City Son

city-sonI’d never heard of Andrew Cooper until I read this book. He was an executive at a beer company, started a newspaper in 1984, lost it in 1996. When I say “lost,” I mean they were locked out for unpaid rent and seized for unpaid tax. It wasn’t one of those takeover buyouts that wreck a big business, it just wasn’t making any profit. Ever the anti-establishment radical, he refused to go “big business” with new management, and that led to the end of his newspaper. But he did end up training a whole lot of black journalists.

Cooper’s first brush with politics was a lawsuit in ’65 to change the voting district lines, and give black voters in Brooklyn a greater majority. Before that, Bed-Stuy and other dominantly black areas were fringes of other districts, so the minority vote really was a “minority.” Once that changed, Shirley Chisolm came in, and you had a new era of black politicians all over America. But this effort (like many of his) wouldn’t come without criticism. If he ended one Gerrymandered district, was he simply replacing it with another? If he had the district lines to make blacks the majority, wasn’t that like segregation? After watching Chisolm ’72, Unbought and Unbossed, I realized why the radical era didn’t accomplish that much. The saying “power to the people” means nothing if the people don’t know what to do with the power. As far as “power” goes for Brooklyn, there were plenty of things to fix-abandoned buildings, teenage pregnancy, Vietnam vets coming home hooked on heroin-but no plan on what to fix first. Did these people think that a politician of their color could work miracles? Did they think Shirley Chisolm could wave her magic wand and make everything great? Sometimes I wonder if the 60’s were a decade of the dummy.

As far as business goes, The City Sun tried to save Brooklyn, and it sort of worked. Andrew Cooper set out to train young black journalists and send them off to integrate the other papers. Name one other editor who did that! As far as writing goes, Cooper had written for the Amsterdam News, and the new paper was competing both with the Amsterdam News (an African-American paper) and the Daily News and New York Post (papers with a working class readership of both races) but in the end it couldn’t compete with either. The Post and Daily News often changed editors to keep up to date, and Cooper was too stubborn to step down or sell. Don’t forget that those papers came close to bankruptcy a few times, and they had greater backing than The City Sun.

Politically, Cooper was, like Shirley Chisolm, “unbought and unbossed.” It was his paper, and he did it his way. He criticized politicians of his own color (he called David Dinkins a wimp) but made a fool of himself in others. He took the side of Al Sharpton in the Tawana Brawley case, then dug himself a hole when Tawana’s story unraveled. Perhaps his desperate run for cover on that case was a smart move; Sharpton’s lawyer was disbarred for his behavior in the Tawana Brawley case, and Cooper would probably have been sued for defamation of character if he’d stayed on it.

City Son is a well-written study on a great entrepreneur, a man who tried to fix the community by giving people jobs. In the end he just couldn’t win the business war on his terms, and maybe that’s how things happen naturally in this country? Mom & pop stores close all the time, and small newspaper can go the same way. Even The Village Voice isn’t fail-proof; they’ve the biggest base for sex ads after Hustler, and there’s no other way for a paper like that to stay free when nobody will pay for it. Cooper may have been radical when he started his own newspaper, and he was enough of a radical to have standards.

 

Today’s entrepreneurs in Brooklyn should read this book, because Andrew Cooper kept his business going for 12 years despite having none of the resources we have today.

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