Keating Competition 2014

2014 Keating Competition Winners And Finalists

INDIANAPOLIS – Ten college journalists traipsed through Indianapolis’s Old Northside in search of feature stories – and more than $5,000 in prize money – as part of the 28th Indianapolis Press Club Foundation Thomas R. Keating Competition.

2014 Keating finalists write their stories at The Indianapolis Star.

2014 Keating Finalists

Indiana University student Samantha Schmidt, of Plymouth, Minnesota, claimed the top prize of $2,500 with a story about two brothers, Mexican immigrants, who are struggling to make a better life for themselves in America.

“When we judge these things, there is often disagreement about who belongs in first, who belongs in second,” said Indianapolis Monthly Editor Daniel Comiskey, IPCF vice-president for programs and chair of the Keating Competition. “This year, we didn’t have that problem. Everyone agreed that Samantha Schmidt’s piece was by far the best.

Schmidt, who speaks Spanish, was able to put her language skills to use and this ability allowed her to capture the “dramatic backstory” of the two brothers.

“On top of that, she was the best writer,” Comiskey said. “Her story was well-organized. And to be able to do that in such a short period of time shows a gift for narrative and patient reporting.”

Samantha Schmidt (1st); Michael Majchrowicz (2nd); Ryan Howe (3rd)
2014 Keating winners (L-R)

2014 Keating Winners

Finishing second and earning $1,250 was Michael Majchrowicz of Indiana University, who interviewed an animal rights activist who expresses her beliefs through her artwork. Ryan Howe of Ball State University earned third place and $750 with his slice-of-life stroll through the neighborhood and the characters who populate it.

Other Keating finalists included Ball State University students Danielle Grady and Alexandra Kincaid; Franklin College student Jacob Rund and Indiana University students Hannah Fleace, Evan Hoopfer, Kathryn Moody and Anicka Slachta.

1st Place: Samantha Schmidt – Indiana University

Agustin Arreola climbed the two-story ladder as he lay on a first coat of Tuscany-orange paint.

The once grandiose historical house at 1468 New Jersey St. hasn’t been painted in about 30 years. Arreola takes out a photo of the house during its prime, with its bright red and blue siding and intricate Victorian-style entrance.

He called today’s version the “Haunted House.” It looked like it could have been abandoned for years, but its owners simply never wanted to invest the time and money to repaint it. Arreola and his brother, Benjamin, were here to give it new life.

“It’s just brush and roll,” 30-year-old Agustin Arreola said. “Brush and roll.”

Benjamin Arreola, 31, wearing a black paint-spattered hooded sweatshirt, is prepping the outer rim of the wall to paint it a dark shade of brown.

“Ey, Flaco, do you need this?” Agustin “Tito” Arreola calls down to his brother, passing him a scraper. When they were younger, their dad gave them their nicknames, Flaco and Tito, and they have stuck ever since.

They had been pressure washing, scraping and replacing the deteriorated wood since early Saturday morning. With fallen leaves on the ground, and the wind chill bringing the temperatures down to the 30s, winter seemed inevitably near. They had to make sure they were saving up money, Agustin Arreola said. The cold season was coming, and jobs could be sparse.

He thinks back to Mexico, where cold weather was never a concern, where the food tasted better and where his family was always near.

Benjamin Arreola thinks about mother, working her store back in Michoacán, Mexico selling pillows and blankets. It’s been 14 years since he last saw her.

Maybe this will be the year, he thought. Maybe this project, this house, will get them one step closer to seeing her again.

Agustin Arreolla was 17 years old when he decided to leave Michoacán. He had one year left of high school, but he knew that finding a job would be impossible. His mother’s house was in bad shape, and he wanted to help her have a better life.

With the help of a Coyote, he crossed the border and made his way to Chicago, working at a pizzeria for six years, where his brother later joined him. But the high crime and low wages in Chicago made him look somewhere new, and he came across Indianapolis. Everything was cheaper here, he said, from gas to taxes to housing.

He knew the construction business paid well, and he knew he was good at it – he and his brother would help paint gas stations for extra cash back in Mexico. He decided to start seeking out contractors and projects, and he’s been in the business ever since.

“I painted like six houses here,” Agustin Arreolla said about the Old NorthSide neighborhood. “That house over there, another house on this block. It’s a lot of old people.”

More than a decade later, his mother in Mexico now lives in a renovated two-story house with the help of her son’s wages, and Agustin rents a three-bedroom house on the East Side with a yard and even a swing-set for his two kids. But it’s nothing like the million-dollar houses he renovates – one time he even painted the house of a woman who worked for the president, he said.

“It would take a lot of work to afford a place like that,” he said.

The job can pay well, at least $15 an hour, but only as long as he gets paid, Agustin said.

He’s taken contractors to court twice for wage theft, and many of his friends can say the same, he said. The first time, three years ago, a contractor robbed him of his $5,000 payment for a project. Agustin Arreola tried to take the man to court, and lost, he said. A few years later, it happened again, this time after a month-long painting job for a house on Meridian St.

When the contractor lost his case in court, he claimed bankruptcy, and was forced to pay Arreola his dues in equipment and machinery.

“It’s not the same when you need the money,” Agustin Arreola said.

Sometimes it’s just not fair the way workers like him are treated sometimes, he said. Immigrants like him keep the construction business going, with their experience and fast work ethic. But as more Mexican immigrants enter the construction business, the value of their work lowers, and wages lower. But then why do contractors keep taking the money he worked to earn?

He works from one project to the next always looking for his next option, and his next source of income.

He’s traveled as far as Michigan, Chicago, North Carolina and Kentucky for months-long projects.

“Sometimes it’s very, very difficult,” Arreola said “I have to be always positive. Like the Americans say, ‘Just keep going.’”

Each time he’s had something taken from him, each day that he misses his family and his home, he keeps moving “adelante,” he said, forward.

Agustin Arreola has never broken the law, yet he’s been stopped six times while driving routine checks for documentation. He sometimes hates the police, and the way he often feels targeted for being Mexican. But about a year ago, instead of calling out his undocumented status, the police gave him a chance to stay for good.

Late one night last year, a man showed up at Agustin Arreola’s door with a gun in his hand, attempting to rob his apartment, where he lived at the time. He recognized him from around the area – the man had once asked him for a reference for a construction job.

But Agustin Arreola knew he was caught up with the wrong crowd.

He called the police, and testified in court, helping put the robber behind bars.

But the man’s gang still knew where Agustin Arreola lived. In the days after the court trial, a group of men went back to Agustin Arreola’s house, shattering the glass of his car windows.

Arreola had put his family in even more danger than before the robbery – was it even worth it to testify?

Soon after, he learned about the U visa – a visa set aside for undocumented immigrants who have helped law enforcement in the investigation of criminal activity.

Agustin Arreola would get a chance to finally be a documented resident. He would no longer have to drive in fear of being caught without his papers. Most of all, his papers would help him start his own contracting business, where he could hire his brother and other Mexican workers like him.

Maybe this year he can finally own his own house – a place he can fix up for himself.

The tattoo on his left wrist, under an image of hands locked in prayer, shows the name of his daughter Leslie, and his wife Odeth.

“More than anything it’s for my kids,” Agustin said. “To leave them something.”

And if his business goes well, then maybe, just maybe, he and his brother can pay for his parents to come stay with them in Indianapolis.

“It will be something,” Benjamin Arreola says, smiling. He thought about seeing his parents for the first time in 14 years. “I don’t have any way to describe it.”

2nd Place: Michael Majchrowicz – Indiana University

Now that the panic comes in bursts, the struggling artist said she can’t sleep anymore.

With all the conviction she can muster, hands clenched and eyes shut tight as the tears trickle behind her glasses, she is trying to explain her next series of paintings.

One of them will portray a family at dinner, Pamela Bliss said. Except, instead of people gathered to enjoy a carefully prepared meal, there will be blood. Blood on the plates. Blood on the table.

“Gruesome,” Bliss said. “It will look like a Holocaust.”

Bliss, 55, needs a new outlet. She travels across central Indiana, working as a mural artist. Not knowing where her job will take her week to week, a sleeping bag usually rests next to the weathered paint supplies in the back of her ruby-red minivan.

Her works – like the 38-foot-high Kurt Vonnegut mural on Massachusetts Avenue – adorn large brick buildings downtown. But she wants her art to carry more meaning. Something she can stand behind.

Along with the “Holocaust” painting, Bliss imagines a portrait she’d conjure on Photoshop. She envisions a restaurant menu – adorned with food options such as “puppy pot pie” and “kitty kabobs.” She might even include hamsters and moneys. Maybe, just maybe, Bliss said, the added shock value will get her point across.

“People who say they’re animal lovers, and they still eat them – that really pisses me off,” she said. “You’re not an animal lover if there’s an animal on your plate.”

Bliss first considered a vegan lifestyle 30 years ago. It was at the dinner table when a sudden sense of euphoria washed over her in a sort of wave. She looked at the hamburger she was grasping and then to her three dogs, two Spaniels and a Sheppard – Kilo, Cain and Yoyo.

Here were these three animals she loved dearly sitting beneath her, she said, and another animal she was about to consume.

“I started thinking outside of myself,” Bliss said. “(People) are savage.”

Bliss lives alone in a modest apartment along 14th Street tucked away inside a portion of the historic Old Northside district. Family gatherings – Christmas, Thanksgiving and even family reunions – are a thing of the past.

Years of relatives waging wars at the dinner table took its toll. Her devoutly religious extended family was never supportive of her lifestyle or advocacy efforts.

Now, she said, “I want it my way.”

Bliss’ involvement with the Indiana Animal Rights Alliance has largely served as a source for her recent inspiration. Next month, she’ll participate in a protest with the group outside the Ringling Brothers Circus at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse. With a gathering of about 300 others, Bliss said, the group will don graphic posters of bound baby elephants and other pain-inflicted animals.

If history is any indication of how circus patrons will react, mothers will avert their children’s eyes and ears. Others will try to avoid Bliss and the protest entirely, she said.

“I get vocal,” Bliss said, adding that it’s the children she has the best bet of inspiring a lasting impression.

In the meantime, as Bliss prepares to set a plan for her new portrait series into motion, she continues with her mural work.

She said there are plans to sell her new works and feature it in a gallery and imagines the exhibit would go live sometime in the spring. A portion of the proceeds would benefit various animal rights groups.

At night now, Bliss jolts awake to racing thoughts of mistreated animals in steel cages and factory farms. Panicked and nauseated, she sits in bed, alone with her thoughts. That very feeling, Bliss said, brings her back to a time when she was in a department store the day after Thanksgiving about 30 years ago. Her then 3-year-old was swept away by the racing crowd.

She recovered her daughter from the crowd all those years ago, but Bliss said it’s that recurring gut-wrenching sensation, imagining all of those animals, that keep her awake.

3rd Place: Ryan Howe – Ball State University

Gayle and Tom Fisher in their front yard as their white haired golden retriever, Whiskey River, sniffed around for somewhere to pee. Draped in long winter coats and sporting earmuffs, the couple was walking their routine route.

Every morning they start just below East 16th Street making their way south on Park Avenue. When they reach East 12th Street they cross the street and walk up the opposite side of the road towards their home.

“We’ve been walking this street since we moved in 12 years ago,” Gayle Fisher said. “It’s really allowed us to meet so many great people along Park Ave.”

As they waited for Whiskey River to finish her business, Tom Fisher waved across the street to Peter Michael, and wished him good morning as Michael walked up to his green and pink home.

Michael bought the green and pink Victorian style house in 1992. He was riding his bike down Park Avenue when he noticed the dilapidated house and thought to himself, “I can fix this place up.”

He was in over his head.

“I always say ‘if you’re thinking of renovating an old home, I can talk you out of it,’” he said as he flipped through a photo album with pictures of him, his sister, his wife and his parents renovating.

Sitting on a floral couch in front of an unlit fireplace, he examined the picture of his run-down home before his family started construction. In 1994, there were few renovation projects taking place in the neighborhood. The crime rate was high, and the land was cheap, Michael said.

But for 22 years, Michael has refused to move off of Park Avenue. He continues adding to his house, reapplying paint and posting up new wallpaper. He has watched the neighborhood transform into a diverse area of students, retirees and young families starting their lives.

“It wasn’t all at once, it was very gradual,” he said. “It’s weird to sit back and think “when did this happen?” Michael said.

After Whiskey River sniffed through the yard enough the Fishers headed down Park Avenue. A block down, they stopped at a two story brick home without a porch. To the right of the front door was an engraved plate reading “Strain 2004.”

“Cheryl and Jim Strain have some really marvelous dinner parties,” Gayle Fisher said pointing towards the front door.

In 2001, Cheryl and Jim Strain bought the empty lot of land at 1434 N. Park Ave. Their children had moved away to college, and they wanted to be in an urban area. They wanted to live in a neighborhood with sidewalks, as they are avid walkers themselves.

The couple searched, and eventually landed on the property on the North Park Avenue. They designed their house with a few architects and started building.

But before they started construction, the Strain’s, and their childrencelebrated the 4th of July on the vacant slab of land. They brought a table, and all the ingredients to have a lavish picnic.

“But a thunderstorm started to roll in,” Gayle Strain said.

Almost immediately, neighbors from the across the street and next door offered shelter to the Strains. They declined. But about twenty minutes later, as the thunder grew tumultuous, an elderly man from across the street marched over, picked up their picnic table and carried it into his house. The Strain’s picnic was forcibly relocated out of the storm.

“That was the sign that this neighborhood was perfect for us,” Gayle Strain said laughing to herself.

Since then the couple has made an effort to invite their neighbors to cookouts, and their annual caroling event in December, where they clear out the front part of their house, put a piano in the corner and invite hundreds of people to come and sing Christmas songs as Jim Strain plays the piano.

“We’ve never attended the caroling event,” Tom Fisher said as Whiskey River circled him wrapping her leash around his knees.

The Fisher’s continued their walk past the assortment of colorful houses lining the west side of Park Avenue. Once they passed 13th Street, Gayle Fisher waved to a man standing in front of his sky blue house.

Despite the cold weather, Kelly Pardekooper was wearing a short sleeve shirt as he raked the crunchy, yellow and brown leaves that littered his lawn. His wife was working and he was trying to keep himself busy.

Pardekooper and his wife bought the blue house on Park Avenue two and a half years ago, and started renovating. They relocated from Los Angeles when his wife was offered a job as a spine surgeon at Riley Hospital. They wanted to live downtown, and found the Historic Old Northside a perfect fit.

Pardekooper took a job in the sales department at NUVO Newsweekly. But most of his income comes from his music.

He has had a few songs featured on numerous television shows such as “Sons of Anarchy” and “True Blood.”

“There’s probably a song of mine playing right now on some obscure cop show,” Pardekooper said as he picked leafs out of the teeth of his rake.

Pardekooper and his wife are some of the newest home owners on Park Avenue. For the first year and a half they focused their attention to tearing down the Victorian wallpaper, painting the walls, fixing the electricity and working on the plumbing. Now they are building a garage for their cars.

“It’s most likely going to be the same color blue,” Pardekooper said. “We have to keep up with the neighbors.”

The Fishers maneuvered a U-turn just past Pardekoopers house, and started walking north on the east side of Park Avenue. They occasionally let Whiskey River stop and sniff out a tree, or pick up a branch from a yard, but their pace quickened on the way back. A product of the cold weather.

As they passed a small garden on the 1400 block, they noticed a car with the window busted out.

“There are petty crimes in the area, but nothing major,” Tom Fisher said. “I dare someone to find a better neighborhood than this. It’s impossible.”

2014 Keating finalists before they leave to report their stories on Indianapolis’ Old Northside.

For this year’s winners, see the main Keating Competition page.  The annual writing contest pays homage to the late Indianapolis Star journalist Tom Keating, a beloved columnist who told the stories of everyday people.