Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York

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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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