Michael Puente: Building a bridge to understanding

When Michael Puente freelanced for The Post Tribune back in the early nineties, he recalls the moment he realized why he became a reporter. 

Two South Shore trains in Gary, IN collided – right in his “backyard.” He rushed out of his home just three miles from the scene and called the editors at The Post Tribune to let them know he was ready to cover the story. But the editor replied they’d already sent a reporter there. “We got it covered,” one of the editors told him. “You can just go home.”  

But Puente didn’t stay put. He interviewed survivors and took notes detailing the massive crash. “I’ll be damned if this huge national story is happening in my backyard and I don’t get to cover it,” he remembers thinking. When he called The Post Tribune again to share what he gathered, the editors admitted not having anything close to it. The story got expansive coverage and the publication won awards for the breaking news story. Puente realized, “This is why I want to do it.” 

Puente works as the Northwest Indiana reporter for WBEZ. His 20-year reporting career has for the most part been focused on Northwest Indiana, and the Southeast Side and the South Suburbs. 

He grew up in East Chicago, IN., an area that also housed the West Calumet Housing Project where Puente reported how city officials forced nearly 1,200 residents to evacuate their homes after the EPA found high concentration levels of lead. 

Puente is also a professor of journalism at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting, Indiana. In addition to reporting on the lead contamination at West Calumet Housing, his reporting often centers on the environmental effects of the BP oil refinery located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan and the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal, immigration, and politics. 

He is also currently producing an independent podcast on politics and human interest stories about Northwest Indiana and Indiana, overall. Podcasting, Puente states, “Provides a creative outlet for me.”

The Coordenadas staff met with Michael Puente, once at the WBEZ offices in Navy Pier and again during a tour of “The Region”. This is what he had to say:

On reporting about Northwest Indiana 

I’ve always enjoyed covering the underdog and areas that don’t get a lot of attention. I try to be a sort of conduit for people to have a better understanding of Northwest Indiana. And maybe the Chicago region too because the same attitudes that people have about Northwest Indiana I also see towards East Side or South Chicago. East Side and South Chicago are ignored. Those areas have been Mexican longer than Pilsen or Little Village but yet they don’t get the same respect or the same spotlight. They have one of the longest running Mexican Independence Day Parade anywhere in the city.

On the lack of coverage in Northwest Indiana

I hate to say it but sometimes…reporters can be very prissy. They don’t want to get their hands dirty. They want the glamour of seeing their name in the paper or their face on TV. Real journalism requires shoe leather work – getting down there and talking to people, getting to know what their concerns are. 

I’ve always, [believed], not just as a reporter, but as a person: don’t believe preconceived notions about places. That’s the only way you’ll learn. If you’re just going to go to places that you feel comfortable in then you’re never going to learn about anything. 

There are fewer reporters down there. Even with the daily newspapers, there are fewer resources. And when areas don’t have coverage that’s when communities suffer. Even the wealthy communities because you don’t know who’s doing what. Whether it’s a wealthy area that you think is on cruise control. Somebody could be stealing from the kitty. 

We do know newsrooms are shrinking. So what’s the first to go? Advertising sells newspapers so if there’s not enough advertising in that area, that area doesn’t get covered. From my working in the Chicagoland area, in the media, there has always been this notion among, say, the major media major newspapers that they don’t cover Northwest Indiana because there are no readers out there. Really? Between Lake, and LaPorte counties there are almost 1 million people. 

On the once blighted, “Magic City” Gary, Indiana

Gary right now is a city that is struggling financially — the municipality, [and] the schools. I’ve never really seen a prosperous Gary. My parents did. Gary used to be a gleaming city. Growing up [my parents] would say that to go downtown Gary, you would have to go dressed up because that’s where the rich people would go shopping before the malls came. Gary is really a city of two halves. The first 50 years, it was a magic city. And the past 50 years, it hasn’t been that way because of everything from racism to the downturn of the steel industry.  

Gary is a city that was built for 200,000 people. There are only about 80,000 people living there now. People ask me all the time, “Is Gary worth saving?” And I’m like, “I’m not even sure what that means.” There is always going to be people living there.

But, I do worry about environmental issues and public corruption. There are meth issues. People overdosing who come from well-to-do families. There’s also continued racism there. I think Northwest Indiana is at a crossroads right now as to whether it’s going to continue to move forward and prosper or fall back a little bit.

You’ve got people who are like, “Well as I graduate I’m going to move out.” Northwest Indiana needs to have something to keep people here. They are looking for better opportunities. But it’s up to the cities to give [people] a reason to stay in those areas… to stay and fight.

Touring “The Region” with Michael Puente (Miller Beach, Gary Indiana). Credit: Leo Hernandez

On the environment in Northwest Indiana

Northwest Indiana has been an industrial area for more than a century. Residents here continue to depend on the paychecks they earn from the industry here so that creates a conflict between protecting the environment and providing jobs. There are so many legacy areas of pollution that include landfills, confined disposal facilities, and Superfund sites, some you never heard of, but very close to residential areas. West Calumet isn’t the only area of concern in Northwest Indiana. And even in the nearby rural areas, there are concerns of contamination of groundwater from farms and CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and landfills of garbage and waste from the City of Chicago and other urban areas. And let’s not forget the pollution that gets dumped into Lake Michigan and other nearby tributaries on a daily basis from industry.

East Chicago recently got a lot of news coverage about the high levels of lead in the soil at West Calumet. But that situation started back in 1970 and it just continued to fester. But why did it start in 1970? Because there are some corrupt officials who decided, “It doesn’t matter where you build this housing project, we’ll put it on property that we know is contaminated.” 

So somebody must have gotten paid off, or looked the other way and said, “We’re going to put it there and…40 years later…there’s an incredible amount of lead levels. People were forced to evacuate their homes. People who are already of meager means. The housing isn’t there anymore.

On immigration 

As it stands today, undocumented immigrants are deported from the Gary Chicago International Airport. Many activists are opposed to this. And we know the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues to search for a suitable area to build an immigrant detention center. They’ve tried in several locations in Northwest Indiana without much success. Immigrants play a critical role in many large farms in northern Indiana but will the government’s crackdown on them dissuade many from coming to the area? It’s hard to tell.

On future reporting 

If you’ve got 20 reporters on the same political story, chasing the same story how much different is your reporting going to be? It’s the stories that are not being told, the voices that are not being heard, the investigations that aren’t being done, the public corruption where people feel like, “Oh, no one’s looking.” I can do it. Those are the stories I want to go after. Not because it’s an exclusive or it’s sexy or whatever. I tend to feel that there are segments of society that aren’t being heard. And so as long as I’m here, I’m going to try to tell those stories. As for WBEZ, there’s always an ongoing discussion on how to best cover the region and areas to focus on.