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9 Block Club Stories That Made An Impact In 2019

Our reporters share the stories that made an impact in 2019 and why covering community news matters to them.

Aaron Baxter rides a bull at the Rugged Cross Cattle Company's practice pen in Grand Ridge, Ill. on Aug. 15.
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CHICAGO — It was a busy year in Chicago when it comes to news. A historic election. A new mayor. A teachers strike. A gator on the loose.

In 2019, the news cycle is constant. It’s hard to keep up and overwhelming at times, as stories vanish from public consciousness just as quickly as they arrived (aside from the gator, obviously).

At Block Club, we’re invested in finding out what happens after our stories go out into the world. We’ve seen teams fund their trips to nationals, and win. We’ve watched neighbors come together to shovel sidewalks, clean up lots, decorate houses.

The “after” proves there is power in telling stories from the neighborhoods, stories that may seem too small to other outlets. Stories that make an impact on a city, neighborhood, block or even just one person.

As we enter 2020 with big plans — including more neighborhood newsletters, more full-time neighborhood coverage and more events that connect us to you — we asked our reporters to reflect on the stories that made an impact in 2019.

If you appreciate this coverage, end the year by becoming a subscriber for our sale price of $5 a month or $50 a year. And if you’ve got a neighborhood story idea for us, shoot us an email.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
Irma Cornier, the former property manager of the 65th Infantry Regiment Veterans Housing, said the building is not “a place of hope” like the developer promised it would be.

Broken Promises, Cracks In The Walls, Culture Of Distrust: How The Humboldt Park Veterans Building Is Failing Its Residents

The first time I sat down with the 65th Infantry veterans building’s former property manager I was overwhelmed. For hours, Irma Cornier rattled off a list of problems in the building: cracks in the walls, black mold, no services, mistrust of management — the list goes on and on.

I left our meeting with a sense of purpose. After interviews with veterans and attempts to interview the developer, I published a story on the failing veterans building. I hoped the story would push the developer to make major changes.

It did.

A few months after the story published, I reconnected with residents and they told me things had drastically improved. Tenants finally felt like they were being listened to in a real way. Local journalism, when done right, can create real change. I’m proud to work for a news outlet that encourages its reporters to really listen to real people and focus on the stories that make a difference in those peoples’ lives. – Mina Bloom

Credit: Provided
Tanikka Mitchell and her son, Chris Mitchell, pose for photo in June 2016.

For 9 Days After Mass Shooting, Mom Was Blocked By Cops From Seeing Her Critically Wounded Son In The Hospital

This story had a very tangible impact and helped to reunite a family separated by the criminal justice system.

After Tanikka Mitchell’s son was shot several times in a mass shooting, she was unable to visit him in the hospital because police had arrested him on weapons charges. But as I started asking police and the sheriff’s office why the young man who was in critical condition at the hospital wasn’t allowed to see his mother, they reached out to her and allowed her to see her son — something they acknowledged they should have done from the very beginning.

It really showed me the impact that holding the government accountable can have. Pascal Sabino

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Korey Flowers poses with his horse Calypso at the Broken Arrow Riding Club’s High Noon ride July 27.

For Decades, Chicago’s Black Cowboys Have Kept An Overlooked History Alive. Now, Thanks To Lil Nas X, People Are Paying Attention

It is important to cover black successes because they challenge the tired portrayal of their communities as monotonous and violent. Too often, when a black person like Aaron Baxter — who’s a cowboy in Chicago — falls way outside the narrative, they’re dismissed as a rarity rather than a product of the people around them, just like anyone else.

I would know because when I first met Aaron’s mom, Sharon Baxter, and chatted about her bull-riding son, I saw an opportunity to simply profile a rarity. To have written that story would have been a disservice to those who created the conditions for Aaron to find his passion. It would have been a disservice to the centuries of history these cowboys bring to their pursuits.

Black people don’t need to be tokenized with stories about the “rare” cowboy or the “rare” bullrider. Those experiences should be treated with detail and respect. That’s a lesson I still needed to discover — even as a black man — and I’m glad this story showed me that. Maxwell Evans

Credit: Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago
Hilco Global purchased the former Crawford Coal Plant at 3501 S. Pulaksi Road.

After Little Village Residents Told To Stay Inside During Coal Plant Demolition, City Says It Will Inspect The Crawford Site Every Week

I’ve been covering the redevelopment of the Crawford Coal plant in Little Village for nearly two years. During a meeting this summer, a Department of Public Health official told residents to limit outdoor activity when demolition was taking place, which sparked anger and frustration among residents concerned about their health and safety.

Less than a week after our coverage, the city vowed to step up weekly inspections of the site. I heard from residents that had I not been there and covered the meeting, they are not sure these inspections would have happened.

Many community meetings go uncovered across the city, but this is an example of the power of local journalism when we show up and document what is said and done. – Mauricio Peña

Credit: Provided / Facebook
High-profile restaurateur Josh Schatan (inset) has allegedly beaten women and intimidated members of his staff at various Chicago restaurants.

Chicago Restaurant Manager Was Notorious For Abusing Women, Staff — And Hospitality Group Did Nothing For Years, Victims Say

For years, a man who managed prominent Downtown restaurants was accused of beating and threatening his girlfriends and coworkers, but many were too afraid to speak out.

We got a tip about what was happening and I spent months investigating, gathering court documents, finding and speaking to people who knew the manager. After our story published, the people I’d talked with reached out to thank me and others wrote to Block Club saying they were inspired by the strength of the men and women who opened up.

The manager no longer works in Chicago — and a survivor is pursuing charges against him in hopes it can help protect other women. Information in the story helped the detective she’s working with, she told me, and the story has helped her with her healing process. – Kelly Bauer

Credit: PAWS
Alicia Mendoza and one of her kitties.

For 20 Years, This Englewood Woman Has Rescued Abandoned Animals. Now, She Needs Help Heating Her Home

Alicia Mendoza is, hands down, one of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking with. After spending decades saving feral and abandoned cats, she was having trouble heating her home during a historic cold snap.

After my story ran, her GoFundMe goal was met within hours. She was able to replace her furnace and use what was left over for other home improvement projects. Employers even reached out with job offers. Being able to share her story so she could continue to help pets in need meant so much to me. – Jamie Nesbitt Golden

Credit: Hannah Alani/Block Club Chicago
Chef Jacob Bickelhaupt sits on the second floor of Stone Flower, the 12-seat chef’s counter at 1952 N. Damen Ave.

Former 42 Grams Chef Seeks Redemption With Stone Flower — But Will Bucktown Diners Support Someone Who Attacked His Ex-Wife?

Restaurants open and close in Chicago every day, but we felt the news of Jacob Bickelhaupt opening Stone Flower in Bucktown deserved in-depth coverage.

In 2017, Bickelhaupt famously lost his two-Michelin-starred restaurant, 42 Grams, after beating his ex-wife and business partner. Our story balanced the chef’s hope for redemption with his ex-wife’s story of abuse.

Sources in the industry — men and women — have thanked me for writing this story and other victims of abuse have spoken out against their bar and restaurant managers. As a six-year veteran of the service industry, it is my hope workers will continue to hold their managers and employers accountable. – Hannah Alani

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
High lake levels and strong winds batter the shoreline near Juneway Beach in Rogers Park.

Emergency Shoreline Stabilization Work To Battle Rising Lake Begins Monday In Rogers Park

Speaking to Rogers Park residents, I’ve learned just how much the rising waters of Lake Michigan are impacting their homes and lives. It’s something you can only understand by getting out, talking to neighbors and seeing the issue for yourself.

So when I was able to report on the emergency shoreline fortification work, I saw just how much Rogers Park residents were relieved to learn of the news. I am honored to help Far North Side residents be more informed about their neighborhoods. – Joe Ward

Credit: Image Courtesy Save Old Town School
Save Old Town School Nov. 10 rally in front of the building at 909 W. Armitage Ave.

Old Town School Of Folk Music Will Not Sell Armitage Avenue Building After All

The Old Town School of Folk Music is a cornerstone of Chicago’s music scene. Its leadership shocked the school’s community in October 2018 by announcing plans to sell one of the school’s most valuable assets: Its longtime home at 909 W. Armitage Ave.

Dwindling enrollment was going to be addressed by selling Old Town’s valuable Lincoln Park building to fund an endowment for the school, they said.

Students were shocked and heartbroken. Old Town is more than just a school. Every student and faculty member I talked to stressed the unique sense of community and important friendships they found there.

After the announcement of the planned sale students, faculty and fans of the school got organized. They relentlessly campaigned the school’s board to not sell the Armitage building, which had been the school’s historic home since 1968.

I covered months of petitions, musical protests, teachers unionizing, the hiring of a new school CEO, and students presenting alternatives to increase enrollment without selling the Armitage building.

In the end it worked. By December 2019 the school announced it would not be selling its building and instead working with the school community moving forward to address enrollment. – Alex Hernandez

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