In a surprising twist on our mega-media culture, the gritty street newspaper has returned to big cities across North America and Europe, where vendors hawk the tabloids to help them and other staff members work their way out of homelessness. Readers may bump into some extraordinary examples of nonlinear thinking in these papers, but they’re just as often treated to good writing. In all cases, street papers are a reminder of the many voices that mainstream papers overlook.
The history of street newspapers can be traced back to the early years of the 20th century, when Hobo News featured reports on labor organizing and essays about the vagabond life. The genre was revived in 1989 with the appearance of both New York City’s Street News and San Francisco’s Street Sheet. Since 1996, the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) has provided street papers across the continent with a network for sharing stories and ideas. According to NASNA, there are 44 such papers in North America and dozens more on other continents.
The basic business strategy is summed up in a slogan familiar to most New Yorkers: “Help the homeless help themselves—buy Street News. ” At most such publications, vendors hawk papers for a fixed cut of what they take in. The 40 to 50 people who sell Street News, for instance, pocket a dollar of the paper’s $1.60 price. Street News is not dated. About 9,000 copies of each issue are printed; when they sell out, it’s time for the next issue.
The Street News staff also includes some 25 writers. Most have been homeless at one time or another, but the paper’s subject matter and intended audience are much wider. “There’s a universe of other things besides homelessness going on in the streets,” says former Street News editor Lee Stringer, and the newspaper’s staff is uniquely positioned to cover it.
They certainly have no problem with the flow of ideas. In a recent issue, Indio, the paper’s current editor, digs deep into the Old Testament and life in ancient Egypt and Greece to explain the history of taxation. He's got a great writing voice: “Yeah, this ‘twas going to be really ruff,” he notes of his research, “but that’s what my dog Rex always seyz. And I know that if it ain’t ruff it ain’t right.” Asked where he got his flair with words, Indio mentions the slang he learned during his days with the Harlem Lords street gang in the 1950s.
Like most of the paper’s current employees, Indio has managed to get himself off the streets, he says, but that common past gives many of the paper’s writers a certain curb-level credibility. One writer reports on the African herb yawarnba, which is said to up the T-cell count for people with AIDS, and points readers to the Harlem herb shops where it sells for the best price. Police brutality is a common topic, and a recent issue lists various authorities willing to speak about it. In another article, homeless youth weigh in on which New York City shelters are the safest, and which pose the biggest risks for homosexuals.
Street News has been the model and inspiration for other street papers, including The Big Issue, which first appeared in London in 1991 with help from the Body Shop Foundation. The Big Issue has since launched other street papers in cities around the world, each with the goal of giving homeless people a way to make money and a forum in the media. Back at ground zero, Indio and company take pride in the fact that theirs is very much a for-profit paper that benefits those who have made it what it is—a thing of their own.
At first glance, most street papers seem to share an editorial vision akin to the mission of many a social reformer—to comfort the afflicted by afflicting the comfortable. Closer reading reveals differences in content and quality, but also a deeper shared element: unheard voices from the underexplored universe of the inner city.
Street Paper Sampler
Subscriptions: $19 (6 issues) from 144-46 76th Ave., Flushing, NY 11367. http://members.aol.com/phpcoach/index.html
Subscriptions: $20/yr. (12 issues) from 468 Turk St., San Francisco, CA 94102. Coh@sfo.com
The Big Issue
Subscriptions: $98/yr. (52 issues) from 236 240 Pentonville Road, Kings Cross, London N1 9JY England. www.bigissue.com