There was a time, not long ago, when writing an alt-weekly cover story was a big fucking deal. The writer spent weeks researching the story; it was teased in ads; he or she pulled an all-nighter pounding it out on deadline; and when it breached 3,000 words, the narrative arc was still ascending. The printing press spit out the issue, still wet from birth, and the writer snagged a passing copy, held the cover up to the light and stared at it with a critical but ultimately satisfied air. Sure, the trolls—regular readers who snail-mailed handwritten letters-to-the-editor the intern would have to transcribe—would pass judgment on the story. But this fleeting moment in the raucous pressroom belonged to the writer.
The three stories highlighted this week in some way harken back to the alt-weekly covers of old. Those long, imperfect and beautiful beasts that shook the foundation of the local city hall.
A joint investigation by Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio, the sprawling feature targets and squarely hits a pair of apparent slumlords in the state.
When a story includes the line “The origins of street sweeping in the United States can be traced to Benjamin Franklin,” you know it takes a deep dive into a subject. In “Why Sweep the Streets?” Courtney Kueppers of the Chicago Reader examines every angle of the Second City’s street-sweeping controversy, which can be summarized as: The city says it’s simply keeping the streets clean; citizens say it’s a ticketing gold mine. Kueppers profiles citizens who have been ticketed for parking illegally during sweeping hours. “All I’m sayin is I’ve seen a lot of ‘street sweeping’ signs in Chicago but my street always looks the same,” tweeted one of them. “I would rather sweep my own fucking street for the rest of my life than get hit with a random street sweeping ticket.” Kueppers also presents a shit-ton of statistics. “When a driver doesn’t move their car in time on street sweeping days, the orange envelope tucked beneath their windshield wiper holds a $60 bill,” she writes. “It’s the second most common parking ticket in the city…with hundreds of thousands of tickets issued per year, in recent years resulting in anywhere from $11 million to $18 million in fines collected annually.” Finally, among other things, she details how some citizens are fighting back. In short, this lengthy story goes well beyond people simply bitching about parking tickets.
“Roaches and Broken Locks,” co-written by Derek Brouwer and Liam Elder-Connors for Vermont’s Seven Days, also defies today’s shrinking news holes. A joint investigation by Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio, the sprawling feature targets and squarely hits a pair of apparent slumlords in the state. The piece opens colorfully and cleverly with two African refugees arriving at Burlington International Airport and, shortly thereafter, entering their new home with their two young children. “The apartment, built in 1986, wasn’t exactly old, but it struck the new arrivals as worn,” Brouwer and Elder-Connors write. “The back door didn’t have a lock. … Almost immediately, they spotted cockroaches scuttling along the floor.” It turns out cockroaches were a recurring problem at the complex, where rent was more than $1,400 a month, and it was owned and managed by Rick Bove, a landlord with a history of renting sketchy apartments, according to the story. The joint investigation found many of the 400-plus rental units owned by Rick and his brother Mark—and often paid for with Section 8 vouchers—are plagued with broken doors, leaky ceilings, loose handrails, overflowing dumpsters, and improperly maintained fire and emergency systems. Maybe this devastating piece will finally help hold the Bove brothers, who come from a prominent Vermont family, accountable.
Alts have long served as media watchdogs in the community, and, with “Turned Out the Lights,” the Santa Fe Reporter continues the tradition. For decades, explains staff writer William Melhado, Santa Fe art and tourism businesses filled the pages of two publications: Santa Fean magazine and The Essential Guide. But lately, Melhado continues, the publications have disappeared from newsracks. They stopped printing last summer, which is depressing enough—but complicating matters further, the owners have not paid staff and contributors, not reimbursed subscribers and have basically disappeared themselves. Melhado interviewed a half-dozen former employees and reviewed public records, painting a grim and infuriating picture of the situation. One longtime Santa Fean contributor estimates she and her photographer husband filed 13 stories that were never published and, she says, they felt they let down the restaurants and businesses featured in their work. Much more than a media piece, “Turned Out the Lights” is a well-reported, human-interest story that stirs emotions.