There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Jeffrey Itell, the founder, editor, and publisher of Northwest Side Story, is doing what he does best: fulminating—and joking—about the follies of District politicians, insiders, and journalists. Sipping coffee in his Cleveland Park condo/office, Itell is berating the Washington Post, Mayor Marion Barry, sports tycoon Abe Pollin, and boxing promoter/Barry crony Rock Newman for trying to sneak an overpriced arena past taxpayers.
“The Post said Pollin had agreed to pay for the arena. That is bullshit,” Itell says with a mocking grin. “He agreed to pay for half of a $180-million arena. But now they admit it is going to cost $270 million. So who is going to pay the extra $90 million?”
Itell answers his own question. The arena scheme, he says, will slam the 30,000 rich, upper-Northwest households that receive his free monthly newsletter. “My readers pay half the District’s taxes,” he says. “Half of the taxes for the arena—$45 million—are going to come from my readership, and the Post is not telling them about it.”
But Itell is. He reaches over to the sofa, grabs a copy of the current January issue of Northwest Side Story, and points proudly to an article titled “Arena Contrarian.” This article—which Itell wrote, like he did everything else in Northwest Side Story—offers a devastating, witty summary of the machinations of the arena plan. In just a few hundred words, Itell explains—more clearly than any Post or Washington Times piece—how D.C. residents would have to fund the facility. Itell also puts two and two together about Newman’s ambiguous role in the deal. “Arena Contrarian” speculates that Barry is rewarding Newman’s lavish campaign contributions by persuading Pollin to cut the boxing promoter a huge chunk of the action—ownership of as much as 40 percent of Pollin’s Bullets and Capitals.
“After years of…development corruption, most city observers will probably react like Claude Rains in Casablanca, absolutely “shocked’ that corruption is afoot,” writes Itell with typical acerbity, adding that “negating this deal will buy a lot of library books and pick up a lot of trash.”
“It’s not all there yet,” says Itell of his surmise about Newman, “but this story is going to come out.”
If it does, it won’t be the first time that this federal-bureaucrat-turned-publisher scoops the dailies and alerts west-of-the-park Washingtonians to the misdeeds of the D.C. government. Community newspapers, usually larded with reprinted press releases and articles about new speed bumps, are rarely noted for sparkling prose or political insight. But for the last 15 months, Itell’s cheeky Northwest Side Story—which advertises itself as being “inside the Beltway but outside the loop”—has been winning readers up and down the tree- and Volvo-lined streets of Ward 3.
“The Post does not challenge city leaders,” says Itell. “What I like to do is get all the information, summarize it, integrate it, and put a chatty, funny—I hope—veneer on it.”
The 38-year-old Itell has established himself as a P.J. O’Rourke for the Cleveland Park crowd, chronicling the city’s foibles with a pen dipped in acid. Besides raising the curtain on the arena scheme, Itell broke the story about former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s bizarre proposal to collect revenues by forcing all tourist buses to stop at a city “safety inspection” station (Itell called the idea “a last act of seeming dementia”). In late ’93, Itell was the first journalist to explain how Kelly’s proposal to shift the property tax year would punish homeowners, despite all the mayor’s protestations to the contrary. Itell has also accomplished a Herculean task, one unmatched by any paper in D.C.: He has published a comprehensible—and hilarious—elucidation of the city’s budget crisis.
“Behaving like the District government,” reads one section of Itell’s budget analysis, “a typical nuclear family—call them the Neutrinos—would use the following techniques to budget its money: run up its charge cards, forgo house and car maintenance until things break down and are prohibitively costly to repair, borrow so you spend all your yearly earnings by the end of summer, and hope that Uncle Newt Neutrino dies from heat stroke and has remembered you in his will. Finally, blame everyone but yourself for your end-of-year fiscal woes.”
But Northwest Side Story hardly restricts itself to politics. Itell devotes more than half of each issue to neighborhood events, penning frequent articles on new coffeehouses and restaurants, profiling high-profile Ward 3 residents, running a regular zoo feature (principally his musings on the baby elephant Kumari), and charting real estate sales and crime statistics. He also prints recipes and a monthly poem.
The publication’s mixture of political irreverence and community gossip has earned Itell blessings from the two deans of Ward 3 journalism. Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, wrote Itell a fan letter last summer. And Sam Smith, editor of the Progressive Review and former editor of the D.C. Gazette, says Northwest Side Story “is unlike anything else I read these days, and I am always looking for that….I really enjoy it. [It helps me] get over the boredom of reading the Washington Post.”
With his prematurely gray hair and penchant for dumb jokes—“I was born in the South. South Brooklyn”—Itell resembles the career civil servant he used to be more than the cultural commentator he has become. He was raised in Plainview, Long Island (“near the restaurant in Billy Joel’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,’ ” he says. “It’s not a very good restaurant”). In the early ’80s, he moved to Washington to work for the General Accounting Office (GAO) and spent the next dozen years analyzing crop insurance and commodity programs for the feds. Itell finally tired of being a bureaucratic cog, and in fall 1993, he grabbed $17,000 from a federal employee buyout program and shucked his job.
Though his writing experience was limited to arid GAO reports, his condo newsletter, and “subversive” (and anonymous) office memos, Itell decided to launch a community paper. “I figured the worst thing that could happen is that I would lose all my money and then get another mediocre job at a mediocre salary,” he says.
The budding publisher composed the first issue, sold a few ads, printed 10,000 copies, and distributed it at Cleveland Park Day, Oct. 3, 1993. He titled it Cleveland Park 20008, and his neighbors snapped it up. Itell began publishing monthly and quickly expanded Cleveland Park 20008 beyond the boundaries of its ZIP code. Itell upped his circulation to 30,000, changed the newsletter’s name to Northwest Side Story to reflect its broader audience, and hired a distributor to drop it in apartment lobbies, on doorsteps, and at coffeeshops throughout upper Northwest. Advertisers—principally real estate brokers and restaurants—began listening to Itell’s pitch, and the monthly bulged from 12 pages to its current 32. Northwest Side Story is in the black, Itell claims, and “I’m on the verge of making a living.”
Northwest Side Story has become a nexus for west-of-the-park political activism, a kind of bulletin board for outraged citizens. The Ward 3 secessionist movement, “Free Ward 3,” launched itself through an advertisement in Itell’s paper, and in the current issue Itell profiles “Not One Penny More,” a new Ward 3 campaign to stop tax hikes.
But in the end, the editor says, politics takes a back seat to neighborhood news and schmoozing. Last spring, for example, Itell used the pages of the Northwest Side Story to found the “Home-Alone Support Group,” an organization of upper Northwest stay-at-home workers who congregate monthly for pizza and networking. Itell announces group meetings in the newsletter and writes blurbs about the gatherings in every issue.
“I’m selling community,” he says of Northwest Side Story. “You can live in the ‘burbs and never meet your neighbors, but people live in the city because they have a desire to meet people and know what is going on.”
“If you read Northwest Side Story,” he continues, “you get a sense of where you live, and what people are like. And that you belong.”