Vol. 11, No. 19 Oct. 8 - 21, 1998



     
 

Norwood News Celebrates a Decade of Making a Difference

By MATTHEW COREY

In October 1988, as America got ready to elect its 41st President (George Bush), or began watching two new hit TV shows (Roseanne and Murphy Brown), Mosholu Preservation Corporation (MPC) began publishing a newspaper in Norwood.

In conversations with community leaders, Dart Westphal -- then vice-president and now president of MPC -- sensed the neighborhood needed a communication vehicle, a way for people and organizations to talk to each other and build on their community improvement efforts. The paper's mission of helping to make Norwood a better place generally coincided with the needs of Montefiore Medical Center, which established MPC in 1981 to protect and improve the area's housing stock and to bolster its overall quality of life.

"It seemed so obvious that such a large piece of the Bronx didn't have a newspaper," Westphal says, with existing papers only serving middle-class neighborhoods in the east Bronx and Riverdale.

Birth of A Newspaper
After MPC's board gave Westphal the go-ahead, he and Betty Chen, the agency's director of community development at that time, went shopping for desktop publishing equipment. Chen's first writing assignment as editor-in-chief was a challenging one -- a troubled sewer reconstruction project that inconvenienced residents and destroyed a string of treasured trees on Mosholu Parkway. And it quickly justified the paper's reason for being.

"I wrote the article and took the pictures and I laid it out myself and delivered it myself," Chen says. (Through its first nine years, the Norwood News had an editorial staff of one.)

Though the paper has evolved in design and grown in content since the early years, recent readers of the paper would find the roots of the Norwood News' mission of neighborhood improvement in the very first issue.

Instead of just reporting the details of the sewer project, Chen published a list of useful names and phone numbers to foster community action. The piece is longer than most other community papers would make room for, and stresses the effect of the sewer project on ordinary people and small businesses.

The paper was monthly then and subscriptions cost a dollar a year. Area residents took interest in the paper from the very beginning, Chen says, and some even walked in to volunteer. Among them were Judy Noy, who to this day is the Norwood News' dedicated proofreader, and Jules Rubenstein, a skilled lensman who still shoots events for the paper and files one of the Norwood News' most popular features -- the Inquiring Photographer.

It was not by accident that Norwood lacked a local newspaper since the early 1970s. Rather, the local economy could not sustain a for-profit publication. The Stein family, founders and publishers of The Riverdale Press, recognized the vibrancy of Woodlawn, Norwood, and Bedford Park communities and launched their own Northwest Bronx weekly in 1990, but The Independent ceased publication after a year.

"I lament this and deplore it," says the Press' Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Bernard Stein. "Advertiser after advertiser says to us ... they only wanted to reach the affluent, upscale readership The Riverdale Press reaches."

Declaring himself a reader and admirer of the Norwood News, Stein says he has become an advocate of the non-profit newspaper model.

"I have reached the conclusion that only a not-for-profit newspaper can survive in a community like Norwood, let alone a poorer community like the South Bronx," Stein says.

Jordan Moss, the paper's current editor, agrees. "It is the communities that can least afford community journalism that need it the most," he says. "That's where non-profits like MPC come in."

The paper's growth continued under Helen Schaub, who, during her tenure from 1993 to 1994, broadened the paper's scope and oversaw its transition from a monthly to a bi-weekly.

"We've always been committed to putting out a good newspaper -- quality journalism," Schaub siad.

Moss, hired as the paper's first full-time editor in 1994, continued the paper's growth by establishing a permanent editorial/letters/opinion section, and securing a grant from the New York Foundation to hire a reporter and expand the paper's coverage area to include Fordham Bedford.

The Mission Continues
Moss believes the difference between the Norwood News and dailies like the Times or Daily News is editorial as well as commercial in nature. Only a community paper can provide dogged, unrelenting coverage of ongoing local issues, he says.

"You can really have an impact, because you're following that story at every step," Moss says. "The citywide press can't keep returning to a neighborhood story again and again like we can. And city agencies and government officials know that we're not going away until the issue is resolved."

Some issues that the Norwood News has taken on for months and even years on end are:

Trees and Parks. In November 1989, the same month the Norwood News expanded to cover Bedford Park, Department of Transportation (DOT) workers chopped the tops off a line of World War II-era Norway maples (planted in honor of World War I veterans) on Mosholu Parkway. The incident, which occurred during a long sewer reconstruction project, energized the local citizenry to all but lie down in front of the DOT's chainsaws and sparked a series of stories in the Norwood News on community efforts to preserve green spaces -- including the first cleanup at Oval Park, the fight to keep vacant lots as community gardens, and, the mother of all environmental stories ...

Fighting the Filtration Plant. The city's plans to construct a massive water filtration plant -- first pegged for the Jerome Park Reservoir, and now a possibility also for any of three sites in Van Cortlandt Park -- is among the most significant issues the paper has ever covered, and one of the most challenging.

Reporting on demonstrations, community meetings, and hearings with federal and city environmental officials, the Norwood News has made a complicated issue understandable and relevant to its readers.

Ethnic diversity. As the face of the Northwest Bronx has become ever more diverse, the Norwood News has followed. The paper reported on the assaults on members of the neighborhood's growing Bangladeshi community and the unity march and cultural celebration that grew from the community's outrage. Recently, the Norwood News has reached out to Latino readers with the only Spanish-language section in any Bronx newspaper. And after expanding to serve Fordham Bedford in January, the paper is serving and profiling even more immigrant enclaves, including the Southeast Asian community along Fordham Road.

Schools. Moss and Westphal (himself the father of two sons who attend Bronx schools) share an interest in the state of the area's overcrowded local schools.

"We feel that good schools are central to healthy communities," Moss says. "No one's going to want to move here and stay here if there are bad schools that are too crowded and have no play space."

The tardy and problem-plagued construction of Norwood's PS 20 prompted the paper to file Freedom of Information Act requests and dig deep into the workings of the New York City School Construction Authority. Articles in the paper prompted Bronx parents to coalesce around overcrowding and construction issues and press the agency to step up its oversight of the project.

Kingsbridge Armory. The newspaper was among the first local actors to promote new uses for the armory after it passed into the city's hands. After reading about the federally supported rehabilitation of a Manhattan armory in the Norwood News, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition acted on the information and secured a meeting with an official from the federal Drug Czar's office.

Also, this year's armory developments coincided with the launching of the Norwood News website at www.bronxmall.com/norwoodnews, which has a section devoted solely to tracking this ongoing story.

All these past achievements and future plans have given publisher Dart Westphal ample opportunity to feel proud of the Norwood institution he brought about 10 years ago this month -- "every time it comes out."

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