‘I Am Your Neighbor’: Book Gives Voice to the People of Common Pantry

By Patty Wetli | Friday, September 28, 2012

Roger Wright, with copies of "I Am Your Neighbor" at the Book Cellar. Credit: Patty Wetli

Scott Best, executive director of Common Pantry (3744 N. Damen Ave.), can rattle off all kinds of statistics about hunger: the number of households the pantry serves each month, the pounds of food distributed each week, the percent increase in visits since the economic downturn. But numbers don’t begin to tell the pantry’s story. For that, a new book, I Am Your Neighbor: Voices From a Chicago Food Pantry, turns to the clients themselves.

No one ever wants to hear about me. Not in any kind of objective sense, where there’s no judgment, no advice, no warnings. Talking like this? When I can just talk? This makes me think that I really am somebody. — Cheryl

Co-authors David Brown and Roger Wright, acquaintances through Epiphany United Church of Christ, which houses Common Pantry, both arrived at the idea for the book from different directions. Wright, an admirer of Studs Terkel’s oral histories, had the notion that a Terkel-like project, “a book of stories of normal people in their own voices,” could provide an economic engine for nonprofits.

At the same time, Brown, a long-time volunteer at the pantry and vice president of its board of directors, had been searching for a way to counter complaints from residents who were uncomfortable having the pantry in the midst of their neighborhood.

“People didn’t understand what we were doing there,” said Brown. The book offered an opportunity to explain, “This is who we are and who we serve.”

“David brought the idea [of the book] to the board,” said Wright, a former ghostwriter for Gallup Publishing and author of the blog Chicago Guy. “What David does is make things happen.”

Early on, the authors wrestled with the tone of the book; what they didn’t want was a string of “poor pitiful me” tales. “I didn’t want it to feel exploitative,” said Brown, who carefully guards the participants’ anonymity.

Taking their cue from Terkel, the pair opted instead to let the clients guide the conversation.

“The stories in here are what they chose to talk about that given day,” Brown said. “There are some great stories from people who grew up going to Lake View High School, who worked here for some of the manufacturing companies and warehouses.” One of his favorite chapters focuses on a man who grew up in the Lathrop Homes in the 1960s and recounts tales of fetching groceries for elderly neighbors — 25 cents for milk and cottage cheese — and hanging out at the now defunct Riverview amusement park.

We were there when the guy fell from the Bob Sled. We were all there. –Danny

Another had moved to Hollywood in the late ’70s to try his luck as an actor. To pay the bills he delivered Persian rugs to the rich and famous.

I get on all fours with Barbra [Streisand], and we crawl under the piano, we pull the rugs out while the guy lifts this piano. Face to face, inches apart, we’re on all fours, I’m looking into her nostrils. The most famous nose in the world, I guess, after, what, Jimmy Durante? Carl

“What came out were these vibrant, alive, wonderful human beings,” Wright said. “The result is you get a completely different view of our neighbors at the pantry.”

“People really began to open up,” said Best. “They’ve got a lot to say.”

In arranging the text, Wright performed what he calls “hyper-editing,” providing context where necessary but otherwise removing himself from the picture and letting the stories speak for themselves. “It’s making sure that the essence of the person comes through,” he said. “It’s making sure that I was out of it and they were in it.”

Our high school was in the heart of Manila. We paid only 85 cents for a double feature. And cool! Air-conditioned. In Manila it is very hot! So to refresh ourselves we saw so many American movies. So many movies! We were crazy about Rock Hudson! — Leonora

The book, available at the Book Cellar and via Amazon, has already sold 500 copies, with 100 percent of the net proceeds directly benefiting Common Pantry. “Buy a book and feed a family,” said Brown.

David Brown, at Montrose Green. Credit: Patty Wetli

A launch party/fundraiser, set for tonight at Architectural Artifacts, is sold out, with more than 400 tickets purchased at 100 bucks a pop, double expectations and already surpassing whatever goals Brown and Wright had for the project.

Several neighborhood restaurants are donating their services for the fundraiser, completing a circle that Brown devised back in the spring. President of Harrington Brown real estate development corporation, he also happens to own the parcel of land adjacent to the Montrose Brown Line station — the vacant lot he’s currently leasing to the Peterson Garden Project.

(“I’ve seen him turn a $7 million deal in five minutes, but there’s another side,” said Wright of his co-author.)

Among his conditions in establishing Montrose Green, as the community garden came to be known, Brown insisted on reserving plots for local chefs (yes, the very ones participating in the fundraiser) and dedicating 20 beds to growing produce for Common Pantry.

Elizabeth Wenscott, who oversees the pantry’s gardens along with Lisa Hish, reports that 168 pounds of produce have been harvested over the past nine weeks. “Our organic produce travels 1.1 miles and arrives from plot to plate where it is served for lunch on Wednesdays in less than 48 hours,” she emailed CSJ.

“We’ve gotten lots of tomatoes and zucchini,” said Best. “We have made some unbelievable salads.”

I Am Your Neighbor is the thread that weaves all of these efforts together, with the launch party cementing the link between Montrose Green and Common Pantry.

“The main thing was increasing awareness,” said Brown.”We’re taking a big step toward ensuring the long-term sustainability of the pantry.”

Now there’s a story.

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