September 2009

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As I mentioned in a prior post, several local blogs helped us arrive at “Lost New York” as our conference theme, and so it seemed natural to assemble a panel of bloggers to talk about the relationship between writing, new media, and attempts to stave off the rapid transformation of traditional neighborhoods. Some of the folks we invited aren’t able to be on the panel for one reason or another. Two of my favorite anti-gentrification bloggers, Jeremiah Moss (from Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York) and EV Grieve, agreed to a conversation about the nature of their projects and the NYC blogosphere in
general.

BW: Since you both blog under pseudonyms, I wonder: How did you come up with the
names?

JM: As I wrote in a blog post a while back, “Jeremiah” began as a character in a novel I wrote prior to the blog. I’ve never published a novel and this one has not yet been seen by any editors — I am still working it through. In that writing, I enjoyed having an outlet for my most curmudgeonly self, for the anger and powerlessness I experienced while watching the city I loved disappear. Writing is a kind of action, as opposed to passivity, and moving from the novel to the blog enabled me to stay in action about these issues — much more than I expected.

BW: Do you still think of Jeremiah as a character you perform?

JM: I didn’t expect many people to read the blog, and I didn’t think I’d ever be communicating with readers. As that has happened, more and more, the line between me and Jeremiah has blurred even further. Simply put, the voice I use in the blog is me but not all of me. It is, however, an essential part of me — sort of like a sharpened, clarified, angry, righteous part of me, undiluted by my natural tendency to see multiple sides of an issue. As Jeremiah, I can be staunch.

BW: When I read that post about Jeremiah’s origins as a fictional character it really took me aback. It seemed both dangerous and liberating, given that I’ve only ever written online under my own name, though that can be both dangerous and liberating too. It also pushed me to think about blogging in literary terms — as both literary writing and as performance — in ways I hadn’t quite before. Grieve, do you ever think of “EV Grieve” as akin to Jeremiah’s semi-fictional avatar?

EVG: The Grieve name is meant to be about mourning. (And not pronounced as “Gree-vey.”) Definitely Jeremiah’s influence there. Plus I spent $35,000 on focus-group testing for that….

BW: Has becoming Grieve been something akin to Jeremiah’s role-playing? Does being “Grieve” feel different in some ways from being the person you were before/are outside the blog?

EVG: At times. I’ve been out with friends, who don’t know about the site, and I see an amazing urban etiquette sign or something. And I try to think of some perfectly good explanation of why I’m taking a photo of a funny sign or store closing. I’m the same person as before, but it now just takes me longer to run an errand. I’ll meander more and scope every storefront, apartment entrance, etc. At times I’m worried folks might find my behavior a bit daft, that I’m casing the joint or something. And I’ve sort of lost my speedy NYC gait. Jeremiah, do you remember the commenter who thought we were the same person? As if we had the time and energy to do TWO blogs! In two fairly different tones!

JM: Yes, I do! We share a lot in common, but I wonder how people see us. I think I’m the grouchy one and Grieve is the more affable one. I don’t know. Writing the blog has enabled me to enjoy the city more today than I did in the years leading up to the blog. So the irony here is that, through the writing of this angry blog, I’ve ended up feeling less angry. I was seriously thinking about leaving New York a few years ago. Then I started the blog and it held me here.

BW: I think that less-angry side comes through in your eagerness not to be misunderstood, and your sense of fairness when you have readers (sometimes even trolls) who take you to task on some point. I also think I’ve noticed over time a tendency to celebrate things you like — a trumpet-playing bus driver, for instance — and not just to focus on the death and destruction of the New York you loved when you moved here. Grieve, where would you fall on the mourning/celebrating spectrum? Like you said, the name implies mourning … but you were originally mourning the closing of a bar that ended up not closing after all, right?

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EVG: Yeah. When the news came down in December 2007 that Sophie’s and Mona’s were for sale, I was naturally very upset. While I wasn’t a hardcore regular there, Sophie’s, in particular, was always very close to me. (I think we all have some sort of fond Sophie’s memories….) Meanwhile, I was already a regular reader of The Villager and Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, as well as Bob Arihood’s Neither More Nor Less and Lost City. I was growing increasingly tired of the onslaught of the condofication, bankbranchification, duanereadification and whatnot of NYC, in particular of the East Village. These things all inspired me to do something.

So on a drunken, lonely night (always a good combination for doing something stupid,
like starting a blog! Plus, actually, it was the middle of the afternoon!) I signed up for a Blogger account to create a tribute site for Sophie’s. It wasn’t supposed to be about me. At first, I just collected different news items on the possible sale. Then I thought it could evolve into this project we could all be part of…. making little films about the people, etc., who frequent the bar. Post photos. Chronicle the possible end of days. It would be a document capturing a special time and place.

Before I ever really figured what to do with the site or told anyone about it, it looked as if the bars were staying in the family. So I retired the site on that positive note.

BW: What made you change your mind and come back?

EVG: Well, Jeremiah encouraged me to continue, to turn my attention to other things in the neighborhood. So I did. Didn’t do much at first. I’d get about six hits a day on the site. Was just having a little fun. But I was following this premise for the site: Appreciating what’s here while it’s still here. Remembering what’s no longer here. Wishing some things weren’t here that are here. Doing this awakened the reporter that was in me…. and the site has evolved to be a little more newsy — and hopefully provide a slice of life about a
special neighborhood….

BW: So you slide back and forth between celebrating what you love and
mourning the things that shouldn’t have passed. Oh, and expressing disdain for
guys in pink shirts
.

EVG: Well, I don’t mind pink shirts as much as the behavior of the person wearing it
out and about. Anyway, like Jeremiah, doing this site has rekindled my love affair with the neighborhood — and the city. FroYo and popped collars or not. To be honest, I hate having to leave for a long weekend or holiday.

JM: It’s true that I encouraged him. And now look! He grabs up all the East Village news before I can get to it. Seriously, though, Grieve has an amazing ability to be everywhere in the East Village at once, to pick out minute details and spin them into something quietly meaningful. We have a very friendly rivalry when it comes to neighborhood business. Sometimes, I have to call dibs, because I move much more slowly than he does. We encourage each other. Blogging is this weird, lonely “vocation,” something of an obsession, that I think appeals to introverts who yet want to be known, but not too known. So it’s been great having Grieve and other bloggers to connect with through the process.

BW: The literary historian in me wants to ask if blogging is perhaps the next site
of the formation of literary community, one of my long-standing interests in NYC literary history.

EVG: The relationship that formed between me and Jeremiah is one of my favorite things that has come from doing the site…. which makes wanting to crush him that much more difficult! Ha! I wonder if people might be interested in knowing how often we actually do talk via e-mail…. or run ideas by each other…. and, on occasion, read each other’s posts if we’re unsure how it’s working. I also look forward to what he’s going to have on any given day. I truly think he’s one of the best essayists around….

JM: An anonymous commenter on another blog, Jill’s “Blah Blog Blah,” recently referred to the “East Village Blog Mafia.” It was derisive, but fascinating–that someone’s out there imagining that these bloggers have any kind of real power, a bunch of middle-aged people sitting around critiquing the uncontrollable. But there is some kind of community here, in this NYC blogosphere, though I know virtual communities and relationships are much maligned these days. I have mixed feelings about them. Are they any less real than in-the-flesh relationships? When I first came to New York, I sought a literary community. I couldn’t find it. The blogosphere may be the closest I’ve come to
it.

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BW: As far as content goes, as different as your blogs are I see both of you working
in a time-honored tradition of lamenting the loss of an older and more authentic New York. It’s a pattern of nostalgia that seems especially bound up with the bohemian tradition in New York, from the 1910s forward. That lamentation seems to be part of the bohemian experience itself: either it was over just before you arrived, or just before the next guy did. Is there something quantifiably different in that lament since, say, 2001? Or does pointing to this long-standing pattern distract us from the very real changes that deserve to be critiqued?

JM: The most dramatic change to me in recent years is the people. I sometimes get flack for critiquing people as a group, but super-gentrification, Starbucksification, etc. — none of it happens without people. Many of the people who come to the city and specifically to the East Village today seem different than the ones who came 15 or 20 years ago. Their values are different. Their behavior is different. Their attitude toward the world around them is different. When I think about gentrification and my own role in it, I parse it this way: do you come to a neighborhood because you like the way it is, because you like not just the cute cafes, but also the down-at-the-heels bookshops and delis, and the old people on their stoops, the corner psychotics, and even the stink of the garbage at high summer? Or do you come to a neighborhood with the wish and the intention to change it? Do you see a “project” that needs work?

BW: I hear you. I’ve just been through exactly this problem with my kids’ middle
school on the other side of Chinatown, down by the river. (I refuse to use the label “Two Bridges.”) We came to the school four or five years ago when it was just on the upswing: charismatic principal and staff, a well-rounded set of course offerings, grant money starting to come in for athletics and extra-curriculars like music and a robotics club and Saturday fashion and art classes. And it had real diversity among its students. The school was predominantly Asian and Latino — something like 2% white kids. It didn’t stay that way for long. Now it’s been thoroughly infiltrated by Tribeca and the Village. A couple years ago we were asked to go to our old elementary school’s “middle school info night” to represent our new school. When we were there, it was clear the middle school was already starting to get a lot of buzz. People whose kids weren’t even admitted yet were talking about fundraising and running for PA offices. Pinko intellectual that I am, I said something like, “Well it’s important to realize that we’re entering a delicate ecosystem: there are already some culture clashes and neighborhood histories that make the parents’ association both a challenge and a real opportunity for cosmopolitan learning — parents and kids alike. We’re not coming in here to colonize the place, after all.” And one Tribeca mother looked me square in the face and said: “That’s exactly what we’re doing!” And I’m not kidding, I almost got into a shouting match with her at a parent meeting in the principal’s office two years later, when I couldn’t listen to another moment of her trying to bully and belittle the principal, who was trying to end de facto segregation in the school by slightly altering an honors program that had become skewed mostly toward the new arrivals. I’d guess white kids are up to 30% or so at the school, many of them from wealthy families, and their parents seem very entitled — wanting the city and the school to conform to them and not vice versa. They bring energy and money, but in some ways at the expense of the dignity of the people who were there first.

JM: I think a lot of people now have come to the Lower East Side, the East Village, and other neighborhoods in the city with that attitude. They see “potential.” They see plans for renovation and “renewal.” And there is so much hatred and fear in that — disgust for what and who is already there.

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BW: At the same time, how to stop the wave? We were part of the vanguard of gentrification, after all. Such conversations always make me wonder: do you think 150 years from now a
committee will be formed to save Blue from destruction? (“Save Blue! It was the most unique of all the sore thumbs that invaded the neighborhood in the early 21st century!”) Or are things cyclical? Will it be filled with squatters?

JM: The thought of Blue standing for 150 years is too much to fathom.

EVG: Well, I do believe that there will be people like us 150 years from now lamenting the loss of Blue (“The one-time home of Justin Long!”) and getting excited about the discovery of a hidden 16 Handles ad…. there will always be people who love the city and appreciate its history. I have a friend who has lived here since, well, forever, and he’ll say things like, “Oh, the Bowery hasn’t been the same since prohibition ended!” Not a real sentimentalist, but I understand the point….

JM: Grieve once forwarded me a blog post from a young woman who recently moved to the LES and was now moving out again. She actually said she would not miss the “disgusting stink” of the pickles emanating from Katz’s Deli. To me, if you don’t like the smell of Katz’s pickles, then don’t come live here. Or live here with the intention to learn to love that smell. Or something. Basically, it boils down to a lot of people moved to NYC after 9/11 who seem to hate urban life and everything about it. It baffles my mind to wonder why they came in the first place.

BW: I do think blogs have been crucial in supporting efforts to preserve a traditional sense of neighborhoods. Do you guys have a favorite NYC blog or two you think deserves wider exposure than they’ve received?

EVG: Even though Bob Arihood has been featured in the Times, I think he deserves
more attention. I love what he does… and his photography needs to be in an exhibit somewhere. I also really like Slum Goddess. She’s funny and opinionated. She knows a lot of people. Her blog really exemplifies what a blog is supposed to be — a little bit of everything. Hunter-Gatherer does this very well too — you feel as if you really know the person and his or her interests.

JM: I second all of those choices. And one less-known blog I enjoy is It Was Her New York, by C.O. Moed. It doesn’t get much attention because it’s not about what new cafe opened up on Ave A or how tenement residents are fighting back against noisy luxe hotels. But it’s written by a native Lower East Sider and it’s very intimate.

BW: Thanks, both of you, for taking the time for this conversation! I look forward
to hearing from more bloggers on these questions at our panel Saturday — or here, in comments.

Photo credits: 1, 3: Jeremiah; 2: Grieve; 4: Bowery Boogie

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elizabeth.gifCambridge Companion contributor Elizabeth L. Bradley will be appearing at the Lost New York conference on Friday, but you can catch her tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. at the New York Public Library in conversation with author Philip Lopate. They’ll be talking about Betsy’s book Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York.

Betsy is the deputy directory of the NYPL’s Cullman Center, and Lopate is a former Cullman Center Fellow, whose most recent books include Notes on Sontag and Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan.

Tickets to the event are FREE. Click here to reserve yours.
(NOTE: be sure to enter the number of tickets to activate the Smarttix system.)

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For the full Lost New York conference program, click here.

Saturday, 3 October (13-19 University Place, room 102)

2:00 PM – 3:30 PM: BLOGGING THE APOCALYPSE: NEW MEDIA, NEW GENRES, AND THE LITERATURE OF A LOST CITY

Sukhdev Sandhu (New York University), moderator

Panelists:

Lost City
Ephemeral New York
Flaming Pablum: Vanishing Downtown
Bowery Boogie

When Cyrus and I were narrowing the theme for the conference this coming weekend, our imaginations were led along the lines suggested by diverse a group of blogs that dealt with neighborhood scenes, New York history, and, more often than not, the link between the two. Some of them were more straightforwardly historical: our long-time favorite The Bowery Boys, for instance, or Kevin Walsh’s Forgotten NY. Others leaned toward the goings-on of particular neighborhoods or boroughs: Bushwick BK, Uptown Flavor, Bronx Bohemian, or Washington Square Park Blog. Some limit themselves by activity or mode of transport rather than a particular neighborhood landscape: Second Avenue Sagas, for instance, or Walking Off the Big Apple.

In the case of many — though not all — New York blogs, we find a new kind of urban literature emerging, much of it focused on nostalgia for a lost city and a desire to create and preserve cultural memory. Around other sites, we see the emergence of literary community as well. “Literature” here is broadly conceived: we take it to include a range of artistic productions, considering the electronic medium for blogging is as distinctly visual as it is, often but not always, verbal. So hybrid art forms emerge as well, such as the many photo blogs New Yorkers have established. (For a representative favorite, see Greenwich Village Daily Photo.)

With some difficulty narrowing things down we made an initial round of invitations to bloggers to participate in the conference on a panel devoted to this emergent form of New York writing. The four panelists we’ve ultimately lined up suggest a well-rounded quartet of types.

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Lost City, the name of which resonates clearly with our conference theme, is one of the granddaddies of New York anti-gentrification blogging (est. 2006). Manhattan User’s Guide, which lists it as a favorite New York website, describes it this way: “It’s the vestiges of Old NY v. the real estate market. Guess who wins?” The narrative voice for Lost City is one Brooks of Sheffield, a food/restaurant critic, neighborhood history buff, and parent based in Brooklyn but ranging far and wide throughout the city. He seems to know every old bar and comfy diner and has his eye on the same properties developers do — though with a preservationist agenda. He makes no bones about his disdain for the reigning mayor and his plans for a third term. Earlier this year the blog Who Walk in Brooklyn ran a terrific interview with him. If the jeremiad, as the literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch long ago argued, is a persistently powerful form of expression in American writing, Lost City Brooks is one of a growing number of city bloggers carrying that torch.

meonslide.jpgEphemeral New York, our second panelist, has a distinctive, straightforward methodology for her site: she simply takes an old photo, a postcard, a faded ad on the side of an old building, a scrap of newsprint, and from that bit of ephemera extracts a bit of information about the time and place that produced it, perhaps something about the people who were involved as well. The posts are short; the stories stick. She describes her own project as “chronicl[ing] a constantly reinvented city through photos, newspaper
archives, and other scraps and artifacts that have been edged into New
York’s collective remainder bin,” and describes herself as someone “from the West Village who recalls stepping over winos to enter the
Grand Union on Bleecker Street, a happily chaotic class packed with 35
other first graders at PS 41, and that Mays, not Whole Foods, was once
the flagship shopping destination of Union Square.” Other blogs out there follow a similar formula, at least part of the time, but ENY has perfected it — each daily dose is equal parts surprising and intellectually rewarding.

WTC.jpgFlaming Pablum comes closer to the genre of the personal blog — a life chronicle — than any of the others on our panel. But several things separate “Alex in NYC” from the legions of other livejournalists out there: his deep attachment to multiple neighborhoods (the Upper East Side of his childhood; the upper Greenwich Village where he now lives with is family), which allows him historical perspective on a changing city; his training as a journalist; and especially his eye as a photographer. “My Vanishing Downtown” was the first section of Flaming Pablum I stumbled upon: in one stunning photo after another it chronicles building after building now lost to developers’ bulldozers (or other disasters). He recoils instinctively from the thought of John Varvatos hawking high-fashion rock nostalgia on the Bowery in the old CBGB space. He is suspicious of the new bike lanes (though I think he’ll relent when his kids start riding on their own). He carries his camera when he walks his kids to school and comes home with whole photo essays ready to upload. In addition to blogging contemporary life and chronicling parts of old New York now gone, Alex has been a witness to the city’s music scene (and record stores) for decades, and his passion for rock and roll of the 1980s nearly matches his passion for the city. In many posts — and, recently, in the group-blog The New York Nobody Sings — those twin loves converge. Alex in NYC has been writing Flaming Pablum since summer 2005. Check out his other hits and misses here.

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Bowery Boogie does exactly what a neighborhood blog should: it chronicles openings and closings, street fairs, changing signage. It patrols mainstream web and print news sites for stories about the neighborhood. It help makes up a web of likeminded blogs in adjacent neighborhoods. No detail is too mundane, and as a result we find persistent aspects of the old city still rearing their heads from time to time:  Pirated electricity on the Bowery fueling an old-school boom box! Who’s filming what where? (Useful info when you want to avoid a crowd — or alert your teenagers to Gossip Girl’s whereabouts.) Other bloggers frequently throw out the term “intrepid” to describe BB: he or his operatives seem to be everywhere at all times, day and night. As a result he’s scooped the mainstream media more than once, most memorably with the fire that destroyed the Hong Kong Supermarket last spring. Searchable street by street, BB helps create the feeling that life on the other side of Bowery hasn’t been completely lost to gentrification, even if the threat is ever-present.

What do these writers have in common, and what windows do their sites offer onto New Yorks lost and found? In what ways is blogging a twenty-first-century New York literary scene? Our moderator Sukhdev Sandhu, no stranger to electronic explorations of urban environments, will help provoke answers to these and other questions.  

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This is a bit of a precursor to the next annotated conference program post, which I’ll put up this afternoon. Before I introduce the bloggers we’ve asked to talk on Saturday afternoon about the relationship between blogging, literary culture, and cultural memory, I wanted to offer a sort of umbrella view of the NYC blogosphere, at least from where I sit in downtown Manhattan.

Over the last year or so, on the links page of my personal website, I’ve gradually accumulated a hefty set of links to NYC-oriented blogs. I don’t claim to be comprehensive: I generally make a quick pass through a site I’ve stumbled across and give it a quick thumbs up or down based on a few set criteria. Is it oriented toward a specific neighborhood or borough or the city in general — or even toward a particular aspect of the city — as much as it is toward the idiosyncratic details of the blogger’s day? (I don’t have the time or space for every New Yorker’s livejournal, in other words.) Is the blog fairly active? (If the most recent entry is already a month old I won’t include it.) And does its take on the city comport with the roughest outlines of my own? Now, that last question may sound a little harsh, and when you see the list below I think you’ll find that my umbrella is pretty broad. But I am aware of at least a few blogs geographically and/or spiritually rooted in certain neighborhoods I don’t really care for, or focusing on items such as cupcakes or high fashion that really don’t float my boat, and I’ve simply chosen not to include them. As Cyrus repeatedly reminds me, attempts at cosmopolitanism aren’t the same thing as an uncritical cultural relativism. Maybe there’s a place for pink blogs about shoes written by Carrie Bradshaw wannabes on the Upper East Side, but that place isn’t my own personal links page.

Still, I love the fact that this set of links constantly expands in size and in the breadth of material it takes in, from Central Park birding photos to love-hate relationships with The New Yorker. As Cyrus and I have tried to map out what our own single-volume cultural history of New York will look like, we’ve confronted head-on the difficulty of reining in so much culture. What’s not going on here, I ask you? And then there’s the five borough problem: I’ve tried to maintain — and to publicize, though my occasional Friday links posts — a handle on blogging that’s rooted uptown or in outer-boroughs, though my daily reads tend to gravitate toward neighborhoods and interests adjacent to my own. Is that provincial?

Enough preamble. What I really want to put out there is the list. So take a look. Tell us if there’s something here you particularly like. Or hate. Or if you have a blog we should note or know of one you wish had been included. I’d like to compete with City Room for the most comprehensive city blogroll. Well, and still maintain my standards of course. If you’d prefer to see the links in a single column, click here and scroll down until you’ve passed the NYC Cultural History Resources.

NYC blogs

AIANY Blog Central
Animal New York

ArtCal
ArtSlant
Art Fag City
Be in Brooklyn
Bed-Stuy Banana
Bed-Stuy Blog
Bitch Cakes
Bitch Cakes Commutes
Blah Blog Blah
Bloggy
Bowery Boogie
The Bowery Boys
Brokelyn
Bronx Bohemian
Brooklynometry
Brooklyn by Bike
Brooklyn Diners
Brooklyn Parrots
Brownstoner
Burn Some Dust (Blog)
BushwickBK
The City Birder
City Room (NYTimes)
City Snapshots
Civic Center Residents Coalition
Colonnade Row
Curbed
East Village History Project Blog
East Village Idiot
East Village Podcasts
Eating in Translation
Emdashes
Ephemeral New York
EV Grieve
Fading Ad Blog
Fecal Face NYC
Flaming Pablum
Forgotten New York
Found in Brooklyn
Free NYC
Fucked in Park Slope
The Girl Who Ate Everything
Gotham Lost and Found
Gothamist
Gowanus Lounge
Greater New York
Greenpointers
Greenwich Village Daily Photo
Harlem Bespoke
Harlem Hybrid
A History of New York
Historic Districts Council Newsstand
Holla Back NYC
Hotel Chelsea Blog
Hunter-Gatherer
Idealist in NYC
I Hate The New Yorker
I Shot New York
I Spy NYC
Inside the Apple
Inwoodite
It Was Her New York
John Egan Harp
Lens
liQcity
Lower East Side History Project Blog
Kinetic Carnival
Knickerbocker Village
Lost City
MaNNaHaTTaMaMMa
The Masterpiece Next Door
The Met Everyday
Metroblogging NYC
Mommy Poppins
My NYC in Color
Neither More Nor Less
Newyorkette
NewYorkology
New York Daily Photo
The New York Nobody Sings
New York Portraits
New York Shitty
New York Yak
Not for Tourists
NY Art Beat
NYC Garden
NYC-grid
NYC The Blog
NYC Rhymology
Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn
Plain in the City
The Origin of Species
Out My Window NYC
Queens Crap
Roosevelt Island 360
Roosevelt Islander
Runnin’ Scared (VVoice)
Save the Lower East Side
Scouting New York
Second Avenue Sagas
Second Circuit Blog
Sense & the City
Shooting Brooklyn
Slum Goddess
Streetsblog
Street Level
Stupefaction
Subway Blogger
Tenement Museum Blog
Today in NYC History
An Unamplified Voice
Untapped New York
Uptown Flavor
Urban Hawks
Urbanite (AMNY)
Vanishing New York
Walking Is Transportation
Walking Off the Big Apple
Washington Square Park
We Heart New York
What about the Plastic Animals?
Who Walk in Brooklyn
Williamsburg Is Dead
Writermama
Young Manhattanite

As if putting together the Lost New York conference and Fales Library exhibition weren’t enough, late summer and early fall saw us working on the copy editing for the Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York. The press now has the copy-edited manuscript and an index; we’re awaiting the page proofs. The index was prepared using an XML-coded version of the manuscript, which we then annotated using Adobe Acrobat Professional. The index entries are keyed not to page numbers but rather to unique numbers with which we tagged words in the text. As a result, the index can be recreated for future digital versions of the book that have different pagination or no pagination at all!

Meanwhile, you can see an updated version of the publisher’s blurb sans the little grammatical error that was driving Bryan and me crazy. And our volume seems to have been listed in the back matter of The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Last Plays, which was published at the end of August.

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For the full Lost New York program click here.

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(photos via princeton.edu)

We’re quite excited to have Daphne Brooks of Princeton University speaking in the first of two keynote sessions on Saturday, Oct. 3. Her talk, “‘Blue Light ‘Til Dawn’: Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley’s Showtime at the Apollo,” will examine the career of the legendary stand-up comic, who performed in New York and elsewhere right up to her death in 1975.

Brooks teaches in Princeton’s English department and Center for African American Studies, but her work is difficult to pin down in disciplinary terms: she studies performance, popular music, race, and gender — most often in sites that involve most if not all of the above. As one reviewer of her work puts it, “Her approach is particularly interesting when she is examining the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and other categories of identity. In fact, the more complex the performance, the better Brooks’s reading.” In Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910, she takes on a range of performers and cultural situations — from the escaped slave Henry “Box” Brown to the racially ambiguous stage celebrity Adah Isaacs Menken to the dancer and actress Aida Overton Walker — as she examines the intersection of performance and race in a turbulent period. For Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, used Jeff Buckley’s Grace not only as an inroad to the East Village in the 80s and early 90s, but also as a window onto the long history of race and popular music in America. Her recent writing ranges from black women’s soul and R&B performance to corporeal comedy in the work of Mabley and Josephine Baker to the Brooklyn-based band TV on the Radio. She’s also a teacher and member of the board of directors at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls.

Here’s a clip from Moms Mabley’s album Live at the Apollo to whet your appetite for Brooks’s talk. I’m anxious to hear her reading of Mabley in general, but for my own purposes I find this clip an apt illustration of what I call the “counter-nostalgic” strain in some New York writing: a reminder that some aspects of the past are better off being left behind, or, as Moms points out, that the good old days weren’t always so good for everyone. At the same time, Mabley preserves those memories specifically to make that very political point. Enjoy: 

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We’ve been big fans of thirteen.org‘s documentary series The City Concealed since its inception. (If I’m not mistaken, we’ve featured every one of its episodes on this site, and I think I’m the one who suggested the old Fulton Ferry Hotel to them as a possible site to explore!) We’re excited, then, to see another series of documentary shorts from the same production team — this one focusing on New York people, its hidden workers, rather than on its hidden places.

The debut episode of the new series, New York on the Clock, profiles Gerry Menditto, who’s overseen operations on the Cyclone at Coney Island since 1975:

 

New York on the Clock: Coney Island Cyclone Operator from Thirteen.org on Vimeo.

The producers had this to say during a Q&A on the new series:

Q. What challenges did you face in filming the premiere episode in Coney Island?

Daniel Ross: The most challenging part of filming at the
Cyclone is deciding what not to film. We had four 32GB memory cards,
which can hold about 2 hours of HD video. We spent an hour interviewing
Jerry, and then moved on to shooting B roll. There’s just an endless
amount of visually exciting subjects to shoot in and around Coney
Island. We kept having to remind ourselves of what shots took priority
because it’s so easy to get excited and distracted by all the weird
sights.

We can only hope some of the weirdness remains once developers are through with it.

A special shout out to the episode’s associate producer, Susannah Herbert, one of our former students from Writing New York!

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lost_new_york_cover.jpgFor the full program of the Lost New York conference to be held 2-3 Oct. at NYU, click here.
 
On Friday, 2 October, from 5:30 to 6:30, following our opening plenary panel on New Netherland and its cultural legacies, the Fales Library and Special Collections (housed on the 3rd floor of Bobst Library) will host a reception to celebrate the opening of Lost New York, 1609-2009, an exhibit curated by a group of our doctoral students to accompany the conference. (The exhibit will remain open through 6 November.) The cases highlight Fales’ holdings related to the cultural history of New York, from the recently acquired Maass collection, which contains documents related to New Amsterdam’s settlement, through periodicals, novels, and theater of the nineteenth and twentieth century, to the Downtown Collection, which focuses on the history of literature, art, and music in the Downtown scene from the 1970s and 1980s.

We’re especially pleased also to celebrate the release of a spectacularly designed catalog to accompany the exhibit. The volume contains color-illustrated essays by each of the curators. Copies will be available gratis throughout the conference. Kudos for the volume’s smashing appearance go to NYU’s Advertising and Publications crew, which has won national design awards for similar catalogs in the past: the creative team includes Dirk Rowntree, J. Geddis, Rose-Anna Stanton, and Betsey Mickel. The cover, above, should give you an idea of what to expect.

Here’s the lowdown on the volume’s contents. Durning the opening session on Saturday morning (9:15 – 10:45, 13-19 University Place, room 102), the authors will discuss the process and problems of curating their various incarnations of “Lost New York.”

1. John Easterbook, “‘we can use those folks and turn them into Hollanders’: Cosmopolitan Citizenship and Adriaen van der Donck’s Description of New Netherland

John Pic 1.jpgEasterbrook explores an important text recently published in a reliable scholarly edition. Van der Donck composed the Description after the outbreak of the first Anglo-Dutch War in 1650, which had dashed his hopes of leading a reform of the government of New Amsterdam. What emerges in the Description, according to Easterbrook, “is an invocation of the colony as it existed in Van der Donck’s mind”–a city of imagination, if you will, already rooted in nostalgia for a lost past–“encompassing the vast knowledge and experience accumulated since his first arrival in New Netherland in 1641.” Easterbrook’s analysis supports the contention of historians such as Thomas Bender, Kenneth Jackson, and Russell Shorto that from its Dutch colonial origins, New York has offered a cosmopolitan alternative to the xenophobia that was prevalent in other colonies and that has come to play such a large role in the American national imaginary.

Easterbrook is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English
at New York University, where he studies the literatures of the
colonial Americas. His dissertation will explore theories of
transnationalism and the production of citizenship in colonial travel
narratives.

2. Kristen Doyle Highland, “Gotham: The Other New York”

Highland NYC profile.jpgHighland traces the evolution of the name Gotham back to its appearance in a collection of medieval folk tales published in 1526. Highland shows how Irving appropriated a type that signified foolishness and used it to poke fun at New Yorkers in his satirical collection Salmagundi (coauthored during 1807-1808 with his brother William and their friend James Kirke Paulding). Irving’s literary reinvention of the city as Gotham relied on the displacement of one New York by another. “Vanished,” writes Highland, “is a New York founded on earnestness, hard work, and simple pleasures, replaced by an ‘other’ New York, a Gotham of grasping materialism. Not the silly fools of old, this new generation of Gothamites allows itself to be fooled by pretension and social artifice.” Highland recovers the irony behind the name “Gotham,” an irony generally lost to the cultural memory of New Yorkers and even disavowed by some of the city’s most eminent current historians.

Highland is a doctoral student in the English Department at New York University, specializing in Early American and antebellum literature. Her research interests include the print culture of early national America, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular culture, and the Atlantic world.

3. Jane Greenway Carr, “Diving in the ‘Dumps’: Myth and Performance in the Ultimate American City”

jane.jpgCarr investigates three little-known stage pieces by writers who were drawn to Greenwich Village in the early twentieth century: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dawn Powell, and E. E. Cummings. Carr shows how playwriting provokes these authors to explore New York mythologies that express nostalgia while trying to avoid its pitfalls. Millay’s libretto for Deems Taylor’s opera The King’s Henchmen draws on Anglo-Saxon culture but serves as a way of reimagining New York as a city of fashions and dreams. Powell’s play Walking Down Broadway reconceives the familiar motif of the Broadway promenade as a way of charting the city’s shifting physical and moral geographies. E. E. Cummings’s ballet scenario Tom becomes not only a vehicle for an exploration of the dynamics of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin but also a way of memorializing a moment in the city’s theatre history in which “Tom shows” and dramatic adaptations of Stowe’s novel were all the rage. Considering these texts together allows Carr to evoke subtleties in the texture of the heyday of Village Bohemia that are often lost in accounts that focus on works that are more canonical and more overtly centered in New York.

Carr is a doctoral student in the Department of English
at New York University, where she co-organizes the Colloquium in
American Literature and Culture. She is currently interning at the
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Her dissertation will
examine relationships between reading and occasions of citizenship.

4. John Melillo, “Secret Locations in the Lower East Side: Downtown Poetics 1960-1980”

Jodienda (John).jpgWhere Millay, Powell, and Cummings sought to evoke lost moments, the downtown artists Melillo writes about — from Ed Sanders to Richard Hell — make use of lost or forgotten spaces to create fugitive aesthetic productions in a variety of forms, from mimeographed little magazines to performances that blended music and poetry. Nonetheless, these downtown artists share with the writers whom Carr discusses a profound understanding of the power of performance. As Melillo puts it, for downtown artists, poets, and performers, “making art had a theatrical, incantatory, and celebratory element,” one that encouraged the formation of new communities around the work of local artists. Changes in the city’s demographics and real estate markets, combined with changes in media and technology, have rendered such communities yet another part of lost New York, but, as Melillo suggests, even “lost” they continue to affect the city’s cultural present.
 

Melillo is a PhD candidate in British and American Literature at New York University. His dissertation, “Outside In: The Sound of Noise from Dada to Punk,” examines the influence of noise on poetics and poetry through the twentieth century. John writes music criticism in a variety of online publications and plays in the NYC-based band Jodienda.

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Public historian

JillLepore.jpgThe NEH’s magazine, Humanities, has a terrific interview this month with one of my favorite historians — and favorite people — Jill Lepore. A Harvard prof (and chair of the school’s History and Literature program) and award-winning author, Lepore also, along with our friend Caleb Crain, has become a key writer on American history and culture for the New Yorker. And she’s an active parent of small children. And she’s only a few years on the other side of 40. As Ari over at Edge of the American West asked, “Jealous?”

The whole interview is worth reading, but especially relevant to this site is the bit about her book New York Burning, a gripping read about the city’s purported slave revolt of 1741:

HUMANITIES: In New York Burning, you wrote about … the fires that swept through Manhattan in 1741.

LEPORE: … Another long-forgotten
episode in early American history. It’s a little like Salem witchcraft,
which everyone knows about, the 1692 witchcraft trials in which twenty
people died, except that what happened in New York was a lot worse.
Thirteen black men were burned at the stake; seventeen more were
hanged. No one was burned at the stake in Salem. That’s just a figment
of our collective imagination. What happened in New York was also,
historically, far more significant. It played a role in how slavery
evolved in the North. And it played a role, I think, in how American
politics evolved and how Americans came to tolerate partisanship and
the two-party system.

I had wanted to write about this episode for my dissertation but
decided against it because, while the prosecutors left behind a rich
documentary trail (nearly two hundred black men were arrested and
interrogated and many of them were brought to trial), the confessions
aren’t admissible as historical evidence, since they were confessing to
avoid being burned to death and, under those circumstances, who
wouldn’t lie? I couldn’t quite figure out how to deal with that
evidentiary problem.

Then, in 1991, workers excavating the foundation for a new federal
office building in Manhattan came across the African burial ground from
the colonial period. And I thought, ‘Oh, this will be incredibly loud,
noisy, great historical evidence.’ Except it wasn’t. The burials and
the remains were highly controversial, and the reports were not
altogether forthcoming about what scholars ought to conclude from the
analysis of those remains. But I wrote the book anyway.

HUMANITIES: In The Name of War
[her first book, about “King Philip’s War”] you showed how New Englanders described their humiliation and their
suffering in language identical to how they described the Indians. In
this book you showed pre-Revolutionary Americans describing the
restraints on their political liberties in terms so drastic that they
actually better describe the bondage in which they keep African slaves
and the slaves then referred to as Spanish Negroes. There seems to be
this kind of very careful, subtle argument about how we take our
enemy’s attributes and apply them to ourselves when we think we’re in a
really bad place.

LEPORE: I’m interested in our
capacity to justify acts of tremendous, unspeakable cruelty. It’s not
obvious, at least not to me. And the way I have always tried to puzzle
it out is by thinking mainly about language. What, literally, is the
vocabulary of justification?

In eighteenth-century New York, a lot of people want to depose the
governor. He is a tyrant. What they write about him, what they write
about their right to get rid of him, is, to me, as a citizen, quite
moving and inspiring. And yet those same people deploy that very same
rhetoric to justify enslaving Africans. How do they manage that? How,
honestly, is that possible? I don’t know that we have ever really
reckoned with that, with what Edmund Morgan called the “American
paradox,” that our democracy rests, at some level, on the idea of
enslavement. It doesn’t anymore. But that history matters. And I think
we’d be stronger for seeing it more clearly.


HUMANITIES:
You also make the argument that slavery is
somehow crucial to understanding the development of political parties
in America. How does slavery help illuminate the development of
political parties?

LEPORE: I tried to make that argument, but I’m not sure it worked. The day that New York Burning
was published, Hurricane Katrina touched down in New Orleans. I had a
new baby, and I was home with him, and found myself glued to the
television. Talking heads would come on–news anchors, commentators–and
say, while looking at the footage of nobody but black people on the
roofs of those houses, as if shocked, as if this had never occurred to
them, ‘Oh, my God. Race still exists in this country. There still is
racism. Oh, my God. New Orleans is segregated!’

I’m trying to convince people that it matters that black men were
burned at the stake in New York City in 1741, and people are surprised
that black people are marooned on the roofs of New Orleans in 2005?
Here I am, trying to make an argument about eighteenth-century
politics, attempting to illustrate, with all manner of exhaustive
archival research–charts about the census and the tax lists–and close
readings of Blackstone’s Commentaries
and Restoration drama, trying to argue that the constant, ever-present
threat of black conspiracy made white political pluralism possible.
Because compared to that, having a two-party system was a piece of
cake. And I had to go give some goofy book talks, and I’m thinking, at
these bookstores, Sheesh, there’s just this huge gap between what I’m
trying to say and what people kind of need to know or where we can
enter the conversation together, and that’s my fault, all mine. What am
I doing here in 1741? At the level of imagining our national past and
wrestling with the consequences of slavery, the wages of slavery, well,
that didn’t even begin to happen until the last election where there
was a genuine national conversation about what slavery has done to
American politics.


HUMANITIES:
To go back to the eighteenth century for just
a second: So the threat or the partly imagined threat of a slave
rebellion, it encouraged people to find a more friendly system of
opposition, which was the beginnings of the party system?

LEPORE: History doesn’t always
work that way, neatly. And when it seems like it works that way,
usually someone is being facile. But here’s what I argued: In New York
in the 1730s there was an extraordinary and unprecedented amount of
political opposition, including the founding of an opposition political
party. In 1735, a printer named John Peter Zenger was tried for
sedition, for publishing a newspaper that opposed the policies of the
royally appointed governor. Zenger’s trial is one of the most thrilling
episodes in early American political history, and it nearly tears the
colony apart.

Six years later, an alleged slave conspiracy brings together these
two political parties, who, I argue, heal the political divisions
between them by burning black men at the stake. And, I think, like
decapitating Philip and putting his head on a pike, this is a
constitutive moment for a pluralistic politics. It’s as if those
executions say, ‘You and I, we can disagree. We can disagree–a
lot–because we are not beyond the limits of our own politics, we are
not Indians on the warpath, we are not black men talking about burning
the city down.’ It’s a dark story, I don’t like that story, I sometimes
wish the past were prettier, but it’s how I read the evidence.

More on the African Burial Ground here.

Previously.

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LOST NEW YORK

cinemanolita.jpg

Just returned my last rental to Cinema Nolita — Darjeeling Limited, which I watched with my daughters the other night, and returned on time! The store kept renting as long as they possibly could, signing up new members, too. The fundraisers and almost-midnight movies brought in enough to cover most of the back rent, but the space will be turned over to a new tenant shortly. Probably a luxury boutique — exactly what we need in the middle of a recession! Nothing creates neighborhood community like a good luxury boutique!

Snarkiness aside, there’s some good news: they didn’t have to sell off the collection. A majority of the staff was there tonight, packing boxes. (The scene almost made me weepy!) They were quick to offer reassurances that the business would continue in some form — rentals brought to your doorstep by bike messenger? I’ll look forward to seeing what comes next.

To Michael, Eleonore, Claire, Chris and all the rest, from this corner of Little Italy we say, “Thanks!”

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