In Flint, a new era for one of the oldest community outlets in the US

Photo by Ben Gordon

FLINT, MICHIGAN—By the time Jan Worth-Nelson was in her early 30s, she’d left journalism behind. It was her major at Kent State University, and she interned at a daily paper in Iowa, but she soon turned to other adventures that took her as far away as the South Pacific. When she decided to study for a graduate degree in social work in 1981, she landed in an apartment on Avon Street in Flint, Michigan, just east of downtown.

At her doorstep, “a little black and white thing” was delivered twice a month. “I didn’t know what the hell it was,” she says. And no wonder: East Village Magazine is 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. It’s like a local version of The Sun, right down to its striking black-and-white cover photos, unmarred by cover lines. Perhaps most uncommon of all: The magazine didn’t take its name from the neighborhood; rather, the neighborhood took its name from the magazine.

The engine behind it, Worth-Nelson soon learned, was the “strange, long-bearded man who walked up and down Avon Street in the middle of the night.”

That was Gary Custer. 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. The previous grant had also been from Mott: $4,000 in seed money, 39 years earlier.

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Gary Custer, the eccentric founder of East Village Magazine (Jan Worth-Nelson)

As East Village Magazine celebrates its 40th anniversary, it appears to be one of the oldest community media outlets in the country. When I ask the editors how it’s been able to stay in print, they credit “sheer will.” And that, I’m learning, is an especially abundant resource in Flint.

Worth-Nelson is now editor, with a staff of about 16 people—six reporters and two poets are on the masthead—as well as nearly 50 distributors and six board members. Everyone volunteers, with only Worth-Nelson and Managing Editor Nic Custer (Gary’s nephew) receiving $500 monthly stipends.

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Together, they have the formidable task of pivoting the 12-page magazine, now a monthly, into a new era—reshaping its identity beyond the influential founder, and doing so at a time when an unfathomable water crisis brings new urgency to the role of journalism in Flint.

I’m not a disinterested party. I met Worth-Nelson while reporting about Flint, first in articles about the water crisis, and then for a book I’m working on. She offers hospitality to myself and other writers in the beautiful wood-paneled house on leafy Maxine Street that she shares with her husband Ted (the magazine’s “éminence grise,” according to the masthead), asking only that I keep the bird feeders full when she’s out of town.

Her delight in sharing her home—and her city—illustrates the joyful generosity I’m finding again and again in Flint. I might be here to quote-unquote “work,” but, from kayaking the river to quiet afternoons in the library to cheering on Claressa Shields as she defends her Olympic gold in the gym where she learned to box, I like Flint. Even though, like almost everyone else, I’m using bottled water to brush my teeth and make my coffee.

After decades of declining Custer’s recruitment efforts (“I guess I thought I had bigger fish to fry, or something”), Worth-Nelson began writing the magazine’s backpage “Village Life” column in the early 2000s, where she tells reflective first-person stories about her backyard birds and “the bracing curatives of art,” her wonder at whether water can be “made holy again,” and her unease about being in California last winter as the water crisis came to a head back home. Like any good local writing, the whole world is in the details.

And that holds true for the quiet glory of giving one’s time and talent to community journalism as well. Worth-Nelson used to go to the cluttered Second Street office on Sunday afternoons to proof her column. While Custer could be “critical and crotchety,” he also kept Bushmills whiskey on hand because he knew she liked it. He’d pour her some in a chipped mug–he didn’t drink it himself–and sometimes he’d set a rose in a vase on her table, too. On warm days, he’d open the door that looked out toward the bright old city and smoke his pipe as they talked. “I felt like I was part of Flint and Flint was part of me,” she says.

Much of what the magazine covers is classic community journalism: neighbors telling neighbors about what’s happening in their city. The unusually eventful past year has been translated into a how-to for residents to determine if a lead service line carries water into their homes, news briefs on free lead-testing for dogs, and reporting about the aftermath of the Democratic debate in Flint–as well as a federal lawsuit against the city and state, and criminal charges against public officials. There are also articles about the history of the black church in the city, major renovations at the Flint Institute of Arts, the effort to turn a former auto factory into a makerspace, and a fantastical tree house built in a local nature preserve. It’s even gotten its share of local scoops.

 

They find you and tell you what they think of your story, if they liked it or hated it, as opposed to being at in a bigger place where you might have anonymity regardless.

 

It is nearly one year since the Flint water crisis took a major turn, when lead tests conducted by a band of outsiders proved the water flowing from much of the city’s pipes and service lines was toxic. But the crisis continues to this day, given the challenges in replacing miles of corroded infrastructure and the incurable consequences of lead poisoning. Every reporter who has attempted to cover the water story has learned that it’s abnormally tricky territory. (I will, ahem, raise my own hand here.) The investigative journalist at the ACLU of Michigan credited with breaking the story open is no exception. Neither are local reporters.

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.”

East Village’s readership is partly defined by its localized distribution—volunteers who deliver copies door-to-door take each issue down as many streets and to as many community spaces as they like; beyond East Village, it hits downtown and some of Carriage Town as well, though altogether, this is a relatively small portion of the city. The magazine’s website helps expand its reach somewhat; it gets about 200 to 500 hits a day. And the community has donated and advertised enough for the magazine to survive 40 years, even as Flint’s population simultaneously dropped by 50 percent.

In the 18 months after Gary Custer died, East Village received $9,000 from 65 donors, and $20,000 in ad revenue. The largest donation was $500; most range between $25 and $100. One man gives $5 every month. The co-owner of the Temple Dining Room, one of the longest-running advertisers, donated a custard pie for one of the team’s batching sessions, where the magazine prepped for distribution, because, Worth-Nelson says, “he knows it’s my favorite.”

Community journalism, though, is “a really active process,” Nic Custer says, and he gets plenty of informal feedback from readers. “People do come up to you, they recognize your name, your face” he says. “They find you and tell you what they think of your story, if they liked it or hated it, as opposed to being at in a bigger place where you might have anonymity regardless.”

Connor Coyne, a Flint native who has done some writing for the magazine, says East Village’s role in the community has changed as the Flint Journal, a publication of the Advance-owned MLive, has suffered cutbacks over at least the past seven years. “Even if the philosophy of East Village has remained fairly constant over its 40 years of its history,” Coyne says, “its profile has been elevated by circumstances.” He adds that it holds an “interesting niche” in a city with a long history of advocacy media, the most famous of which is Michael Moore’s Flint Voice (1977-1986), an alternative newspaper published “once or twice a month,” as it described itself. East Village has stood out, he says, “not only for its longevity, but for its commitment to what other, flashier publications might consider mere arid ‘news.’ ”

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A view of Gary Custer’s work environment. (Jan Worth-Nelson)

From what Nic Custer can tell, the magazine’s readership is “a lot more diverse than I thought,” he says, with folks who live far from East Village or who seemingly are just passing through Flint finding their way to the magazine. Going by the people who approach him, online and in-person, “It’s not just the older, white, middle-class folks in Jan’s neighborhood, and not just the landlords that dominate mine. It’s kind of a wide audience,” he adds. The audience includes people “from big organizations who come and correct small, minute technical details on a story about water, for example. I’ve never even heard of this water engineer, and he’ll come to me and say this is really (how this works) in this piece or this piece.”

The magazine’s core team is intergenerational and diverse in background. There’s a former priest who spent decades working on the San Francisco cable cars; a Slavist from California who studied Polish literature and became a history professor; a 91-year-old who used to be an arts reviewer for the Flint Journal; a Vietnam veteran who became a ceramacist, painter, and the photographer who shot nearly every single East Village cover image.

The staff is also largely white, even though the city is 56 percent African American. This has been “one of the criticisms of East Village Magazine through the years, and it’s legitimate,” Worth-Nelson says. The newsroom’s makeup is partly explained by the demographics of East Village, which is much more integrated than it once was but still carries the legacy of segregation. It’s also, she adds, partly the consequence of who has time available to not only write for free–retirees, college students trying to get a toehold in media–but also to attend meetings and events the magazine wants to cover.

But Worth-Nelson also wonders if the magazine comes across as too insular to welcome diverse writers. “Is there something we’re communicating that we’re not understanding?” She hopes to change the culture of the magazine in part by expanding the scope of coverage—including the water crisis, “which is something everyone’s concerned about, regardless of what they look like,” as well as a year-long series of talks about systemic racism in Flint hosted by the public library.   

On September 24, the magazine will host a 40th anniversary party at the Flint Farmer’s Market. The location choice was purposeful, part of Worth-Nelson’s effort to reach a greater swath of the community. Rather than host it in East Village or at her own house, the farmer’s market is a gathering place that brings many different kinds of people together. The event also stands out as East Village’s first-ever fundraiser and first-ever effort to sell merchandise–T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, coasters, magnets, and flasks.

Volunteers find their way to the magazine in different ways. Some are readers inspired to contribute; some are recruited; still others are discovered when someone from the magazine makes a pitch to writing classes at UM-Flint. As is the nature of volunteer efforts, many contributors don’t stick around—but there are enough to keep the magazine going. New volunteers go through a training day at the Maxine Street house—it’s a new approach, as Custer used to train newbies one-on-one, using his battered old journalism textbooks from his University of Missouri classes. “We see part of our role as direct education in basic writing and basic community journalism,” Worth-Nelson says.

As far as direct education goes, count me as a student. 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.

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.