FEATURE

Street-Beat Confidential

Journalist Juan González has been writing about wrongs for thirty-five years. What's he got today?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2013
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Photograph by Ashok Sinha ’99SEAS

Juan González, sixty-five, a columnist for the New York Daily News, zooms up the Avenue of the Americas in his brown Subaru hatchback toward Rockefeller Center. He just wrapped a broadcast of Democracy Now!, the independent news program that he’s co-hosted with journalist Amy Goodman since 1996. Today’s show ran long with a segment on the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers, and the columnist had to rush out. It’s ten in the morning, and González is staring down the barrel of 3:00 p.m.

“I’m always working on a bunch of different stories at the same time,” he says, scanning the street for a parking spot. “But the problem is, the column is always due every Tuesday and Thursday” — he gives a half laugh from the throat, the amused aspiration with which he punctuates truths, large and small — “whether I’m ready or not. The space is there, and I have to figure out what’s ready to write.”

It’s a Thursday, mid-April. Earlier, Democracy Now! covered two big stories: the Boston Marathon bombing three days earlier (still no suspects, despite what CNN and the New York Post might have indicated) and an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas that killed fifteen people and injured two hundred. But for González ’68CC, his mind buzzing with government data, City Council motions, House bills, labor contracts, property law, budget figures, hospital records, and tipster’s notes, the news is everywhere.

Take today: González is playing with three ideas for his pending column. There’s the Hudson Yards West Side redevelopment deal (“The city promised, when Hudson Yards was approved in 2005, that it would build thousands of new housing units in the area, and that 28 percent would be affordable housing. It’s now eight years later, and I’m trying to find out what actually happened”); a dustup in Brooklyn in which parents from three public schools that share a building with a freshly renovated charter school claim that the Department of Education failed to give their facilities equal improvements; and the city’s proposed $144 million contract with Verizon to maintain its 911 system, even though Verizon has yet to pay the $59 million in damages sought by the city over delays in the original upgrade.

“Investigations in the press have dwindled,” says González, a two-time George Polk Award winner and a News columnist since 1987. “They cost money and take more time to prepare, which is an investment that most commercial media no longer feel they have to make.”

González began his career in 1978 at the Philadelphia Daily News. His early pieces were dispatches from Puerto Rican and black neighborhoods, human stories told in straight, unsentimental prose with a moral edge. He portrayed the victims of crime, fire, and negligent landlords, profiled real-estate speculators, exposed fishy land deals and education scandals, produced a major series on cancer rates near industrial sites, and, later, covered City Hall.

“I’ve always been interested in digging deeper into stories, and have gradually zeroed in on land development and government contracting, areas that nobody covers. I’ve gotten away from pack journalism. Right now, everybody’s on the Boston bombing, so how many new things can you come up with? I’d rather go to where nobody else is paying attention.”

González nabs a parking space. He gets out of the car and walks to a curbside vendor and buys coffee and a jelly donut. Cup in one hand, paper bag in the other, the columnist crosses Sixth Avenue, shambles into the old Sperry-Rand Building, and rides the elevator up to the Daily News.

A brief timeline of events illuminating the passion of Juan González begins, aptly, with a headline:
 

THE SPIRIT OF WAR PERVADES THE
BREASTS OF ALL AMERICANS

Patriotic Citizens Advocate Recourse to Arms to
Wreak Vengeance Upon Spain for the Cruel and
Cowardly Destruction of the Maine

1898: Bolstered by public froth whipped up by the Hearst and Pulitzer empires over alleged Spanish atrocities, the US helps the Cuban and Filipino militaries defeat Spain in the Spanish-American War, gaining control of the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and the fertile Caribbean jewel of Puerto Rico. After four hundred years of Spanish rule, many Puerto Ricans welcome the English-speaking vanquishers, believing them the heralds of Puerto Rican self-determination.

1917: Photograph by Ashok Sinha ’99SEASThe US, having retained Puerto Rico and opened her to US sugar interests, passes the Jones Act, which preserves US authority over Puerto Rican political and economic life, and makes all Puerto Ricans US citizens. Puerto Ricans are now eligible for conscription, and about 18,000 serve in World War I.

1937: After years of severe economic distress, Puerto Rico roils with anti-US feeling. On March 21, Nationalists march on the southern city of Ponce to commemorate the end of slavery on the island. The demonstrators are met by the police, who fire into the crowd. Nineteen people are killed. It’s the worst massacre in Puerto Rican history.

1947: Juan González is born in Ponce. When he is four months old, his family, in a wave of US-planned emigration meant to ease political and economic tensions on the island, moves to the mainland US. New York City. East Harlem. El Barrio.

That is where González’s story begins.

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