We Find ‘Big’ And Small Neighborhood Stories Because We Keep Showing Up

By Block Club Chicago’s Logan Square/Humboldt Park reporter Mina Bloom

Principal Robert Croston talking to a student at Jenner Academy of the Arts. Photo: Mina Bloom

Back in 2015, David Matthews came across an email from Ogden International, a school he covered frequently as DNAinfo’s Downtown reporter. Buried inside the email was a striking bit of news: Ogden, which serves mostly affluent kids from the Gold Coast, was exploring the idea of merging with nearby Jenner Academy of the Arts, a woefully under capacity school in Cabrini-Green.

Acutely aware of the story’s importance, Dave dropped everything to call every Ogden official and parent he knew, of which there were many, given how many local school council meetings he had attended. At the time, I was covering the Near North area for DNAinfo, so he looped me in. I had a strong relationship with the principal at Jenner, who I got on the phone that afternoon. We put together a well-sourced story for the morning, beating every other media outlet in town.

The story ended up getting picked up by WBEZ, Chicago Tonight, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times — you name it. But we were too busy planning followup stories to notice. We knew how big this story was, and we weren’t going to let it fall by the wayside.

In the months that followed, Dave and I wrote several more stories on the proposed merger, exploring every angle of it: How the Jenner community felt, how the Ogden community felt, how likely it was that it would ever make it to the Board of Education. We didn’t miss a school council meeting. Meanwhile, folks confirmed what we already knew: The Ogden-Jenner merger was one of the boldest school integration proposals in decades. If this proposal was approved, it would serve as a model throughout the country.

I bring this up because it’s an example of a neighborhood story that has a tremendous impact, not just on the people involved, but on our education system as a whole. At DNAinfo, we attended as many school meetings as possible, creating meaningful relationships with school leaders, teachers and parents. You never know when a story of Ogden-Jenner merger caliber is going to surface.

That said, there are so many neighborhood stories that don’t get national attention — and those stories are the most important to us because we know nobody else is going to tell them.

Take the bacteria problem at the Humboldt Park beach, for example. Last summer, I spent a lot of time at my neighborhood beach, and I noticed that it was almost always under swim advisory. I dug into the data with DNAinfo’s resident data whiz, Tanveer Ali, and discovered that the water was only safe to swim in 35 percent of the time. After we reached out to city officials, the bacteria levels improved dramatically. I’m proud to say that we helped make the beach safer, which takes on a whole new meaning when you consider how hard the community fought to get the beach back a couple years prior.

The deep understanding of issues facing the neighborhoods we cover comes from being there, in the neighborhoods, every single day. We don’t sit at a Downtown desk and pop into the area when something “big” happens. We interact with business owners, residents and stakeholders. We come across interesting characters like “Ed, the banjo man,” a guy who’s been serenading Lincoln Parkers in Oz Park every summer night for the last 40 years. And Janet Martin, a CTA worker who is so friendly and helpful that community residents dubbed her the “Mayor of the Armitage Brown Line.”

I like to say that Block Club Chicago will be picking up where DNAinfo left off. Which is absolutely true. But it’s more than that. Block Club has a brand new business model that is, frankly, beautiful when you really think about it. We will be out in your neighborhoods, every day, finding stories that matter the most to you. We won’t be reliant upon a single stakeholder or advertisers. We will only answer to you. Which means, together, we can make the city a better place.

I, for one, can’t wait.

Follow Mina on Twitter here or send her story ideas at mina@blockclubchi.org. Help Block Club Chicago cover more neighborhoods by contributing to our Kickstarter here.