March 19, 2008
The Chicago Seed: An Alternative Voice From An Underground Source
"Freedom of the press is guaranteed
only to those who own one." - A. J. Liebling
Archived at the Chicago History Museum, the Chicago Seed was one of the many underground papers that was published, and flourished, in the sixties and seventies, responding to the media's disregard for those opinions valued by the countercultural movement of the era. Cultural and political activists sought an alternative media through which to promote their views, being otherwise ignored by mainstream media, and found resources through membership with both LNS (Liberation News Service), and UPS (Underground Press Syndicate). Affiliated with both organizations and published in Chicago between the years 1967 and 1971, the Seed moved through two distinctive focuses in the course of its lifetime, evolving from a celebration of love, peace, and various drugs to a politically engaged compilation of social commentary and appeals for revolutionary involvement.
By incorporating revolutionary ideals through a union of both presentation and content, the Chicago Seed created a visual declaration of the spirit of the countercultural movement in Chicago. In the overt assertion of such beliefs through a medium easily accessible, for instance sold at the University of Chicago Bookstore, editors of the Seed hoped to steal the attention of the community and garner support for the movement, creating a kind of ongoing dialogue with and amongst the public community which was far from the more elitist mainstream papers.
Wanting to distinguish themselves from these austere established newspapers, the Seed is designed without the black and white columns indicative of normal newsprint. Favoring a more expressive aesthetic, with more options available to manipulate and tailor to the views of the Seed, the paper creates an extremely distinctive look, chaotic in appearance to reflect the sense of revolution and cultural and political upheaval of the times. Issues of the Chicago Seed are extremely expressive because of the heavy reliance on color, both on the covers and within the spreads inside. Article text does not usually adhere to justified margins, but instead seems to flow around and across the graphics and illustrations that accompany most articles. Colors bleed into each other, whether shading the illustrations or the multi-colored text, itself, an effect that often blurs and confuses the distinction between feature articles and the paper's advertisements. Difficult to follow with such a loose formatting shaping the structure of the spreads, the disorganization of the newspaper's layout reflects the disorder and turbulence of the time, though at a price. Insistent upon rebelling against the structure of established periodicals, the Seed creates a maze of text, with articles jumping from page to page without warning and surely losing a portion of its audience in its disarray. One included letter to the editor cites this very problem, suggesting that "the Seed is the most imaginative paper ever printed, but its content is often nil" (Volume 3, No. 5).
A more productive use of the revolutionary zeal being promoted through the Chicago Seed and its message, was the incorporation of articles, advertisements, and features which spoke to the issues of the movement. Beginning with a disclaimer, one issue proposes, "Volume 3, No. 12 of the Seed is a wave that laps at the edges of our collective and individual consciousness. Contradictions are the product of personal freedom. They will be resolved in favor of collective harmony". Including this brief appeal to the Seed's audience as a collective, both in the sense of readership and in the idea of an active community and civil force, the Seed asserts its engagement with the cooperative force of the community, a feel also echoed in each volume's dedication to revolutionaries making headlines within the span of the issue's bi-weekly production.
Grounding the paper with appeals for an interchange of action and ideas, editors of the Seed made the paper accessible to those members of the community who may be excluded from the relatively highbrow scope of major papers. Issues open with a "Movement Scoreboard," a box dedicated to brief updates on the actions and newsworthy developments occurring in relation to revolutionary groups, written in a style as straightforward as the box scores in your typical Sports section (Volume 3, No. 13). Including briefs on the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Young Patriots, SDS, White Panthers, and Dopers, the "Movement Scoreboard" details sentencing information, arrests, and trial announcements on an informal, even personal level, as if a reader would be referring to the section to confirm whether any of their friends or acquaintances were involved in any of the developments.
Such a development did make an issue of the Chicago Seed one week, when in Volume 4, No. 4, the inside front page included the news that nine Seed staff and contributing members were arrested for conducting a "small recreation of the convention". The article, while citing the injustice of the arrest, however, focuses more on rallying readers in support of their Seed editors, appealing "We go to trial October 20 at 321 North LaSalle, come and see us there [...] We need money [...] If you can help with the money or were a witness to any of the arrest, call or write us at the Seed". Again communicating with the public on this very personal and interactive level, they were sure to receive support and action from those readers who were able to relate to them and feel a sense of community and familiarity with the staff of the Seed who so openly injected not only their views and beliefs, but their very selves into each issue.
Consciously engaging in this dialogue, however, in some ways made readers as vulnerable as the underground newspaper itself, and because such papers were subjected to heavy surveillance and scrutiny, readers experienced the highs and lows of the endeavor along with the paper. Seeking to reassure its readers and assure their audience that activism is hardly a lost cause, Volume 4, No. 13 included the following piece of encouragement,
People are leaving the Seed, the cities, and even in a few cases, the planet [...] It's always darkest before dawn, It acts on us, too, and sometimes we wander away from the community. This is Volume 4, No. 13, and we hope that it brings us closer to you, even as it brings us closer to an awareness of exactly how important it is to change things around. Together we can find the ways.
Proposing a communal effort to make a visible change, the Seed worked to enliven people throughout the span of its readership.
Advertisements also served as a means through which to inspire readers, calling for people to act out and get involved in the movement, specifically aimed at local opportunities for the public to organize. An advertisement in Volume 4 relies heavily on the same kind of personal appeal that the writers of the Seed incorporate, expressing the blanket effect that repression, in all its forms, has upon all Chicagoans. Inviting community members together, the ad reads:
Repression is everywhere [...] People are beginning to respond [...] Here in Chicago, people are fed up with having our people killed [...] We have had enough. Everybody, and especially everybody on the North Side, should fight back. Come to the 'Defense Meeting February 8, 1970'. Some of the issues to be discussed: All cops out of our schools, An end to the Gang Intelligence Unit, Control of the housing project cops housing project residents, No more cops at community meetings, No more stop and frisk, No more unreasonable bail. Come, and put a stop to the shit that is going down. Bring your problems, cases, and ideas.
In including readers among those being personally affected, advertisements such as these instilled a sense of responsibility and obligation within the readership to attend meetings at which organization and discussion of the problems and solutions at hand would be shared. Asking for their own problems and ideas was utilizing a similar approach, engaging the community, but also placing value and importance on the specific problems and issues that are important to, and affecting, each reader individually.
Incorporating the revolutionary spirit and energy of the movements of the sixties and seventies into both the presentation and content of the popular underground newspaper, the Chicago Seed took the issues and struggles of value to the countercultural movement, and brought them to light and to the people. With design straying as far as possible from the rigid, monochromatic columns of mainstream papers, the spreads of the Chicago Seed reflect the spirit of insurgency ripe in Chicago. Further engaging readers on a personal level and adopting a tone of familiarity, at times even crudeness, writers and editors of the Chicago Seed made the radically political content of every issue accessible from a streetwise perspective, further echoing a move towards collective revolution. With this approach, the Chicago Seed became a familiarity comfortable to its readers, a resource pointing the community towards action and providing the community with activists.
The Chicago Seed. Volume 3, No. 5. Special Archives, Chicago History Museum Research Center.
The Chicago. Seed Volume 3, No. 13. Special Archives, Chicago History Museum Research Center.
The Chicago Seed. Volume 4, No. 4. Special Archives, Chicago History Museum Research Center.
The Chicago Seed. Volume 4, No. 7. Special Archives, Chicago History Museum Research Center.
The Chicago Seed. Volume 4, No. 12. Special Archives, Chicago History Museum Research Center.
The Chicago Seed. Volume 4, No. 13. Special Archives, Chicago History Museum Research Center.