I recently stumbled upon a Lower East Side blog called It Was Her New York. It's different than many of the other neighborhood blogs, mine included. I liked it, so I contacted its author, C.O. Moed, and asked her these questions.
photo by Ruben Guzman
Q: I like the quietness of your blog. It feels somehow outside of the blogosphere hubbub. Like you're walking a different wavelength. How would you say your blog compares to other EV/LES neighborhood blogs? What made you start it?
A: The blogs of the East Village and Lower East Side are so much more “here and now”--a street-citizen journalism. Very similar to the way word traveled on the LES when I was growing up--someone would see something, tell someone who told the shopkeeper who told the next customer who called his/her spouse/ kid/ neighbor and before you know it everybody knew everything and usually someone was in trouble with their mother.
I began this blog to save the heart of a video doc project, IT WAS HER NEW YORK during a time I was losing so much--a suddenly ill parent who had been the main subject of the doc, a departing partner, and a constantly eroding home/ city. Each day there was less and less that I recognized and more and more that I was losing. So each moment I wrote about was layered not just with my own 48+ years of memories (I’m now 50) but also the memories of my family’s life here. (There seems to be so few corners of this city that don’t hold something of our lives here.) Perhaps it makes the tone of the blog a bit more nostalgic and perhaps sadder, more heartbroken. But I felt desperate to preserve or document what was being erased and I wanted to do it in the voice of my people – my family, my neighbors, my friends, my neighborhood, my New York.
photo by C.O. Moed
Q: You say your blog explores "the tender rubble that holds both my mother, Florence's, and New York's soul as one disappears into old age and the other into gentrification." Can you say more about this connection between the city and your mother?
A: Florence was a charming, eccentric, visionary, failed, indomitable, fox-trotting-with-the-girls pianist and more so, an artist. She, like the city, could only survive in a place that allowed expansion past conformity and small-mindedness. Even as dementia and illness slowly dissolved her ability to read music or the paper or write coherent ideas she still existed, seeking to speak to me about my writing, movies, art, food, and people who annoyed her. And to me, New York City has always done the same. No matter what stupid, overpriced, indulgent disaster takes the place of a mom-&-pop business or service, the heart and soul of New York still seeks expression that could only come from a city built on immigrant dreams and outrageous desire.
But regardless of that fortitude, it began to feel as if each day Florence got sicker, another hardware/diner/ shoe repair/ bookstore/ everything-you-need store disappeared. They both were literally disappearing together.
Also, this city was as much my mother as Florence was. I learned on its streets to survive and thrive as much as I learned to be an artist from under Florence’s piano. It was devastating to lose both of them. So I began to write to ensure they continued in one way or another. It helped me keep my own self and soul visible and living.
photo by C.O. Moed
Q: What do you/will you miss most about New York's tender rubble?
A: That’s like asking a fish at the fish market what it misses about the water.
It’s not just the neighborhood stores where I got what I needed, no matter what it was, the store owners who knew me, the neighbors on every block who looked like me or looked like who I grew up with, the waitresses in the diners who allowed me to sit with a tea as I sulked over bad love poems at 4am, or how everyone at the bar had the same amount of money or lack thereof in our pockets. I miss the sounds, the smells, the tastes that could only come from all of the above. I don't recognize these basic elements in my city anymore except in small moments and tiny corners, which is what I try to preserve in the blog posts. But what I miss most is the accent, the insight, the moxy, the rhythm, the walk, the eye, the street life and the cultural/human space to stretch into full self. I miss the city where how I move and breathe is normal, not an anomaly.
Q: When you say "It Was Her New York," what does that mean? How would you describe your mother's New York?
A: There's definitely a proprietary stance in the Her. Florence's New York allowed for the struggling artist to afford an apartment so they could begin their life in art and meet and join together with others doing the same. Her New York allowed for immigrants to begin again and expand into dreams of their own making. Her New York was where the freaks and revolutionaries were welcomed to change the world. All this was possible because there was housing, grocery stores, work spaces and opportunities that were all affordable to those with not much money in the pocket.
Where in today's New York is any of this possible? New York stopped looking like Florence (white hair, old woman in sneakers and jeans running wild and alive) and started looking like young Sex In The City on bad acid. We the people of HER New York were relegated to being outsiders.
photo by C.O. Moed
Q: Your bio says you were born on the Lower East Side when it was still a tough neighborhood. How did you experience that toughness?
A: LOL. Because it was still dicey to walk down the street and not get your ass kicked in. And I grew up in the good part of a bad neighborhood. Look, this life wasn't great but I didn't know that until I left the neighborhood and met people from higher classes/better neighborhoods. To me the toughness of home was normal and I didn't think it was such a big deal to grow up with the assumption of having to be a bit street smart to avoid getting beat up.
But until recently I still operated under that assumption. It's only when I started to notice that people didn't really have to pay attention on the street at night that I saw things were changing. Or when a friend took out of his bag a REALLY expensive video camera and I was like put that away you want to get mugged? and he said, "CO, look around you," and pointed to the fancy little cafes surrounding us. And DON'T get me started about how people carry their wallets and keys and handbags. I'd be a rich woman if only I could morally excuse stealing.
Q: Do you still live on the LES? A lot of people say the LES is better off now that it's "safe." As someone who lived through the tough times, do you agree?
A: I live in the East Village which is NOT the LES. The LES starts at Houston and I grew up on Grand Street. (Just overheard this faux-artist try to impress some girl by saying with a certain amount of mall-bought jadedness he lived in the LES on St. Marks Street. I mean, please. Sorry I digress...)
Safety has been bought with gentrification. How come the neighborhood wasn't cleaned up before tenements were renovated and tiny apartments rented for ridiculous amounts of money?
The danger on the street wasn't some cool slomo sequence in some edgy movie. It was my friend in the hospital for months because five guys jumped him and beat the shit out of him. It was seeing drugs destroy my first boyfriend. It was Florence getting repeatedly mugged and punching back to keep her bag (she did, successfully). Or me being stranded on the other side of Tompkins Square Park one late night and staying in a really dangerous and violent situation because walking through the park (a park I had played in as a little kid) was more dangerous and violent.
So yeah, I'm glad it's safer. I'm glad the night streets are filled with young people shouting woo woo under my window who aren't worried about getting shot mugged jumped raped killed. I just want to know why this couldn't have happened when it was still my or Her New York.
photo by C.O. Moed