Suzanne Vega has lived in New York City "forever," which for the singer-songwriter means since the early 1960s, when she was two years old and her parents moved the family to East Harlem. She has remained in the city since, and has not budged throughout the pandemic — concert tours have been replaced with walks in Central Park, live shows swapped with streaming to an audience she cannot see. And all along the city she's called home for nearly sixty years has adjusted, come undone, and slowed down alongside her — a perfect time to release a career-spanning album that serves as a love letter to New York.
I recently spoke with Vega about her hometown, what it has looked like over the decades and what it may look like in the future.
You've been here for a long time...
Can you look back over that time and see a New York City that you think was a little more perfect than other versions?
No. No, not really.
They all had problems.
Yeah. They all had problems.
Are there any pieces of those previous decades that you would take and bring into the future?
Yeah, there are, actually. I mean, when I think about New York in the future and what I would wish, I guess this might seem silly, but one thing I hate to see is when they close down the diners. I think we need more diners. There seemed to be, in the '60s and '70s, just a lot more diners. There were diners on every corner. Some of them were really old, like the Empire Diner, which is still open. Metro Diner is really great. But I always feel sad when I see a diner, especially an old, real diner, closed down. Even Bigelow's had a diner, the drug store down on 9th Street, it used to have a diner as part of it.
To me, it's such an iconic New York institution, the diner, that why would you close them down? It fosters community. It's democratic. Anyone can go in for a cup of coffee or a sandwich or scrambled eggs, if that's what you're in the mood for. I always feel sad when I see the passing of diners.
It may just seem like, because of "Tom's Diner," like, "Oh, of course Suzanne Vega would be sad that there's not more diners," but it's true. I am. I think we should save the ones we have, landmark them, and make more of them and make them great, make them authentic and cool. It does upset me that more things are not landmarked.
The other thing I wish could be landmarked were the venues, the great venues of the '70s and '80s. I wish there was a world in which we could bring back Folk City, bring back CBGBs and bring back The Bottom Line. Those venues should have been landmarked in some ways, and they should have had assistance with their rent. These unscrupulous landlords that target the venues, it's just not right that we don't have more respect for our New York City, super cool venues that are a part of our cultural history. That's what I think.
I guess a big part of that is the higher rents, the new residents and businesses who can pay those higher rents...
Yeah. Especially, I mean, before the pandemic, there was this big boom of people buying up buildings, or having these new kinds of buildings where you've got a gym and you've got everything all inclusive, and it's all very high-rise and it's all very big, big real estate business, which is not something I really traffic in. I don't really know anything about that world. It's not a passion of mine.
Now, of course, that we have this pandemic, it's the exact opposite. All of Midtown is deserted, and people are not using those big buildings. People have fled. The things that people who are here would really need, like a place to eat or a place to... eventually when things open up again, it would be good to have things that foster community.
I've been looking at apartment listings to track how the rents are going down, and I have to imagine those rents will be lower than average until we get a vaccine — and even then, it won't be a light switch, it'll take time to rebuild. It's impossible to say what any of it is going to look like, but do you think it's possible that we'll come back from this with a more hospitable place for artists, and for art to be created? Could this window of lower rents possibly help bring in and foster the community that you're speaking of, or bring in the community that maybe we saw in earlier decades?
Yeah. I'm always a little wary of the community that we had in earlier decades, I have to say. I know other people have loved all the community of the '70s and all of that. I wasn't of that era. I mean, I was a teenager in the '70s. I wasn't part of any community, really. I mean, I guess I was part of the school community, which was meaningful to me, but it wasn't like Patti Smith, I think, who is the generation before mine. They had formed this community of artists, and even Laurie Anderson had that.
They were all living in lofts downtown and it was all really super cool, but I was a kid in the New York City public school system. I wasn't feeling that love. I saw it as a really horrible decade, of drug dealers and crime and dirt and filth and violence and runaways. I don't really have that sense. I don't look back on it with that nostalgia that some people do.
That being said, I do think that artists will gravitate to New York. First of all, I don't think New York is going anywhere. I don't think it's going to become a ghost town. There's too much history here. It means too much to too many people for it to just be abandoned. I think some new life is going to grow, and I think it will be artists who come back and I think it should be artists.
I think the artists, one good thing about how I grew up was that I benefited hugely from a lot of arts programs that were in the schools, and also in say like there was a workshop, for example, at the Museum of Natural History, open to the kids of the neighborhood, which was us. Every day, it was like a kind of day camp where we could go be part of this workshop in the museum, in the Quetzalcoatl Hall.
We had to write this play about the myths of the Aztecs and act it out in the hall. It was amazing. It was awesome. We were really young. I was 13. My brothers and sisters were younger than that. There we were, running around in the hallway of the Museum of Natural History, and it was government-sponsored as a kind of day program. We need more stuff like that, I think. We need more subsidies for kids who need a place to be.
Also, along with many of those programs came food. Sometimes you'd get free breakfast or free lunch, which my parents always made sure that we took advantage of those programs that had that. That's what I remember of the '60s and '70s, were those government-sponsored programs. The other one I loved was one called The Alliance of Latin Arts. Again, you'd get your free meal, or two, two free meals. You'd show up, have your morning juice and whatever it was, muffin, then you'd learn all these songs from the different countries that spoke Spanish. We had costumes and choreography, and I learned a little bit how to read music. We went to all the different boroughs and we sang all these songs. At the end of the summer, we did this all-Hispanic version of The Sound of Music in Lincoln Center. I mean, that was amazing for a kid like me. Those were some of my earliest performing opportunities.
We need more of that, not to mention that we also had music in the schools. I was part of a gifted children's program at PS 163. We had music, and we had passionate music teachers who would teach us songs, singing, played on the piano. Sometimes we would have instruments, recorders passed out for a while, but it was understood that arts was necessary, was a necessary part of our life, and it was very meaningful to me. That's what I wish we could bring back.
We need way more support for the arts on a state and federal level. It's really my belief that if we had that, if we understood that, that if kids could understand that you express your emotions through art, that you don't express emotions through weaponry, through buying a gun. A gun is for killing people, not expressing an emotion. This is how I see it.
I think if you really taught people how to express rage, if you made them look at Guernica and... all kinds of art... New York, well, not just New York, but America, would be different, would probably be a more cultured country than it is already. I mean, it's there. It's just a question of connecting it to kids and making it part of their life when they're growing up.
I think that what's happening right now is probably affecting kids in awful ways that we don't even understand yet, so maybe meaningful arts programs is one thing that could help them rebound, express, work things out...
Yeah. I think you're right. I think it's very traumatic on some level. It's been traumatic for the adults. On the other hand, there's this weird sense for some of us of a forced retreat, where you have to stay home. You've got to think about that. Because for years I've been touring, I've been touring. I love touring. It's really how I like to spend time touring, and suddenly it's, "No, you don't get to tour. You get to stay home and deal with that."
What's it like to be home? There's more time to keep a journal or to examine your feelings, that is, when you're not figuring out how you're going to get your groceries or cleaning your apartment. There's a sense of being forced to take stock of how you live.
I've been learning how to do these broadcasts from my library. You know the live streaming things that everybody's doing on Facebook? I started to learn how to do that. It's a little weird, but it's not ultimately so different. I'm still performing, and there's still some kind of audience. You don't get the immediate feedback that you get when you're on a real stage.
Today, the New York Times had a good piece about how we're really lacking this champion of New York City. Do you think that's true, from what you've experienced throughout the years? In the past, there have been these crises where leaders have stepped up and tried to rally together New Yorkers, do you feel that's missing now?
Well, I must say that around 9/11, for example, it was such a quick and horrible situation that it was easier to feel New York rally. I mean, in the beginning, it was uncertain. Is this how we're just going to live from now on? Is this going to happen all the time? Then we realized that it wasn't, it was something that happened once, and I think we recovered relatively quickly from it.
At the risk of going out on a limb, I have to say that I found Governor Cuomo's daily briefings really helpful, because in the beginning I felt like I had no information. I was in the middle of doing an off-Broadway play. I was performing eight shows a week. I was taking public transportation down to 42nd Street every day. Suddenly, bang. It's like, "No, you come and get your stuff and you're going home, and Broadway is going dark."
At first, it was like shock. At first I was just sitting around my apartment, going, "What the hell is going on?" When I started to realize that Governor Cuomo was doing these briefings, I listened to his briefings, and I found this metric system that he set in place very, very helpful. I felt he was very transparent in what he said and what he did. I know a lot of people bash him for various reasons or whatever, but I myself personally found Cuomo's briefings really helpful and an organizing element. I would sit down with my coffee when I knew he would be on... Is that enough? I don't know. I think he has a vision for New York. I think his whole metaphor of the mountain that we crossed and all that, I respond to that. I think he's not perfect, but I don't think he pretends to be. I think he, in his idiosyncratic way, has a vision for New York.
This New York Times article just hit me, because I've been living alone, I haven't really seen anyone in five months, and I would love it if there was someone being a cheerleader for New York City outside my window every day, encouraging us to keep going. I'm not really feeling that.
Yeah. Yeah. I get it too. I mean, I hear you. On the other hand, you don't want someone like Giuliani, who after 9/11 seemed to be this, like, wow, you know, he really responded. You don't want him, because now look what's happened. Look what he's turned into. I guess he was that way all along. You don't want someone who's going to let you down in the long run.
Do you have a fear of what New York City's future might look like, as opposed to the utopian ideas? Is there something that you don't want to see happen?
Yeah. I don't want to see it be a ghost town. I don't want to see it be like empty caverns and a sort of Mad Max division. I don't want it to turn into what parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco are like. I don't know if you've been there, but there are homeless people camped out for blocks and blocks, and this very well could happen, because there's a lot of evictions in the future if we don't get the federal aid that we need. People will be tossed out with no one to help them, and everything will descend into this chaotic world.
Any closing thoughts on the future of our city?
I'd love to see New York with more nature. I think Central Park is one of the great success stories. It used to be so scary. In the '60s and '70s, you would never go there. I would never go there as a teenager. It was too scary. People were buying and selling drugs. Then in the '80s it got taken over, and now it's this beautiful part of history and people walk around. It's had this wonderful comeback, and I'd like to see more nature interspersed with all the concrete.
I think people go to the park more often now, because they've got nothing else to do. No one's going to work. People go to the park for relief on hot days, and you can see that. It's still beautiful, and it still does my heart good to go there and have it be part of the day's activity. More nature, more art.
Yes, more diners. I like that vision.
When we're allowed to go and eat in them again, you know, when we're allowed to have community.