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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González steps off the elevator with his donut and coffee and hatful of stories and enters the vast, open office of the Daily News: rows of desks and computers, headphoned workers glued to their terminals, Samsung flat screens (CNN, ESPN) screwed to every cream-painted support beam. González steps into a small private office.

He sits at his desk in a reclining chair, picks up the phone, leaves a message for a Brooklyn parent. “This is Juan González of the Daily News,” he says, with no trace of expectation that the name will produce a result. “I’m trying to do something for tomorrow’s paper. Please call me as soon as you can.” He hangs up, punches more numbers, and leans back with the receiver to his ear, his fingers tentacled around the mouthpiece. “They didn’t mention how big the hole is that the city is going to have,” he tells the source on the other line, “’cause, you know, the interest payment on bonds actually went up this year.” González speaks in a rich semi-nasal New Yorkese mixed with a scoop of asphalt. “Like I said, the ideal report puts it all in one place and counts all the money, but I’m concerned that my editors won’t want me to do another piece on how much money’s being sunk into Hudson Yards.” He makes more calls, spills some donut crumbs on his desk. “Councilwoman, how ya doin’? It’s Juan.” This for a longer-range story. He lowers his voice. “How is it possible for a charter-school network that works in an almost tyrannical manner with these students — that’s how they treat them in school — how is it possible for the schools to keep producing these incredible scores? It has to be that they’re pushing out all the kids that are gonna do bad, so that they can only have” — the half laugh — “kids that they know are going to produce good test scores.” After this, González calls back the parent for the fourth time in an hour. “Sorry to keep bothering you; it’s Juan González at the Daily News, I’m desperately trying to reach you …”

Meeting the press: Gonzalez during his Young Lords days.  / Photograph Hy Rothman / New York Daily News

The family lived in a cold-water flat in a tenement on East 112th Street, in the Italian section of El Barrio. González’s mother was a seamstress and garment worker. His father, an alcoholic and barely literate, worked in a Bronx cafeteria and stressed education to his children with what González would later describe as “a frenzy that bordered on cruelty,” often involving a leather strap.

In 1956, the family moved to a housing project in East New York, Brooklyn. González attended Franklin K. Lane High School, where he was one of the few Puerto Ricans on the mostly white campus. His English teacher, Pauline Bonagura, convinced González’s parents to let him apply to a summer high-school program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “The summer of 1963, I went to Northwestern and studied journalism,” González says. “The following year, my senior year, I was the editor of the paper.”

This was no ordinary high-school newspaper. González’s staff included David Vidal future foreign correspondent for the New York Times, and Stephen Handelman, future foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star.

“My guidance counselor, Judith Temple, told me, ‘Hey, you need to apply to Columbia.’ I didn’t even know what Columbia was. Certainly my parents didn’t. I applied to a bunch of colleges. Grinnell College in Iowa and Columbia offered me full scholarships. I wanted to go to Grinnell, but in my senior year of high school, my father died. He died of cancer. My mother didn’t want me to go all the way to Iowa. So I went to Columbia for my family. That turned out to be a good decision.”

“Councilwoman, how ya doin'? It's Juan.” This for a longer-range story. He lowers his voice.

González became the first in his family to go to college, and one of a handful of Latinos at Columbia. Well-liked but culturally alienated, he joined the Spectator as a sports reporter, and had the occasion to write a news story about a student-run tutoring program for needy families on the West Side. González fell in love with the program. He quit the Spectator and got involved in other local causes, including working with citizens in Manhattan Valley who were organizing against a gym that Columbia planned to build in Morningside Park. Some people objected to the idea of a private institution constructing a recreational facility in a public park in a poor neighborhood without giving equal access to the residents.

“In January ’68, I participated in a protest at the gym site,” says González. “A young African-American minister convinced a bunch of us students to join him in sitting in front of the bulldozers. We all got arrested. When the student strike broke out in April, I became involved.”

In the student protests against the gym and the University’s involvement in weapons research amid the US war in Vietnam, González occupied a Columbia-owned building on West 114th Street and was arrested a second time. Columbia suspended him. Decades would pass before he got his degree.

By the fall of ’68, González had joined Students for a Democratic Society, and the following spring he participated in a takeover of Mathematics Hall. But in 1969, it seemed, most students just wanted to go to class. González was arrested and spent thirty days in jail.

The stay did not reform him. As soon as he got out, he took his activism to where it was needed most — a dozen blocks east of campus, and a thousand worlds away.

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