“The Holdouts” is a comedy series about New Yorkers who can’t afford to live in the new New York. Co-created by Stephen Girasuolo and Dan Menke, it stars Kevin Corrigan as Kevin Shanahan, a rent-controlled tenant who refuses his landlord's buyout as he bemoans the hyper-gentrification of the city: “They won’t be happy until this whole island is one big Duane Reade with a Starbucks inside and an IHOP inside that and a Bank of America inside that.”
The creators have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the show, which they hope will help bring attention to the plight of the vanishing city.
I chatted with Girasuolo and Corrigan about the show, the lost New York, and the life of a holdout.
Q: So the inevitable first question: What inspired you to do this project?
Stephen: I was being forced out by my landlord of 25 years in Hell's Kitchen at the time and my co-creator Dan Menke wanted to write a part for Corrigan as a man out of time in New York City. Something started there.
And I was away living in Paris and Brazil for 7 years and came back to a city I honestly didn’t recognize. That fed into it.
Kevin: I was born in the Bronx and, except for the years 2000 - 2005, I’ve lived in New York my whole life. Even during those five years in Los Angeles, I kept my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, on West 51st Street. Like Stephen, I was forced out by my landlord. I wonder if we had the same landlord.
In 2007, I began following Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. It was hard not to notice all the shutterings of all the old places. The closing that really got under my skin was Socrates Diner on Hudson and Franklin. I thought if they could close that place, they can close any place.
One by one, all these places began to disappear. It seemed like some terrible coincidence. As we know now, these changes are quite deliberate, calculated by developers, city officials, community boards.
I started to feel like Jim Carrey’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as if some force of nature was targeting my memories and wiping them out, one by one. It was not uncommon to have the impulse to go somewhere I hadn’t been in a while only to find that place closed down, whether it was a record store or a restaurant or bar.
I took it personally. And then, finally, I was kicked out of my 51st street apartment. I’d become just like the doomed movie theaters and restaurants I loved. They were closing me down, like I was some old business, some thing from the past that needed to make way for the new.
Q: I feel disoriented in the city from day to day, it's changed so rapidly and so completely in recent years. How would you characterize the changes?
Stephen: I was used to, in Paris, just lounging around at a cafe or bar, meeting people on the fly. So when I came back to Hell's Kitchen, those places were not there. There was a place that had good chocolate cake and was open late at night. Now it was a gift shop. Very expensive places. There were fewer local coffee shops, doughnut shops, bars.
Union Square was completely revamped with Whole Foods, and I walked up to a city kid working there and asked, "Where are all the New Yorkers?” He said they moved to Canarsie.
Kevin: In this age of omnipresent technology, it is nearly impossible to form the kinds of relationships we grew used to pre-internet, when you had to deal with people directly, where you had to engage the city, one foot in front of the other, eye to eye. You had to make physical contact. You needed an imagination. Today, there is a disconnect, relationships are “virtual.” You don’t have to leave the house. An implied relationship will suffice. Places don’t stick around as long as they used to. No one expects anything to last. So the idea of developing attachments to places is archaic.
In order to fall in love, you have to have a heart. You have to be willing to put in the time. Being a regular somewhere, enjoying the company of familiar faces, this is a beautiful thing, to be part of a community.
Q: On the show’s Kickstarter page, it says, “Let’s take the stand together.” How do you see The Holdouts as taking a stand in the fight to preserve New York? What impact do you hope it'll have?
Stephen: It could wake up the need to address the rising costs more, for one. People are getting marginalized. It’s the people really. The storefronts are a huge problem, but fighting for the right to live and afford in the city you love and grew up in, or call your home, is important. Mayors know that. They should do more to address it. Serious comedy is one way to increase that conversation.
Q: Going back to that idea of the “man out of time,” and the holdout—obviously a holdout is someone who resists his or her landlord’s pressure to leave an apartment, but it’s more than that, too. Especially in today’s city. What does it mean to you?
Stephen: It means preservation and fighting to preserve a piece of history that is meaningful not only for me but for the people who come after me. But when they start building around you, it becomes sad, too. It’s affecting all classes of people.
Places give you purpose. A language will die if you don’t speak it. I came back to the city and a type of language had died while I was gone. A holdout fights to keep something alive.
Q: What language is that?
Stephen: A certain interaction of respect between us, of looking out for one another a bit. It’s still there but harder to find. Things are more distant. Separated. Many people I encounter have an entitled air. It’s a good question. I’m getting older, but younger people--"OH My god, oh my god"--young people like myself didn’t talk like that. That’s the new language.
Q: Kevin, in the trailer you give a dirty look to a table full of young women cooing over their iphones--how do you experience this "language" of many newcomers to the city?
Kevin: Everyone’s looking at their phone these days, even me. But like I said, it’s essential to know how to do things the old fashioned way, to make friends, to know how to banter. You have to be curious. How can you live in New York and not be interested in people, places, and things?
My father was a first-generation Irish American. He grew up in the South Bronx, as did my mother. By the 70s, they, and my brother and me, settled in the north part of the borough, the Norwood section. It was, and still is, a diverse neighborhood, and my parents never left. My father passed away in February, but he was a devoted Bronxite to the end. He would look out on Mosholu Parkway from his bedroom window. That was his Riviera. He was a conservative man, but a truly compassionate one, who appreciated the diversity of the neighborhood. He was my teacher. My love for New York, and particularly “old New York” came from my parents, and especially my father. He used to work in the Daily News building, so I remember being in there many times as a kid and marveling at the globe in the lobby where they shot Superman, the one with Christopher Reeve.
You have to love the idea of New York being a melting pot. You have to proud of the tradition and the history of this place where a thousand languages are spoken, where diverse cultures co-exist. It’s that thing of treating everyone with whom you cross paths with respect an open mind, and an open heart, because they could be God in disguise. They could have the answers you’ve been looking for.
Q: So Kevin is the holdout in the show, and then there's his preppy friend, who plays the foil. He likes Whole Foods, I imagine, and Starbucks, and those $20 glasses of wine. I'm curious about their relationship. How do they get along?
Stephen: The newbie Jayce character is in awe of Kevin because he is a "real New Yorker." Jayce wants to be a real New Yorker, but how? It’s funny. They have different views. They’re an odd couple. Jayce feels sorry for Kevin for being stuck in past. But we are playing with Kevin really getting to Jayce to the point where Jayce begins to side with him and holdout. He is a high-school teacher. His salary sucks. How can one live in the city on a teacher’s salary?
Kevin: I can’t say I have that much against Starbucks because my father and I used to meet every Friday at the Starbucks in the office building where he worked on 34th street and 7th avenue. Sometimes we’d have to wait for a table because people coming out of Macy's or waiting to catch the Long Island Railroad would be in there, drinking coffee or charging their computers. My father didn’t mind waiting. And, when I was with him, neither did I. All the people at that Starbucks knew and loved him. So I have no quarrel, except of course with the fact that they gutted that Starbucks, took over the 99-cent store next door and made a bigger Starbucks, which had none of the cavernous, cozy charm of the previous store.
Which reminds me, there used to be a great diner called The Astor Riviera on Astor Place. One night in 1987, Al Pacino took about ten or so students there from the Lee Strasberg School. The students had been in a play. Al came to see the play because these were students of Al’s mentor, Charlie Laughton. I wasn’t in the play, but I was a student of Charlie’s and I got to tag along. So, yeah, I had dinner with Al Pacino at the Astor Riviera, which is now a Starbucks. I remember Al saying, “All the world’s a stage, and the stage is your world.”
New York City is a big stage. Down every street is a memory. You come here and you
live out the movie of your life.
Q: Stephen, Kevin Corrigan is an inspired choice for Kevin Shanahan. He and I have been chatting online about the vanishing city for a while now, so I know he's passionate about it. How did he get connected to the project and how do you see him fitting the role?
Stephen: Dan Menke, my co-creator, is friends with him. They are passionate about the topic. Dan wanted to write a role for him. I suggested we use the gentrification as a backdrop. Kevin liked the idea. It’s also a lead role for him. He should be playing lead roles in TV. He's very versatile.
The script Dan wrote at first was called "The Characters," just two actors in New York City. One from New York, one newbie. I thought the script was hilarious, but felt it needed something more urgent and relevant.
Corrigan loves the smell of New York. He deeply understands the culture. He’s in love with the grittiness. He misses the squeegee guys. His deadpan personality, with the humor of someone lost in his own town, is funny. Putting him in a fancy wine bar or condo with a swimming pool is funny.
Kevin: RE: the smell of New York. I don’t always love it, but right now it’s nice. It’s 3AM and it’s 64 degrees outside. That’s a nice clean smell coming in the window. Coming in from the Harbor.
Q: When I watch Kevin in the trailer, it's uncanny, like looking in a mirror. So I have to ask--and this might be a rather egocentric question--how much Jeremiah is in there?
Stephen: Ha-ha! He said he is a big fan of yours, but he told me after we shot that. He could be channeling you. If he is a mirror, that’s a good sign.
Q: Kevin, the character has the same name as you--how close are you to him?
Kevin: He’s me, but he’s also my friend George from Astoria, and some other people I know from the Bronx. And he’s you, Jeremiah.
Visit The Holdouts on Kickstarter, watch the trailer, and consider kicking in some funds--time is ticking