Sketchy Interviews is a recurring series on Gothamist featuring visual interviews with some of the best illustrators, cartoonists and graphic artists working in the city today. We previously talked to New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, Broad City animator/cartoonist Mike Perry, and All The Restaurants In New York artist John Donohue.
This week, we spoke to cartoonist Julia Wertz, who has been mining her own life and her interest in history over the last decade in a series of delightful comic books, graphic novels, as well as cartoons in Harper's, The Believer, The New Yorker and lots of other publications. Last year, she channeled her love of history and New York City into Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History Of New York City, a book about unique and often forgotten stories from the city's past, accompanied by illustrations of random neighborhoods as they were and as they are. It is unconventional as both a history book and a love letter to the city, and also unambiguously brilliant. It's become a part of my desk at work, and I've spent countless hours pouring through it discovering new delightful things I never knew about the city, like the fact the potato chip was invented here by accident in 1853 (as revenge against complaining customers), or the story of Lizzie Halliday (the forgotten serial killer arsonist).
In 2016, Wertz was illegally evicted from her Greenpoint studio where she had been living for nearly a decade, and moved back to her native California. She opened up about that experience, as well as the process of making the book, in an interview with Gothamist—she also shared some exclusive excerpts from the book, including the history of Kim's Video (check that all out above).
Wertz will also make a few appearances in the city later this month: you can see her do a talk & comics slideshow with Roz Chast at the at the Mid-Manhattan NYPL on June 27th (ticket information here) and in conversation with Jeremiah Moss, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitt and Vinson Cunnigham at the Museum of the City of New York on June 28th (ticket info here).
When did you first move to the city, and when did you first feel like you were a "New Yorker"? I moved to the city in 2006, and it took about a year to feel comfortable. But I don’t really abide by the whole “feel like a New Yorker” thing, because what does that really even mean? So few people are actually from NYC, and those who are don’t go around talking about what it’s like to be a New Yorker, that’s a thing that people who move to the city do. It’s an adopted mindset built on various stereotypes, some true and some not.
How did you first begin working on this project? Did this book pick up in any way from your previous books written here when you were in your 20's? This book is not connected to my previous books, my character is only in there minimally. I didn’t want to insert myself too much into it (besides the writing) because, to be honest, I got sick of writing about myself, and wanted to work on something bigger than the microcosm of my personal life.
I quit drinking in my late 20’s, and got really interested in urban exploring. (Exploring abandoned places.) I guess I replaced my obsession with drinking with an obsession with history and buildings. I quit doing comics for two years, and focused all my energy on exploration, photography and research. 90% of the work I did during those years didn’t appear in my NYC book, but it did pave the way to getting into making art about history.
Then I met Roz Chast. I’d been a fan of hers for forever. It turned out she was a fan of mine as well, so we ended up becoming friends, and she got me a meeting with Bob Mankoff at the New Yorker. Bob wanted me to do gag cartoons, gags are not my forte, so I pitched him comics about NYC history, and those ran online for about a year before I got a book contract. Then I got evicted, moved back to California, finished the book, and got back into making autobiographical comics. I still love the city, and I love history, but I burned out making comics about it all. I was doing 16 hour days, seven days a week, drawing elaborate architectural stuff. I think maybe I went insane but I didn’t really know it.
What were your favorite, or most surprising, stories you learned while researching? (I never knew about the origin of the potato chip, or the story of Lizzie Halliday, before this.) The story about the true history of Kim’s Video really caught me by surprise. I hadn’t planned on writing it, I was just reading some stuff about Kim’s and all the articles told the same story about how the eclectic video collection started, placing the credit on Mr. Kim alone. Except in one article, an ex-employee mentioned that none of the collection would have ever existed if it weren’t for Matt Marello.
I hunted Marello down to get his input, and it turns out that he was the one responsible for building the beginnings of the video library. I never found a single article that gave him credit, so I made him the focal point of my piece about Kim’s. Marello was so sweet and humble about the whole thing. He’s slightly mortified that I brought this to light, but I think he deserves public recognition for what became such an integral part of NYC pop culture history.
Who or what is your favorite NY stereotype—and who or what is your least favorite kind of NYer? My favorite NY stereotype is about pizza, and that New Yorkers are pizza snobs, because it’s true. And we have every right to be. I’m not saying there isn’t good pizza in other cities, but it’s a numbers game. If you’re considering five NYC pizza places, three of those five are gonna be great, and the other two will be totally decent. But if you’re looking at five pizza places in pretty much any other city, four of them will be hot garbage, and one will be okay, if you’re lucky.
The stereotype that rankles me the most is when people attribute being an asshole to being a New Yorker. If you live in NYC and you’re acting like an asshole, it’s because you’re an asshole, it’s not because you live in NYC. Sure, the city can be very stressful, and acting like an asshole is a way of reacting to that stress, but that’s just one of many reactions a person can choose to act on. The city makes everyone feel cranky and overwhelmed at times, but that doesn’t mean they have to take it out on others. Also, some of the nicest people I’ve ever met are New Yorkers. My least favorite New Yorkers are ones who spend all their time talking shit about New York, and have no appreciation for all the wonderful, crazy things the city has to offer.
Bob Dylan (and my boss, Jake Dobkin) both like to exclaim that "nostalgia is death." Which probably says more about them, and their own particularly complex relationships with nostalgia, than anything else. But do you think of yourself as a nostalgic person? How does nostalgia play into your appreciation of the urban landscape? I understand what people mean by that expression, but it categorizes nostalgia in too simple a way. Nostalgia is like an intoxicant—in moderation it can be a rewarding experience, but if abused/overused, it becomes toxic. To indulge in nostalgia is to romanticize the past and stop living in the present. This could be totally fine for short periods of time, just a nice way to remember a pleasant time you experienced, but if it becomes a way of thinking, it ruins the present because there’s no way the present moment can compare to a fabricated, romanticized version past. Nostalgia has a way of erasing the shitty parts of reality. Like when people are nostalgic for, say, NYC in the 1800’s— the horse and buggies, the handmade shop signs, the elaborate suits and dresses - they’re forgetting (or perhaps never knew) that the city then was a filthy cesspool of trash and sewage, disease was rampant, and the clothing was insufferably hot and restrictive, and sometimes even deadly for women cooking with open flame.
Basically, you just have to be aware of how you’re using nostalgia. As an infrequent indulgence approached with awareness, it’s pleasantly benign. But as a philosophy or permanent mindset, it can become a spiritual and/or existential death, because you’re living in a memory built on lies. There is no hope in protracted nostalgic thinking, because it places all happiness in the past, ensuring that the present and future will never be able to stand up against a fabricated history.
The comic at the very start of the book about your relationship with the city encapsulates a uniquely NYC dynamic: the many things that make this city so frustrating and difficult are also the things that endear us to it. (There should be a german word for that!) Are NYers just suckers for punishment? Do you have to get tough to make it here? If you do make it here, can you in fact make it anywhere? I think it bears noting that my NYC experience was far less stressful than the average person living and working there. I did not move to the city to make it big, I did not have an office job, I was never a small fish in a big pond, struggling for recognition. I was a waitress and cartoonist with no other aspirations than to be able to doodle for a meager living. I was a small fish in a small pond that had nothing to do with NYC. It just happened to be a city where my friends lived, so I went there. And I was lucky. The industry I work in is small, noncompetitive, and not location specific. So I can’t speak with any authority on how tough it might be to “make it” in the city.
Considering the most consistent thing about NYC might be that it will always be changing (and you should always expect it to change), are there places you would be devastated to find out closed or disappeared forever? The first two that came to mind are actually ruins or piles of trash: Seaview, the abandoned tuberculosis hospital on Staten Island, and Bottle Beach at Dead Horse Bay. If the city cleaned up all those bottles, I’d be so sad. It’s such a wonderfully weird thing that represents some of the pitfalls of planning during the city’s early years. Seaview represents a mostly forgotten part of our medical history, and every year I’m surprised those buildings don’t get demolished.
What long-shuttered places do you wish you had been able to see in real life? I would have loved to see the World’s Fair in Queens in the 1960’s. They constructed so much bizarre stuff for it, knowing most if it would only last for two years. All World’s Fairs were like this, and we have nothing like them today. I also would have loved to have seen the early incarnation of Lascoff Apothecary on the Upper East Side, which is now a Warby Parker.
Why did you end up leaving the city and your longtime apartment in Greenpoint? Was it a very sudden change, or did you have time to process it before leaving? I got evicted from my studio where I’d live for almost 10 years [in 2016]. It was very abrupt and very upsetting. I could have fought it and legally forced him to let me stay, but the environment had become too toxic and I couldn’t have stayed even if allowed. I didn’t have any time to process it or really think through my next move, I just packed up and went home to Northern California. It took me almost two years to process the whole thing and accept that I don’t live in the city anymore, and to be okay with that.
What do you miss most about the city a few years removed from living there? What are your feelings for the city now from afar? The thing I miss the most is walking. I was never bored in NYC. If I was, I would just start walking, and a whole day of adventure would unfold. There was so much to observe, I could entertain myself for hours just sitting in the park. A quick walk to the bodega could yield fascinating things. My favorite thing to do was to just walk aimlessly, looking at the mixture of history and modernity and being part of an eclectic cityscape and culture. Now I live in a smaller, more bucolic town, and although I’ve trained myself to see and appreciate different things here, I miss the city every day.
Considering your passion for NYC, can you see yourself moving back to the city eventually? As much as I love NYC, I love my family more, and they are West Coast based. In an ideal world, I would be able to split my time between NYC and CA, but you know what they say: “If wishes and buts were clusters and nuts, we’d all have a bowl of granola.”