"New York City in the 1970s was the setting for Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, and Saturday Night Fever, the nightmare playground for Son of Sam and The Warriors, the proving grounds for graffiti, punk, hip-hop, and all manner of other public spectacle. Musicians, artists, and writers could subsist even in Manhattan, while immigrants from the world over were reinventing the city in their own image." Brian Berger, historian Marshall Berman and a troupe of contributers revisit the Big Apple of yesteryear in their book New York Calling. All five boroughs are documented through words and images, becoming a nostalgic collection as well as a reflection on how the city has changed.
How did you and Marshall Berman decide to compile New York Calling?
In December 2002 my friend Robert Sietsema and I were in a Russian pelmenyi joint in Bensonhurst with Reaktion Books publisher, Michael Leaman. Reaktion was soon going to publish a collection of essays on London since the 1970s and we all thought a similar New York book could be very interesting.
Long story short, I got the gig, with the proviso I bring Marshall on board as the "name" co-editor. That was fine with me, with the one small problem being... I had never met him before! Marshall was working on the manuscript for his Times Square book, On The Town: 100 Years of Spectacle then but we hit it off well enough he agreed to do it. (We've since become very close.) I got to work on an outline, which in our case was a surrogate book proposal and, after some contractual wrangling with Reaktion, I started querying writers in December 2004.
How did you select the contributors?
Process of elimination? That's too glib but it's sort of true. New York Calling has 29 essays, including Marshall's introduction. (I also wrote the three section intros, an eccentric 1964-2007 NYC chronology and hundreds of photo captions.) To get that far I made around 350 queries, assigned 80 essays, edited 70 pieces to one degree or another. (The rest of the people never wrote a word and were let go.) I really had no idea it'd be so difficult and at its worst, I'd describe the process as akin to trying to date forty people at once and... never getting laid.
That said, I knew New York Calling had to be an all-city street book; unlike the London book, we weren't interested in academic writing. Robert Sietsema was in and pretty early on I gained the confidence of C.J. Sullivan, who used to write the terrific "Bronx Stroll" column for New York Press. He hooked me up other Press people like John Strausbaugh and Jim Knipfel, both of whom I'm now proud to call friends and both were among the easiest writers to work with. Luc Sante signing on helped get the attention of people, as did Tom Robbins of the Voice, who was the person I was most intimidated by, because, really what can I tell him? (In fact, Tom was always affable and, when we did some readings together back in October, I learned he's one of city's great wits also.)
While I was pleased with the book's contents and believe it's both the most Brooklyn NYC book ever and one that's most respectful to five borough culture, it doesn't have everything. (Kevin Walsh's Forgotten New York is remarkably ecumenical too but his primary interest is infrastructure.) Originally, I hoped the book's contributors would be more radically multi-ethnic, especially regarding Latinos, West Indians and Asians. Likewise we wanted essays on women, sports and Judaism. While I hired people for those assignments-- more than once in all those cases, in fact-- none of them finally worked out. Note to qualified writers, frustrated or aspiring: I wish I knew you then!
All in all, it took two years, from December '04 to December '06, to get the essays selected. (Then came five months of photo research; the book has 230 images, including 103 of my own pictures.)
What are some things you discovered about the city from reading your contributors' essays?
Well, in most cases, my relationship with the writers was very proactive -- probably because my assignments were rather open-ended and people would ask me what the hell they should do on Crime, Drugs, Sex, Jazz, Civil Rights, Literature, Growing up NYC, etc-- so I didn't often had that "eureka" moment of discovery. Joseph Anastasio's graffiti essay was an exception to this, as it clarified for me many things I'd started to piece together myself in a less cogent way. For the most part however, what I most learned were the feelings people associated with places and times.
I grew up in the hills of northwest Jersey but had been coming to the city my whole life-- grandparents in Rockaway Beach, Aunt in the Bronx, then Coney Island, Knicks games on Christmas, Marv Albert and Phil Rizzuto on the radio, I'd read the Voice since 1984, done cross country races in Van Cortlandt Park--pretty much everything except taking the subway to school. Still, there's a big difference between all that, my sneaking into Times Square porno joints as a teenager or going to shows at CB's and really living with the changes of the '70s as an adult and having a psychogeographical sense of loss and love. (Marshall Berman is brilliant in that regard.)
Robert Atkins' essay was also revealing, as he was in the front lines of the gay rights movement and the AIDS crisis. Likewise Steve Maluk's Staten Island piece, which is a subtle tribute to those lost on 9/11 as well. On the other end of things, the book's only reprint, Richard Meltzer's sardonic "At Least It's Not New York" from 1987, had never before been republished and will be a discovery to most; Philip Dray, who's best known as a rather serious historian, told the story ("I Am A Renter") of his late '80s exile to Williamsburg in his own darkly comic way and Kate Schmitz's recounting of her manic dreadlocked punk youth gave real insight into the expressive freedom Manhattan not only once encouraged but almost seemed to require.
I should also add that talking at length to a brilliant photographer like Margaret Morton, who wrote and shot the homeless essay, inspired me to take my own lens game more seriously. I don't rely on photography alone but, especially in a period of rapid change like we're in, there are numerous people and places that should be recognized as they exist at this exact time and place.
New York Calling looks at how the city has evolved over the past few decades. What do you think is the biggest problem/issue the city faces in the next twenty years?
Real estate shills can lie endlessly in person, in print and online but there's nothing good about the recent hyper-gentrification of certain parts of the city except for the ownership-- and perhaps the advertising, and construction worker--class. While not precisely Jane Jacobs in a flannel jacket, I do have serious concerns about the effects of high-rise residential, period, and I defy anyone to walk the UWS, UES, new Hell's Kitchen, Chelsea, Kent Ave in Williamsburg and tell me that the street life and commerce has the liveliness or diversity of other, less vaunted and expensive neighborhoods. Of course, the mere scale of, say, Brooklyn Heights hasn't kept it from becoming nearly barren of any but historic interest either (alas).
Although the ongoing establishment and expansion of ethnic neighborhoods throughout the city is wonderful, the homogenization of other areas (by wealth, by chain store, by the most unctuous middlebrow white bread stroller mafia posting imaginable on popular neighborhood blogs) is a real goddamn drag.
I'm deeply concerned about city's abuse of Eminent Domain and the maltreatment of working industry in favor of shifty real estate schemes. Also, while neither averse to change nor a nostalgic, the prevarication and governmental abuses marking the so-called Atlantic Yards project ought to be an insult to every sentient New Yorker.
You also maintain a blog, Who Walk in Brooklyn. Tell us about it.
It began this past June in preparation for New York Calling but it quickly took on a life of its own as a freewheeling literary and photographic collage of the city as it really exists. Bluntly, real estate is not reality and WWIB strives to show this, over and over and over again, because too much of the city is simply ignored by almost all media, including lots of things right under our noses (Including, indeed, Brooklyn real estate stories--like the recent demolition of 19th century rowhouses in Gowanus-- that others have ignored). WWIB also celebrates the vastness of those for whom life is not a luxury condo, and suggests that the past and current occupants of any brownstone, rowhouse, tenement, etc are at least as important as the property's "value" or whatever new wine bar, bistro or upscale baby boutique is opening on the ground floor.
The name of the website is taken from my essay in New York Calling, by the way, which is pan-ethnic capsule history of the borough, all of it, as first glimpsed from the steps of the Anthony Anastasio Memorial Longshoremen's Medical Center at the corner of Court & Union, South Brooklyn. Until very recently, this area boasted both substantial Italian-American and Latino populations, although you would be hard pressed to read about the latter in either books or on the internet. (This too inspired me.)
What is your favorite part of the city?
If I may, three favorite neighborhoods in each borough:
Staten Island: St. George, Tompkinsville & South Beach
The Bronx: Mott Haven, Morrisania & Longwood (the South Bronx generally).
Manhattan: Inwood, Washington Heights & East Harlem (at least until the "terrific" strip mall is built at 116th St: thrilling)
Queens: Rockaway Beach, Ozone Park & Woodside
Brooklyn: Sunset Park, Brighton Beach & Canarsie (Red Hook RIP)
What subway or bus line do you take the most?
Used to be the F, G and A, now the N, R, Q, M & J. My favorite lines are any that are elevated or in the cut. I don't take buses but have ridden my bike tens of thousands of miles all over New York. Also, while I can't defend it ecologically, I'm fortunate enough to have a car, which makes weekend and night travel far easier than it'd be otherwise.
Please share your strangest "only in New York" story.
Two things: back when Cooper Square was an open air bazaar, I bought the first Unrest album (hand drawn covers) & Sonic Boom's (of Spacemen 3) UK-only Spectrum for $2 each; there was no such thing as "indie rock" then (summer 1990) but I imagine some music writer had recently been robbed. Last year on Pitkin Ave in Brownsville I came across an exceptionally skilled shell game practitioner; he had at least a couple shills hiding in the crowd and a very slick con man's rap about how "I'm from Mississippi, man." For anyone who remembers the great street hustles of midtown Manhattan, it was a real throwback moment. Day-to-day, the surf scene out in Rockaway Beach remains startlingly unique.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
In politics and activism, I don't especially ascribe to the great man/woman theory (or maybe I don't pay close enough attention) so here's a very partial list of New Yorkers, some native and some adopted, have influenced me: Thelonious Monk, Djuna Barnes, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Frank O'Hara, Barbara Stanwyck, Emmett Grogan, Joey Gallo, Morton Feldman, Felipe Alfau, Garry Winogrand, Ted Berrigan, Betty Carter, Hubert Selby, Gilbert Sorrentino, Wallace Markfield, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Max Roach, Tuli Kupferberg, Cecil Taylor, Ricky Luanda and Walt "Clyde" Frazier.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
Make Rudy Giuliani fund and mc annual Patrick Dorismond memorial concerts in Hell's Kitchen and Flatbush; eliminate ALL public financing of sports stadiums; impeach Marty Markowitz and Adolfo Carrión Jr (Bronx Borough President) for starters; give the NYPD a fair contract that would discourage the inane "performance goals" (i.e. quotas) that can make all of our lives miserable. Finally, whatever happens with the Domino sugar redevelopment, I'd invite former Domino workers to smash the so-called "historic" sign to bits and send the pieces back to Tate & Lyle, Domino's parent company in London, and notorious union busters. I'm flabbergasted anyone would want to "preserve" such an artifact, which is nothing more than free fucking advertising for a company that raped Brooklyn.
Under what circumstance have you thought about leaving New York?
I have a great affection for the South and if I ran out of money and/or felt that my work with the city was complete, I'd likely decamp for Athens, Georgia. For the time being, although I might move to Gravesend, Woodhaven or Kingsbridge, I'm staying put, with my Crusader Candle (of Gowanus) trimmed and burning.
What's your current soundtrack to the city?
Definitely hip-hop, the continued richness of which in New York City is too little reported. In the last year, there have been good to great albums by Hell Razah (two, in fact), Smif N Wessun, Prodigy, Tragedy Khadafi, Boot Camp Click, Sean Price, Joell Ortiz, Killah Priest, KRS-One & Marley Marl, Ghostface Killah, Havoc, Infamous Mobb, Nas and... yes, 50 Cent. (But not Talib Kweli, Common or Fuck Jay-Z.) "Indie rock" or whatever you call it has become esperanto, and very little of it seems to have any substantial sense of place; same with the noise and electronica scenes, as bracing as they can be. On the other hand, there is a wealth of local Spanish language musics I'm still learning about that definitely do, including the burgeoning Mexican heavy metal underground.
Best cheap eat in the city.
A few: Fatima, Guinean in Crown Heights; Bismillah Kabab, Bangledeshi in City Line; El Bohio Lechonera, Puerto Rican in East Tremont; Lan Zhou Noodles, northern Chinese in Sunset Park; Tandoori Hut, Indian in Richmond Hill; Al Salaam, Lebanese in Bay Ridge; Joe's of Avenue U, Sicilian in Gravesend; Kosher Bagel Hole, Coney Island Avenue, Midwood; Concourse Jamaican Bakery, Jamaican on E. 167th Street in the Bronx. Favorite cuisines: Mexican, Vietnamese, Uzbek, pizza.
Best venue to see music.
Asser Levy Park in Coney Island; granted, you're limited to the motley array of oldies shows they have there in the summer but they're usually so odd, and the crowd so great, it doesn't matter. Historically, in my life as concertgoer, CB's (until '91 or so), the Knitting Factory (both on Houston & Leonard St, until they went rock again) and Tonic were all exceptional. Sideshows by the Seashore at Coney was fun and Zappa's Rock Palace in Marine Park should not be forgotten either. I was bemused by Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation revisited concert this year, mostly because I saw them do most of the album in the June of '88 twice, once at CBGBs (Galaxie 500 & Borbetomagus opening) and once at Maxwell's (then NYC's best rock club, no matter it was in Hoboken). Best shows of 2007: KRS-One at Prospect Park and the anonymous electric black gospel band I heard way out on Fulton Street in Ocean Hill one summer morning. Rejoice!