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
Ephemeral New York
Flaming Pablum: Vanishing Downtown
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.
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.
Ephemeral 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.
Flaming 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.
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.
Is there going to be a video of this talk available anywhere online?
To protect the anonymity of some of the bloggers, we didn’t video this session. But we do have a sound recording we may be able to transcribe and post, at least in part. Stay tuned. And thanks for your interest!