Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Mansfield the Marvelous

I was running a bit late to our 7 a.m. breakfast this morning at that refreshing little oasis in the hood--the 55th Street Diner--but I wasn't worried. I knew my friend Mansfield Frazier would simply go ahead and order if he was hungry enough, and also be comfortably working the room, as befits his abundant people skills and status as the east side's reigning newspaper editor.

The paper which he edits, City News, has fallen on hard times, as minority pubs in this town have for as long as I've been watching. Only this one is different: it's been a critical success, largely owing to his skills, but a financial flop, for complicated reasons we won't get into just now (but may well soon). Mansfield jokes that with the money side of the house tottering (they skipped a print issue last week, but it was nevertheless on the web!), he'd lose the entire remaining skeleton staff if he turned off the machine that dispenses free popcorn.

I've written about Mansfield before in this space, though not at enough length to remotely do him justice. To me, he's a tangible thowback to the old and nearly vanished breed of community editor, a tough, no-bullshit guy with an open-door policy who's one-third assistant mayor, one-third union hiring hall and one-third social worker with a too-big heart. Mostly, he's the conscience of his community (and his easy accessibility to readers serves as a sharp contrast to the alt-weekly Free Times and Scene, whose yuppified staffs are cossetted behind locked doors, in office set-ups where the receptionist seems to function more like a security guard than anything. If any crazed reader wants to get to Mansfield, he's right there for the taking). And the fact that he performs this role after spending some time in prison (and getting a wonderful book out of it) merely adds to his street smarts and knowledge of matters of the heart. For me, it also helps make him a person of extreme, nearly theological interest.

Like all mayors, he's got the hard-won knowledge of only those who have spent decades walking his neighborhood, pressing the flesh and listening to his constituents (though he's subsequently reflected on all of this information in ways that few politicians have). And he also knew everyone before they could add on the adult guises of later life--everyone from onetime street hustler and numbers-runner-for-the-Mob Don King to any black Cleveland politician you can imagine. He sees through all the packaging because he knew them back when, and he probably remembers which block they were raised on and who their parents were. And he brings all of that slowly won knowledge and insight to his writing and to the other writing that appears in his paper. And of course there are the assorted additional community roles he plays, including helping Cleveland's mayor with the city's community re-entry program for ex-offenders

In his office, amid all the piles of papers and bric-a-brac accumulated during a colorful life, there's a special place reserved for an arresting old black and white portrait of an elderly gentlemen. It depicts his grandfather, who was a slave. But ask him about it, and 40 minutes later--after the phone has rung five times and six people have stuck their head in to ask a favor or deliver a story tip--the conversation won't be about his colorful past. Instead, Mansfield and his bubbly energy, insatiable curiosity and quick brain will have moved on, to places not yet seen or things not yet learned. He's considering doing a book on a family he knows (long story, as usual) in Mississippi. It contains five generations of women, and he thinks it might be an excellent entry into some subjects that interest him. If ever I'm in need of an energy boost or some perspective about the relative importance of minor roadblocks, I only need to spend five minutes with Mansfield. And all is quickly right with the world once more. For that, I feel a special kind of blessing today.


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