In his new anthology of essays and images, artist, writer and community activist Clayton Patterson looks at the events and figures that shaped the Lower East Side’s history. Several of the accounts were written by the players themselves.
When you left Alberta, Canada for New York in the late 70s,were you already focused on the Lower East Side in particular?
Well actually the way we got here was that, I had been a printmaker. And that’s … specialized area. I did lithography and etching. And so, that was kind of a rare field, and so, both Elsa and I came here as, I came here as a printer, to work in a print shop, a fine art print shop, to do like lithography and etching and stuff like that. So I had like a specialized sort of education, if you like, or work skill. And, so that kind of got us going and on our feet in terms of a job. And then, I learned about the Lower East Side. But I had been, got in to Soho early, and I was showing, and being successful—I really hated that world. So eventually I migrated over here. I mean, the whole world of Soho was kind of like about, you know, elitist, snobbery.
Even back then.
Oh yeah. Big time. Julian Schnabel, three of them out there, with their shirts off, smoking big cigars, flexing their muscles in front of the Art News. I mean it’s like I was saying “what kind of shit is this?” It was like a frat party or something.
Where was your print shop and where were you living?
We lived in Brooklyn for three weeks. And then we moved to Broome Street, which was part of the Lower East Side. That’s the same building that Keith Haring lived in, and he was a nice guy. And that was between the Bowery and Christie on Broome Street. And then we moved to the Bowery, because I had made so much sculpture that we had basically forced ourselves out of house and home. So I moved to this large space on the Bowery. And I was working for our landlord. I was like the manager of the building. So I would hook things up.
Because you always needed as much spare time as you could to do your art. So, but we saw the Chinese crossing Canal Street. And what that meant was, in the early 80s, was that, you know Hong Kong and Taiwan thought that they were going to be eaten up by Red China. So they moved out billions of dollars, and a lot of it came to these different Chinatowns. And you could just see this huge amount of money rolling across Canal Street. And then, Zaccaro was one example, [who had] a lot of real estate around there. And he sold a lot of it to—he was then married to Geraldine Ferraro—he sold a lot of it to the Chinese. And then, within a very short period of time, Little Italy almost disappeared, except for the stores on the front. But all the apartments they had above just became Chinese. And the Chinese purchased a lot of property.
And since we were on the Bowery itself, and were living in the big loft, which was actually a commercial space not a residential space, that meant that we were going to be forced out because of economics. So we spent a year trying to figure out where we’d want to live, and looking for a place. And eventually after going to 42 banks and whatever, because we had found this place, but it was very hard to get a mortgage, even in those days, even though this was like, one of the worst parts of the Lower East Side. Took a lot, but we finally got a mortgage, and so we bought a building and then we lived here.
What is it about the Lower East Side that fascinates you so much?
Yeah. I think the Lower East Side was like a complete melting pot. It was a collection of everything. You know one of the things you get with immigrants, is you get the whole population. So you get the geniuses and the retards, all together. You know? And you get the people who are ambitious—in all fields—crime, law, invention, writers, artists, the whole thing. And so, the Lower East Side always had a lot of rich qualities in its people. And then the other thing you had, because of that rich quality, and how diverse the culture was, because it was an immigrant neighborhood so you’d always have residual effects left behind. So the Irish would move out because they moved up, but something Irish would stay behind. The Germans would come, and they would go, and they would leave maybe the architecture. And then the Jews would come, and they would leave, you know, food and you know, theater, and all kinds of different parts—writers, newspapers and on and on. And then the Puerto Ricans would come, and then Dominicans would—so you would have this complex, huge anthill filled with all kinds of different and diverse cultures. And because of that, and the cheap rent, it was always an attraction for artists and creative people. So within this mix, in came all these artists and the creative people because of the cheap rent (italics)and(italics) that the flourishing multicultural aspect of the neighborhood. So it was an amazing place. It was like the Disneyland, you know, without the rules and restrictions and the Singapore attitude of Walt running the place.
What about the Lower East within the context of the rest of Manhattan?
Yeah, well I think two things … one is New York itself, all of New York, seemed like— you know the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island maybe not—but most of it was almost separate and different from the rest of America. You know what I mean? I say Staten Island maybe, because Staten Island tends to be a little bit more sort of conservative and like other parts. But the rest of it, certainly parts of Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, even, and Manhattan, had almost another world quality, almost like it was unique, like a country unto itself. And then when you got to the Lower East Side, you had an exaggerated view of all of that. You know, it was like a cornucopia of just, eccentricities and creativities and personalities and types of people, and, it was just a very rich environment. But it was basically poor.
And did it change you in any way, or did you fit right in?
Ah, I’m sure it changed me a lot! Probably. I mean if I was living in Calgary, I probably wouldn’t have gold teeth and a skull hat and … a long beard, I don’t know. But, yeah, definitely. It changed me tremendously because it was enriching. I mean I learned so much by being, just by being here, things that would, you could take, you know, numerous courses at university on, and still only superficially kind of material. When you’re here—I mean I’ve learned so much stuff firsthand, which is amazing. So it’s been a very enriching experience.
How was the writing process for "Resistance," different from your work on your last book, which was about the film and video history of the Lower East Side?
The major difference is, once it’s finished, the political people are anxious to get their message out to the world, so inclined to put together talks and book readings. Whereas the art people expect everything to be brought to them, which is different. They sort of see themselves in different ways. The political person wants to get the message out, the art person wants you to come to them for the message. So, what happens is, is that “Resistance” is getting a lot more activity and readings, and the events around it, just because of the political people.”
Now one of the really interesting things about “Resistance,” is I think it’s, for a radical political, social history, it’s probably one of the most unusual books ever. And the reason for that is, because of the wide cross-section of people. Like you go from having anarchists, really political radicals, publishers of radical newspapers, to the chief of police, and to a cop going to school to become a sergeant, as well as a homeless person. So you really get the whole wide cross-section of people. And each person makes their own contribution. Like, if you look at, for example, the cop, striving to become a sergeant, he wrote in the book, that because of the riot tape, it became acknowledged that that night was in fact a police riot. So that comes out of John Jay College. And also the fact that they changed after that to a paramilitary model. So even though they tell you that it’s community policing, the model that they’re following is a paramilitary one, which was a whole shift of training and thinking about police work in New York City. So that was complete change.
And then you have the homeless person, who talked about, they were in the park, the night of the riot, and the chief told them what part of the park they could stay in, which means that the police were not there to curfew the park, and to empty the park. The police actually were allowing the homeless to stay in there. So the mythology had always been that the police were there to kick out the homeless. Not true. They had had a conflict with the anarchists a week before, and the anarchists had basically chased the cops out of the park. And the next week they came back to kick ass, which, actually, the captain of the precinct at that time said “well we couldn’t let them win again,” whereas in fact they did.
And so, but you also get, like I say, the police perspective. And if you read like the policeman’s perspective of looking at the riot tape, it’s much different than your average person looking at the riot tape, because he does it from an analytical leadership position. And he’s obviously much more sympathetic to the police, and he didn’t think the police really did anything that much wrong. It was a leadership problem. Had the leadership been better, none of that would have happened. So he has a whole different take on the riot than let’s say the anarchists would. So you get all the positions. And then it goes back all the way to Dorothy Day and Emma Goldman. So it gives a broad history of the neighborhood.
…And you start off, you get to Lynne Stewart at the very beginning. She writes about her initial entry into being politicized. That happened at P.S. 64. That building has been going on in some sort of political struggle, one way or another, for like the last hundred years or whatever. And then somebody else writes about the next, the latest phase in Lynne Stewart’s life, which was being the attorney who was brought up on the treason charges or the terrorist charges. So you have a really wide-ranging group of people and experts in the book, quite a lot.
How did you find these contributors?
Well, because I’ve documented in the neighborhood for such a long time, and have been basically, all of the scenes that I’m doing the books on, are areas where I’m somewhat familiar with, like video and film. You know, I’ve documented parts of that for a long time as well as being involved in video for a long time. So, I pretty well knew at least an overview, where to go, who to go to, and who to kind of sketch out and find. And with the radical political history book, I mean I spent years being involved in Lower East Side politics, more street politics. So I understood the street and kind of the radical part.
So as far as your “involvement in Lower East Side street politics” is concerned, were you an actor or were you just documenting it all?
I think that there’s a reality to what’s going on. And it’s like, you know, when you’re documenting something, in a way, you try to be as unbiased as possible of course, because you want to get the overall picture. But on another hand, it’s kind of like being a reporter in a war. No matter what, you have to be somewhat sympathetic to the side that you’re with. You’re not going to go to Iraq and write all great things about the Iraqi soldiers and how terrible the Americans are. But there’s another part of it. It was also community. And since I’m a community person, I also took the community point of view, so that without question, I was also an advocate. So I was both. I was an activist and I was a documentarian. I started off as a documentarian. But after seeing what I saw as inequalities, and this march towards gentrification, which I saw as, and eventually got to see as sort of like an assassination of all of what I had come to know and love about New York City, was being erased. So I also became an advocate and an activist against the gentrification.
Were you part of any organizations?
No. No. Independent - doing videos, getting them into court -- always as an independent, 100 percent. Always as an artist. Always as an artist. The cops would like to call me an anarchist, but I didn’t follow you know, like Emma Goldman’s ideology, or any other anarchist’s ideology. I’m an artist and I’ve followed my own path.
You mentioned a march to gentrification, it sounds like it started long before the current buzz about gentrification downtown.
Can you tell me about that? And also, of the things people are kind of lamenting, things that have recently been lost to gentrification, how much is gone forever and how much is recoverable?
I think on a certain level it started out with Nixon. And there was a whole idea after the riots in the inner city…And the whole idea was to break up the inner cities … and [remove] all the energy and vitality that were in those places - it was like combustible, like a bomb. Okay? They saw, you know, it as a real force, like a power force. And so eventually—and the term “spatial de-concentration,” actually came out. And spatial de-concentration was about de-concentrating the inner city of the people. And so the idea sort of started to percolate. And then eventually, it got to the idea of, by Moynihan, “planned shrinkage.” Now planned shrinkage, means taking of the services of the inner city - fire department, the banks, cutting back on the cops, ambulances. And when you cut back all those services, it makes it, it stretches the, you know, the powers of the people and, as well as, you know, the budgets. So the services are way cut down. So a lot of people leave, and especially a lot of—and though it might be in quotes called “the good people with families” and trying to do better for their families or whatever … So they move on, just because it becomes too dangerous, and too critical. So you get this really kind of elimination.
And then you start getting the fires. And there’s, actually very little’s been written about the fires … A family called the Wallaces that wrote something about the fires. And they were considered sort of left wing wing-nuts. And then there was a person called Yuri Kapralov, who wrote about downtown, the fires in the neighborhood. And he wrote a book called “Once There Was a Village.” And then, so you had, Yuri wrote “Once There Was a Village.” And that was … a document about the fires. And then after the fires, and really as Vietnam was winding down, you get this huge influx of drugs. So then area became a drug area. So between kind of the lack of services and the drugs, those two combined to make, much devastation.
And then came the fires. And the fires were set by a number of people. Some of it was landlord arson, trying to get insurance [on] the building, and that was part of it. But there was also a part that many people leave out, and that was the people that—the residents in the building burning the building down, because if you were a fire victim, you then became first in line for the projects. So the projects were a very desirable place to live in those times, you know, elevators, nice views, big apartments…And plus they were scaled for the size of your family, whereas the tenements, everybody was jammed in.
So then by the time you get to ’88—and plus you then have this economic crunch in New York City, where it lost the tax base and everything’s collapsing. So by the time you get to the third term of Koch, you have Tammany Hall all over again, filled with criminals. I mean if you go through the indictments that came out of the Koch era, it was like, pretty enormous.
And then the riot tape showed you had police that were completely out of control. So, anarchy in the police department. No central organization, no control whatsoever, (italics) no authority(italics). And all that was shown in the riot tape. So they realize you’ve got to straighten out the police department. So who actually made those gross and enormous changes? - the person who really never gets recognized for it. Because by the time Koch left, the city has totally collapsed. I mean it was in ruin. You know, drugs everywhere. You know, the whole city was in chaos.
So Dinkins then was the person who started the reorganization of the police department. The first thing he did, one of the first things he did, formed the Mollen Commission. The Mollen Commission went in and started stripping down the criminality in the police department, and getting rid of it. So then you started having, you know, all of these drug-related cases dealing with different precincts. The 9th Precinct, for example, had their own chapter in the Mollen Commission. Then there was the Dirty 30, and you know, Michael Dowd and his sleazy crowd. And so you had all these different—and so they kind of did a generalizing cleaning up, which meant that a lot of the other precincts that were involved in criminality, like for example, the 7th Precinct and the 5th Precinct obviously was involved in drugs as well—But the example of the 9th, and the internal machinations cleaned a lot of that out. Like Chrystie Park over there, in the 5th Precinct, that used to be an open drug market, the whole thing. I mean from morning til night, hundreds, thousands—drugs were sold there daily.
So, then after the cleaning out of the drugs, next part of operation clean up the police department became the reorganization of the structure in the department following the paramilitary model. You know, one sergeant, six men. You know, they would, then, because of the riots and things that were happening on the Lower East Side…certainly between '88 and '92, a very political, active period, street politics and whatever. The police by 1992, were really pretty much reorganized. There was cops down here who really kind of were like on the street and then eventually, the initiators to get the task force moving in a protest, to deal with protests. And then you had an intellectual side that started feeling, figuring out laws and tactics to use, to give the police more authority. So you had like [one type] on the streets, getting the order, and then you had the [other] come in and start organizing the legal aspects of it, the nexus. And what’s the constitutional parts of it? So all these cops, in the 9th, this became a golden ladder. They all became chiefs. This was like the golden ladder to success.
But it changed the police department radically. And by 1988, the police could not close Tompkins Square Park. By 2001, they could close the whole city - bridges, subways, ferries, airports, tunnels, all the streets. And they could do it in a couple hours. They could shut the whole city down. And that was the difference of coming out of 88.
So, to get back to your question is, is that yes, so there is no heaven on earth. And when you lose one thing, you get something else to replace it. And the one thing, when you get rid of the drug[s], you know where the street’s in a complete corruption, it’s a good thing. But with everything comes a bad thing. And so what we end up with, is this taking out so many of the people in the neighborhood that used to be here. You end up having it become safe in a sense, so you get a real estate boom. And the real estate boom escalates the prices. And as the prices start going up, people realize, well you can get more for a bar in terms of rent, than you can for a candy store. So what they do is they sort of plan this area out as kind of like a New York NYU dorm kind of situation, and they ended being down here as an entertainment zone. So that entertainment zone also has a huge proliferation of bars, and bars’ll pay high rent. And each one of those bars is taking out what was often a family-owned business or a small business. And so you get this elimination.
The one thing you got with the destruction of the inner city was the loss of the individual landlord. And then you started getting these corporate takeovers, and these lawyer groups. And then by the time you get to this period, most of the buildings are owned by, you know, smaller groups of people, but large numbers of buildings. You then start getting the loss of the stores. So all these family-run stores, they get pushed out. And then eventually, you end up with just bars and expensive restaurants. So now you’ve lost your community, because all the community services, and all those mom and pop places, they’re all gone, for the most part. And all these new people are here with bars and restaurants and trying to make it and doing the best they can, and they’re working as hard as they can. But they’re not really part of the old neighborhood. So you got, everything is new. You’ve got the loss of services, and the loss of you know, mom and pop stores. And then you get a hoard of drunk people. So really what bars and restaurants do is they bring in a crowd. They don’t service a community. So all of a sudden you get thousands of people from somewhere else. So what you created for the drugs, you end up with this four in the morning screaming and people puking on the street, and all the rest of it.
So even though it seems safer, the hell side of it’s definitely a bigger hell, because at least with the drugs it was a neighborhood thing and you knew the people.
And so, and then you get the high cost of living and rent. And so, now you get a situation where all the people who were here before, will never be here again, because they can’t afford it. So, what that means in the end, and this is one of the reasons for doing the books, is that I believe, certainly in the Lower East Side and probably New York City, this is one of the most dramatic historically changing times we have ever lived through, but not only we have lived through, but the generations of people before us have lived through.
When the Slocum went down, which was a tragedy, and all the Germans, Christians moved uptown, there was a big influx of Jews. And the Jews that came in were kind of like the, the Germans that left because there were still the immigrants. And so, you know, the buildings remain the same, you know the ethnicity changed, but the population was pretty much the same struggling people, new people, poor people. You know all of the struggles were basically the same.
But with money, I mean it changes everything. It changes the zoning, it changes the kinds of buildings we have. We now have expensive hotels, and getting to be a number of them, luxury hotels.
What do you mean “with money”?
Well what happened was, this is the first time, the Lower East Side has ever really turned that economic corner, where the money has stayed. Like there were times in the past where like, let’s say on Avenue A—Ageloff Towers—that was like luxury building for that time. But then the Depression came. So it didn’t sustain the change…So now we have like this luxury building, you know the expensive hotels, the building across from Katz’s, here. You know these are like monstrous buildings with luxury. The Christadora was like a settlement house. That was like the big skyscraper down here. And so, that wa like human services. This is all about attracting people with money and making it luxurious, putting in hotels, that are luxurious. So the whole skyline has changed. The kind of people here have changed. And then, as you decompose the whole old neighborhood, it’ll never be back. Like people say, “well wouldn’t a dirty bomb do it?” Well a dirty bomb might lower the rent, but it won’t bring back the culture. Because the Lower East Side was like an anthill built on hundreds of years of culture, and little remnants remained. You know like the guy around the corner who sold the cardboard, boxes. You know, 92 years in the business. He’s gone. You know, Polish meat store, 52 years in the business. That now is closed. All of those people were sort of diamonds on this, this ring of jewelry, this necklace. Well now it’s all new. So even if you bombed it and started over, you don’t have that history, that culture, the resources to resources to reach back to.
Okay, but weren’t those people like the newcomers of their time?
Oh they were. But they were poor and struggling and new. You know, I mean, how many years did it take Lebewohl to make [the] 2nd Avenue Deli. You know, we didn’t have large, luxurious hotels coming in here. These are like little small mom and pop places. That guy, you can’t come here and be that butcher anymore, because there’s no way you can pay that price and be the butcher. The butcher had to move because he couldn’t afford it. So what’ll go in there’ll be a bar or a restaurant. So yes, some of those people were there before, but the new people can’t come here and be that. They’re just too expensive. So you get Whole Foods instead of bodegas. You get, you know, Starbucks instead of Olympic Diner.
When you spoke about the 70s and 80s, and when you talk about now, it sounds like too extremes. Assuming you don’t want extremes, what’s the solution?
I don’t think there is a solution. I think that, you know, it’s like by saying I don’t think there’s a solution, what I’m saying is I’m not suggesting there aren’t things that can be done. But history makes its changes, and it’s slow and it’s progressive. And it’s that we’re moving way over to the right. And some of the things before, like around ’88, like some of the signs seemed like nonsense. “1988 = 1933” But 1933 was like the beginning of Hitler and all of that. And then, you know, “No Police State.”
Well what we’ve ended up with, is a form of fascism, and is a form of a police state. I mean now they’re taking out bicycles that are all being parked on 6th Street and just removing them all. If you go through a red light on a bicycle you can get a fine. If you don’t - you know Bloomberg, all of his punishments deal with money. If you don’t have a bicycle bell, if you don’t have a light on your bicycle. I mean all those little things are increments. And pretty soon, it becomes only about law, instead of having that flexibility that New York used to have.You know, and, so you end up with you know where you can’t ride bicycles in large groups of people. I mean there’s so many things now you can’t do. So, that becomes a burden because the New York—but the tradeoff is is it’ll lose its art and its culture, because, back to this changing period of time, everything that came before of us, in terms of the Lower East Side, basically everything was connected to no money, or cheap rent, or cheap food, or cheap restaurants.
You know, Jackson Pollock who lived down here at one time, he can’t be here again. So the guy making the drip paintings and changing art history can’t be here because he wasn’t making money making drip paintings for a long time. You know, Rothko, William Burroughs, I mean you know, he couldn’t be paying $2,000 a month from writing that book “Junky,” you know or Ginsburg with his poetry, or Emma Goldman with her political ideology, or Dorothy Day and her kind of anarchist Catholic position. You couldn’t have any of those things because they were all depending on cheap rent.
So almost so much of the genius that New York is known for, for all of its creative culture, it was all based—the premise was cheap rent. And so … we’re creating a wasteland of that kind of culture. It won’t be a city of great painters and that kind of thing, because it’s … never been that related to money until now. You know writers, being a writer, you know if you’re a great writer you know, you don’t start off with, you know, making millions of dollars. A lot of times people struggle for years to get noticed. So the long, hard struggle is going to disappear.
So, it’s almost at a point of, I would say to young artists, I would say don’t come to New York. This is not the place to be. You can’t—you know, working for these smaller papers. I mean at what point are these small papers not going to have journalists, because the journalists aren’t going to be able to survive, working with a small paper. So it really effects everything and all of us.
You know, it might be bullshit to Bloomberg that the subway fare goes up to three bucks, and that rent is $2,000 a month. But if you’re working for Our Town downtown or The Villager or the Village Voice or any of those independents, the subway going up to three bucks is brutal. You know, I mean it really is. I mean the fact that a sandwich, for lunch, is eight bucks, is brutal. You know the fact that the rent is 1500 bucks, it’s brutal. So that starts eliminating all of those things. So that changes. So what do we have to do? Do we have to have a rent-stabilized thing for the guy who works for downtown, or an artist? I don’t know. I mean it’s, eventually, you lose so much. And that’s the richness and the vitality of New York.
You’re saying we do need that, or you’re asking that question?
Well I’m asking that question because … I mean you’d have to have some sort of—I mean I think there’s two things. I think that everybody should own their own property. And with the amount of buildings there are in New York, I mean, the fact that these big, you know, monolithic corporations can come in and take over, like they did in Stuyvesant Town—you know those people should’ve been able to own their property. They should’ve been given first rights. Those apartments were apparently built for the military coming back. It was a social service, those buildings. That was the reason that those places were built…They should remain in the hands of the people, the people that live there should be able to buy their apartments. And if they could buy their apartments, then they would stay at the standard and level of where it is. But having this huge company come in and pay billions of dollars for it and take over, and then coming in with all of their scheming lawyers, and all their scheming management companies, they’re going to clear that place out. And they’re going to get rid of those people. So that’s wrong. There has to be a place for the people.
Your work over the years has been largely political and you’ve tried to remain objective. But what are your own political leanings?
I think that we should all be treated equally no matter what in the eyes of the law. I don’t think people should have need for a press pass for example, other than to get into certain places. But I think that the street should be free and belong to all of the people. I think that people deserve a fair and decent place to live, at a fair price. I think most people should be able to own their own homes. I think that there should be a lot of consideration for people who contribute to society, but sometimes their contributions take a long time to be observed and to be seen, like for example, artists and writers and poets, so that there should be some way of incorporating them into the society, in a way, that’s equal and fair. I think that you know, the arts and education shouldn’t be just geared towards trying to get people to make money. It should also be geared to what’s interesting and what people want to explore, and so that they themselves can become more whole and connected to who they are. I think that there should be you know, an opportunity for as many different publications and magazines and newspapers and that to exist.
You know I that there’s a lot of things that are kind of based in equality and the good life and what makes a meaningful and enriched life for the individual. I think the society should be more about individuals rather than huge corporations and international takeovers. I think we should get back to each person being able to be seen as an individual and make a contribution. That kind of ideal.
Sort of you know, along that lines, I guess you know, kind of a humanitarian point of view. And I that the, you know, the police and the other thing should be at the service of the people, not at the service of money. I think that everything once it gets to only relate to money, we lose our humanity. And so basically our consideration, we have to change our focus, from just money, to humanity.
How do you answer someone who says that’s utopian?
Well you know, the reality of life is is that there’s no heaven on earth. And like I say, every little thing that comes with a bit of good also comes with a bad. So you’re never going to find utopia, it’s just never going to happen. But I think that we can find things that are more fair for more people. And I think it’s the larger context of the people that’s more important, rather than a small group … over-exaggerated rights of a smaller group of people. What’s happening is is that we’re becoming a have and have-not society. And that’s not fair or equal to anybody. And that’s not really what America was about, where we should all be able to share somehow the bounty.
So all of a sudden you get a guy like Bloomberg, he makes billions of dollars, and he can buy being the mayor. And then he wants to make, to have fewer cars in the city so he’s going to charge everybody eight bucks to get in. Well everything is based on money in that equation…That’s not fair. That’s not equal. He might be a nice guy, but he’s cutting out a lot of people. You know, I mean it’s like, let’s say you’re living in Queens because you can’t afford to live in Manhattan, and you have a car, but you have press plates … it’d be eight bucks to get in the city. I mean after awhile it’s like Jesus Christ, why don’t we get it equal for more people. It has to be just—the glory has to be about more than just, money. And me. You know, it might be a little bit idealistic, but I mean we can get into the glory of us rather than just me, and the guy with all the money. Change the values a little bit. Loosen up.
You have a large place on Essex Street. Have you ever been approached by the big real estate companies?
Oh, all the time.
Oh yeah, sure, of course. Where would I go? I mean where would I go? I mean you know. I don’t know … I guess what’s happening is, on a certain level, it’s not me leaving New York. It’s New York leaving me, which is an interesting thing. And so, I’m lucky that I’m older, because I’ve now accumulated a large body of work. So I can now spend the next several years working on what I’ve done in the past if you like. You know I have an archive, art, all that stuff. But if I was a young person just starting out? Fuck, it’s brutal. I mean it’s brutal.
Let’s say you being a young guy writer. Maybe you also want to write books or whatever. I mean all of a sudden because of the money thing all the time … they’re only publishing like the Stephen King books, because he’s guaranteed. So all of a sudden you don’t have those explorers, and those adventurers, in publication, because everything now is tied to the goddamn dollar. Open up publishing again. You know, stop getting fixated on just the dollar, because you know all those people that used to do those independent City Lights and all those independent little small publishers [you had] before? They were trying to survive and make a living. But they weren’t trying to be the richest person in the country, and they weren’t trying to wipe out everybody else. It’s that fierce drive for only money that’s killing it. And for like yourself, I mean, how many publishers really are going to be around, even in a couple years, to independently publish? It’s now Stephen King or nothing. So that’s brutal. And then the bookstores. You know …pretty soon with this high economy and the bars and restaurant[s], we’re forcing out all the little book stores. It’s brutal.
And a lot of us are carrying lots of debt around too.
Lots of debt, I mean, Jesus Christ, when you think about it, NYU is like forty, close to fifty thousand dollars a fucking year to go to college? I mean, Jesus Christ. I mean, what kind of family has that kind of money? And you know, the kid’s not really sure what he wants to be, and most of those goddamn degrees don’t work you towards any sort of occupation or anything. Most of them are just sort of a learning thing. So you end up spending a hundred thousand fucking dollars or more, just to give your kid a little bit of education, and there’s nowhere where that education’s really useful…? And then, you know, when I was printing “Captured,” they wanted me to pay them six thousand dollars to publish the book? And they’re like one of the richest universities in the world?
What do you mean they wanted you to pay them?
[Another company] was supposed to publish it, and then they didn’t, and then it became a struggle of how are we going to get it published? So then I got it to NYU Press, and NYU wanted me eventually to give them six thousand dollars. And I said "wait a minute, here, all you need for a university is a tree, a guy with a book and somebody listening to the guy with a book."
You mean six thousand to recoup expenses, for anything you don’t sell?
I guess so. I don’t know… All I heard was, what are you kidding me?? I mean, you’re like the most, the richest university in the world and you’re asking me to give you money, so you can publish, a book? It’s like, wait a minute, I thought universities were about books? Oh, I get it. University now, NYU’s about money, property, renting dorms. It’s not about books. So it’s like, you know, am I wrong or are they wrong? I think they’re wrong. Their fixation is money. And you see that’s my point. So instead of facilitating something -and the university actually publishing—they wanted me to give them money. The university, do you know that all those dorms are the ugliest dorms downtown, the ugliest buildings? And when you think about it, they’ve put in no architects and creative people? And they’re putting up that kind of shit? And engineers. You know they’re not even using their own goddamn people. They’re only going by the bottom line and the bottom dollar. They’re not even contributing.
So when you ask me who could contribute and how could you change it, well tell that fucking university to start hiring their own people, and get some designers, and get some architects, and get some engineers, and at least if you’re going to take over the goddamn neighborhood, make a contribution in terms of aesthetics. Build a nice building. Is that asking too much of a university, is to give jobs to their own people to do that stuff? They’re training them, they’re spending a hundred and some thousand dollars to do it, and then they’re going to continue carrying on that debt because those assholes aren’t supporting anybody. It’s like what, is that about? That’s only about money and the bottom line. It’s not that it has to be utopian. They could make a goddamn contribution. Okay, if you’re going to be the big fucking fascist and pig in the neighborhood, and take over everything, throw something back. Make a nice building. I mean at least before, universities used to, in order to kind of express themselves as great institutions, they used to build great architecture. I mean I’ve never been to Harvard, but I’ve seen buildings … where you see all that old, glorious, sort of American, early, American architecture? It was grand. When they built the White House—it was grand. So now when these places are putting out those people, what do they turn it into?
Does NYU have a fucking community newspaper that they pay people to write for? Fuck no. They don’t do anything. They’re just a bunch of greedy fucking bastards that are trying to get money and take it all for themselves, to who knows what to do with? My point is, is that, it’s not that you’re asking to criminalize somebody, or for them to be communists and give it away. Make a contribution. Create a community newspaper and pay people to write for it. Design buildings. Do something with that.
Instead you’re taking all these people and getting them to accumulate all this debt, and in the end, these people walk away with a bag of debt and nowhere to go. It’s terrible. I mean think about it. What the fuck does NYU contribute? They’re a university for Chrissake. They should be supplying doctors to clinics down here. They’re not doing fuck all. That’s the problem. They’re not doing anything. NYU could make a fantastic contribution to the neighborhood. Instead they’re just sticking debt on people, kicking them out the door, and they’re brutalizing us and taking everything away. That’s wrong.
And the university would be better for it if they’d opened up. I mean Jesus Christ, they got—think about that. Here we are, starving down here for like, you know, inexpensive lawyers, doctors, teachers, you know engineers, architects, all of that stuff. And they’re pumping them out, and those guys can’t get jobs. It’s like, whoa, wait a minute here, something, wrong, with the program. Right? I mean, don’t you agree?
I mean, look what the contribution NYU could make to a neighborhood. Fuck, they got all kinds of experts over there. Instead all they’re doing is taking money. That’s all they think about—the money, the money, the money, the money, the money—Get the fixation off the money. That’s a solution. And that’s not taking away. That’s not, asking them to build free housing. That’s asking them to do something more for themselves and for your people.
Yeah, it’s kind of like a long-term gain, versus instant gratification.
Yeah, exactly. Instant gratification and just the money thing. I mean could you imagine if they had a clinic down here where doctors they could make you go on residencies? Instead of making those fucking doctors work twenty hours in a day, at some fucking hospital, where they’re you know, going nuts at, open up a few clinics in the neighborhood, and have doctors on a relaxed measure when they’re working for a full day and taking care of kids that are sick in the neighborhood. They’d learn lots about you know, disease, and about alternative situations, in a place like the Lower East Side. And they can give something back. And then they don’ t have to work the 20 hours and go through the grind of the hospital. I’m not saying hospitals should be eliminated, but I’m just saying there’s other ways of doing it.
They could be sending teachers over here to the schools. They could be doing a lot. Architects—you know, because you have to start off, you have to get your experience. And get your experience in the neighborhood by having send new people off who just graduated. You know. This is bullshit, what’s going on.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matt Elzweig (28) works as reporter for ► Our Town downtown, a weekly paper that covers the neighborhoods of downtown Manhattan and is published by Manhattan Media LL, New York.