By Jan Worth-Nelson
In a surprise outcome related to the Flint water crisis, East Village Magazine has been featured in a standard-bearing national journal, The Columbia Journalism Review.
In an article titled “In Flint, a new era for one of the oldest community outlets in the U.S.” Detroit freelance writer Anna Clark described the magazine as “an uncommon source of community news—not an alt-weekly, not a tabloid, not a metro-region luxury magazine, not a neighborhood newsletter, but a beautifully printed publication that is part newsmagazine, part literary journal.”
She delved into the history of EVM, a non-profit and almost all-volunteer operation which is celebrating its 40th year (with a celebration open to the public at the Flint Farmers’ Market Saturday, Sept. 24) including part of the story of the magazine’s founder Gary Custer, relating that he “founded the nonprofit magazine in 1976 and delivered it door-to-door, free to residents, whether they requested it or not. Custer carried the magazine (both literally and figuratively) for nearly four decades—editing, writing, soliciting ads, training writers, choosing photographs, laying it out, launching the website—until his death in January 2015 about a month after he accepted the magazine’s second-ever grant: $79,000 over three years from the C.S. Mott Foundation.”
Flint book in the making
Clark, 36, is currently at work on a book about the Flint water crisis for Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt. She is a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan this year, and her work has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City and of course the Columbia Journalism Review, for which she has been the correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Her attention to East Village Magazine, while an unanticipated outgrowth of the water crisis, was not accidental. She has stayed in my house on Maxine Street several times recently while researching her book, keeping my bird feeders full when I’m gone and even sitting in on a long Sunday afternoon meeting of the EVM staff.
She has been kayaking on the Flint River and attended the “watch party” for Claressa Shields’ gold medal Olympic bout at Berston Field House.
So she has been seeing Flint residents firsthand and has observed how EVM works.
Clark thus knew to describe the EVM staff as it has evolved since Gary Custer’s death as a crew of 16 with a “core team” that is “intergenerational and diverse,” along with a distribution staff of nearly 50.
Getting to know the EVM crew
The core crew, she rightly detailed, includes “a former priest who spent decades working on the San Francisco cable cars [Robert Thomas} a Slavist from California who studied Polish literature and became a history professor [Teddy Robertson], a 91-year-old who used to be an arts reviewer for the Flint Journal; [Grayce Scholt] a Vietnam veteran who became a ceramacist, painter, and the photographer who shot nearly every single East Village cover image.”
That last staff member is Ed Custer, Gary’s brother, the EVM board president and in fact the photographer for not nearly but virtually every cover in the magazine’s long history.
The article features a pastiche of the last year’s cover photos by Ed Custer, along with shots of Gary Custer and his workspace at the Second Street office he occupied almost around the clock before he died.
Clark shaped her 2,200-word piece around not just East Village Magazine’s history but also its relationship to the water crisis and to the challenges of local journalism as many media outlets falter.
As she put it, EVM faces a “formidable task” of “reshaping its identity beyond the influential founder, and doing so at a time when an unfathomable water crisis brings new urgency in Flint.”
EVM Managing Editor Nic Custer, now 28, who has been involved with the magazine since he was a teenager, offered some of his views.
Covering Flint a “daunting task”
Clark wrote, “At a time when ‘there was so much mystery locally’ about the water, the East Village crew did its best to report the facts, says Nic Custer. But, he adds, ‘I realize how some of the stuff I put down, that was given to me by people at the city or state level, were just plain lies. It just wasn’t reality. In that sense I have a little bit of regret that (as a volunteer) I don’t have a position like the ACLU journalist to do days, weeks, months on this stuff.’ “
Clark says she understands that challenge, concluding, “It’s a daunting task to write a book about Flint, not least with the water crisis still playing out in real time. East Village Magazine has a lot to teach me about how to approach this story—its grounding in community; its spirit of service; its attention to both the political and the personal; its capacity for self-reflection; and, most importantly, its commitment to the beauty, power, and worth of everyday life in the City of Flint.”
In a follow-up email conversation about why she finds herself increasingly embedded in Flint, she wrote, “As a journalist, I’ve always been drawn to exploring the spaces in between, looking for untold stories in underreported cities. That’s why I focus on the rich stories of cities in the Upper Midwest…”
Underfunded cities under stress
A die-hard reporter, Clark falls naturally into posing complicated questions.
“I’m especially interested in how the chronic underfunding of American cities imperils residents,” she says. “How can distressed cities provide the services and liberties that citizens deserve, while at the same time building a prosperous future? What can vulnerable communities do to protect themselves from those in a position to exploit them?
“At a time when local journalism is more limited than ever in its role as accountability watchdogs,” she asserts, “it feels especially important to dig into these questions in cities that are outside the national media’s radar.”
Clark says she wrote articles about Flint before the water crisis, and has enjoyed visiting the city over the years. But now, reporting for the book has given her the opportunity to spend more time in the city and meet more of the people of Flint.
“It is their voices and stories that are driving this book forward,” she says, “and my role right now is to be a listener and simply pay attention.”
The whole Columbia Journalism Review article can be found at http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/flint_michigan_water_east_village_magazine.php
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.