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Stepping Out

Eyeing a road less traveled on Traction.

Jerry Sullivan wraps the
Garment & Citizen, explores another road

"Wow--just right up there, huh?" Jerry Sullivan says, sitting outside at the Novel Cafe on Traction, after the smoke from a medical marijuana cigarette wafts from a nearby table to our own.

Everyone laughs, the toker at the next table too.

To Sullivan, the man almost always seen sporting a straw-colored reporter's fedora, taking an interest in the guy at the next table is part of his natural bonhomie and and part of his journalistic survival kit. For over ten years, as the hat became one of downtown's best-known landmarks, Sullivan made it a point to pay attention to what others on his periphery were up to.

One of the strategies of his Los Angeles Garment & Citizen, which said farewell to its devoted readers just last week, was to hone in not only politicians and civic figures, but also workers, immigrants, delivery people, people who brought sandwiches to offices, and even the dispossessed.

The special esteem for the lives of workers was tempered as early in Sullivan's own life. He is the son of a Chicago steelworker who came to the Inland Empire to work in a steel plant when Sullivan was fourteen. After high school in California, Sullivan returned to the midwest, attending Marquette University, a Jesuit college in blue-collar Milwaukee, to study journalism ("and history and a minor in philosophy" he adds).

The Jesuits refined his concern for social justice matters, and some of Sullivan's first jobs in journalism anticipated his later days as a publisher. A gig at AdWeek ("An eye-opener," Sullivan says, noting how impressed he was with the way the publication competed with Advertising Age) was complemented by one at the National Catholic Reporter, where Sullivan fell under the spell of legendary journalist Arthur Jones. But it was a late-nineties general-interest magazine piece that gave Sullivan the impetus to start his own publication--and he knew right where to do it.

"I read this old New Yorker story on the success of The Jewish Forward," says the Catholic-schooled Sullivan. "It had a circulation of 100,000. I was thinking of it the whole time I was at California Apparel News. I thought of how the garment district is ground zero for demographic trends, immigration communities, labor communities, the kind of people who shaped The Jewish Forward's success in the early twentieth century."

Sullivan founded the Garment & Citizen in 2000 with no investors and an initial run of 3,000 on 8 1/2 x 11 paper. He decided to call his paper the Garment & Citizen because he believed that the paper would quickly become either garment-district oriented or community oriented, and his readers would dictate which. It became the latter.

The paper went to newsprint and crept up in distribution through the early part of the decade, reaching 10,000 in 2006, maintaining that level when it ceased publication last week. Along the way, the free community paper acquired 50 newsstands and 150 distribution points. And while the paper serviced the downtown community at large, its editor also remained constantly aware of the business and labor trends of the industry that originally captivated his imagination.

Blue Skies & Sunshine--Sullivan in front of a rolldown mural.

"The industry hasn't been vertical for a long time," Sullivan says of the garment business. He says that he's admired the way American Apparel has brought verticality back to the business, and that's now the exception rather than the rule. "Now they're even manufacturing their own fabric," he says.

Noting the changing landscape of downtown journalism, he's not quick to speculate on where it will be even in the short term. He's not especially impressed with blogdowntown's jump into the fire of the print world, and wonders if the publication can maintain an appropriate journalistic distance from downtown's power brokers when noted downtown figures like Carol Schatz, Jan Perry and Jose Huizar all are quoted in the startup's first press release. "Who's backing them might become interesting," Sullivan says. Conversely, he thinks the LA Weekly has a great business model and does a decent journalistic job. "They raise doubt just enough," he says.

His last issue of the Garment & Citizen featured some intimate writing, even about Sullivan's family, that didn't ordinarily appear in the paper. "I'm not sentimental as a newspaper editor or columnist, but I am a sentimental person," he says. Even as we sit and talk, Sullivan fields a call from a well-wisher; moments later another one, this one an artist, passes on the street and gives him a warm embrace.

The future is an open road for Sullivan, who at 48 has spent over twenty years in the trade. He has a couple of consulting arrangements already underway. And he'll apply the same personal dictum to his new life that he did to the nascent days of the Garment & Citizen.

"Don't dream too specifically," Sullivan laughs.