Friday, January 6, 2012

Never Completely At Home: A Conversation with Jeremiah Moss

"...the future looks bleak..."
For half a decade, Jeremiah Moss has been rigorously, somewhat gloomily, but always affectionately documenting a vanishing act: New York City's. Itinerant Manhattanite e.e. cummings once cannily observed, "America makes prodigious mistakes. America has colossal faults, but one thing cannot be denied: America is always on the move," adding, "She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn't standing still." An island that thrums in one's imagination as much as through one's actual experience, Manhattan (and its boroughs) has never stood still, but the tremendous change in the past several decades has been especially rapid, and many who live there lament the paving-over of the past, of a certain character and grimy charm. Of course, each generation of New Yorkers—each generation of humans, really—is alarmed over some aspect of history being relegated to the dustbin, but we perhaps feel this kind of loss most keenly today, burdened as we are with mounting anecdotal, physical, and digital evidence that the past and its charms are surely receding. Grieving cries ping around the Internet and at the corner cafe, before it makes way for a Duane Reade.

At Moss's valuable and affecting Jeremiah's Vanishing New York— "aka, the Book of Lamentations"—New York's past and present collide daily, lost cultures and sub-cultures, signs and blocks and buildings and ways of living archaeologically restored, if only temporarily, against what Moss calls today's "monoculture."

Recently I virtually sat down with Moss (a pseudonym), and asked him about his site and his obsessions.


Are you a native New Yorker? Have you lived outside of the NYC area?

I am not a native. I'm often struck by how defensive I feel when asked that question, which is a new feeling. It only came after I started the blog and I became aware of a resentment that many natives feel toward non-natives. I believe that level of resentment is also relatively new, a reaction to a different kind of "immigrant" to the city, roughly beginning in the early 2000s. I'm not talking about immigrants from oppressed and third-world countries, but from middle America.

E.B. White, in his excellent book-length essay Here Is New York, refers to those of us who came from other places as "settlers." He says: "Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion."

I think a lot about how the settlers used to be—and be thought of—as people who could not live anywhere else, who had to come to New York just to exist—as queers, or artists, or some kind of oddball—and they often contributed something creative to the city. Now newcomers are seen as leeches, sucking the life from the city. This is often, but not always, true. Over the past decade it has seemed that newcomers don't want to adapt to the city, they want to the city to adapt to them. And many young people come to New York hugging their middle American culture to themselves, a culture that settlers used to be desperate to leave behind. It's a huge topic and very complex and it occupies my mind quite a bit.

So, while I feel defensive about my non-native status, I understand the suspicion and anger natives feel toward newcomers. After 20 years in the city, I feel it too.

Nostalgia is seductive but dangerous.  Do you ever find yourself romanticizing a past that’s better off in the past, or romanticizing a past that was in fact never really there?

East Village's Mars Bar, RIP
Nostalgia comes from two Greek words that combine to mean "homesickness." More and more I find myself thinking that nostalgic people are people who never felt completely at home anywhere, and we're always searching for that sense of belonging and connection. Like it's "out there" somewhere. It "exists" in the past because we can't really know the past, and so it's amenable to our fantasies.

Personally, I finally found that home when I came to New York two decades ago and settled in the East Village. I felt something I'd never felt before—a sense of coming home to someplace deeply familiar, because it was close to my sense of self.

When that started changing drastically, when it was being demolished shop by shop, building by building, person by person, I got angry. I did not want to lose that feeling of home. So I started the blog. Now I have a virtual home, where like-minded people ("family") come to visit, and I feel increasingly alien in my own neighborhood.

You describe the work you do on Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York as “bitterly nostalgic,” a phrase that I find funny and very interesting.  Can you explain what you mean by “bitterly nostalgic”?  Is there a contradiction in terms at work?

I guess bitter nostalgia is what I'm describing above—angry homesickness. There's no contradiction. Who wouldn't be bitter when their home is destroyed?

 Do you find that you need to strike a balance between lamenting and acceptance?

On the blog I don't want to strike a balance. We need spaces that are just about the anger and lament.

In my reality outside the blog, I'm working on acceptance because being angry all the time is incredibly wearing on a person. But it's tough. Also, I tend to rebel against acceptance in cases where there's an injustice going on. How can we accept it when people are having their third-generation businesses stolen by the city and bulldozed by this weird new monoculture of luxury and sameness?

So when I start to feel acceptance, it ends up feeling like resignation, and that's not a good feeling either. At the same time, I need new pants and shirts, so I buy them where I can afford them—at chain stores. Is that acceptance or resignation? Either way, it's fraught.
The Commuters, George Segal, 1982

I’ve always been struck by the solipsistic nature of the “good old days,” in that every generation looks back fondly at a vanished past so there can, in fact, be no good old days.  Do you believe that nostalgia is cyclically generational? What do you think a Jeremiah in 2075 or 2100 would miss about 2012 New York City?

I'm not delusional in thinking that the past was all good. It was bad for a lot of people—for women, queer people, people of color. I get accused sometimes of celebrating crime in New York City and that's not the case at all. I take more of a buffet-style approach to the past—if I could, I would cobble together a city with pieces of various eras. I'm aware that's not living in reality. What will we miss about 2012? Whatever's left in 2012 from the 90s, 80s, 70s, and on back. What I will miss are most likely the things that have been around for a long time. Like bookstores. When I think about a world with no bookstores I want to jump off a cliff. It terrifies me. What kind of world will that be? What kind of human beings will be walking around? Awful.

You mentioned Here Is New York. In that book White also wrote, "It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible." Do you find that the city "works" better now than it did when you first moved to the East Village?  

If "work" means to function, so the flow of people and things runs smoothly, then I don't think the city works as well as it once did. One big reason is the rise of cell phones.

It used to be that when you walked down the sidewalk, people stayed mostly to the right, they paid attention to their body in relation to other bodies, and we all moved around each other accordingly. It was a barely conscious dance, a social contract. Now it's a train wreck because half the population is zoned out, sleepwalking, their attention sucked into a cell phone. I find it endlessly frustrating and alienating to have to deal with that.

Also, the city worked better when we had mom and pop shops to cater to residents and provide human relationships. Now we have anonymous businesses that cater to transients. Useful things like laundromats vanish so cupcake shops can take their place.

More and more, for these reasons and others, it seems like New York City is being made over for people who don't really want to exist here. They want to be somewhere else, with whatever's at the other end of the smartphone, or back home in the suburbs, or on their way to another place entirely.

So those of us who do want to exist here, and really be conscious and present, have to cope with what is the transient mind of many new New Yorkers.
Since 2007 you’ve written some two thousand posts.  That’s a lot of lamenting.  How do you see the future of your site?

It's not something I want to do forever. It's a lot of obsessive work. As I've written about on the blog, "Jeremiah" started out as a character in a novel I wrote (unpublished). Then he became me, or I became him, on the blog where I am myself under a pseudonym. Then I wrote a sequel to that novel (also unpublished) and the blog ended up getting folded into the plot. So the blog is like a living part of the novels—a part that deals with reality.

I hope to publish the novels one day and stop blogging at Vanishing New York, stop being Jeremiah, who has taken over aspects of my life. Though I will miss him terribly. I am sure I will feel nostalgic for the blog, too. Already, blogs are being pushed out by tweets and tumblrs, everything being condensed into fewer and fewer words. It's like we're evolving backwards. Soon we'll only want to look at wordless pictograms, not even complete pictures.

The good old days weren't all good, but much of the future looks bleak, you have to admit.


Visit Jeremiah Moss at facebook and at his flickr stream for more commentary on New York City, vanishing, half-gone, and otherwise.


Melanie said...

Great piece. Thank you for the interiew. Jeremiah's Vanishing New York was the first blog I read..then it was onto Bob Arihood's Neither More Nor Less and then EV Grieve. Then I started blogging at East Village Corner. Life has never been the same.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks for stopping by, Melanie.

Richard Gilbert said...

Fascinating. Thanks, Joe. I could really relate to the cell phone comment sucking users' attention. 3 of 4 kids on our campus walk along like that, kind of sleepwalking. Sad to picture it in one of the world's most stimulating cities.

laura said...

it would be nice for jeremiah to publish his novels. but i wish he would keep up the blog, even one day per week. what about US?????? where do we put out anger?where do we express ourselves? this is the best site. theres nothing like it. give us one day, "J"- even if you rich & famous.