Monday, September 24, 2018

Readers awaiting the latest edition of The Village Voice outside the paper’s offices on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village.CreditCreditFred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Seven Ways The Village Voice Made New York a Better Place

  • In the fall of 1969, Vivian Gornick walked into the offices of The Village Voice looking for work, and met with two of the paper’s founders, Edwin Fancher and Dan Wolf.
    “They said, there are all these women who call themselves liberationist chicks gathering out there on Bleecker Street — go out and write a story about them,” Ms. Gornick, now 83, recalled. The pay was lousy.

    That was The Voice. She didn’t know what they were talking about, and neither did they, but by the end of the week she had not just a story but a life’s calling.
    “Every famous feminist of that generation was yelling and screaming, and I met them all,” she said. “I came back and wrote my first story, ‘The Next Great Moment in History Is Theirs.’”

    When The Village Voice ceased online operations last month, a year after ending the print edition, it struck another blow to local reporting in New York — not just for the paper’s celebrated arts and lifestyle coverage, but for the laborious, gritty investigative reporting that was the paper’s other stock in trade.

    Norman Mailer, right, with Dan Wolf, two of the founders of The Village Voice, in April 1969, shortly after Mailer declared his candidacy for mayor of New York.CreditFred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
    The cultural coverage has largely seeped into other outlets. But the muckraking, for which no city official or agency was too obscure to be blasted into infamy, has become an endangered species.
    The Daily News cut its already reduced staff by half in July. The website DNA Info, which picked up much of the local slack, closed last fall. Former troublemakers like The City Sun and New York Newsday are long gone.
    The New York Post and The New York Times have both cut back on local staff, though The Times’s new publisher has recently said he is “seriously committed” to local coverage.

    “It means stories don’t play out the same way,” said Tom Robbins, who did two stints as an investigative reporter at The Voice, ending in 2011. “Someone would get a story, then the mayor would be asked about it at a press conference, then everyone would do a story. Now, even if somebody has a scoop, it’s like a tree falling in the forest, because there’s no one to follow up on it. We don’t have the troops.”

    The Voice drew attention for its internecine feuds, waged in the office or in the paper itself, but it was also an unmatched training ground, where young reporters learned about power in New York from investigative reporters like Wayne Barrett or Jack Newfield.
    “It was like an education in the structure of local government,” said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School. “They weren’t just covering City Hall. Half the investigations were about zoning. And the offenses were so complex that not only did it require a journalist who was investigating for years, but it couldn’t be described briefly. It needed long narratives.”

    Mr. Fancher, 95, still holds a soft spot for the feuds, especially around holiday time, when Norman Mailer, the paper’s third founder, tended to settle scores. “I’d be in my kitchen, giving someone a towel for a bloody nose,” Mr. Fancher said. “Norman trained as a boxer, so he was not someone to be trifled with.”
    For most of its 63 years, neither was The Voice.

    Some of the investigative reporting still endures in neighborhood weeklies or on WNYC, or on nonprofit websites like City Limits and Gotham Gazette. But people are no longer getting hard-hitting local journalism where they find their apartments or discover the next cool band.

    Here are seven moments when The Voice clearly made a difference. You might have your own. Let’s argue! After all, this is The Voice.

    Robert Moses, circa 1963, near the peak of his powers.CreditThe New York Times
    The paper gleefully took on the city’s power brokers, starting with the Power Broker himself. In 1955, when The Voice came into being, Robert Moses was planning to build a highway through Greenwich Village, including through Washington Square Park. Moses then was near the height of his powers, able to build whatever highway he wanted.

    Mr. Wolf and Mary Perot Nichols, a local resident, were determined to stop this one. It did not look like an even match. The Voice was operating on a shoestring budget, trying to vie with The Villager, a more genteel weekly. Ms. Nichols had almost no journalistic experience.
    But in her, Moses met his match. “She had a deep insight into how power worked in New York City and how Robert Moses operated, and had a real passion about the injustices that he perpetrated,” said Robert Caro, author of “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.”

    Moses and his allies dismissed the neighborhood opposition as an “awful bunch of artists.” The Voice championed “the revolt of the urbs,” giving a name to a new constituency whose passions were those of the paper.

    As Moses pushed on, The Voice became the house organ for the growing neighborhood opposition, which came to include Jane Jacobs, in her first of many battles with Moses. Suddenly the paper had a cause and an identity. In 1959, four years after the first Voice editorial opposing the highway, the city board of estimate voted not to build it, and to close the park even to the traffic that was then allowed. The paper had won.

    But Ms. Nichols was not done with Moses yet. Years later, when she had left the paper for city government, she learned that Mr. Caro had been stymied in his research on “The Power Broker.”
    “This was a low point in my research,” Mr. Caro said. “Moses had put out the word.”

    Then the writer got a call from Ms. Nichols, he said. “She said: ‘I hear no one’s talking to you. I hear you can’t get his papers.’ She said: ‘You know what he forgot about? Carbon copies. I know where they are, and I’ve got a key.’”

    She did. They were in file cabinets under the 79th Street Boat Basin, which was run by the Parks Department, where she worked as a public relations aide. It was the break that made the book possible. Ms. Nichols, in turn, went on to run the WNYC Communications Group.

    And the rest is a 1,246-page biography, a Pulitzer Prize and perhaps the clearest look at New York’s true power structure ever written.

    Carmine DeSapio, leader of Tammany Hall, center, in 1950.CreditThe New York Times
    During the battle against Robert Moses, The Voice found another powerful and useful enemy: Carmine DeSapio, then the boss of Tammany Hall, the collection of political clubs that ran the local Democratic Party. DeSapio, known as the Bishop, was the face (and the ever-present sunglasses) of an old Democratic machine and the old, Italian-American Greenwich Village; The Voice represented the new Village Independent Democrats. “It was the new hippie Greenwich Village versus the old Italian Greenwich Village,” said Clark Whelton, 81, who started writing for The Voice in 1968.

    The paper stepped lightly at first, especially when DeSapio tendered some support in the battle over Washington Square. Then in 1959, one of DeSapio’s minions made the fight personal. “We’re going to put you out of business,” he threatened Mary Nichols during an interview. “We’ve been running around, turning off ads on you.”

    Edwin Fancher described the incident at a press awards ceremony, and The Times put it on the front page. The Voice was no longer a little local curiosity; it was now in a public death match with the city’s power elite. In an editorial urging residents to mobilize, Dan Wolf declared “the battle for New York City” and called for “the political demise of Carmine DeSapio.”

    As in the fight with Moses, The Voice was severely overmatched. If Moses reigned behind closed doors, DeSapio flexed his muscles on the cover of Time magazine. But again, the changing political climate favored the paper. By the middle of the ’60s, after a series of defeats, DeSapio was out of office, and Tammany Hall, which had ruled New York’s Democratic Party for its own enrichment, and that of its mob friends, was dead. The man who replaced DeSapio as district leader was Edward I. Koch, a friend of Mr. Wolf’s and at one time the paper’s lawyer.

    The paper supported Koch wholeheartedly. Until it didn’t.
    That, too, was The Voice.

    Wayne Barrett, being attacked with a broom by Ramon Velez, a Bronx city councilman whom Barrett tracked down in Puerto Rico.CreditSusan Ferguson
    By his desk at The Voice, Wayne Barrett kept a photograph of himself being attacked by Ramon S. Velez, a beefy city councilman from the Bronx whose self-enrichment though running anti-poverty programs was just the sort of story that triggered monthslong investigations by Barrett and The Voice. The fight was lopsided, but Barrett didn’t need to win: he just needed to survive another day. Another day, another fight, another scandal, another pile of documents that only he had. In the last days before his death in 2016, as many as 60 reporters trooped to his Brooklyn home to tap his expertise or see his files on Donald Trump, which dated back to a two-part 1977 expose of the then-little-examined developer — “Fred Trump’s twerp kid,” Mr. Robbins called the future president.

    But Barrett’s fiercest and longest-running battles were with New York’s mayors and their administrations, especially those of Koch and Rudolph W. Giuliani. Koch had been a friend of The Voice’s founders; Barrett had admired Mr. Giuliani for his work as a federal prosecutor. No matter. As soon as Barrett caught a whiff of corruption, he was relentless and unforgiving.

    “He and Jack Newfield were obsessed with the minutia of who donated money and what they got in return,” said William Bastone, who started at The Voice in 1985 as an intern to Barrett and now runs “They would go to all the fund-raising dinners to get that night’s program, and using the seating chart, they’d create index cards: here’s who was sitting at Table 1. It took so much time to gather and combine it all, it was just mind-boggling. You could never do that today. The paper was about trying to track the impact of money on policy and government.”

    Scandals at the Parking Violations Bureau, reported by Barrett and others, crippled Koch’s third term and kept him from a fourth. Brevity was not a consideration. “You’d learn more than you ever anticipated or wanted about a scandal,” said Mitchell L. Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. “They had a way of engaging the reader, and politicians had to respond. That’s gone now. People are writing much shorter. It’s much harder to hit a home run. The press is in City Hall, but they’re not in the city agencies and police precincts, where the scandals start.”

    Barrett and The Voice were less successful in derailing Mr. Giuliani or Mr. Trump. Sometimes the public just doesn’t respond or agree. But as Barrett used to say, the struggle was its own reward.

    An abortion rights protest near the New York County Supreme Court Building in Manhattan, February 1969.CreditFred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

    Susan Brownmiller went to The Voice in 1965, after meeting Jack Newfield at civil rights demonstrations in Mississippi, and she has a bone to pick with the way the paper is eulogized: “The guys just remember the guys,” she said.

    But her March 1969 article “Everywoman’s Abortions: The Oppressor Is Man,” about a speakout at which 12 women described their experiences with abortion — illegal in New York at the time — helped put radical feminism and the local abortion rights movement on the map.
    “The result,” Ms. Brownmiller, now 83, wrote, “which could have been exhibitionistic or melodramatic, was neither — it was an honest rap.”

    It was also controversial within the paper.
    “We always ran into opposition from the guys,” she said. “Especially Nat Hentoff. He was the worst. He’d devote his next column to it.”

    The Voice was sometimes a bifurcated institution, with white men writing the majority of the hard news investigations, and women, gays and people of color finding greater presence in the culture pages.

    Which meant the paper often covered the arts as politics. “The feminists at the paper were instrumental in all of that,” said Richard Goldstein, 74, who started at the paper in 1966 as the country’s first “rock ’n’ roll critic” and was laid off (or fired) in 2004, as executive editor. “There was some sentiment among the older progs” — progressives — “that feminism or gay liberation were not really politics, just some bourgeois vanities that did not fit with the class struggle.”

    But the feminists at the paper — Ms. Brownmiller, Ms. Gornick, Ellen Willis, Bella Abzug, Jill Johnston and others — thrived, not least in their unflagging advocacy of abortion rights. “We’re a Movement Now!” the front page declared in September 1970, and they were — in part thanks to The Voice.

    “We were all culture heroes,” Ms. Gornick said. “You got mail from one end of the city to the other.”

    As for Mr. Goldstein, in 1967 he wrote a noteworthy record review in The Times, calling a popular band’s latest effort “Busy, hip and cluttered,” and ultimately “fraudulent.” The album was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” by the Beatles.
    Some fights you don’t win.

    How’s this for social impact? Decades after The Voice began compiling an annual list of the city’s worst landlords, the city comptroller’s office now publishes its own Worst Landlords list.
    And how’s this for Sisyphean frustration? Decades after Jack Newfield exposed toxic levels of lead contamination in the city’s public housing projects, Greg B. Smith and The Daily News this summer ran an exposé about children in public housing testing positive for lead poisoning.

    Like Barrett, Newfield was relentless in finding bad smells in the city’s power structure. Landlords were a bottomless supply of villains: expose one, and 10 more would take his or her place.
    But even if the annual lists did not vanquish the bad practices, they were tremendously useful to housing lawyers, said Jennifer Levy, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, who also worked for the public advocate.

    “They made an impact because they identified the types of abuses that people were suffering from,” she said.
    Just as important, she said, they attached names to the anonymous limited liability corporations, or LLC’s, that control much New York real estate, and that make it hard to connect unsavory practices in one building with similar ones in another.

    The campaigns against bad landlords go on, as do the evictions and poor services, one case at a time. And the list endures, because it will never lack for worthy candidates.

    The Crown Heights riots of August 1991.CreditAngel Franco/The New York Times
    Peter Noel, 60, joined The Voice from The City Sun in 1990 to provide something he thought the paper lacked: access to the “raw rage” then fomenting among many black New Yorkers, exemplified by the rise of Al Sharpton.

    “To be fair, they thought they understood it,” Mr. Noel said of The Voice staff. “But they were white men interpreting black life in the city.”

    When a rabbi’s motorcade killed a 7-year-old Guyanese-American boy named Gavin Cato in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in August 1991, and a Jewish ambulance whisked away the driver, not the injured children, the rage boiled over. Mr. Noel, one of The Voice reporters covering the four days of unrest, found himself in the middle of the fray.

    “I saw this Jewish man and boy trying to cross a street when a mob — I say a mob — was coming down,” Mr. Noel said. “This mob, they were coming for blood. I just ran right into the middle of this. I got hit. I told them, let them pass. A stone hit him. I held him up. They said, ‘Let us kill the Jew, man.’ I said, ‘No, you’ll have to kill me.’” Others helped; the crowd backed off.

    Mr. Noel said he ended up becoming close friends with the man, Isaac Bitton, and later attended the wedding of the boy, Yechiel.
    Mr. Noel’s articles captured an uprising of young West Indians who had no patience for Mr. Sharpton or other civil rights leaders.
    A photo of the angry throng closing on the Bittons made the papers, but not the story of black residents and a black reporter interceding, Mr. Noel said. “They didn’t want to show a black man was helping,” he said.

    Weekly delivery of The Voice, unloaded outside the newspaper’s offices, July 25, 1959.CreditFred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
    If you walked out of your apartment today and didn’t step in anything funky, you have The Voice partly to thank. It won’t go down as one of the paper’s greater crusades, but in February 1971, The Voice ran an article by Clark Whelton that began, “New York is the world’s biggest outdoor dog toilet.” The article continued at considerable length and pungency.

    “I saw it as a logical problem with the sanitation laws,” Mr. Whelton said. “If you dropped a matchbook on the sidewalk, you got fined. But if your dog pooped, nothing happened. Which is worse?”

    This being New York, a barrage of hate mail and threats followed, some accompanied by samples of the offending mess. Mr. Whelton went on David Suskind’s television show with a consumer advocate named Fran Lee, and an anti-poop movement arose. Mr. Whelton, an investigative reporter more at home writing about shady landlords, never wrote about dog feces again.

    But years later, when he joined the Koch administration as a speechwriter, the mayor signed a law requiring dog owners to clean up after their pets.

    There are still eight million stories in the naked city, and still some reporters eager to tell them, but thanks in part to the Voice, few of them involve the world’s biggest dog toilet.

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