Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Her New York

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


Mykola Dementiuk said...

Excellent last question, 'Why?' That's what I'd to know...but will never get an answer.

Melanie said...

Great piece. There were great people when I was growing up in Brooklyn--it always seemed that the cool insightful eccentric people were always being marginalized--but they had no notion of that nor did they care. I can relate to "Her New York" in my own way very well. My Brooklyn people were great! One of them saved my life. I had fallen off a stoop and lay in a doorwell and Miss. Molly Crow found me and ran to my Mother to tell her. And she brought help. WOW-that was a long time ago...

EV Grieve said...

Thanks fior bringing the site to our attention, Jeremiah.

bryan said...

Lovely sites -- thanks very much for the links and the interview.

Laura S. said...

Thank you for featuring this blog.

Bowery Boogie said...

wow. cool interview. nice to see another take on it all.

Unknown said...

This blog vibrates with truth and an insight those of us who didn't grow up here would do well to treasure. It may be that the "economic crisis" is the best thing that could happen to the neighborhoods of the city... stopping the mindless gentrification.

I long for a city that could offer me the shelter and community that was here not so long ago. It is a sterile mall for all of us, only most people walking the streets have no idea what is being lost.... because they grew up in malls.

Thanks, CO Moed, keep writing

Anonymous said...

Jeremiah, I was walking down 2nd Avenue and a group of hipsters started cursing at this old man who owns the bakery "Moishes". They threw trash at him as well.

I was with a large group of friends from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx
and we made sure we chased them down the block.

Bucko said...

The small moments and little corners are what drew me to NYC from a sterile and sometimes vapid suburbia. CO Moed finds more in the proverbial grain of schmutz than any "quaint" store and cafe can reconstruct.

Anonymous said...

The difference is that it used to be families. It's still like that on Avenue D in the Projects, and parts of the Lowers East Side where the Jewish people still live (mostly in high rises near chinatown) but families pretty much moved out of the tenements and the spoiled hipsters and trust fund babies moved in.

What's the point of trying to stay in a neighborhood where there is no neighbor culture left? That's why all the Irish and Italians and Jews moved out and went to the suburbs. White Flight but also the lack of neighborhoods left.

c.o. moed said...

I am either related to or am good friends with the visitors to HER NEW YORK so I'm just thrilled for everyone's response. Thank you to Jeremiah and the Vanishing NY community.

Anonymous said...

J, I love your blog but this blew me away. Thank you! I left NY four years ago. People ask if I miss it; I tell them it ceased to exist. NY is now a theme park. Its city motto should be: Goodbye To All That.

Anonymous said...

CO Moed spoeaks a truth that even outsiders get. Everything she says runs straight into my heart, and I get it. And I am not a New Yorker, I am daughter of the Pacific and this is my home. But I get it, about a place and time gone, and the people with it. Thank you. Please bring her work more often.

JakeGould said...

“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.”
I've been saying this for years myself. It's simply to safe/sane in NYC nowadays.

The most fundamental thing that has changed in NYC is not exactly families, but permanency.

Most of the folks moving to NYC and "buying the lie" of the new NYC are just here on a 5 year plan. They'll have roommates, a crappy job, get a better job, get their own place, go to "that one place" and "do that one thing" and then after about 5 years, they will move on.

To me, all of the new NYC wreaks of tourist-friendly worlds. Whether it be insta-condos or crappy overpriced restaurants.

And that's what's dying. The idea that NYC is a place you can truly have a life and community in.

Anyone who actually wanted to plant roots in NYC would never treat it as crappily as some of these trustafarians do. There's no permanence in these folks lives. Just empty experience on top of empty experience.

They deserve their cupcakes.

Anonymous said...


Andrew said...

Great site, great interview. Moed's words are so true, and heartbreaking.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that first picture with her looking out the window, i immediately thought of my "nanny" (my grandmother) staring out her old railroad flat apartment window on 9th Ave. Sadly she gone now. And everything that she represented, where she lived, what she knew is gone. I can't even stand to go near 9th ave anymore, its so gentrified. It so tragic, but this was really a great article with the last of the true blue New Yorkers.

drew said...

As always CO, you have a good grasp of the world and you are able to communicate those thoughts oh so well.
Very Cool

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing this blog to our attention, Jeremiah. I added it to my three daily blog bookmarks.

And thank you to CO for beautiful, sincere -- real -- thoughts.

JackS: You're right about a sense of permanence having dissipated from New York. That's the difference. It isn't (all) white vs. black, rich vs. poor, old vs. new: It's people who truly want to make a life -- however they define it -- for themselves here vs. people who've seen the movie and want to dip in for a quick good time.

Those of us who are not natives, but who were drawn by the beacon of hope, acceptance, love, grime, meanness, loneliness, togetherness -- LIFE -- that is New York: We get it. And we mourn with you.

Unknown said...

Wonderful interview... oddly though, the very first time I ever heard a native LES'er say the EV is not part of the LES. But great find... Perspectives/oral history from other generations are very important. thanks for sharing!

pwlsax said...

CO has a great point- safety in urban spaces must be bought.

NY lives, breathes, eats, sleeps, and dies on the interests of the landlord class. That was ok once - there used to be a lot of small-time landlords and -ladies trying to get by - but nowadays Big Real Estate is God.

It is a little disingenuous of her to ask, "why couldn't it have happened otherwise?" Because it doesn't happen otherwise, CO. The New York of families and blocks and telling your mother couldn't have existed without its downside - turf, ass kickings, and a certain proud resignation about life.