Urban Legend: Ron Grunberg

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Under the watchful eye of the television cameras, Ron Grunberg was having a tough day.

The editor of two city street papers, BigNews and Upwards, Grunberg was trying to hustle his soccer team out the door and to the airport for the first-ever Homeless Soccer World Cup in Graz, Austria. One of his best players was nowhere to be found, and three others couldn’t get passports–one owes $5,000 in child support. Though he was frazzled, uncertainty and nonstop action are nothing new for this editor, writing teacher, fundraiser, job skills counselor and soccer fan.

Just two weeks later, he was back in his office searching for funding to send the July issue of BigNews–already weeks late–to the printer. Not typical concerns for a professionally trained journalist who has worked for the Boston Globe, CBS Radio and New York Press. After years of covering Watergate and other political stories, Grunberg “wanted more than just racing to the airport to stick a microphone in the face of newsmakers.” So he returned to his hometown of New York and drove a cab until his brother, Jeffrey, executive director of the Grand Central Neighborhood Social Services Corporation, asked him to start a magazine for his clients.

Five years later, BigNews is the most widely distributed street paper in New York City, with a monthly circulation of 25,000. Sold exclusively by the homeless, Grunberg tries to prevent it from being a “charity buy” by filling it with arts and culture articles, some written by established writers; a recent issue included a tribute to Marilyn Monroe and political cartoons. The money vendors make off the sales–80 cents per issue–goes right into their pockets.

Upwards, written by and for the homeless, includes information for “the poorest New Yorkers” such as how to obtain an ID, free health care and subsidized housing.

Grunberg sees the publications, the soccer team and his weekly writing group as gateways to the social services, meals and employment counseling that Grand Central Neighborhood offers. “They are tricks of a sort to get homeless people indoors and into a better plan,” he says. “And these things work. You can’t just go up to people and say, ‘Hey, you. Time to go indoors.'”

It worked for James Burch. Once living on the subways, he now spends his days soliciting ads, writing articles and making press kits for BigNews. He is pursuing a Bachelors degree in psychology and credits Grunberg and the paper for “providing opportunities to meet people and better understand them.”

As for the soccer tournament, Grunberg is pleased with his team’s 9th-place finish out of 18 teams. Yes, organizing the team was harrowing enough to push him to take up smoking again. But, he says, “Seeing them all out on the field was the most beautiful sight in the world.”