In the summer of 1975, Stephan Garnett was fresh out of college and in his first journalism job at The Chicago Reporter. He was assigned to investigate the Chicago Park District’s funding practices.
He soon ran into an obstacle: The district would release data on the number of seesaws or soccer fields in the parks–but not how much money went to each park.
So he followed the advice of Reporter founder John A. McDermott: Do some legwork and visit the hundreds of parks and play lots across the city. “I looked at everything from the huge parks–Washington, Lincoln, Douglas–to the tiniest play lots,” he recalls today.
During one such visit to Marquette Park on the city’s Southwest Side, Garnett, who is black, was attacked and beaten severely enough to be hospitalized. Then his car was burned.
Garnett said the beating received more attention than it deserved. But, in retrospect, he should have been more careful, he added. After all, Marquette Park is in the same neighborhood where, in 1966, a brick was thrown at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he led a march to fight for open housing. The neighborhood was rife with racial tension.
Garnett eventually recovered from the attack and moved on to the City News Bureau of Chicago. The story bounced around the Reporter’s office until it landed on the desk of Tom Brune, a circulation manager-turned-reporter.
Brune, who later became the Reporter’s managing editor, took Garnett’s work–conversations with field house directors and park employees, and photographs documenting the discrepancy between facilities in white and minority wards–and dug deeper. He got a major break when he discovered a directory of park facilities published by the district. “Essentially, they had pulled it together–located every park and all their facilities by ward, so that the alderman could take credit every time the park district did something,” Brune said.
Brune headed for the computing center at Northwestern University, where he worked to convert his handwritten code sheets into punch cards using a specialized keyboard–all to analyze his data.
He had to be meticulous. One misplaced comma or period would have aborted the entire process, and he would have to start over. In the end, he produced 1,200 to 1,300 punch cards to cover the city’s 570 parks.
He eventually pieced together enough evidence to prove what Garnett had seen: Parks in the city’s white wards enjoyed more funding, and better facilities and programs than those in minority wards.
Brune’s story prompted a three-year federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. In May 1983, after almost a year of negotiations, the park district agreed to upgrade park facilities and services in the city’s minority wards.