People With Passion: Elaine Coorens
A People with Passion series
November 4, 2011: Elaine Coorens
We are meeting in Elaine Coorens’s home on Pierce Avenue, just southwest of the Wicker Park/Bucktown six corners, where she has lived for 35 years. Coorens is not just a Wicker Park/Bucktown community member — she quite literally wrote the book on Wicker Park history. In mid-2009, after the folding of the community paper The Journal, Coorens began working at Examiner.com, and in December of that year, she founded Our Urban Times, West Town’s only neighborhood newspaper, a “paper,” that is, that can only be found online.
In the 15th installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion series, Elaine discusses his arrival in Wicker Park, the way advertisers still value print journalism over electronic, and the value of a community newspaper in creating community. “As I say in the book,” she tells me: “We own nothing. We are but caretakers.”
My addiction to being involved in community goes way back to grade school. I was always involved in whatever, you know, doing the decorations for a sock hop… I worked in the library in the school and did decorations to get people to read books. I was an avid reader. My first job was in the Palatine Public Library, which was really illegal, because I was under age for working. I got paid all of a dollar an hour.
MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, is where my writing really started. There was a connection with the Chicago newspapers – they used to do a newspaper conference down there, and we had the opportunity to meet top editors from the city. And that made a big impression on me. They were just wonderful, nice people.
I went to Mac because I fell in love with the school, and I wanted to be a window display designer. I at one point had the opportunity to do that in a department store on State Street for a summer, and realized that I needed to have way different goals. (Laughs.) I decided that I wanted to go into business, but at that point at Mac, that meant shorthand in typing. So I left and started my junior year at the University of Illinois where I went into the college of commerce. My degree is in marketing and advertising, so I had, you know, education in business and in the journ school.
I’ve always written. I had a newspaper that was focused on the needlework industry. It was a consumer paper. We were international. Had about 45,000 subscribers. It was all about everything needlework. And that was at a time, in the 70s and 80s, when those skills were hot. Everybody was cross-stitching and doing needlepoint and knitting and crocheting, and weaving and quilt-making, all that kind of stuff. The Needlework Times. That was my newspaper. I guess that was just before I moved to Wicker Park. 1976. I sold it to another company, and they drove it into the ground. (Laughs.)
And you’ve been here since 1976?
In this very building. It didn’t look like this. There were packs of dogs running in the streets and in our gardens. Gunshots were going overhead. The building was a frigging disaster. It was suffering from neglect. The people that lived up here in this space, you couldn’t get from that doorway over to the radiator on the other side because there was a motor from a car, and boxes and boxes of crapola, and dogs defecated all over the floors. It was very charming. (Laughs.)
I had friends who had moved here a few years before that. They bought down at the corner, and I went through the building when they came here and said, “Oh my god, this place is fantastic!” Though it was a wreck inside too, because that one had been a rooming house. I said, “This place is fantastic, but I’d never live in this neighborhood.” A few years later they got me over here, and here I am.
This building had been owned from 1939 until we bought it by Association House of Chicago. It was where they housed their staff, because that’s what settlement houses did. (points to adjacent room) That room alone, I took all of the layers of wallpaper off. Every room in this building, this arm scraped off all the wallpaper, and there were layers of paint in between them. When I got down to the original color, it had been painted your basic dark, whorehouse red. I looked down at myself and I looked like I’d been bleeding from every pore because I got down to the base color and then you started cleaning all that off.
Those of us who moved to this neighborhood at that point put in our sweat equity. We didn’t have money – not that we have it now, god only knows – but we saw the beauty of these buildings, and then started finding out the heritage and we all wanted to save this neighborhood.
This neighborhood has had a series of newspapers put out by varying-sized businesses for decades, and they’ve all gone away because the community did not financially support them. And that’s a tragedy, as far as I’m concerned, because I truly believe that without a publication, you don’t have community. If you can’t communicate, you don’t have community.
It’s truly what I believe. However, there’s another layer to this. There are a lot of people with means in this community, and they want to reap the rewards of community, the gathering of people in the area at different functions or meetings – they get, I think, that that’s a good thing. It feels good to do that. It feels good to meet your neighbors and talk to your neighbors and chat away. But making those things happen, not so much. And so what you get is a few key people that knock their socks off to accomplish something – everybody comes and enjoys it, but they don’t participate in it.
A great example is what we just had with Boo Palooza. There were 2000 some people that were attended, and everybody thought it was fabulous. It was fabulous. It was terrific. Most of the volunteers that were there working were not from this community. The Junior Women’s League of Chicago had 75 people here. I don’t know that any of them lived in this community.
On a weekly basis, you’ve got a group of people working in Wicker Park who are all volunteers. They put in their time, their money, and their heart and soul, and many of them do not live in this community. Now, why is that? It’s disturbing, and if you look at the history of this neighborhood, it’s even more disturbing, because all the families that came and made this community what it is, many of them were not from money when they came to this country.
All of these people were involved. They were involved in ethnic groups that were here. They were involved in churches. They were involved in community organizations. And this was heads of companies. Many of them went on to be legislators and work in government. They were involved in the community.
It’s probably not just here. Maybe this is just a sad statement on our society. But everybody wants to enjoy things, they want to have a good time and enjoy that camaraderie, but they don’t want to help make it. And it’s going to go away. I look at organizations in this neighborhood that I’ve given a lot of time and energy and money to. They’re going away. And a group of people just want to keep this shell going? But to what end? They’re not doing anything. They’re not giving back to the community. They’re not really making community happen.
Everybody I’ve spoken with who have had newspapers here in the last couple of decades pulled out for the very reason I told you. They told me that they came in here, they did everything they could, but they couldn’t make it work. They couldn’t make it work because they couldn’t get people to advertise. In the 70s, the businesses that were around here, a lot of them were not people from this community. They lived elsewhere, but they made their money here.
This gets us into this whole subject of local first, back to what it was like when you had small towns, and small communities, where people mainly bought from their neighbors and delivered services to their neighbors. It’s different now, because you’ve got the internet. Everything’s global.
There is also a difference between people’s perception of what they should pay for print vs. electronic. That’s how people grew up. They’re told that, “Our circulation is going to be 20,000, 30,000, 12,000, 10,000,” whatever. They say that like that means each one of those is going to be read. How do you know if something is read? You don’t. You don’t even know if they got into anybody’s hand to be read. Have you ever gone somewhere and picked up a copy of something, and you never open the damn thing? So yeah, okay, they were printed, but what does that mean?
Electronically you know what that means, if you’ve got anything on your website, which we do. We know how many people came there. We know that we’re being read in 106 countries and territories. Somehow the value from some people who have money to spend in advertising, they think that there’s less value if it’s electronic. You and I know that’s not true. But it’s all a paradigm switch. People still feel that if it’s in somebody’s hand, it’s more valuable.
So we’ve got two things going. Number one, we’ve got the whole switch in what’s happening in media, and then you’ve got the issue of this community as far as supporting your local newspaper. Well, Our Urban Times is the only local newspaper. There are newsletters, and there are versions of the city’s newspapers, but we’re local. We are local. There’s that difference. I really want to do what I’m doing with Our Urban Times, and I think it’s important, but sometimes I’m not sure other people think it’s important.
It’s interesting that when you decided to start Our Urban Times, you were like, “I’m starting it online.” Was that purely a financial decision, or was that a “This is where we’re at, and I need to embrace what’s new”? Or was it both?
I did a print publication. It’s too expensive to print. You can’t do it without a lot of advertising. You just can’t. But it’s also because the internet is where it’s at. You can go to Our Urban Times at any time of the day or night, whether you’re well-coiffed or you’ve got bed head, or you’re dressed formally or not dressed at all. (Laughs.) Your choice! And you can read it because it’s online and it’s there. So it is a paradigm switch, and every publication from the Wall Street Journal down, everybody’s facing the same issues. Look at all the major newspapers, you know? I could never have done it if I would have done it in print.
When we lost the Journal, I immediately became the Wicker Park/Bucktown Examiner on Examiner.com and realized it was really a blog. I had no control over it except to put up stories. It was just a running blog. And I felt that it needed a newspaper, albeit an electronic newspaper.
What makes Our Urban Times a newspaper if it’s online?
The structure behind it. A blog to me generally is somebody’s opinion. When I do stories, even when I have my name on them, I try to be journalistic. Rarely have I written something in my own voice. Sometimes I’m tempted. I got this breaking story yesterday about the cabbie that crashed into the plate glass window at Prasino. And I was so tempted to do something like “Cabbie tries to create new drive-in.” (Laughs.) Now, if I had a blog, I would do that, but instead I did a straight news story. A good newspaper presents the facts so people can make their own decisions. Do I have a personal opinion sometimes? You betchya. But I’m not going to use my position to foist that on someone else. I am going to try and air what’s going on.
I don’t think it’s right for a publication who says they’re a news publication to slant everything in stories to support something. If you’re a news publication, you’re there to report on what’s going on. You know, Give me the facts man. Give me the facts. I could take a lot of stories and write them and slant them, but I work very hard not to do that.
It’s important for people to understand and get involved in the running of the city because it affects all of us. For example, right now, the budget hearings that have been going on for City Council, the whole issue about closing down the 13th district’s station and drastically cutting into the library funding is unconscionable on the library part and so wrong on the police side. So wrong because they are not even giving the people who are supposed to vote on this, the city council members, the details that they asked for relative to the change in the police structure.
We want to tell people about what’s going on in the community, and we are very fortunate that we have museums here that speak to different cultures. You’ve got the Ukrainian Museums and other cultural institutions, and you’ve got the Polish Museum, which are all part of our district. What is going on activity-wise and community organization-wise is what we try to cover. So is art part of it? Absolutely. Education? Absolutely.
Why am I spending time on the police thing? Because it’s damned important to this area. And what about libraries? Same thing. You’ve got the big stories of the city but they impact this area. We’re going to try to cover them because most people don’t know them, and the thing that’s even worse is when you say, “Get out and protest. Go to these meetings.” And people come back to you and say, “Who cares? It’s just business as usual in the city of Chicago.” Well, damnit, the reason it’s that way is because people don’t get out and vote differently, and they don’t get out and vote differently because they don’t get involved. They’re not knowledgeable. They can be knowledgeable. And if they want to live in the community that they’re surrounded by, they need to get involved or it’s not going to be this way.
There’s power in knowledge. I feel that if you put it out there, that hopefully they will get it, but you can’t take a horse to water and make it drink. I’m realistic enough to know that, and only hope that somewhere along the lines something happens that they get it and they then pay attention and question. The information is put out there. They need to get involved. They need to question. Why isn’t your local official going after this issue? Whatever the issue is. Why is it that you get water standing in the streets, and who’s doing something about it, and why isn’t someone else doing something about it? For example, this happened for the 32nd ward. Waguespack literally gets out there and is cleaning the drains. People ought to know that and understand that. People should be involved in that on a regular basis. If you look around, there are actually neighbors out who will sweep things up so they don’t get into those drains and put them in the garbage. If everyone did that, there wouldn’t be a problem.
People who are knowledgeable and preferably also engaged make different decisions than those who are not. The decisions that I refer to are about actions which can have impact on the community. An example would be tearing down buildings such as the old Noel Bank building or Northwest Tower building because they are old and a developer wants to put up a new high rise or people not voting in an election because according to them, “It’s politics as usual. My vote cannot make a difference.”
The police did a big bust. We covered that story. 17, I think, were arrested, and they got this whole gang out of there. The community under the CAPS programs and the different community leaders out there are getting people out to do cleanups and to walk around. I was out with them. And people take note, like, “What’s going on here?” And then neighbor talks to neighbor and says, “Hey, if you do this, da da da da da.” As Sgt. Clas would say in the 13th district: “If the police go in and take out a bad element, if the neighbors don’t come in and fill that hole with community-based stuff, some other bad element is going to come in.” Either you take over your own streets, or you let somebody else take over them and move out. Or be afraid and stay behind your doors all the time and hope they’re not going to break in your door. It’s all about involvement.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)