Thursday, July 19, 2018

Summerhill & The Battle for the Soul of Brooklyn

Gentrification is a big topic these days, in NYC and elsewhere, but it's such a general term that it's hard to identify what it is exactly.

Rich people moving into previously poor neighborhoods -- who are they?

They're changing the "character" of the neighborhood -- how?

Much of this gentrification is academic -- so how about an example?

Here's one: Summerhill, a bar/restaurant that opened in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn and became a flashpoint -- even inspiring protests -- between black residents and the white owners. It got heated and nasty until ... it didn't.

The story of how Summerhill came to Brooklyn and was at first resisted, then accepted, was recently made a segment on the great public radio show This American Life. You can listen to that hear, and you can also read some of the coverage about the controversy and its aftermath.

This is a great example of how gentrification disrupts and then consolidates itself in NYC. You might take away from this example that resistance is futile -- or that maybe resistance isn't really the solution for the unending ramifications of gentrification. 

And you'll never think of bullet holes in quite the same way. 

Flatiron Steam Pipe Explosion!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Interview: Amy Sohn, NYC Columnist & Novelist

Back in the late 1990s, as the world was falling in love with the fictional Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, and their fictional friends’ dating adventures (in a mostly fictional NYC), a real columnist named Amy Sohn was writing about her real dating adventures in the real NYC.

First at the New York Press, then at the New York Post, then at New York magazine, Amy wrote with a blunt, hilarious honesty about the vicissitudes of not only sex and romance but also about the challenges of being a human being in a city that worships money, power, and vanity. I first discovered Amy in 1999, right after I’d returned to NYC from college, and her original New York Press column, “Female Trouble”, was an eye-opening look at the NYC single life that I was entering into. More than just entertaining and funny, her column was educational.

Amy’s work has evolved from those days, and she is now a successful novelist. Along the way, she’s also become a wife and mother. Amy was kind enough to share with Mr NYC some background about her life and work, as well as her thoughts and feelings about #MeToo and relationships and life in NYC today.

Tell us a little bit about your background and what made you want to become a writer?

When I was 19 I was a summer-camp counselor and my boyfriend at camp, the cook, turned me on to Bukowski, Fante, and Algren. I started writing autobiographical stories, mostly about dating and sex, in the vein of Buk, my hero, in a big unlined notebook. Around 1994, when I was a junior at Brown, I began performing the stories downtown at a performance space called AS 220, at open mics and variety shows. It was a vibrant scene filled with music and provocation. I felt I fit in really well there. I always wrote for the purpose of reading my stories aloud.

Your New York Press dating column "Female Trouble" from the late 1990s was shocking and groundbreaking. It was honest and raw, very personal and intimate, and I don't remember reading anything quite like it at the time. Then came along "Sex and the City", blogs, etc. and shocking became mainstream. What made you want to write this column back then and do you view "Female Trouble" as the precursor to a change in the culture?

I was a temp and actress (temptress) living with my parents right after graduating and my dad used to bring home this weird paper. I got into it and was taken by the first-person columns, especially Howard Altman and Jim Knipfel. The stories felt real and honest and they were painfully funny. I wanted to get published. I think my first actual published story was in Playgirl but that’s another story. I sent a piece to John Strausbaugh at New York Press and he sent it back with a note in the margin that said it might be right for SWANK or Penthouse. I had never heard of SWANK but I got the idea. I tried a different story, “The Blow-Up Boyfriend,” and sent that one to John. It was about my fantasy of having an inflatable boyfriend that I could deflate whenever he talked about his band too much. They bought that one, and one or two more, and a few weeks later they offered me a column. I wanted to call it Maidenhead, a terrible title. Sam Sifton, John, and Russ Smith convinced me to call it “Female Trouble.” Of course they were John Waters fans, Russ and John having come from the Baltimore city paper. (They later taught me what a "Baltimore round" is.)

I agree that the term “sex and the city” was very shocking at the time. Just the word “sex” was arresting. The nineties were very odd in the mainstreaming of sex. In my column I tried to be honest and self-deprecating. When I was grandiose it was done with a big wink. Behind my pathetic stories there was really a lot of rage. I didn’t understand why men my age were so cruel and disinterested in love and connection. But I picked very bad paramours. Thank God no one I was obsessed with in the 90s reciprocated. It would have ruined my life. I would be mother to a lot of elusive rocker boy babies and figuring out how to deal with my co-dependence. Did I really want to be a member of any club that would have me? Probably not.

“Female Trouble” had good timing. I think women my generation, dating in the recession, in the “reality bites” scene, were frustrated with these narcissistic guys. I can’t speak for why “Sex and the City” the column came along when it did. She was chronicling a different demographic but I think we were both struggling with a feeling of anger and powerlessness. Why did men control the stories? Why did men always get to pick? Why didn’t women get to pick?

You went from the New York Press in the 1990s to the New York Post and New York magazine in the early 2000s. What did you do at those jobs and what was it like working for those publications as the Internet was changing the journalism business?

I was at New York Press for 3 1/2 years, sometimes writing weekly, sometimes biweekly, and at one point also writing an advice column. I left for the New York Post, thinking it could be a chance to do more pop-cultural writing but it was a very bad fit. They wanted the sentences short because the typeface was big. I also made the mistake of posing in a nightie, lying on my stomach, feet kicked up behind me, with no shoes, and even though I have wide, flat feet I got fan letters from foot fetishists for years. I quit after about four months. I had also published my first novel, Run Catch Kiss by the time I left New York Press and wanted to devote time to writing a second novel.

At New York my column was first called “Sex Matters,” then “Naked City,” “Mating,” and “Breeding.” In it I interviewed New Yorkers about their sexual predilections. I learned not to judge people. I also learned that under the cover of anonymity people will tell you almost anything. Some of the people I interviewed are really famous now in their chosen fields - composers and stylists. They would talk to me about how there were no bottoms in New York or what it’s like to date two people at once. I enjoyed the chance not to write about myself but I also felt that the short length allotted to the column made it hard for me to dig deep with my subjects. The magazine was never quite sure where the sex fit in, I remember the column moved around, from the back near penis-enlargement and personal ads (when New York had its own personals) and later to the front when I was writing more about marriage and kids. I was at New York from 2001 to 2006.

You've published five novels (Run Catch Kiss, Motherland, My Old Man, Prospect Park West, and The Actress) about relationships, parenthood, and the challenges of life in NYC. Do all of these novels relate to your experiences that came with the stages of life in NYC, i.e. going from single woman to wife and mother?

Some of my books are less autobiographical than others. The Actress was mostly set in LA and I did a lot of research for it. I wanted to break away from social satire and try melodrama. It didn’t really work because the novel needed a murder and my editors and I did not agree about that. I also learned that modern novels about marriage and divorce are troubled and troubling because divorce is so widely accepted, even if upsetting and expensive.

What does feminism mean to you? Do you consider yourself a feminist and does your work relate to it in any way?

I have called myself a feminist since I was a teenager. I grew up in the progressive Jewish Reform movement and progressive values went hand in hand with religion. I attended a big pro-choice rally around 1992. I never thought “feminist" was a dirty word. Years later, in the 90s, I interviewed a celebrity who was uncomfortable when I asked if she was a feminist and I found it absolutely bizarre. That was another era, when the word itself was something women feared.

What do you think of #MeToo?

My feelings are incredibly complicated. It’s important that women are sharing their stories and bringing sexual harassment and rape into the national conversation. As a strong believer in due process, I'm concerned about the cases in which men have lost their jobs based on extremely limited evidence, sometimes just one story that has two sides. I worry that we are in a moment of sex panic. None of us know the ultimate outcome of the movement. I also think about women who need to be mentored by men to advance in their professions (because men still hold the vast majority of the power) -- and men who are now afraid to spend one-on-one time with them for fear of false accusations. As with so many things, women are the ones who pay the price for that. What do you hope to write about in the future? I’m now writing narrative non-fiction (historical) for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done but my book deals with women’s rights in the 19th century and I find the stories deeply gratifying. This was a time when marital rape and forced pregnancy and childbirth were the norm. It was just called “marriage."

How do you feel about how NYC has changed over the years? Do you ever get nostalgic for the old days?

Of course I do - I’m a native New Yorker! The money bums me out. The people bum me out. The phones on the subways. The phones everywhere. The corporate stores. But when I get depressed I walk up and down Church Avenue in Brooklyn. New York is still alive, you just have to know where to find it.

Finally, tell us something about Amy Sohn that we might not know.

I was a child actress and got my Actors Equity card at age 12.

Thanks Amy!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Cultah', cultah', cultah': Part Deux

Okay, we live in scary times but, when it comes to culture in NYC, it has never been a better time to be in the cultural capital of the world.

Whadda we got? 

Well, in NYC, the amount of culture is head spinning, we got SO MUCH STUFF, but here are a few choice things you might not know about: we got an exhibit about Rebel Women at the Museum of the City of New York, we got superheros saving Brooklyn, and we got so many great coffee shops that you could spend the entire summer doing nothing but going to them and drinking great coffee and eating tasty treats.

Best of all -- or should I saw BEST BEST BEST OF ALL -- a huge swath of NYC culture is now  available FOR FREE!!! If you have a public library card (issued by either NYPL, Queens Public or Brooklyn Public Libararies), you can now go up to 33 cultural institutions in this city FOR FREE! It includes some great places like the Frick, the Whitney, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Intrepid, the Transit Museum, the Noguchi, and so much more! This is an amazing gift to the people of this city.

And, of course, culture in NYC is given to us by people, including some people we might otherwise call amateurs (I consider this blog a gift of amateur culture). There was a guy named Les Lieber who just died but who hosted a weekly event called Jazz at Noon where musicians, amateur or professional (including Lieber, an amateur musician), could come and jam. Lieber hosted this event for 45 years and ended in 2011. More amazing, Lieber died at the amazing age of 106 so, as culture lovers, we should be thankful for his long life and the huge cultural gift he gave this city.

Yes, the times are troubling but, in NYC, our culture is thriving as never before. And, when a city and a nation's culture thrive, it should give us a degree of hope for the future.

P.S. You might be wondering why I entitled this post as "Part Deux" -- it's because I wrote a post originally entitled "Cultah', Cultah', Cultah" back in 2011 where I blogged about a weekly TV show called Sunday Arts about culture in NYC. Well, Sunday Arts is now NYC Arts and, sadly, the other show I mentioned, Vine Talk, is no longer on the air. 

Cultah' in NYC is forever changing but it's always great. 

Memo from NYC

Remember when we had a real president?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Dead or Alive. Or both?

NYC has "died" or "fallen" many times.

Jane Jacobs wrote about the "death" of NYC in the 1960s, Annie Hall declared that it was "a dying city" in the 1970s, and Robert Caro blamed NYC master builder/planner Robert Moses as contributing to its "fall" in The Power BrokerNYC keeps dying and falling and then revivifying and getting back up all the time.

Today, it seems to be doing both, depending on who you ask -- or, more importantly, read.

I turned your attention to two MASSIVE articles that examine this "dead or alive" debate. One is called The Death of a Once Great City and the other is New York City is alive and well.

Once interesting is that these two articles agree on a lot about the current malaise that afflicts NYC. Namely, the city is hostage to market forces, jacking up rents and the cost of living, and changing the face and character of the city for the worse i.e. rich and boring as opposed to working class and fun -- and that the state and city government needs to do more to stop this. But the "death" article seems a tad myopic since it seems to confuse Manhattan with NYC while the "alive" article rightly states that most of NYC is NOT Manhattan and is actually thriving. 

While I understand the feelings in the "death" article, I think the "alive" article is more correct: NYC is still a hot bed of excitement but its been moving out of Manhattan for a long, long time. The city has, in fact, been changing forever (another things both articles agree on) so declaring that the city is "dead or alive" is a pointless argument: it's changing, in some ways better, some ways worse, now and forever. And the government can and always should do more to help its citizens. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Mrs Maisel Goes to the Emmys

The fun NYC-centric Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel just scored a bunch of Emmy nominations -- and they were richly deserved. 

It's a great show, very funny, beautifully written and acted.

And, of course, I especially love it since it takes place in the neighborhood I grew up in.

Good luck! 

Perils of Food Tech

I just read this piece about how farmer markets that serve low-income neighborhoods are set to stop accepting cash-free payments later this summer.

That's bad because SNAP benefits are now electronic, and recipients get credits when they buy healthy foods.

This is due, unfortunately, to nothing less than changes in technology and it will prevent people from buying the freshest, healthiest food, or make purchasing it harder (i.e. shlepping to supermarkets in "food deserts").

This is another example of how government needs to do more to help the neediest among us and not become too dependent on the private tech sector.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Bizarre 1980s Today

If you're a Netflix junkie like moi then you're familiar with the comedy show GLOW (about the bizarre 1980s female wrestling show), and Wild Wild Country (about the bizarre cult-commune in Oregon during the early 1980s). 

What's most bizarre is the fact that these shows exist at all. Why, after thirty-something years, are these otherwise completely forgotten 1980s phenomena back and more popular than ever? They were small relics, minor curiosities of a long-gone decade, and suddenly they're big-time today.  

The Internet -- specifically streaming services -- are really amazing things. They manage to dredge of parts of the past we didn't know still existed. But they're part of something broader, I think, an attempt to try to understand the past in order to understand our bizarre present. And the past, it turns out, was truly bizarre.

One such forgotten story now being resurrected (although not on Netflix, not yet) was the story of Bess Myerson -- the Bronx girl who became the first (and only) Jewish Miss America in 1945, then became a political and cultural doyenne of NYC in the 1960s and '70s until she became sleazy tabloid fodder in the late 1980s when she went on trial for trying to bribe a judge. Her case was, and the cast of "only in New York" characters were truly ... bizarre. 

And now her daughter, of all people, is mounting a play about her mother out in California, about their relationship and what it was like to be the daughter of a woman who was once admired, then admonished, by the world.

It's yet another once forgotten bizarre story from the 1980s now suddenly remembered again. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

NYC Comebacks

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "there are no second acts in American lives" but that's not really true -- Americans love a good comeback.

So I'm very happy that two New Yorkers who looked like they were destined to be forgotten are reemerging.

First, Leonard Lopate, the brilliant radio interviewer who was bizarrely and unfairly fired from WNYC radio last year. Next week he'll be back on WBAI with a new show. I can't wait to hear it!   

Second, John Liu, the former City Comptroller who is challenging Trump Democrat State Senator Tony Avella in the September primary. Liu challenged him in 2014 and came close to beating him so, hopefully, this time he'll win. Avella was responsible for keeping the GOP in charge so he richly deserves defeat and Lie would be a great replacement.

What a great town this is!