added ingredients of sports and yuppies, Coyle's has already been sold to Paramount for half a million dollars.

Coyle's primary story line is the progress of the First Chicago Near North Kikuyus (ages 9 through 12) through the 1992 season at Carson Field, the ball lot at Sedgwick and Division that was the legacy of Jane Byrne and Jay McMullen's stay at Cabrini-Green ten years earlier. The subplot is the progress of the league itself, which had been founded a year earlier by a black community worker and a white insurance executive. "Theirs appeared to be a perfectly complementary relationship," writes Coyle, who, as an assistant coach in '91, was present at the creation. By the end of '92 they'd fallen out so completely the league split in two. But Coyle kept the confidence of both. "The reason I think they trust me," he said, "is that I was there before. I was a coach. I was not a journalist who came in, wrote a book, and left." Coyle's still there; last summer he became a head coach, and now he's committed $120,000 of his book and movie money to set up scholarship funds.

The fathers of three Kikuyus die during the '92 season. Another father is sent to prison for a highly publicized Gold Coast murder. As the book ends, an umpire who'd impressed the coaches with his "undisputed authority" behind home plate is arrested for the murder of Dantrell Davis.

The project has become more peaceful since then, and the funny thing is, Coyle said, that "even when there was a lot of shooting over there I thought Cabrini got a bad rap. For the most part it wasn't an altogether horrific place to live. There's a community there. Up where I live [East Lakeview] I don't know who lives on either side of me. In Cabrini everybody knows everybody. Everybody's connected to everybody. There are kids you'd see walking across the diamond and you'd say, 'Who's that?' And someone'd say, 'Oh, he's married to the cousin of my grandmama.'"

Coyle went on, "I went out on patrol with the tactical team a couple of nights. One of them gave me a piece of advice. He told me to wear a blue blazer, because every white person in Cabrini is either a social worker or a cop and it's better to be mistaken for a social worker. Also I'd always carry my glove, and I was always ready to stop and have a game of catch with some kids. But Cabrini--it's not the house of horrors. It's definitely scary at times, but there are other times when it's a nicer place than it gets credit for." Twice he observed gunfire. "It was strikingly casual. Then it's gone and it's quiet again. Quiet and peaceful and nice."

Because of that, not despite it, he's now an "apostle" for gun control. "Because every second you're there all it takes is one pull of a kid's finger," he explained. "It would be a very different place if Cabrini were as tough and violent as it is with no guns. You can handle the concept of someone coming up and beating you up. But that's different from the threat of someone, from a place you can't see--the coaches would nervously joke about how they would imagine a scope on their back."

To the amazement of many of the volatile Kikuyus--whose emotions lurch wildly between braggadocio and defeatism--the team finds itself in the championship game. Are you going to win it in the movie? we asked Coyle, who has no say over the script. "The screenwriter tells me right now we're not," he said, "but he's going to make it real close. In real life we got blown out, 21-3. I'm at peace with it. If they decide it's better about a Jewish volleyball team instead of an African American baseball team, it's not going to shock me. But I have confidence at least the screenwriter is clued in to the reality of the situation." He's been to Chicago, and he joined the '93 Kikuyus on a trip to Iowa--the '92 trip is one of the high points of the book.

In the book Coyle himself is invisible. "I've never been a fan of the first person," he said. "I've always admired the work of Tracy Kidder, and while he will occasionally insert himself, it's journalism as documentary camera. And as a matter of fact, I didn't have a lot personally to add."

But there is a moment when Coyle's invisibility becomes disconcerting. As a Kikuyu walks down Sedgwick with his younger brother his treasured aluminum bat is appropriated by a girl gang member who wants it for a fight. Obviously present, Coyle seems to have placed his book's interests ahead of his player's.

What actually happened, Coyle told us, is that he didn't step in because he didn't understand what was going on. "I was clueless," he said. "I genuinely thought as that was happening--I thought that that girl knew them. I was tagging along with them as they went over to get some pizza, and she comes over--and all of a sudden all this stuff is going down. We're backing up, shots are being fired, and we're backing under the el."

If Coyle is the invisible but omnipresent coach in a book in which every coach is secondary, the movie will be different. "In the book the kids were the center," Coyle said. "For this movie it's going to be much more a focus on the coaches. That's the way they're writing it for several reasons, one of them being their own commercial sense. If you want to make it a successful movie you have to have a bankable personality, and there aren't too many bankable 12-year-old personalities. I don't think anyone's suffering under the illusion this will be a documentary."

Crossed Wires

It's rare to see a reporter at one Chicago newspaper show up with a story in the other. But to general consternation the Tribune's ethnic-affairs writer just appeared in the Sun-Times.

To be precise, a column by Melita Marie Garza was published by La Raza Domingo, the Spanish-language magazine that's part of the Sunday Sun-Times sold in Latino neighborhoods. Garza has no business being there; it happened once before, and the editor of Domingo has been told to knock it off.

Last November an op-ed piece Garza had written for the Tribune showed up in Spanish in Domingo. It had arrived there via the small Hispanic Link News Service, which is distributed to subscribers by the giant Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Garza says she called Domingo, talked to her Tribune editor, then told Hispanic Link that in the future anything of hers it picked up had to be embargoed in Chicago.

But last month Hispanic Link picked up a column she'd written for the newsletter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists on diversity in the newsroom. And this month Domingo ran it.

We reached the editor there, Gabriela Bustamante, a few minutes after she'd heard from the LA Times Syndicate. We asked if she'd known about the embargo. "They just told me," she said. "They told me they are going to start putting that on when we receive articles from her."

But our copy of the Hispanic Link wire shows Garza's article plainly preceded by this: "(EDITORS NOTE; EMBARGOED IN CHICAGO)." Carelessness might hold up as an explanation, but not ignorance. "There's no excuse for it," says Ryan Stephens, the syndicate sales representative who'd called Bustamante. "It won't happen again."

"All I can tell you is it created a rather embarrassing situation for me," said Garza. Domingo didn't merely pick up her story; for that issue it listed her as one of its "contributors." She's on the masthead right under Carlos Fuentes.

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

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