Backgrounder: David Gonzalez


David Gonzalez. Photo: Laurel Angrist. (c) 2007 Laurel Angrist.

Since he started covering the Caribbean islands as Caribbean and Central American bureau chief for The New York Times, David Gonzalez has been making big news out of uncharted niches.

For “House Afire,” a three-part print and Web multimedia series that ran January 14-16, 2007 in the Times, Gonzalez took a break from his column, “Citywide,” to spend a year examining the close-knit community drawn together in the storefront Pentecostal church, Ark of Salvation, in West Harlem. Gonzalez delved into the life of the church’s pastor, its young members’ struggles with the faith’s strict moral code, and the political implications of the rise of this, the fastest-growing denomination in mainline Christianity.

“To spend a year with this congregation is to see a teenage single mother and party girl discover the strength to go to college, marry in the church and land a job,” Gonzalez wrote in the series’ first installment. “It is to see a former political radical and brawler pray over alcoholics in the park. It is to see the 50-year-old pastor roaming the city, driving the church’s van to gather members for Bible class or trolling for converts outside an upper Broadway subway station.”

Gonzalez’s reporting for the “House Afire” series brought the 49-year-old writer to West Harlem, just a borough away from the South Bronx neighborhood where he grew up. It was here, while attending Cardinal Hayes High School, a Catholic school, that Gonzalez published his first article in the school’s student newspaper, The Challenger. When one of his teachers encouraged him to apply to an Ivy League college, Gonzalez admitted he didn’t know what the Ivy League was. “I thought Yale made locks,” he said in an interview on the Inner-City Scholarship Fund’s website. When he graduated from Yale in 1979, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, he was the first in his family to earn a college degree.

Gonzalez went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1983. Immediately after graduating, Gonzalez landed a job as a researcher for Newsweek, where, two years later, he was promoted to correspondent, filing stories from New York, Detroit, and Miami. In 1990, he left the publication to pursue stories on urban life. “I wanted to write about things that mattered to me more,” he told a Columbia Journalism Review reporter. “It was difficult to sell certain urban topics at Newsweek.”

Gonzalez’s desire to cover inner-city life brought him to the Times in September 1990, where he wrote on urban topics as a reporter for the metro desk. From December 1995 to May 1999, he wrote the “About New York” column, illuminating citywide issues through intimate snapshots of the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, in prose that was often powerfully affecting. In one of his last columns, Gonzalez revealed the austere reality behind designer clothing labels by covering one of Manhattan’s High School of Graphic Communication Arts’s class trips to garment district sweatshops, where one student’s mother was reminded of her own work in such a shop years earlier. Gonzalez brought the moment home: “She had no other choice, since she was both father and mother to [her son], now a student at Washington Irving. Nor did she have any child care, so she took him to the factory, where he played with the fabric scraps piled up on the floor, bundling them together into make-believe igloos.”

In late 1999, Gonzalez moved to the Times’s Miami-based foreign desk to serve as the Caribbean and Central American bureau chief, covering “everything from Belize to Panama and all the islands of the Caribbean.” His November 1999 story, “Game Produces 28 Hits, and Political Home Run,” which chronicled the events of a baseball game between Cuba and Venezuela led by each country’s president, earned the Puerto Rican reporter a June 2000 feature-writing award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Though far from the metro desk, Gonzalez applied many of the lessons he’d learned as a young reporter covering New York City to the headaches he faced in Cuba, from arranging an interview with Fidel Castro to applying for a journalist’s visa. In an article he wrote for Columbia Journalism Alumni, he noted that he tackled his new beat with the same bring-it-on verve he brought to his metro reporting: “As a street reporter…you want to go somewhere to get a sense of what’s happening and write about whatever serendipity puts in your way.”

Samantha Cohen is a senior at NYU, studying English and print journalism. She is co-managing editor of Bullpen for the spring 2007 semester.