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Matthew Kassel

Alternative Reality: ‘Three Wrongfully Convicted Men, 40 Years, and a City That Still Refuses to be Honest With Itself’

Wiley Bridgeman, left, of Cleveland, embraces his brother Ronnie, now known as Kwame Ajamu, as they walk from the Justice Center in Cleveland following Bridgeman's release from a life sentence for a 1975 murder. The two brothers, who were exonerated after spending decades in prison for a 1975 slaying, have sued the city of Cleveland and the detectives who investigated the case. The federal lawsuit suit, filed Thursday, July 2, 2015, names three Cleveland police detectives and a sergeant and the estates of a sergeant and three other detectives who have since died. (AP Photo/Phil Long, File)

Kyle Swenson was a young reporter at the Scene, Cleveland’s alt-weekly, when he started investigating the wrongful conviction of three black men who were imprisoned in the 1970s for a murder they didn’t commit. The men — Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, and Rickey Jackson, who served a combined 106 years behind bars — were exonerated in 2014, thanks in part to Swenson’s reporting, which informs his new book on the subject, Good Kids, Bad City. Swenson, now a reporter for The Washington Post, recently returned to the pages of the Scene with a long essay, included in the list below, that looks back at the conviction and indicts the city he once called home.

Swenson’s reporting is a testament to the value of local newspapers, as Alec MacGillis, who covers politics and government for ProPublica, points out in his largely positive Times review of Good Kids, Bad City. “One can’t help wondering what life-shattering injustices might go unaddressed in the future,” he writes, “for lack of a curious reporter to take a call or open an envelope.”

MacGillis, who lives in Baltimore, knows about the contraction of the local news industry firsthand. Two years ago, Baltimore’s City Paper, founded in 1977, was shuttered by the Baltimore Sun Media Group. Weeks after its closure, a pair of enterprising editors founded the Baltimore Beat, a print alt-weekly. But the paper couldn’t support itself through advertising revenue and it closed four months later. Now, however, the Beat is back, resurrected as an online-only operation in early March. (One of the outlet’s first new feature stories is listed below.) It is being run as a non-profit, and its editors — Lisa Snowden-McCray and Brandon Soderberg — say they hope, eventually, to revive the print publication.

It’s an audacious act, starting a print publication in 2019 — and recent attempts haven’t boded well for the industry. The Knoxville Mercury, for instance — founded after the city’s longstanding alt-weekly, Metro Pulse, was shut down — closed in 2017 after just two years in print. But there is something about paper, it seems, that lends gravitas and legitimacy to a media outlet.

At the beginning of March, Indianapolis’ alt-weekly, Nuvo, announced that it would no longer be publishing a print edition, and a number of editorial employees were laid off, including Nuvo’s editor, Laura McPhee. Fortunately, the publication will live on as a website, and it will refashion itself as a member-supported non-profit, which sounds promising, despite the staff cuts. 

Still, I get anxious when newspapers trade in paper for pixels. That’s not because I’m a print nostalgist; it’s because these decisions can portend disaster. I think, for example, of The Village Voicethe ur-alt-weekly, which stopped publishing its print edition in September 2017. Though the Voice continued to do good work online, it seemed to me that, without an accompanying print product, it was like a neutered beast. A year later, the Voice went out of business, thanks to the brilliant business mind of retail heir Peter Barbey, whose name I curse every time I pass a New York street corner only to find Time Out and AM New York. 

It’s depressing to me that the city I live in no longer has an alternative newspaper, though I take comfort in the fact that a number of alt-weeklies around the country are still publishing good stuff, including the The Stranger, the Metro TimesOrlando WeeklyTriad City Beat, and Monterey County Weekly — all featured in this reading list.

1. “Out For Justice is Out For Change” (Lisa Snowden-McCray, March 8, 2019, Baltimore Beat)

Lisa Snowden-McCray, the editor of the newly revived Baltimore Beat, profiles an organization that advocates for the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated, who often have trouble transitioning from jail. Out for Justice is led by Nicole Hanson-Mundell, who spent a year in jail. This legislative session, in Annapolis, the organization is advocating for “two bills urging state lawmakers to support pre-release centers for women,” Snowden-McCray writes.

It’s tireless, often thankless work. But Hanson-Mundell recognizes how important it is. That’s why it’s so important that the pre-release legislation gets passed.

“How can I deny a woman who just came home and she needs housing? I can’t say ‘Miss, I don’t provide direct services, you have to go somewhere else,’” she said. “I have to tap into my resources and find out who offers housing to newly released women with children. I have to use my connections and advocate for her.”

2. “This Is the Final Thing You’ll Ever Need to Read About Howard Schultz” (Rich Smith, February 27, 2019, The Stranger)

The Stranger has no kind words for Howard Schultz, who, as you probably know, is entertaining a bid for the presidency, much to the chagrin of, well, pretty much everybody. Rich Smith describes the former Starbucks CEO as “Seattle’s most successful bean juice salesman” in this deft takedown.

He has no idea who we are as a country now, no idea how Trump became president, and so much palpable fear that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is going to tax his Frappuccino dividends at a reasonable rate that he’s willing to hold the country hostage unless a moderate wins the Democratic nomination.

So much for hometown pride.

3. “Defiling the temple” (Jordan Green, February 21, 2019, Triad City Beat)

Triad City Beat, which covers North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad — including the cities of Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem — has a long story on Kenneth Fairbanks, a pastor and community leader who was also involved with charitable work in Nairobi. “But four criminal indictments allege that for much of the time Fairbanks was operating his ministry, he was also sexually abusing children,” including his own daughter, Jordan Green writes.

While Kenneth Fairbanks’ supporters cast him as a victim of familial treachery, his daughter, Christa, alleges that he sexually abused her for years, along with other girls, while isolating her to exert control and extorting her silence by admonishing her against ruining God’s plan for their family.

4. “Speed Trap” (Xander Peters, February 20, 2019, Orlando Weekly)

Orlando’s alt-weekly takes a sobering look at meth abuse in Florida, particularly among gay men. Xander Peters’ piece centers on a 29-year-old meth addict named Matt, who declines to give his last name. He got into the drug through Grindr, the dating app.

Matt’s genesis story isn’t uncommon in the community of men who have sex with men, or MSM. LGBTQ-focused dating apps have tried to suppress drug abuse in recent years, even banning certain terms such as “PNP” (“party and play”) and the capitalization of certain letters in members’ bios, such as the capital letter T (“Tina.”)

The depressing kicker to this story leaves little hope that Matt will ever overcome his addiction.

5. “Three Wrongfully Convicted Men, 40 Years, and a City That Still Refuses to be Honest With Itself” (Kyle Swenson, February 20, 2019, Cleveland Scene)

Kyle Swenson, now a reporter for The Washington Post, reckons with the lessons from his new book, Good Kids, Bad City, which examines the story of three black teenagers in 1970s Cleveland who were wrongfully convicted of murder, imprisoned for decades, and then exonerated.

“Good kids, bad city.” I am defensive about the title. The title implies values—the kids are good, the city is bad. I know Cleveland is a proud town but touchy, easy to injure; as I wrote, I had an invisible Clevelander in my head, belligerently asking why I had the temerity to slap the label “bad city” on the town. Was that fair? What makes a place bad, or good? I spent many an hour not writing, arguing with this invisible but touchy Clevelander, justifying the title.

Swenson more than justifies the title in this engaging and thought-provoking essay.

6. “How adult nights at Detroit’s roller rinks are keeping black skating culture alive” (Imani Mixon, February 20, 2019, Metro Times)

As a recreational activity, roller skating is a vital part of black social life in Detroit, according to Imani Mixon’s illuminating piece for Metro Times. I particularly enjoyed Mixon’s description of “Detroit-style skating,” which I knew nothing about.

Detroit-style skating is characterized by its smooth rolling motion that is heavily influenced by the Motown sound that was gaining traction around the same time that skating became a popular pastime. According to skaters who have been on the scene for decades, Detroit skaters don’t ever really stop rolling and if they do, they use the rubber toe stops on their skates, another signature marker of a Detroit skater. The basic move that every Detroit skater has to learn, whether solo or in groups, is the half-turn, which involves turning a smooth 180 degrees for a few beats then turning back in place to continue on the original skating path.

7. “Monterey Bay fishermen catch salmon as far away as Alaska. A proposed copper mine there poses a local threat” (Matt Koller, February 21, 2019, Monterey County Weekly)

Matt Koller does a good job laying out how a proposed copper mine site known as the Pebble Deposit could very well imperil the livelihoods of Monterey fisherman who spend their summers in Alaska’s Bristol Bay angling for sockeye salmon. The mine, if approved, risks contaminating the bay with discarded waste rock.

Fishermen have always accepted a certain degree of risk. But the salmon are certain. A renewable resource, they will keep returning to spawn. Yet Bristol Bay fishermen, including those from Monterey Bay, see the presence of the Pebble Mine—which seeks to extract a non-renewable resource—as a threat to their industry because it has the potential to alter these natural cycles in a fundamental way that will not balance out in the end.

The mine, Koller writes, threatens “the last great sockeye salmon run in the world” as well as “an entire way of life.”

8. “The Story of Chaney Lively” (Laura McPhee, February 21, 2019, Nuvo)

For one of its final print cover stories, Laura McPhee — until recently the editor of Nuvo — pieces together what little information there is about Chaney Lively, the first free woman of color in Indianapolis. She arrived in 1821, in what was then a frontier town, with Alexander Ralston, a Scottish surveyor “tasked with laying out the new city.” Chaney, 21, was Ralston’s housekeeper, though she had originally been his slave, most likely purchased in Louisville. Ralston died six years later, at which time Chaney inherited land.

When Chaney moved into her own home in 1827, there were less than 60 people of color—men, women, and children—living in Indianapolis out of a population of a little more than 1,000. She was the only Black female head of household in the 1830 census, and the first woman of color to own property in the city, most likely the first person of color, male or female, to do so.

In the process of excavating details about Chaney’s life, McPhee also paints a stark portrait of African-American life in Indianapolis before and after the Civil War.


Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Columbia Journalism Review.

Alternative Reality: ‘Howard Buffett’s Border War’

Howard Buffett, laughs at his swearing-in ceremony as Macon County Sheriff, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at the Scovill Golf Course Banquet Facility in Decatur, Ill. Buffett will fill out the remaining term of retiring Sheriff Thomas Schneider, who confirmed earlier Friday he would step down. (Clay Jackson/Herald & Review via AP)

It’s been a rough month or so for news publications around the country, with recent layoffs at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Gannett, along with impending cuts at Vice and McClatchy. In mid-January, too, almost the entire editorial staff of The East Bay Express, Oakland’s alt-weekly, was laid off.

Despite the carnage, though, alternative weeklies continue to publish ambitious, informative work, performing a vital service at a moment when local newspapers are disappearing at an alarming rate. The Phoenix New Times, for instance, published an aggressively reported two-part series on Warren Buffett’s son, Howard, who has earned a reputation as something of a border cowboy.

Seven Days, Burlington’s alt-weekly, profiled Charlie Morrow, the innovative musician and composer who is pioneering a new kind of immersive sound technology. Spokane’s Inlander published an in-depth story about grizzly bears, always an intriguing topic. Alex Woodward, in the New Orleans Gambit, documented the history of redlining in the Crescent City.

In Madison’s Isthmus, Howard Hardee took a look at a new effort to house the city’s homeless population. Nicholas Dolan wrote about the abolitionist John Brown for Iowa City’s Little Village. And Gabrielle Gopinath, in Humboldt County’s North Coast Journal, wrote an engaging piece on a recently restored church mural that had been hidden from view for a century.

1. “Howard Buffett’s Border War: A Billionaire’s Son Is Spending Millions in Cochise County” (Beau Hodai, January 13, 2019, Phoenix New Times)

Warren Buffett’s sexagenarian son, Howard, is cast in the first part of this jarring exposé as an aspiring border warrior who has purchased influence along the Mexico-Arizona dividing line, where he owns land, in order to act out what seems to be a dangerous, puerile fantasy as a desert vigilante.

Buffett describes his activities on the border using the language of humanitarianism and concern for the “rule of law.” But closer inspection shows he is using the same dog-eared playbook, and walking in the same well-worn circles, as infamous border warriors and vigilantes who have preceded him along southeastern Arizona’s border with Mexico. Setting Buffett aside from some of his more notorious predecessors is his extreme wealth, and not much more.

Read the second part here.

2. “Charlie Morrow Creates Soundscapes That Mimic How We Hear” (Dan Bolles, January 23, 2019, Seven Days)

Charlie Morrow, the musician, composer, and sound artist, has always straddled the mainstream and the avant-garde. In college, he played trumpet alongside the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and later worked in the advertising industry, perhaps most famously penning the jingle for Hefty trash bags.

Now, Morrow is knee-deep in developing his own 3D sound design technology through MorrowSound, the company he founded, creating immersive sound installations in seemingly random places such as the Kaiser Permanante health hub in Santa Monica, California. Dan Bolles, of Burlington’s Seven Days, paints a vivid portrait of this amusingly eccentric polymath.

When wearing the signature black bowler hat that often tops his round face, Morrow almost looks like a René Magritte painting come to life. And there’s a certain surrealism to what he does. Where the Belgian painter famously juxtaposed ordinary objects with extraordinary settings, Morrow uses ordinary sounds to create extraordinary environments—often, as in the case of the Santa Monica waiting room, in places where you’d least expect them.

3. “A WSU researcher lived with grizzly bears in Alaska. She came away convinced humans and grizzlies can coexist” (Wilson Criscione, January 17, 2019, Inlander)

If you know how Werner Herzog’s grim documentary Grizzly Man ends, then you might furrow your brow at this story about Joy Erlenbach, a bear biologist at Washington State University who has spent 300 days over the past four years living with grizzly bears in the remote Alaskan wilderness. She believes that, in the right environment, humans can live peacefully alongside grizzlies.

Erlenbach says she knows how to read bears’ body language. They are not much different than dogs in the way they express discomfort. She remembers once walking on a path through tall grass when she surprised a mama bear, whom Erlenbach called “Nina,” and two large cubs. Nina was almost within arm’s reach. Erlenbach took a step back, but that upset Nina. So instead, Erlenbach froze, and Nina decided to simply walk past Erlenbach.

Wilson Criscione’s profile for the Spokane Inlander doubles as an expansive look at the ways in which people are interacting with grizzlies in the lower 48 states — often violently.

4. “How ‘redlining’ shaped New Orleans neighborhoods — is it too late to be fixed?” (Alex Woodward, January 21, 2019, The Gambit)

Alex Woodward investigates the racist legacy of redlining in this vital piece, examining how the widespread practice of denying credit to African-Americans still shapes today’s housing market in New Orleans.

A 2016 report from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that people of color still are denied mortgages at higher rates than white homebuyers in 61 U.S. metro areas. And a 2018 report from National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that nearly 75 percent of redlined neighborhoods in the U.S. remain low- to moderate-income areas, and people of color live in nearly 64 percent of those neighborhoods.

Though redlining was eliminated with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, its damage was never undone.

5. “Housing Madison’s homeless” (Howard Hardee, January 10, 2019, Isthmus)

In Madison, Wisconsin’s alt-weekly, Isthmus, Howard Hardee writes about a couple of new supportive housing facilities, built to help the city’s homeless, that have been managed — somewhat shakily, it seems — by a Chicago-based company named Heartland Housing. There’s a lot riding on how well Heartland does its job, as the facilities are the first two projects in a larger plan, known as Housing First, to address homelessness in Madison.

The failure of Housing First in Madison would be, first and foremost, a tragedy for people living on the razor’s edge of poverty. It’s hard to overstate how much it means for formerly homeless people such as Melisa, 52, to have a roof and four walls after spending countless nights under bridges, on riverbanks and in the woods.

Melisa grew up on Jenifer Street, played soccer for East High School, and studied graphic design in college. Either she doesn’t understand how she became homeless or doesn’t want to talk about it. “I went through some situations,” she says vaguely. But she knows the streets were harsh. She made and lost friends. Some died. And she was highly vulnerable herself: One night, she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. “We just survived,” she says.

6. “‘Bright Radical Star’: When John Brown came to Iowa” (Nicholas Dolan, January 15, 2019, Little Village)

Before his failed raid on Harpers Ferry, the rugged revolutionary John Brown passed through Iowa, which Nicholas Dolan describes as a “bastion of the abolitionist movement” in his informative historical essay for Little Village, the publication serving Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

Leading up to 1859 and that ill-fated scheme, Brown and his fellow insurgents spent several months preparing in a modest Iowa community, even recruiting some soldiers from its ranks. It’s a story that speaks to America’s complicated relationship with religion and violence, and Iowa’s unsung radical history.

7. “The Hidden Palace” (Gabrielle Gopinath, January 31, 2019, North Coast Journal)

Humboldt County’s North Coast Journal published this fascinating article about a recently restored mural in Ferndale’s Church of the Assumption, painted in 1896 by the little-known artist Franz Bernau. The mural had been hidden from sight under whitewash for about a century, but now churchgoers are treated to a vibrant display that, in Gabrielle Gopinath’s telling, recalls a painting by M.C. Escher.

When you enter the Church of the Assumption today, the effect is dazzling. It can be hard to tell where architecture ends and painting begins. This impression intensifies as you approach the rear of the church, where floor-to-ceiling murals frame the altar, reaching some 50 feet above the ground. Below the chancel window, the mural depicts a sanctuary curtain hanging along four bays separated by painted columns and topped by fan ornaments, all rendered in starchy trompe l’oeil.

Gopinath’s vivid descriptions leave you with a strong desire to see the mural in person.

8. “Ilhan Omar’s improbable journey from refugee camp to Minnesota Legislature” (Cory Zurowski, November 7, 2016, City Pages)

Ilhan Omar, the newly elected Minnesota congresswoman — and, along with Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib, one of the first Muslim women in the House of Representatives — has been the subject of a lot of intense scrutiny since she took office at the beginning of the year.

But that’s nothing new for the 37-year-old Somali-American, who got her start in politics in 2016, when she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. That same year, the writer Cory Zurowski documented Omar’s somewhat tumultuous entry into politics, along with her circuitous route from Mogadishu to a refugee camp in Kenya to Arlington, Virginia, where her family first moved when they got to the United States — and where a young Omar struggled to fit in.

Classmates stuck gum to her headscarf when they weren’t trying to yank it off. None of her peers bothered to communicate, even to say hi. They stared instead. The new kid sat solo at lunch, a loner during recess as well. Omar’s English improved.

Then came her classmates’ questions: Does it feel good to wear shoes for the first time? Do you really have hair? Do you have a pet monkey? “I’d say the kids were curiously brutal,” says Omar, “but the lunch ladies were kind to me.”

Soon after her arrival in Virginia, Omar moved with to Minneapolis, and so marked the beginning of her rapid political ascent.


Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Columbia Journalism Review.

Alternative Reality: ‘Inferno in Paradise’

Homes leveled by the Camp Fire line Valley Ridge Drive in Paradise, Calif., on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

President Donald Trump has obliterated any notion of off-time for round-the-clock journalists, but it was still a relief to see that the alt-weeklies I read for this installment in my regular reading list were starting off the new year strong. The Chico News & Review, whose work I have previously highlighted here, can be forgiven, however, for publishing an old piece, from 1993, in which a reporter basically imagines the Camp Fire before it occurred.

Other stories were equally ambitious, if newer. Tucson Weekly published a lovely and unexpected ode to Interstate 10, which cuts across the southern portion of the United States, while the Chicago Reader drew attention to the work of an underappreciated free-jazz group with a longtime residency in the Roscoe Village neighborhood.

The East Bay Express — whose entire editorial staff was, sadly, laid off last week — and the Rochester City Newspaper both published probing pieces on police accountability. The Arkansas Times highlighted the work of a now-forgotten muralist named Joe Jones. The Salt Lake City Weekly gave readers a comprehensive history of a secluded neighborhood called Allen Park, or Hobbitville, and the Colorado Springs Independent set its scope on a public land issue in Colorado.

1. “Inferno in Paradise” (Jonathan Franks, August 12, 1993, Chico News & Review)

Twenty-six years before the deadliest wildfire in California history decimated the small town of Paradise, Jonathan Franks of the Chico News & Review filed a disturbingly prescient dispatch from the Paradise Ridge in which he imagined a conflagration of disastrous proportions. The piece, which came out in the summer of 1993, was recently re-published in print and online.

After interviewing a number of local fire officials, Franks came to a jarring conclusion:

These guys have spent half their lives learning everything there is to learn about wildfires—from the conditions that breed them to the military-like strategies used to fight them. Listening carefully to their cautious, technical language, one can’t help but realize they are predicting a disaster almost too horrible to imagine.

Ridge topography, with its steep canyons and narrow plateaus, makes access extremely difficult for fire crews and ground equipment, they say. It also creates natural bottlenecks where fleeing residents could be trapped by walls of flame.

During wildfires, this sort of terrain can create a “chimney effect” where flames go roaring down the canyons and swirling up the ridges at terrible speeds.

Franks’ prescient prediction? “It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be bad.”

2. “Interstate 10: A Personal History” (Tom Zoellner, January 10, 2019, Tucson Weekly)

For Tucson Weekly, Tom Zoellner, the author of Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World, wrote a soulful paean to the barren portion of Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson, by his account an underappreciated stretch of asphalt that he refers to as “this most essential of Arizona’s rural arteries.”

Nobody writes a poem to this section of expressway, completed in the heyday of the optimism of the Kennedy-Johnson New Frontier between 1961-1971. I have lived in both Phoenix and Tucson off and on and have probably traversed this road more than 800 times, looking at the same sunbaked landmarks and thinking the same reliable thoughts: about old friends, old happenings, old mysteries of my life here. How many others mark their I-10 journeys with a mental libretto of musings on the roadside spectacle?

3. “Extraordinary Popular Delusions play free jazz two centuries deep” (Howard Mandel, January 10, 2019, Chicago Reader)

Like Zoellner’s I-10, the Chicago-based free-jazz group Extraordinary Popular Delusions, named after a 19th-century study by a Scottish journalist, is underappreciated. But the band, which has held a weekly residency at the Beat Kitchen in Roscoe Village for nearly the past decade, is given its due by Howard Mandel in this in-depth profile for the Chicago Reader.

Their shows are little heralded and often sparsely attended, but 13 years of continuous collaboration have turned this quartet into a beacon of Chicago’s indigenous avant-garde, with an unpredictable, provocative sound that arises from the commingling of its members’ diverse influences and experiences.

As Longreads contributor Aaron Gilbreath recently lamented in a thoughtful essay, music journalism has become something of an endangered genre — so it’s encouraging that the Reader is committed to robust coverage of the Chicago music scene.

4. “Oakland’s Lost Year of Police Accountability” (Darwin BondGraham, January 9, 2019, East Bay Express)

In 2016, Oakland residents voted to establish an independent commission to oversee the city’s scandal-ridden police department. The commission began operating last year, but so far it has proven ineffectual in holding the department to account, as Darwin BondGraham reveals in his thorough investigation for the East Bay Express. While some observers are hopeful that the commission will pull itself together in the new year, BondGraham writes that there is evidence to suggest that it will only further unravel in 2019.

Already, two of the best-qualified commissioners have resigned, one of them in frustration. In November, the commission suddenly and secretively fired its chief investigator after publicly clashing with him. Commissioners have also quarreled during public meetings with their legal counsel, and their first attorney quit after commissioners argued with her at meetings. The commissioners have also bickered amongst themselves, sometimes over email and text message, sometimes in public. And lacking experience with state open meetings laws, at least one of the commissioners committed a Brown Act violation in the form of unnoticed emails sent to a quorum of other commissioners.

Over the past year, the commission hasn’t made progress on the core work required of it under the city charter. They’ve yet to hold a single hearing in a police disciplinary case or participate in an OPD Executive Force Review Board to examine a shooting or similar critical incident. They’re ill-prepared to draft their evaluation of the police chief. They’ve yet to hold a community meeting.

5. “City Hall prepares to reform Rochester’s police oversight” (Mary Anna Towler and Tim Louis Macaluso, January 8, 2019, Rochester City Newspaper)

In Rochester, city council members are finalizing legislation that would create a police accountability board with the power to discipline police officers. The city’s mayor, Lovely Warren, has also submitted her own legislation, and a team of activists is advocating for the establishment of an independent civilian review board with broad investigatory and disciplinary powers.

The city council will be holding three forums to solicit comments from the public early this year, as Mary Anna Towler and Tim Louis Macaluso point out in their report for Rochester’s City Newspaper, one installment in an ongoing series on police-community relations.

The unveiling of Council’s legislation and the forums will be the start of what will likely be several months of emotional public discussion of a major community issue: how to handle citizen complaints about police officers’ conduct in a way that is fair to both the public and the officers. And how to do that in a way that builds trust rather than eroding it.

Perhaps Rochester can look to Oakland for lessons on what not to do.

6. “A mural to move Little Rock forward” (Leslie Newell Peacock, December 27, 2018, Arkansas Times)

A 1935 mural by the American painter Joe Jones — a triptych of sorts, which depicts, from left to right, sharecroppers, coal miners, and a lynching — probably shouldn’t still exist. But it does, thanks to a series of auspicious events that led to its restoration and installation at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s new downtown facility, as Leslie Newell Peacock details in an uplifting story for the Arkansas Times.

Jones, she writes, “could not have foreseen that the mural, painted on masonite, would survive intact for only five years before being dismantled — along with the college — and become Depression-era building material for a closet in a home in Mena.”

That it would be rediscovered 40 years after that and sold to a university. That 73 years after Jones put the last brush stroke on the painting, the mural, restored, would once again hang in an academic space, not in the dining room of a small left-wing college in a remote mountain town, but in a smashing new university venue on the bustling President Clinton Avenue in downtown Little Rock — where its story of Arkansas’s past sins will be seen by many, inspire conversation and, perhaps, show a way forward to Arkansas’s redemption.

7. “Hunters, hikers and anglers can’t access millions of acres of public land” (Faith Miller, January 9, 2019, Colorado Springs Independent)

A property battle ensues in Colorado Springs, where public land users are butting heads with private landowners who own property that connects with government land, reminiscent of an issue in California in which private properties block access to public beaches.

A recent study by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) and onX sheds new light on how widespread the problem has become. Researchers mapped 13 Western states with technology supplied by onX, a mapping service for hunters, hikers and anglers that identifies which lands are legal to access for recreational purposes. They discovered 9.52 million acres of taxpayer-funded public land—an area larger than New Hampshire and Connecticut combined—that the public cannot legally enter because they’re surrounded by private property.

One interesting wrinkle in the Colorado Springs Independent piece by Faith Miller is that mapping technology has led hikers and other recreationalists to notice what land they are missing out on. Mapping, Miller writes, “leads to an increased sense of injustice, as outdoor enthusiasts realize how much public land remains inaccessible to them, particularly in rural areas.”

8. “Hobbitville’s Last Days” (David Hampshire, January 9, 2019, Salt Lake City Weekly)

David Hampshire, a longtime resident of Salt Lake City’s Allen Park, a secluded community also known as Hobbitville — though there are no hobbits to speak of — was recently evicted from his residence as the fate of the the neighborhood is decided in probate court. While it’s unclear what will happen to Hampshire and his neighbors, in a delightfully reported essay for Salt Lake City Weekly, he educates readers on the odd history of Allen Park, which is named after an eccentric doctor named George A. Allen, a bird lover who acquired the property in 1931.

“From time to time, Dr. Allen would also keep zoo animals on the property,” Hampshire writes—including “an elephant, a chimpanzee and several reindeer. The family also collected an unusual assortment of ‘pets’ including a coyote, a sandhill crane named Sandy and a raccoon that sometimes followed the girls to school.

Times have changed.


Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.

Alternative Reality: ‘Dark Window’

Getty Images

I look forward to winter ever year, mostly because I like the snow, which quiets a city down, makes it more peaceful. I am aware my opinion may be an unpopular one — and that the snow makes life difficult and perhaps even impossible for the many homeless people in New York City (where I live) and beyond. Snow is no joke for those who are on the streets. I thought about that as I read Doyle Murphy’s long, keenly observed profile, in St Louis’ Riverfront Times, of a 22-year-old transgender woman named Jazmin, who is homeless and doubts that she will make it through the winter alive.

Several of the stories in this list highlight the ways in which cities have abandoned those who need them most. In addition to Jazmin in St. Louis, there was Anthony Benavidez, a 24-year-old man with schizophrenia who was shot and killed by Santa Fe police in his apartment last year, as Aaron Cantú details in his investigation for the Santa Fe Reporter.

Other stories veered from that theme. In the Charleston City Paper, Maura Hogan wrote a fascinating piece on the history of the city’s Garden and Gun Club, the defunct establishment that now lends its name to the magazine. Steven Hale of the Nashville Scene filed a sobering dispatch on the execution of David Earl Miller, Tennessee’s longest-serving incarcerated person on death row, who chose to die by electric chair. Debra Andres Arellano, in Maui Time, wrote an uplifting personal essay on a 51-day workers’ strike at the Sheraton Hotel in Maui that ended with better pay for union members.

For Boulder Weekly, Will Brendza wrote an interesting analysis on a new system that requires emergency medical responders to work from their vehicles all day, often without the possibility of downtime outside of their ambulances. And the Chicago Reader’s Maya Dukmasova interviewed a number of mayoral hopefuls who may not even make it onto the ballot in February but who have interesting stories nonetheless.

I came across many unique stories in alt-weeklies around the country for the third installment in this regular reading list.

1. “Downtown Businesses Consider Jazmin a Nuisance, But the Streets of St. Louis Are Her Home” (Doyle Murphy, November 28, 2018, Riverfront Times)

Doyle Murphy, a staff reporter for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, paints a sympathetic portrait of Jazmin, a 22-year-old transgender woman from the Milwaukee area who is homeless and spends much of her time panhandling in a McDonald’s drive-through. Murphy follows Jazmin — also known as “Jaz” — through the city as she hops on an unlocked Lime scooter, buys K2 and has an uncomfortable run-in with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, a 43-year-old ex-convict named Courvoisier. Jaz is witty and loquacious — “It’s not Missouri,” she says of her chosen state, “It’s misery.” A portentous air hangs over this profile with the grim reality of a long St. Louis winter underway.

In another world, the 22-year-old would be finishing college about now, maybe starting a career. Her dream car is a Chrysler 300 “with the SRT” or a 2008 Volkswagen Jetta — “I don’t know why.” But she does not see a future that includes any of this. Instead, she wonders if she will survive the winter. “The way things are going, I think I’m finna to wind up dead.”

2. “How the Garden and Gun Club upended Charleston’s starched social order in just a few short years” (Maura Hogan, December 12, 2018, Charleston City Paper)

You may be familiar with Garden & Gun, the Charleston-based magazine that was founded in 2007 and has since raked in a number of National Magazine Awards. It’s the publication of choice among those who are too dainty for Guns & Ammo and perhaps too snooty for Better Homes & Gardens. But were you aware that its namesake is a former Charleston nightclub that one might describe as the Studio 54 of the South thanks to its louche atmosphere?

A recent cover story in the Charleston City Paper — South Carolina’s only independent alt-weekly — looks at the legendary club, which is now home to a restaurant called Hank’s Seafood. Its legacy lives on not just through the magazine that borrowed its name, as the theater critic Maura Hogan makes clear in her in-depth investigation.

From its Hayne Street locale to its original home two blocks away on King Street, the always-teeming, ever-joyous nightclub once reverberated so strongly throughout the city that it dramatically altered Charleston’s cultural and social landscape. It did so by encouraging a party-hardy, wildly convivial commingling of demographics that in Charleston cut an unprecedented swath through race, sexual orientation, social status, and income level — and tolerated nothing less than harmony throughout.

At the Garden and Gun Club, differences were checked at the door, so that Spoleto artists, Broad Street lawyers, freshly-out young gay men, Charlestonians of all races, and taffeta-wrapped socialites could get down, get down with anyone and everyone, on the frenetic, teeming dance floor. Side by side, they could belly up and raise a glass at the well-stocked, hard-liquor-fueled bar. They could costume up to great effect for the legendary Halloween party. From wall to flashing, flesh-pressing wall, they could express anything and everything — that is, except for judgment.

3. “The Execution of David Earl Miller” (Steven Hale, December 7, 2018, Nashville Scene)

Steven Hale, a staff writer for the Nashville Scene, recently bore witness to the execution of David Earl Miller, Tennessee’s longest-serving incarcerated person on death row. Miller chose to be executed by electric chair, forgoing a lethal injection. He and three other incarcerated people had filed a lawsuit asking to die by firing squad, “but the suit hasn’t been successful so far,” Hale writes, and Miller ran out of time. Hale describes Miller’s execution in an appropriately clinical tone, but he can’t help feeling unsettled.

Having witnessed Billy Ray Irick’s lethal injection in August, I underestimated how unnerving it would be to feel familiar with the whole production — to know the conference room where a TDOC staffer would offer coffee, to remember the route to the execution chamber, and to notice subtle changes in the prison’s lobby. On Thursday night, there was a Christmas tree covered in lights, and a new sign at the security desk reading, “You can’t have a good day with a bad attitude, and you can’t have a bad day with a good attitude.”

Miller’s similarly sanguine last words: “Beats being on death row.”

4. “Dark Window” (Aaron Cantú, December 11, 2018, Santa Fe Reporter)

Aaron Cantú looks at the short life of Anthony Benavidez, a 24-year-old with schizophrenia who was shot and killed last year in his home by Santa Fe police after a SWAT team was called in after Benavidez stabbed his social worker. For reasons that are unclear, one of the two officers who shot Benavidez turned off his body camera before entering the apartment — in apparent violation of SFPD policy. Rather than going to court, Benavidez’s family settled with the city last month for $400,000, paid for by Travelers, Santa Fe’s insurance carrier, which, Cantú writes, “will try to settle civil suits against the city even if the officers involved are criminally charged and prosecuted.” Widening the scope of his story, Cantú wonders how this setup protects the citizens of Santa Fe.

The only accountability for the killing so far comes from the city’s insurance carrier, a business that has the final say in legal complaints against SFPD officers. One law professor believes these private insurers, who bear most of the financial responsibility when cops in small and mid-sized towns get sued, may be the most powerful entities when it comes to regulating police behavior.

Mayor Alan Webber refused to be interviewed for this story. In a written statement, City Attorney Erin McSherry said: “The settlement was a financial decision determined by the city’s insurance carrier,” and that it was “not an admission of any wrongdoing by the officers or the city.”

With no one from the city offering a detailed explanation, a more fundamental question hangs in the air: If the bloodless calculation of a faceless insurance company is a family’s best option for justice from police violence, to whom are the city and police truly accountable?

5. “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (Debra Andres Arellano, December 12, 2018, Maui Time)

Union workers at the Sheraton Hotel in Maui recently ended a 51-day strike after negotiating better hourly pay and safer working conditions, among other things. It was one of the longest strikes in Hawaii, writes Debra Andres Arellano, who recounts the workers’ saga in a moving personal essay. The piece includes reflections from some who joined the picket line, including Virgil Seatriz Jr., a bell clerk at the Sheraton who describes how the strike brought workers closer together.

“Before, we would just show up to work, swipe in, swipe out, either nod or say hello to other departments. Now, we almost know each other by name, no matter which department you worked at,” Virgil explained. “There’s a sense of ‘ohana now where you consider your coworkers your brothers and sisters.” He added, “Before the strike, I think we would just let things go with the flow and voice our opinions individually than as a whole. As a whole we can now voice what’s right or wrong, not individually.”

6. “Waiting for an emergency” (Will Brendza, December 13, 2008, Boulder Weekly)

In Boulder, Colorado, emergency medical responders have, under a newly implemented model, been relegated to their ambulances for 10-hour shifts, often without the possibility of a lunch break or any sort of downtime outside the vehicle. That’s because American Medical Response, the medical transportation company that provides emergency services in Boulder and elsewhere, not long ago decided to eliminate EMS stations in favor of a system known as “street corning posting,” in which ambulances are parked throughout the city ready for action at all times. The system apparently increases efficiency despite that it may be draining and unhealthy for responders.

It is becoming more and more common across the state of Colorado, according to Will Brendza’s piece in Boulder Weekly.

It’s simply more effective to keep EMS locked and loaded, prepped and positioned to respond, than to trifle with the cost of EMS stations and the challenges they present. Street corner posting is becoming the industry standard in Colorado, and whether or not it is popular among ambulance crews seems to be irrelevant.

7. “Overlooked mayoral hopefuls share bold visions for Chicago” (Maya Dukmasova, December 13, 2018, Chicago Reader)

Chicago Reader staff writer Maya Dukmasova spoke with some of the lesser-known candidates who may or may not be on the ballot in Chicago’s mayoral election early this year. They include a brazen pastor named Catherine Brown D’Tycoon; 87-year-old Conrien Hykes Clark, who wants to take on the city’s drug problem; and a police officer named Roger L. Washington. Even if they don’t make it that far, it is still refreshing to hear from them — and, as Dukmasova writes, it will “say little about the viability of their ideas or the seriousness of their commitment to the city.”

As we met with and interviewed the Chicagoans who dream most vividly of taking up the city’s highest office, it became clear that, if nothing else, most of them are acutely aware of the problems faced by ordinary people here. They may not have the campaign funds, party backing, or name-recognition needed to win this election, but they also don’t stink of the bullshit that tends to envelop the “viable” candidates who calculate statements to sound as inoffensive as possible while withholding most actionable opinions and commitments.

8. “As Long Beach Luxury Development Booms, the Poor Get Left Behind” (Joshua Frank, December 13, 2018, OC Weekly)

In Long Beach, California, a surge in luxury development has led to increased rents so onerous that many residents are forced to leave their homes. It is a story that has become all too common in metropolitan areas throughout the country. In his cover story for OC Weekly, Joshua Frank walked through Long Beach and interviewed a number of residents about the city’s housing crisis.

Off East Fourth Street and Redondo Avenue, Jeremy Rodriguez was served a 60-day notice to vacate in early November, when his one-year lease was up. Despite always paying his rent on time and never having been in trouble with his landlord, he was provided no reason for the eviction and offered no option to stay. Rodriguez, who manages a craft-beer tasting room in Long Beach, is now forced to find a new place for his child, girlfriend and small dog in the middle of the hectic holiday season.


Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.

Alternative Reality: ‘California Divided’

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I thought that it was a good couple of weeks for alt weeklies as I surveyed recent stories published in alternative papers around the United States for the second installment in this regular reading list.

In Portland, the Willamette Week covered the city’s embattled mayor, Ted Wheeler. Maya Smith, a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer, filed a charming profile of a blind pharmacist named Charles A. Champion. Christina Sturdivant Sani looked at the underrepresentation of black journalists in D.C. for the Washington City Paper. In Phoenix, a New Times reporter zeroed in on the questionable practices of Arizona’s former parks director.

Back East, DigBoston took aim at Massachusetts’ state gun purchasing agreements. All About Beer, the country’s oldest beer mag, was eulogized in Durham’s Indy Week. Anthony Mariani, the editor of Fort Worth Weekly, wrote an intense personal essay on his brother’s suicide. And the Chico News & Review published an amusing and informative dispatch on the Jefferson separatist movement in Northern California.

It goes without saying that I came across more good writing than I could include in this modest list. But I hope this mix of profiles, investigations, and personal musings will keep you busy until next time.

1. “Portland’s Mayor Is Struggling on the Job. And It’s About to Get Harder.” (Rachel Monahan, December 5, Willamette Week)

The Willamette Week, Portland’s best alternative newspaper, gives readers a long, detailed status report on the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, whose term began at the beginning of last year. Reporter Rachel Monahan portrays an ineffectual leader who is losing the faith of his allies after failing to deliver on a number of campaign promises, such as providing a shelter bed for every homeless Portlander.

No man is an island, but Ted Wheeler looks marooned. Next month will mark his second anniversary in one of the highest-profile jobs in Oregon politics—and Wheeler is struggling in a remarkably public manner.

No one doubts his intelligence or his integrity. But nearly all of the two dozen people WW spoke to about Wheeler say those qualities are not enough. They describe a mayor unable to move the city forward on challenges large and small. He’s disappointed the left and the right, while frustrating the institutional players who want to see Portland’s achievements measure up to its potential.

Wheeler seems unable to take control.

2. “Dr. Charles Champion, a Memphis Institution for 50 Years” (Maya Smith, November 29, Memphis Flyer)

Charles A. Champion is the blind proprietor of Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, TN. Maya Smith, a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer, has written a lovely profile of this 88-year-old pharmacist, who now spends most of his time greeting customers at the front of the store.

Opaque lenses hide eyes that, for the last four years, have been able to make out only faint light. The man in the glasses, wearing a white coat embroidered with “Dr. Charles A. Champion,” sits in a green chair in Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Champion is 88 years old, but still has his wits about him and shows up to work every day.

His wife of 60 years, Carolyn Champion, is sitting to his right. His cane, a stack of newspapers, and a plastic bucket of peppermints are on his left. Trusting his ears and gentle nudges from his wife, he gives one of each to everyone who walks by. Champion is the owner of the South Memphis pharmacy and has been there every day (Tuesday through Saturday) since 1991.

There are many fine details in this piece. But I liked this one in particular, a saucy quote from Champion, who has several strong opinions on medicine: “I turn down more people than I serve,” he says. “Just because you want a certain drug, it doesn’t mean you need it. I have to be the one to look out for people. I won’t give someone medicine just so they can continue living unhealthy.”

3. “California Divided” (Stephen Magagnini, November 29, Chico News & Review)

California’s Jefferson separatist movement has always served journalists well. In 1942, a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle named Stanton Delaplane won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the “gun-toting citizens” who wanted to secede from the Golden State. In the Chico News & Review, Stephen Magagnini takes stock of the movement as it exists today in Northern California, which he describes as an “unlikely assortment of survivalists and hippies, pot growers and hardline cops, real estate appraisers and loggers, fencing instructors and gun lovers, Latinos and anti-immigrants.” Jefferson’s leader is Mark Baird, a rugged Trump supporter and something of a libertarian cowboy.

The movement has long been popular with a segment of rural far-Northern California, but Baird, 65, a strapping reincarnation of John Wayne, started breathing new life into Jefferson five years ago. The 6-foot-4-inch fire tanker pilot, rancher and Siskiyou County reserve deputy sheriff cuts an impressive figure. He sports a black belt holster, but instead of a sidearm, packs his weapon of choice, a copy of the Constitution.

Though it seems unlikely that the Jeffersonians will get their way, it would be foolish to dismiss the movement outright, given that Trump’s victory was a surprise to such a large swath of the American population.

4. “The Reality of Being a Black Journalist Covering Local D.C. News” (Christina Sturdivant Sani, November 29, Washington City Paper)

Christina Sturdivant Sani, the Washington correspondent for The Commercial Observer and an urban journalism fellow at Greater Greater Washington, takes a look at the underrepresentation of black journalists in D.C.’s media scene.

As a black journalist and native Washingtonian, I am equally proud to report local news and frustrated by my industry.

Beyond local black media, such as the Washington Afro American and the Washington Informer, there’s an underrepresentation of black journalists at print and digital outlets that cover D.C news.

In a city comprised of 47 percent black residents—the largest racial demographic in the city—it pains me that “mainstream” publications are majority white, most of them by a significant margin. It’s also telling that after writing for a dozen local news outlets, I’ve only had black editors at the Afro.

To its credit, City Paper gives Sturdivant Sani the space to take a look at its own track record with diversity. “Many editorial staffs around town, including Washington City Paper,” Sturdivant Sani writes, “could use a heavy dose of melanin — to document D.C.’s historically black culture and preserve the wellness of its black journalists.”

5. “Parks and Wreckage: Meet the Archaeologist Who Brought Down Parks Boss Sue Black” (Steven Hsieh, November 29, Phoenix New Times)

Steven Hsieh, a staff writer for Phoenix New Times, digs deep into an Arizonan archeological scandal. The protagonist of his story is Will Russell, who, while serving as a compliance officer for Arizona State Parks, blew the whistle on Sue Black, the department’s director who, with her deputy director, James Keegan, approached development “with more regard for awards and political ambition than archaeological sites,” Hsieh writes.

During Russell’s year and a half at Parks, he grew angry over practices he viewed as flagrant violations of state law.

Not long after he was hired, it became clear to him that Black and her allies, especially Keegan, did not value his role as a compliance officer. Parks leaders pressured Russell to treat antiquities sites not as cultural resources in need of protection, but as obstacles to development.

Records obtained by Phoenix New Times show Arizona Parks built gardens, trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and cabins on several archaeological sites without following procedures intended to protect Arizona’s cultural resources.

6. “Fire Sale” (Chris Faraone and Curtis Waltman, September 27, DigBoston)

DigBoston, the cleverly named alt weekly, is currently knee-deep in an investigation into Massachusetts’ opaque state gun purchasing agreements, in collaboration with the Emerson College Engagement Lab and Muckrock, the non-profit news site.

Since the beginning of this year, our team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has examined hundreds of state purchasing agreements, for everything from heavy crime-fighting equipment to consumables for laser printers. Of the many contracts that caught our attention, the firepower free-for-all unpacked herein (SP16-AMMO-X85, abbreviated as AMMO in following references) stands out as especially dubious, with entities on all sides operating in an unchecked fashion despite being on the radar of state prosecutors. Nearly three years into the AMMO arrangement, a malleable open call that allows for multiple contracts to be approved under it, vendors have leveraged the opportunity to make millions of dollars off the state. For most of those procurements, there was no competitive bidding. And the process is far from transparent.

The second installment in the series was published in late November, and the next part, on tasers, will come out in January, according to Chris Faraone, who co-wrote the story and serves as DigBoston’s news and features editor.

7. “Saying Goodbye” (Anthony Mariani, November 15, Fort Worth Weekly)

A recent cover story for Fort Worth’s alternative newspaper — which, every week, publishes breaking news and cultural criticism along with a longform piece that usually tops out around 5,000 words — gets quite personal. Anthony Mariani, the editor of Fort Worth Weekly, writes about his brother Adam’s suicide, and the essay is sad, manic, and occasionally uplifting.

Everyone keeps telling me not to blame myself, that there was nothing I could have said or done to have changed a thing. But why? Why can’t I blame myself if that’s going to make me a better person, a better son to my mother and a better brother to my sister and other brother? And, perhaps most importantly of all, a better husband to my wife and father to my son? I was a lazy brother to Adam. There is no doubt about that. That is a fact. I could have called him more often. I texted him a bunch but rarely ever called. And I knew. I knew he was not doing well. Our mom exploded a couple of years ago when I chose to spend my vacation with my friends instead of with Adam. What’s the big deal? I whined. I even solicited Adam’s blessing while I was living it up with my buds. Ever humble and ever supportive of his little bro, he wrote off Mummy’s angst toward my vacation as her simply being her usual neurotic self. At least that’s what he told me. He was a good brother that way.

8. “For 39 Years, Local Mag All About Beer Shaped the Craft Beer Scene. This Is How It Collapsed.” (Michael Venutolo-Mantovani, November 27, Indy Week)

America’s oldest beer magazine, the Durham-based All About Beer, founded in 1979, appears to have ceased publication in mid-October. The magazine, whose website now sits abandoned on the web like so much digital flotsam, played a large part in elevating the country’s burgeoning craft beer movement, as Michael Venutolo-Mantovani makes clear in his detailed postmortem for Indy Week, the alt weekly serving North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

At the magazine’s founding, there were fewer than one hundred breweries across America, nearly all of which were mass producers such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. But even then, AAB quietly heralded the ultra-nouveau movement of craft and small-batch brewing. Its fourth issue had a brief mention of newcomer Sierra Nevada—today the seventh-largest brewer in the U.S., with production facilities in Asheville. In the decades that followed, AAB found itself on the leading edge of an exploding scene.

It’s a sad moment when a publication goes under. Let’s pour one out for All About Beer.


Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.

Alternative Reality: An Alt-Weekly Reading List

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There have been a lot of eulogies for the alt-weekly lately, and understandably so. Over the past few years, we’ve lost a lot of them: the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, the Baltimore City Paper, Knoxville’s Metro Pulse, the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Missoula Independent. The list goes on.

But the story of alt-weeklies isn’t all about attrition. It’s also about resilience in the face of local media contraction. Around the country, alt-weeklies continue to publish deep investigations, irreverent features, and weird columns that you just don’t find in other publications, often by promising young writers who are discovering their voices. The work usually goes unnoticed because alt-weeklies have always operated under the radar. But in this regular reading list, I hope to rectify that.

Whenever I travel to a new town, the first thing I look for is its free alt-weekly, which can most often be found stacked inside a street corner box. Alt-weeklies help me get a read on my new locale, and at their best, they offer a kind of X-ray — social, cultural, political — on a city that you might not find in the daily paper.

Here are some stories which, I think, do just that — and more.

1.Miller Cane: A True and Exact History, Chapter 2, Part 4 (Samuel Ligon, November 8, 2018, Inlander)

Since mid-September, the fiction writer Samuel Ligon has been serializing a novel in Spokane’s Inlander, one of the country’s more robust, and adventurous, alt-weeklies. It’s a hard-boiled work with terse dialogue and staccato sentences. It tells the story of a guy named Miller Cane, who “has been making his living conning and comforting the survivors of mass shootings,” as an expository summary at the top of one part explains it. The installments, which are also broadcast on Spokane Public Radio, will debut every week for the next year or so. The first part jumps right into the action.

Miller Cane was six days into the Rosedale massacre when Heffner slid into the Legion Hall during an afternoon animal session. Miller didn’t recognize him at first, was focused on calming a howling beagle he’d just settled into a survivor’s lap. But the rage vibe was unmistakable, a disruption in the air over all the animal distraction, even as Heffner slouched and slunk and tried to keep himself small as he looked for a seat, finally taking a broken office chair by the coffee urns in back. It never would have occurred to Miller that a survivor from Cumberland would show up in Texas — a thousand miles away — at a completely different massacre. Maybe the man was just disturbed. Weren’t they all? Maybe his hurt came off as hatred. Miller had seen that before. But he couldn’t help wondering, just for a second, if the man might be another shooter, fresh on the scene to finish them all. He didn’t want to think that. Connie Lopez seemed to know something was off with the dude too, keeping an eye on him from her table in the center of the barroom as she chopped cilantro for chili.

The fourth part of the second chapter is the most recent installment to have been published. This is the sort of thing newspapers don’t really do anymore, and it’s a thrill to watch Ligon perform the high-wire act of writing a novel in public.

2. “Syed Irbaz Shah Wants to Be Deported, So Why Is He Still Here?” (Chris Walker, October 23, 2018, Westword)

Bureaucracy, like inertia, is a difficult subject to make compelling. But the rule doesn’t apply when it comes to the bureaucratic nightmare that is the story of Syed Irbaz Shah, a Pakistani national who was deported from the United States earlier this year but remains locked up in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Colorado because, to simplify a complex situation, he can’t get his passport.

The tension at the core of this tale is so ridiculous — and the chain of events that led to Shah’s imprisonment so serpentine — that you can’t help but continue reading to find out how and why Shah got into this predicament. Chris Walker, a staff writer for Denver’s Westword who covers local news and music, does a good job ironing out all the wrinkles in a story that amounts to a kind of low-key procedural thriller.

Today the Pakistani national remains in the Aurora immigrant detention center where he’s been held since February. While the circumstances surrounding Shah’s case are unusually complicated and technical, he, his family members and multiple lawyers believed that they could overcome any hurdles to get him out of the United States. Instead, they’ve become bit players in a Kafkaesque tale for our time, in which someone who desperately wants to be deported during the most deportation-loving U.S. administration in recent memory can’t seem to get himself booted across the border.

3. “Despite demolition efforts, blight spreads undetected throughout Detroit’s neighborhoods” (Violet Ikonomova, November 14, 2018, Metro Times)

In this deeply reported, 7,000-word investigation for Detroit’s Metro Times, Violet Ikonomova looked into the state of Detroit’s vacant houses and found that many more of them were blighted — and, therefore, abandoned — than the city’s Land Bank Authority had accounted for.

The apparently inaccurate blight calculation raises questions about the reliability of the data being used to guide the day-to-day demolition operations of the city and Land Bank.

In Detroit’s Grandale neighborhood, near West Chicago and Greenfield, Luther Johnson has been monitoring changes in the landscape for 50 years. From the well-manicured yard of the red brick Tudor where he grew up, Johnson looks directly onto a vacant lot where the city recently wrapped up a demolition. On one side stands a vacant house whose door appears to at one point have been pried open. On the other stands a worse-off vacant house, its backside crumbling and wooden bones exposed.

“They should have torn it down,” Johnson said of the ramshackle house. “And I don’t know why they didn’t — they tore this one next to it down. They should have torn that one down before they tore this one down because this one was looking better.”

The Metro Times, it’s worth pointing out, has been doing yeoman’s work of late. The paper recently broke the story on Marc Peeples, a 32-year-old man who was repeatedly harassed by three white women for the unseemly act of building a community garden on a vacant playground in a Detroit neighborhood — or, to put it another way, “gardening while black.”

4. “Dartmouth Coach Callie Brownson Is a Pioneer for Women in Football” (Dan Bolles, October 24, 2018, Seven Days)

Callie Brownson, the offensive quality control coach for Dartmouth College’s football team, is also “something else,” Dan Bolles writes in his cover story for Seven Days: “the first full-time female coach in the history of NCAA Division 1 football.” Bolles, an assistant arts editor and features writer for Seven Days, Burlington’s alt-weekly and one of the best newspapers in Vermont, spent some time with Brownson on the field, and he came back with some memorable scenes, as his lede demonstrates.

Dartmouth College quarterback Derek Kyler drops back in the pocket and surveys the chaos unfolding before him. The receivers to his right are locked down in coverage. Ditto the tight end crossing the middle of the field. But to the sophomore QB’s left, Drew Hunnicutt has shaken free of his defender and is streaking toward the end zone. In a flash, Kyler winds up and throws, hitting his wide receiver in stride. The pass is perfect, but it didn’t have to be. Hunnicutt didn’t have a defender within six yards of him.

“Hooooooly shit!” a woman’s voice erupts after the touchdown. “He was wide open! Wide open!”

Callie Brownson springs from her position under the goalposts, waving a laminated playsheet as she strides toward a group of defensive backs. “How do you let him get that wide open?” she asks in disbelief, practically teasing the dejected DBs, who mill around the field, heads hung low and hands on their hips.

Brownson, 29, has been written about by a number of outlets, but Bolles’s profile is an intimate, in-depth portrait, one that readers have come to expect from Seven Days.

5. “Who is the real ‘Lady in Blue’ of Seelbach Hotel?” (Lisa Pisterman, October 24, 2018, Louisville Eccentric Observer)

In Louisville’s charmingly named Eccentric Observer — otherwise known as LEO Weekly — the author and historian Lisa Pisterman took a look at the mysterious case of Patricia Wilson, who, in July of 1936, fell to her death down an elevator shaft at the Seelbach Hotel in downtown Louisville and is now believed to haunt the building. She is known as the “lady in blue.”

She didn’t receive word that said estranged husband died in a car accident on the way to meet her.

She didn’t throw herself down the elevator shaft in response.

She wasn’t found half-naked in a negligee and stockings.

No one heard her fall, and no one ran out in the hallway to catch Lt. Gov. Henry Denhardt stealing away.

She did fall at least six stories, and she died instantly, not hours later at the hospital. She was not penniless. She had a nice funeral, and she was buried in a quiet plot of her own. She was described as beautiful, sweet and well-liked. She was grieved by those who knew her.

She was a real person, and her name was Patricia Wilson.

Using a number of primary sources, such as city directories and coroner’s inquest records, Pisterman give us as detailed a look as possible at Wilson’s life, putting to rest many of the myths and rumors that have accumulated through the years.

6. “Twin Cities construction is booming, and human traffickers are coming to feed” (Susan Du, November 7, 2018, City Pages)

For City Pages, the alt-weekly serving Minneapolis and St. Paul, Susan Du reports that a construction boom in the Twin Cities has helped created a kind of underground economy of labor trafficking. Du hinges her story on a Honduran immigrant named Yimer Iriarte, who came to the United States and found work in the construction industry after much hardship.

Eventually he found himself building a house in Apple Valley, where his luck changed.

One day Ricardo Batres, a pint-sized, sweet-talking El Salvadoran man, walked onto the site and introduced himself as owner of American Contractors and Associates. He dazzled Iriarte with offers of a lucrative partnership, a room in a house free of charge, and—to celebrate the completion of their first project—a pleasure cruise down the Mississippi River.

They were treasures Iriarte, now 21, will never forget.

Yet time would quell his hopes. The house Batres rented for 10 workers came without heat and hot water, nor were they allowed to use the stove. The landlord eventually threatened eviction, claiming Batres hadn’t paid the rent.

It only gets worse from there.

7. “Marty Wolfson Was Broke and Homeless Until a Horse Saved His Life” (Mike Clary, November 13, 2018, Miami New Times)

Marty Wolfson doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a “Florida Man,” but his story is perhaps one that could only have come from the Sunshine State. In this sympathetic New Times profile, Mike Clary gives readers a textured look at Wolfson, the son of America’s first corporate raider who went on to become one of the most successful horse trainers in South Florida, only to lose it all when his lucky streak petered out. Clary sums up Wolfson’s weird life story in a tidy paragraph.

Ironies abound in the story of Wolfson’s fall from grace. He was a rich kid who ended up broke. He was a painfully shy young man who later posed nude for a national magazine. And for years he succeeded as a horse trainer before finding himself at a rural recovery farm where he was paired with a thoroughbred that raced but rarely won. In the end, the 11-year-old gelding would save Wolfson’s life by demanding nothing at all from him.

8. “Death of a Kinkster” (Daniel Villarreal, November 5, 2018, The Stranger)

In this disturbing piece, Daniel Villarreal investigates a death in Seattle’s gay kink community, in which a young man, Jack Chapman — otherwise known as “Pup Tank”– died after having liquid silicone injected into his genitals. Chapman was romantically connected with a man named Dylan Ray Hafertepen, “a well-known member of the Dom/sub pup play communities in San Francisco and, later, Seattle,” Villarreal writes. “To his pups, including Pup Tank and Pup Alpha, he’s called Master Dylan, but on Instagram and Tumblr, he’s widely known as Noodles and Beef.”

It may sound weird, but such injections are a fetishized form of erotic body modification. Some men fetishize enlarged scrotums as a sign of potency, much like the bronzed huevos dangling from the Wall Street bull. Some guys like to nuzzle gigantic silicone-enhanced ball sacks while giving head, or they enjoy feeling them slap pendulously against their asses while bottoming.

Since World War II, cosmetic surgeons and back-alley “pumpers” have offered liquid silicone injections as a quick and dirty form of plastic surgery. When injected, the body surrounds liquid silicone with collagen, permanently providing a rounder and fuller appearance, smoothing wrinkles and reshaping sagging butts and breasts.

Was Hafertepen responsible for Chapman’s death? Villarreal story digs into that question.


Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.

The Last of the Live Reviewers: An Interview with Nate Chinen

Fabrice Coffrini / Keystone / AP, Pantheon Books

Matthew Kassel | Longreads | August 2018 | 14 minutes (3,488 words)

Jazz has changed a lot over the past 100 years or so of its existence, but it has never been as stylistically varied — or more packed with practitioners — as it is at the present moment. That’s a good thing for listeners, who now have many points of entry if they are new to the music and don’t necessarily want to start with a record that was cut 50 years ago. Mary Halvorson’s slashing guitar, for example, may appeal to more punk-minded listeners. The pianist Robert Glasper’s Dilla-esque grooves are a good gateway for hip-hop fans. And the tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s sweeping, spiritual-minded albums are a potential attraction for jam band aficionados. There’s a lot going on.

And yet, at the same time, there are probably fewer people writing about modern developments in jazz than ever. While niche magazines like JazzTimes and DownBeat are still going strong, there is scant jazz coverage in mainstream music publications (which tend to treat jazz like a novelty item), and the New York Times no longer runs weekly live jazz reviews (a recent development). Nate Chinen was, in fact, the last person to review jazz shows on a regular basis there, a position he left in 2017 after a dozen years contributing to the paper. He is now the director of editorial content at WBGO, the Newark public radio station.

In his new book, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, Chinen draws on his experiences as a former newspaper critic, attempting to make sense of what’s been going on in jazz over the past few decades. It isn’t an easy task, and he does a good job collating a whole lot of material, pulling on interesting threads and adding context for readers who may not be all that familiar with the reasons why Wynton Marsalis wasand still is, to an extent — a polarizing figure. Mostly, Chinen approaches jazz on its own terms. He describes what the music sounds like now and conveys to readers where modern jazz artists are coming from. In doing so he’s created a book that is truly of its time. Read more…