Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Village Voice

The Village Voice is vanishing from the streets of New York--and something critical will go with it.

Yesterday, the Hollywood Reporter announced that the Voice will soon be going digital only. No more print. No more paper. No more ink. After 62 years of gracing the streets of the city, from newsstands to red boxes, no more.

The decision came from the paper's latest owner, Peter Barbey, media mogul and heir to the billion-dollar fortune behind retail brands like The North Face and Timberland. Barbey has recently been at the center of a struggle with the Voice's union workers--they published an open letter to him just last month, asking him not to weaken the union and cut benefits.

And now this cut.

Across social media, public outcry against the decision was swift, with many New Yorkers fondly recalling the days of waiting for the paper to come out each week, lining up at the old newsstand on Astor Place to grab the first copies from the pile, to be the first to search for jobs and apartments.

Wrote the Times, "Without it, if you are a New Yorker of a certain age, chances are you would have never found your first apartment. Never discovered your favorite punk band, spouted your first post-Structuralist literary jargon, bought that unfortunate futon sofa..." "But," they concluded, "the printed paper was also an artifact of a downtown world that no longer exists."

Astor Place

A vanished paper from a vanished city?

I asked Michael Musto and Penny Arcade their thoughts on the Voice's physical demise.

Michael Musto said, "The Voice has long valued their online presence, so I think it will stay valid. There's something lost in that the actual paper was historic and there's something about holding a paper in your hand that was always personal and special. But things are changing, and the focus on the Internet venue--while not necessarily as lucrative as the paper used to be--still allows for possibility, surprise, and hopefully relevance."

Penny Arcade told me, "Truth is, the Village Voice was destroyed and made redundant by 1995. It was an exquisite relic, like some Catholic saints that die but do not physically rot, a monument to a way of life that was eroding in our city. But when New York was New York and downtown was downtown, the Village Voice was the communication organ we were all connected to, not only those of us who lived in New York, but from all over the world. Like-minded people communicated through the Voice. It was the town crier. That back page was the neighborhood bulletin board. The Voice was a tangible piece of New York, so I suppose now that New York itself is no longer tangible, the physical, palpable Voice is no longer necessary."

The original Astor Place newsstand, 2007

It may not be what it was, but the Voice's physical presence on the street still maintains a certain gravitas. You see it almost everywhere you go, reading its headlines as you pass. Opening the kiosk door and bending down to grab a copy, folding it under your arm as you hurry on, it feels right, part of the urban hustle and routine.

The people holding the Voice exude a cool intelligence. When you see them, you feel a kinship. Of course, you see them less and less, all those artsy lefties, all those cranky city people. Where did they go? Back in 1994, in an article titled "Last of the Red-Hot Lefties," Voice publisher David Schneiderman told New York magazine, "The perception that we're actually difficult, cranky, and cantankerous is our reality."

"Cantankerous" might be the word most often associated with the paper. That used to be a good thing around here. It meant dissent. It meant New York. But that good, old crankiness that kept the city so brilliant and brisk has been under assault for awhile.

In the suburbanized, corporatized city, crankiness isn't welcome. They don't want us to be difficult.


Back in 1995 David Brooks wrote in the neoliberal, conservative City Journal, “It would be a shame if New York dragged on through the next decades as a wayward home for cranky, marginalized dissenters.” The city was changing in a new way, and Brooks saw the future. “Over the longer term,” he wrote, “New Yorkers might--dare I say it?--change. New York liberalism will gradually dissolve; cultural attitudes will drift toward the mainstream.”

Today the mainstreaming of the city is nearly complete. The corporations, real estate developers, and financial elites--along with their aspirational followers--don't like the cantankerous and the cranky. They want us to be docile, to go along with it, to lie back and think of England while they do their business.

If you resist? They'll call you cranky--and they won't mean it as a compliment.

I am often dismissed as cranky by these people. Recently, I was fortunate to be on the cover of the Voice--and to be reviewed in its inky pages. It was an honor. I write a blog, but I have little love for the digital. Print is powerful. Print is legit. The digital is--too often--a lot of noise. Stuff to be skimmed. Piles of content to feed our increasingly shitty attention spans. I'd like to think the Voice included me because they saw me as cranky like them. In the good way.

The Voice was born of New York's rebel spirit. Over the last two decades, the teeth have been taken from the mouth of this town crier. And now it will be deprived of its body.

Maybe the Internet will free it again, make it wild. But many of us will miss its physical presence, the way it took up space on the streets, how it accompanied us as we walked along, plowing the sidewalks, cranky and difficult and very much alive.

The Voice on paper, however much of a relic it has become, still stands as a visible reminder of what the city used to be. Let us not forget.


Unknown said...

We got the Voice and NYT at my local Ky newstand, in 1976-77. Used the former to try and find an apt before moving up. Have never seen music listings like that before or since. It was the one thing everyone had in common, up here.

Tom Falco said...

I always remember reading the Village Voice in the library in Miami. It was my connection to NY when I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s.

Scout said...

I've always been fond of Penny Arcade - one of the last remaining authentic bohemians in NYC, yet with her eyes open, and ready to acknowledge reality. Yes, the Voice died back in the mid-90s, and we are only now mourning it's corpse. Probably operating at a continuous loss, how it survived this long as a print organ is a miracle. The Voice was connected to bohemianism as well as liberalism. I'm not sure about the latter, but there isn't a shred of real bohemianism in NYC today, merely capitalistic posing.

I disagree with the statement "print is powerful." Yes, print was once powerful, but technology and time are leading more and more to abandon it. How many bibliophiles do i know who have gradually shifted their reading entirely to devices, and would never now buy a physical book? Many. Just as gaslight was left behind in favor of electricity, and the horse abandoned for the combustion engine, these are the inevitable ways in which the way we lead our lives changes. And we each have a wonderful choice - use it, or resent it.

Cosmo said...

Back to the underground! Our Voices cannot and will not be marginalized and repressed - remember printing your own (or maybe your friends did) newsletter/paper with ditto machines? Original artwork, handwritten, finger-on-the-pulse news. That's where it's at. That's where we have to go now.

James said...

Even the Encyclopedia Britannica is pixel-only these days.
I got my first New York job out of the Voice - a rather miserly job in the prep section of a one-story salad place on Sixth and 46th, next to the not-yet-burned-out Performing Arts High School (scene of "Fame"). That corner is a skyscraper now. Luckily, the high school building is still looking good. The Voice, even in 1985, had the feeling of a very old friend who was nearing retirement. It certainly had more pages in it, and people still cared what the cover had on it. The Village Voice was more of a force when I was in college in Ohio - seeing the paper as one of the many beacons from the Great City. It became over-run with free papers (principally NY Press) that also attracted good writers and cartoonists, by the mid-90's. The problem with our current on-line habit is that nothing really conforms to a schedule now. There used to be a tradition where job-seekers would wait out the first printing of the Voice, either very late or very early in the day, to get first-dibs.
There was an exclusivity to it, like picking up the Sunday Times on Saturday night. One felt emboldened by having one of these things under-arm for all to see - particularly on the Subway where the light was better. We're just inured to more gratification but with far less substance - like cans of coffee that look like pounds but are only 10 ounces.

The Voice has been shaved down to a fraction of its selling weight for years, and the focus of that publication has been on click-throughs and ads for far too long.

Unknown said...

Glad you're cranky like the voice in a good way. This cranky guy got his first 1 bedroom apartment @ 448 West 46th Street for $423.75 in 1984. And the second one on Ninth Ave. And countless jobs. Yes by waiting on line in the wee hours for the paper to be dropped off at the newsstand in Sheridan Square, then poring over it in Tiffany restaurant across the street.

Dee said...

AGree with Penny Arcade. By the 90s it was already being made irrelevant. I've just looked up what they did to the editors and writers in 2006 and then 2013. It was savage and nasty. Beloved longtime writers and dedicated editors were decimated. I miss what it WAS. Not what it's become.

Unknown said...

I too found my rent controlled apartment via the Voice. Imagine being the first to show up with the option of taking or leaving it. I took it - $500 a month on East 4th Street.

Love that photo of the former Voice headquarters. The lack of pretense and fussiness on the Village streets is palpable. That Jack Delaney's restaurant is now a... Starbucks. I used to go for STD testing in the building next to it, now a Chase Bank. Ah the memories. Ah the STDs!

John K said...

Thank you for your crankiness and critiques, Jeremiah. While the Village Voice has been a shell of itself for some time, it still played a valuable role in the complex media ecology of New York and the US. (As did the now shuttered, quasi-libertarian City Paper before its demise.) When I was in my late teens and early 20s and only visiting New York, I would prize every copy of the Voice that I could get, because it was covering aspects of New York and US culture you could not find in most other US or local publications. I think of Wayne Barrett's political coverage, Richard Goldstein's articles on queer life and HIV/AIDS, Michael Musto's chronicles of New York's underground, Sylvia Plachy's unforgettable photos, Ted Rall's cartoons, Hilton Als' criticism (before he went to the New Yorker), the numerous critics writing about women's issues, the wide array of reviews of music, books, film, art, dance, etc., as well as its incredibly helpful listings, for jobs, apartments, you name it. Who nailed the corruption of one of Giuliani's top officials? Where else did you ever see someone out (legitimately) a right-wing, anti-gay top Roman Catholic Cardinal? Which publication was capturing the shifts in hiphop and rock before any other New York newspaper? One of the first and best reviews of my first book appeared there; the author was then just starting out but brilliant in his reading, is now quite famous: Colson Whitehead.

Just as New York has undergone a hypergentrified, neoliberal transformation into a zombie version of itself, increasingly excluding non-elite labor, so has the Voice been transformed, gutted really, by several generations now of management and ownership changes that have decimated its labor force (as Dee says, in 2006 and 2013 among others), and now consigned it to a ghostly, digital existence. Say what you will about the death of print, but while I find I sometimes (often?) cannot open digital files from 20 years ago, and while countless online sites (including whole platforms) are now just blank "error" pages, copies I have of the Voice are still readable as soon as I pick them up. And Scout, digital book sales are actually declining as a percentage of overall book sales, thank goodness!

Caleo said...

I'm one of the many folks who used to pick up the first run at night to read the job listings. I also got my first apartment through the Voice, while reading it weekly in my hometown in Upstate New York. My first job, and several others, found through the Voice. This was in the late 80's.
I read it religiously, and felt like I was connected to the soul of the city because of it. The Voice was a reliable friend.
I haven't read it in the last 10 years, wondering how long it could last in print form.
Goodbye old friend.

Conan1982 said...

Has there been a date set for their final issue? While this paper has become a shadow of it's former self it would still be cool to see how they bow out.

Brian said...

The Village Voice has stunk for at least 15 years. The writing is terrible, they got rid of real journalism. They fired their really good staff writers of national and local import. They have no say about social issues on a national scale. The real estate section dried up. The art sections were better done by independent Internet bloggers. Art reviews and listing better on blogs.

AriesRob said...

The first thing I thought of when reading this article was "I found my first apartment and first job out of college in the VV", and it's nice to see others with the same sentiment. While I pick up the 2 little papers in the morning in the subway, I admit it's been a while that I picked up the Voice. 30 years ago it was a weekly bible to my 17 year old self, but times changed, I changed, the city changed, and the Village Voice has also changed with the times.

Robert Cook said...

I first started reading the VOICE in the library of my Junior College in Jacksonville, FL in 1973. I still remember reading James Wolcott's review of the Ramones in the VOICE in the Spring of '75, and I followed the paper's coverage of the "NY Underground rock scene," as it was known before John Holmstrom's magazine PUNK gave the scene and the world a name for an emerging generation of avant garde and ironic young pop musicians. In the Fall of '75 I transferred to the University of Florida, where I could buy the VOICE at a bookstore across the street from the University's main entrance. Two friends I made at UF moved, first one, then the other scant months later, after graduating. I stayed in Florida another couple of years, but finally moved up here in May '81, after two test visits in June 1979 and August 1980. I bought the VOICE every week for years, and continued to pick it up when it became a free paper, (copying the upstart NEW YORK PRESS). I stopped picking it up a couple of years ago when it became really bad, but I have been getting it weekly for the last year, as it seemed to have improved and started featuring real journalism again. I'm sad it's print edition will end, but, it has discarded all of its recognizable writers and cartoonists, and one has to admit this was inevitable.

Anonymous said...

I'm feeling deeply offended, disgusted, immersed in the negative. Taking away the print version of the Voice makes total sense for a class of people who don't read. Let's face it, the new class "skim" articles online, or on their phones. They don't care for print versions of anything because the print version is heavy, laden with details. They have to carry it. They have to stop to read it. These people scoff at things they do not understand. These people have no patience. They want their wine in five minutes. They want it all now. They're animals.

eric said...

It was primarily seven years of reading the Voice by subscription that gave me the courage to finally move a thousand miles away from home to NYC twenty years ago. As a new arrival to the city, I, too, waited with a small crowd at the Astor Place news stand to grab the new issue, and I write now from the same apartment that a Voice classified led me to rent in 1997. It was distressing to watch as the paper lost so many contributors through the years. I recall a conversation with a neighbor from about a decade ago, after another long-time staffer was fired, in which my neighbor said, "It's over for the Voice." I said, "No. When Nat Hentoff goes, then it's over." And in time, Hentoff went, while an ever-diminishing, less relevant Voice staggered on. I have a mostly favorable opinion of the changes and improvements the paper made in the last year or so, even as the number of pages seemed to shrink each week. I suppose I will have to follow whatever the Voice becomes online, as I still consider it an essential part of my life in the city. The many Voice contributors from the past have my eternal respect and gratitude, for I can truly say that their work helped me steer my life to a better place.