Author Imprint

S2017 E4 | FULL EPISODE

Jeremiah Moss Talks Gentrification in "Vanishing New York"

Jeremiah Moss moved to New York in the 90s, which he calls a "Harold and Maude" story. He started a blog in 2007 to chart the disappearance of beloved small businesses in his neighborhood, forming the basis of his book, "Vanishing the New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul." He talks about how gentrification changes the character of the city itself and what residents can do to fight back.

AIRED: November 16, 2017 | 0:25:45
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

>> Hi, I'm Maddie Orton,

and this is "Author Imprint,"

Today, we're talking to

Jeremiah Moss, the author of

"Vanishing New York:

How a Great City Lost Its Soul."

If the title sounds familiar,

"Vanishing New York" is also

the name of Jeremiah's blog,

where, for the past 10 years,

he's lamented what he calls

a city going extinct.

Jeremiah moved to New York City

in the '90s.

This was around the time

that the grungy, bohemian Mecca

he dreamed of, filled with

kosher delis and indie

bookstores, was quickly giving

way to big-name retailers and

one particularly prolific coffee

chain.

His new book is a comprehensive

and nostalgic look at what's

lost.

♪♪

Jeremiah, thanks so much

for joining us.

>> Thank you.

>> So let's start

with the beginning.

You started the blog

10 years ago.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> What made you want

to do that?

>> Well, I think, you know,

about 10 years ago in 2007,

I had really been noticing,

for a couple of years,

that the city was changing in

what felt like a different way.

So I've been here since '93,

and of course,

the city is always changing,

as people love to remind me,

but this felt like a different

level of change.

And, you know, I wrote a novel

about a guy named Jeremiah Moss,

which is my pen name,

and, you know, I found myself

writing his voice.

He was lamenting a lot of the

changes, and I wanted to kind of

keep going, so I started the

blog more -- It was more for,

like -- for me.

It was a personal sort of labor

of love in the beginning.

>> And what was the idea,

though, behind looking

at the different pieces

of New York that were closing

and really sort of giving them

each their own,

almost, eulogy moment?

>> Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

I think it sort of evolved

into that.

You know, there was one

other blog called "Lost City,"

which has stopped running

a while back,

but that was a great blog

that was doing very similar

to what I'm doing.

And I thought, you know,

I could do that, too.

I had a lot of photographs from

the past and journal entries,

and so I started sort of, like,

just putting them up online,

in some ways, I think, hoping

maybe to find some people

who were, you know,

simpatico and similar-minded

because, you know,

when I would talk about,

"The city is changing.

Something is really happening,"

people would tell me,

especially native New Yorkers

would say, "Eh. You know,

this is par for the course.

This is what happens in the

city."

>> Right, the city is always

changing.

Sure.

>> Exactly, exactly, yeah.

>> And so what was the idea

behind the blog, then?

To say it's changing but pay

attention because this is

changing in a fundamental way?

Or to just give each of those

things its moment?

>> I think, in the beginning,

to give each of those things

its moment.

I don't think, at that time,

I had really put together

why the city was changing

the way it was.

It was really more a memorial

at that point.

>> So why the pen name?

You brought that up,

Jeremiah Moss,

which is not your real name,

but you chose a pen name.

>> Right, mm-hmm.

>> Why write the blog

under the pen name?

>> I think, you know,

in the beginning, I was working.

I had a few jobs.

I was working at a clinic.

I was doing some copyrighting

and copy editing,

and it just seemed like, you

know, bloggers were using pen

names, and I felt like, you

know, let's kind of just keep

this a little separate space

where I can sort of, you know,

do this kind of writing.

And then I just stuck with it,

and what I found was that it

really gave me a lot of

psychological freedom to write,

think, from a different

sort of part of myself,

and so it opened

things up for me.

>> What was the reaction to the

blog?

Because I think that I had read

that you were surprised at sort

of the quick traction it got and

the visceral responses that you

got.

>> Yeah, yeah.

So I started the blog in July.

By October, I was in

The New York Times.

I was profiled in theTimes,

and people really respond to it,

you know, and I think

it really touched a nerve.

And what I discovered

was that I certainly was not

alone in my feelings.

I just hadn't connected to those

people, but the Internet

enabled me to connect to people

who were saying, "Yeah,

I'm noticing the same thing.

I feel the same way.

You know, something is happening

here."

>> Were there any comments

that stuck out with you along

those lines, any particular

things where you were like,

"Wow, this person is really glad

that I talked about this"?

>> Well, I can't -- I mean,

there's been so many, you know.

I can't think of any

specifically.

But people -- I mean,

I'm jumping ahead a little bit,

but since the book has come out,

I get e-mails from people

saying, you know, "You put into

words something I've been

feeling but wasn't able to

articulate."

So I'm hearing that a lot, which

is such a gratifying thing

for a writer to hear.

>> And you're also a

psychoanalyst, right?

>> Right, yep.

>> So, I mean, that's kind of an

interesting combination, to me,

the idea of putting to words

these feelings that people have

and working with people's

feelings professionally.

Do you find a tie there?

>> I do.

You know, I think a lot

about empathy, right?

So empathy is one of the tools

of a psychoanalyst

or psychotherapist.

And there's a way in which

I think that we can empathize

with the people of the city,

but we can also empathize

with the things of the city,

the architecture, the spaces,

the little shops and the little

place because they're human

spaces, you know.

And there's a way in which

I think that there's not a lot

of empathy for these things

in the city today.

There's a sort of --

You know, and one could argue

that New York has always been

like, you know, "Tear it down

and build it new," right?

>> Mm-hmm.

>> But it feels like that's

really accelerated a lot and

that there is a kind of loss

of empathy, not just in New York

but in the United States

and in Western culture at large.

You know, there's sort of a

larger conversation about is

there, like, attacks on empathy?

And what happens when you have

empathy is you might be moved to

preserve things.

You might be moved to take care

of vulnerable people, and in the

culture we have today, that's

really not valued as much.

>> I think that's true.

I mean, I also think that

there is sort of a thing that

happens where you almost --

I don't want to say

anthropomorphize a space,

but the idea that a space takes

on a characters and a persona,

that when you lose a space,

the Carnegie Deli for example,

that there is this moment of

a pang that you're missing

a big character

in New York sort of, right?

>> Absolutely, absolutely.

I mean, I started off

in writing as a poet.

I had this idea of the pathetic

fallacy, which is that sort of

anthropomorphizing things

that are not alive or human.

And pathetic meaning pathos,

right, like feeling into

something and connecting with

it.

And these spaces I think of as

being -- You know, they're not

alive, but they are enlivened

by the people who have passed

through them, the people who

keep them going, you know, the

owners and the customers and,

you know, all of those people

over a period of time.

And a lot of these places,

you know, have been around

for decades, some 100 years.

>> Yeah.

I want to talk a little bit

about how you define New York,

because I think

this is really interesting.

You talk about, in your book,

which I thought was a really

strong point to make, that, you

know, arguably you could go back

to the New York of the settlers,

the New York

of the Native Americans.

You could go back to the 1700s,

1800s.

>> Right.

>> But you settled on

a character for New York,

in a way, that I think is also

the character in my mind for

New York, and probably a lot of

people, so I just -- I want to

read this quick piece here about

what you define New York as.

Okay.

"My city is the city

of dark moons, scrap yards, and

jazz, of poets, painters, and

anarchists, of dirty bookstores,

dirty movies, and dirty streets,

of Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue'

trumpeting over black-and-white

Manhattan, of Travis Bickle's

taxi roving through the steamy

rain, that grimy yellow splash.

It's the city of Edward Hopper's

melancholy rooms

and Frank O'Hara's

'I do this, I do that.'

It's also a working-class city

peopled by men and women

who love with the tough love

and thick accents and no time

for --" I'm going to say B.S.

Okay, so how did you

come across that

sort of character and persona,

and why do we all sort of think

of New York in that way?

>> Yeah, yeah.

Well, I think that's really

the 20th century city, right,

which came out of the immigrants

of the late 1800s

and the early 1900s, coming from

Ireland, Italy,

Eastern European Jewish people

mainly, as well as many others,

and then African Americans

migrating up from the

Jim Crow South, and then

Bohemians coming in in the late

1800s and sort of proto-LGBTQ

people coming in from all across

America, from small towns, to

live a more a liberated life,

right.

And a lot of these people were

working class or they were

intellectuals, and so you had

this confluence of really, like,

you know, desperate people,

restless people, people who

really needed to be here

and didn't, you know, have

a whole lot of other choice,

in a way.

So, you know, I think when

people talk about the New York

character or New York values,

it really comes out of that mix

of cultures.

I was just watching

Colin Quinn's special on

New York.

Have you seen this?

>> Yeah, I have.

>> It's great.

And he really lays it out,

and he goes all the way back to

the Native Americans and the

Dutch.

And he really sort of -- You

know, I think that's the kind

of, you know, the sort of

gruffness and the hurry,

but there's a warmth in it,

and, you know, that energy,

to me, is the New York soul

that's vanishing,

and I don't think we see

that as much, and, you know,

we're losing that today.

>> So let's talk about why that

is.

I mean, so you identify this

as hyper-gentrification -- the

idea that there was --

You know, gentrification has

been a thing that's been

happening for a while, but that

this went into hyper-speed.

>> Right.

>> What do you think the reason

is for that?

Is this -- I know you mentioned

Bloomberg as a possible factor.

>> Right, right.

>> Why is that?

>> So something happened coming

out of the financial crisis

of the 1970s, right?

So New York City,

up until the 1970s,

throughout the 20th century,

beginning in the early part

of the 20th century,

really started moving towards

becoming a social democracy.

So taking care of its most

vulnerable citizens,

putting its citizens first

rather than outside investors.

And, you know, then we had

this financial crisis, which

gets blamed a lot on the welfare

state.

You know, it sort of gets blamed

on compassion, but really, when

you look it, the financial

crisis, you know, it's

complicated but, in large part,

was caused by white flight

and the movement of industry

also out to the suburbs,

which was socially engineered

itself, right?

So there are all these, like,

racist roots and classist roots.

But then, coming out of the

1970s, you have this shift,

which academics call the

neoliberal shift.

Neoliberalism is a tricky word

for people.

It's not new.

It's not liberal.

It just means basically a

belief, you know, in free-market

economics, that you don't

regulate the market, and the

market will take care of

everybody, and money and

resources will trickle down,

right -- trickle-down economics.

So that also has a philosophy

to it, which is about not taking

care of people.

It's sort of like, "Every man

for himself.

Pull yourself up by your

bootstraps."

>> Mm-hmm.

>> And so what the city did was

it kind of moved away from its

citizens and moved towards

courting outside investment,

so big business, giving tax

breaks to developers, and

attracting lots and lots of

tourists.

>> And this is when you get

sort of the Disney-fication

of Times Square.

You have a lot of these bigger

retail spaces coming in, right?

>> Right, so those plans really

started with Mayor Koch, and

then Giuliani and Dinkins, too,

really put them into effect.

And then Bloomberg -- You know,

Bloomberg was sort of like the

ultimate expression of this

New York.

He called the city "a luxury

product," and he thought of

New Yorkers not as citizens at

all but as consumers.

And that's a really different

way of looking at people, right,

because citizens are active.

They're engaged.

They're politically active.

And consumers consume.

That's all consumers do.

>> I think you actually really

encapsulate this well with the

concept of going from

neuroticism to narcissism,

I think is what you wrote...

>> Right, right.

>> ...which I think is

interesting.

You know, when I think of

New York in certain ways now,

I think of Soho and shopping

and Rockefeller and shopping and

all these areas that are very

built up with these luxury

brands, but, you know, in many

ways, that's the pushing out of

these smaller indie businesses

that created the vibe.

>> Absolutely, absolutely,

yeah, yeah.

>> So the product of

hyper-gentrification was what?

>> The product of

hyper-gentrification -- that

New York is this product that

people want to sort of buy,

and so the city itself becomes

commodified.

So it's no longer really thought

of as a city for people to live

in.

It's a city for people to

consume, and that's just, like,

a really -- If, like -- If you

twerk it like that, you start

from that point, all kinds of --

>> You feel a little dirty,

yeah.

>> Yeah, all kinds of changes

can happen, right?

So hyper-gentrification is

largely -- It's basically urban

policy now, right?

So gentrification, we talk about

old-fashioned gentrification

happened because, you know, a

few people came in and bought

properties and rehabbed them,

and neighborhoods would change

gradually over time because of

that.

So that's one thing.

And then the city government

saw, "Well, this is a great way

to commodify neighborhoods and

raise real-estate prices and

work with the real-estate

industry, work with developers

to really, you know, change

neighborhoods on purpose.

>> There were two factors

that you mentioned in your book

that were not factors that would

have come to my mind necessarily

as far as making New York

a very different place

than it might have been

organically otherwise,

which were the AIDS crisis and

9/11.

>> Right.

>> Can you talk a little bit

about how you feel those massive

moments in American history

really changed the shape

of New York?

>> Sure.

Well, my thoughts about the

impact of the AIDS crisis really

come from Sarah Schulman's book

"The Gentrification

of the Mind," which I recommend.

And she writes about how, you

know, a lot of the

rent-controlled or

rent-stabilized apartments were

occupied by gay men who died.

And then, when they died, their

apartment were deregulated and

bumped up to market rate, and

the people who moved in were not

these sort of refugees from

middle America in the same way,

you know.

They were more mainstream

people, and so you had this kind

of mainstreaming of the spaces.

So that's that part,

and then the other part --

Remind me what the other part

was.

>> The other part is you

mentioned 9/11, which I thought

was really interesting,

that it's a shift of how America

looked at New York, I guess.

>> Exactly, yeah.

Well, America has always hated

New York, right?

I mean --

>> Well, I will say though,

by the way, I did write down

this Woody Allen quote,

which I love...

>> I love that quote, yeah.

>> ...that you wrote in your

book, which I'll share with

people.

The Annie Hall quote of

"The rest of country looks upon

New York like we're left-wing,

Communist, Jewish, homosexual

pornographers."

>> Right.

>> Which I think is something

that a lot of us wear as a badge

of New York honor.

>> Absolutely.

>> But it is an interesting

point.

>> Right, right.

So when I say America hated

New York, like, there's also

this great book by Max Page,

and the title is escaping me,

but he writes about America's

fantasies of destroying

New York.

And he looks at films and books

in which New York is often being

destroyed.

>> Okay.

>> And so, you know, because

New York was always exceptional,

it was never really quite

America.

You know, people have written

about it sort of like,

"Well, is it Europe?

Is it America?"

It's sort of, like,

this other zone outside of that.

And, you know, I think that that

reached its pinnacle in the '70s

with that.

And Woody Allen really sums it

up in that quote, right?

So what happened after 9/11

was there was this

Americanization of New York

where, you know, everybody was

saying, "We're all New Yorkers

now."

And, you know, we had our flags

waving.

I had a flag outside on my fire

escape.

You know, there was this

national sort of mourning

and coming together

after 9/11 that really -- that

New York was sort of claimed

by America, and so what happened

was, you know, New York had been

the Big Apple and the rotten

apple, right?

And now it was as American

as apple pie, and there was this

real sort of psychic shift, and

tourists -- There was this sort

of point right after 9/11 where

terror kept tourists out of

New York, but then they started

really flowing back in in a

really big way.

Ground Zero became a huge

tourist attraction

and the museum that's there now,

you know, which is -- you know,

I have mixed feelings about.

>> Yeah. It's interesting.

And you talk about the rotten

apple piece, which is kind of

tongue-in-cheek but also kind of

legitimate.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> The thing that I wonder

about, you know, somewhat waxing

nostalgic about a lost New York,

is, is there a worry of

glorifying maybe some of the not

great parts of New York?

I'm watching "The Deuce" right

now on HBO.

>> Right, mm-hmm.

>> And, you know, I think

a lot of people are.

It's great.

>> Sure.

>> But the idea of a New York

where there's a ton of

corruption and crime and

prostitution is rampant in

Times Square.

>> Right, right.

>> Is there a concern of

glorifying that?

I mean, have things progressed

in a positive way, too?

>> Sure, right?

I mean, I think that to glorify

that would be a mistake.

At the same time, can we look at

it in a nuanced way?

I mean, a lot of these

conversations that I have with

people around this topic get

split into black-and-white

thinking, and as a

psychoanalyst, you know, I'm

like, "No, no. It's gray.

It's all gray.

Everything's gray, right?"

So, you know, what I say in my

book is, like, you know, the

city was dirty, and dirt is

fertile, and it is fertile.

And that doesn't mean that

it's not dirty and scary

and dangerous, and, you know,

I'm not advocating for crime.

A lot of people think I am,

which is a crazy notion.

But there is something about

that time, and I think that's

why we're seeing so much

nostalgia right now for the

1970s, because the city has

become so sterilized.

You know, we're not talking

about balance anymore.

We're talking about the city

has gone out of balance, and

maybe it was out of balance in

the '70s, too.

It was too far to, you know,

decrepitude, but, you know, can

we have a balance between the

two?

>> Well, so do you think there

is a balance?

So, I'm looking at -- There is

a moment in your book where you

talk about Robert Moses and

Jane Jacobs and people who

think, you know -- where you can

sort of appeal to both

sensibilities.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> I don't know that you can.

Do you think that there is

a compromise that can be reached

where New York is a safer,

cleaner place but still holds

onto its soul?

>> I do think so.

You know, what happens, too,

in this black-and-white way

that people kind of get

their heads around it is you end

up in this false dichotomy,

right, where you can either have

a safe city that's completely

unaffordable for most people

or you can have an affordable

city that's open but is

completely filled with crime and

danger and risk.

And I think that that's just not

true.

But what we do need to do is we

need to reregulate the city,

because the city that we see

today was created by policies.

It was not natural.

It was not inevitable.

It's not the way it's always

been, and it can be -- a new

city can be created through

policies that are compassionate

and empathic and centered

on its citizens and centered

on its most vulnerable people

and centered on creating a kind

of balance.

>> And you've done activism

work to this end, as well.

I mean, tell me a little bit

about what you think people

should do who are sad when they

see Carnegie Deli close or their

local mom-and-pop shop close.

What should people do?

>> Well, so I started a little

grassroots group called

Save NYC, which you can find if

you do #SaveNYC, and mostly

we've been raising awareness.

I sometimes don't like to call

myself an activist.

I'm sort of a writer/activist

is more, you know -- because I

think that there activists who

are in the streets and really

doing a lot of work, which I'm

not doing, so I want to kind of

give them credit for that.

So, you know, there are a lot of

things we can do.

One thing we can do is we can

pass the Small-Business Job

Survival Act, right?

This is a bill that's been

kicking around for a while.

The majority of the city council

members support it.

It just needs to be brought to

a vote, and it's a progressive

bill that would help businesses

when it comes time to renew

their leases that they get a

fair lease renewal.

I would love to see commercial

rent control come back.

A lot of people don't know

that New York City had

commercial rent control for

almost 20 years after

World War II, and that protected

businesses from these massive

rent hikes that we're seeing.

Because people like to blame

the Internet, and the Internet

has taken a bite out of small,

you know, brick-and-mortar

shops.

But I think they'd be weathering

the Internet if their rent

wasn't tripled, quadrupled,

quintup-- You know, it's crazy.

>> Right, right.

>> So those are two policies

that could be, you know --

that could do a lot of work.

>> Yeah, absolutely.

So, reading the book, I should

also mention you've lived in the

East Village.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> I lived in the East Village.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> We were speaking a little bit

earlier that I looked through

the book, and there were all

these places that you mentioned

where I thought, "Oh, my gosh.

I forgot that that closed."

And that did really affect me.

Lanza's I didn't even know

closed until I read your book.

Were there moments -- What were

sort of, like, the big

harbingers of change that, when

they closed, you were hit really

hard by that?

>> Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

>> Were there any in particular

that, like, stick out for you?

>> Yeah, I mean, I think --

You know, I always have a hard

time with this question, because

it's sort of -- I forget, too.

I mean, I think forgetting gets

sort of built into the

changeability of the city and

just life as it moves forward.

And also, the places that mean

the most to me are very

personal, right?

>> Sure.

>> So, like, there's a big loss,

like CBGB's music club.

That's a major loss.

I really never went there.

I went there a few times.

It wasn't personally important

to me, but it was more important

for, you know, the culture of

the city.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> St. Marks Bookshop is a big

one that I miss every day.

I mean, I loved that -- I loved

that shop.

That's a big one.

Cafe Edison, which is around the

corner from here on 47th.

>> It's huge.

>> Huge, you know.

That was a beautiful spot.

It had been around since, I

think, 1980, and the owner

didn't renew their lease.

And, you know, the whole

Broadway community came out in

support of it.

And we had a group,

Save Cafe Edison, and we got all

the way to Mayor De Blasio, and

he tried, and he couldn't do

anything.

And that's when I realized we

really need systemic policy

change.

>> You do a thing on your blog

that I think is really unique

and interesting.

There are some of these places

where you've been to on the last

night that it's open, things

like that.

It's almost sort of a -- I don't

know if it's silly to say, but a

personal funeral, in a way, that

you have these moments with

these places.

>> Yeah.

>> What are some of the places

that you've been to on the night

before its closing, and what do

you do when you go there?

>> I eat a meal, you know,

sort of like a Last Supper

kind of thing.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> Cafe Edison was one of them,

you know, and I write about it

in the book, but, you know, this

memory of sitting at a table

next to the back counter and

watching the owner, you know,

and he was -- I was having some

blueberry blintzes, you know, as

a last meal, and he was circling

the restaurant, you know.

It was almost like he was saying

goodbye to it.

And every time he would go by

the counter, he would run his

hand along the Formica of the

counter, and it was just the

sense of, you know, he was

saying goodbye to this thing

that had meant so much to him

and his family for so long.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> So mostly what I do is I have

a meal and I observe and I take

some notes and I just sort of

sit quietly and really -- I try

to take it in as much as

possible, sort of, like, this is

the last time, and I want to

almost take it into my nervous

system, in a way, and, you know,

hold it, which is impossible.

>> And you were there with other

people who are doing the same

thing, I think, right?

>> Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

So it's often a communal

experience, and I'll hear people

saying goodbye, you know, and

you'll see people crying and

you'll see people hugging.

And it's really beautiful and

sad.

And -- Yeah.

>> Yeah.

Well, I think that's great.

You still have the blog going,

right, "Vanishing New York"?

>> I do, yep.

>> Vanishingnewyork.blogspot

.com, right?

>> Yeah, it's an old Blogspot.

>> No, that's great.

Okay, so if people want to

lament along with you or holler

at you and say, "Did you see

this is closing?

Did you see that's closing?"

that's where they can find you,

right?

>> Yep, absolutely.

>> Jeremiah, thanks so much for

being here.

>> Thank you.

>> I appreciate it.

Check out "Vanishing New York:

How a Great City Lost Its Soul"

wherever books are sold.

It might make you fall in love

with a New York you never knew.

Thanks for tuning in.

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