WELCOME TO THE CITY ISSUE!

While researching for The City Issue, I revisited “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion’s classic homage (and farewell) to New York City. And although I would gladly tattoo ninety- percent of this piece on my body, I was moved to tears [it was a rough week] where she writes:

I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. . .To those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu.

New York is perhaps the most socially constructed city of all: the promised-land for dreamers and the living-end for the faint-of-heart. It’s where the 1-percent work, the “terrorists” attacked, our proverbial crosshairs meet, and only the strong survive. [And everyone knows it.] That’s why upon hearing that anyone lives in New York City, reverence and social capital is immediately granted. It’s as if you can separate the population by those who made it here—and those who wished they could.

To come to New York is to decide that a dream is worth fulfilling, the unknown worth facing, and no means too costly for its end. You have to be capable of truly relinquishing control, abandoning fear, and accepting mass socioeconomic inequity. You have to really grasp that life here is a free-for-all; you can see poverty, heartbreak, and a Birkin bag all on your morning commute. And more often than not, you have to get here by leaving a place that is likely nothing like New York, because as any New Yorker will tell you: “There’s New York, and there’s everywhere else.”

This is not to discredit the many other great cities of the world. In fact, my inspiration for this issue came from urban theorist Elizabeth Wilson—who wrote the two definitive texts about women in the city—in reference to London. Additionally, in the midst of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Emma Staffaroni offers her insight on protest and mobilization gained from her time in Paris. And our resident girl-about-the-globe Kelly Banbury shares personal photos from Mexico City.

But let me be clear: this editor believes that New York is the quintessential “city” and I organized this issue accordingly. Perhaps it’s because deep down, in the United States at least, when we refer to “the city” we are almost always referring to some abstraction of NYC.

I am so proud of this issue—it has elements of everything that motivates me to keep moving forward in this great Xanadu: sociologist and writer Ryan Moore reviews Elizabeth Wilson’s groundbreaking books on women, fashion, and urbanity; Elizabeth Wilson, herself, takes on my Ten Questions; Historian Rona Holub previews her upcoming (and highly-anticipated) lecture at this year’s Researching New York Conference; meanwhile, I profile some of the best “Coming to New York” stories I’ve ever heard.

Additionally, Miss Reece is back with a gorgeous piece reflecting on public space in New York and the contradictions within it (polarizing socioeconomics, the male gaze, and white privilege); Brooklynite John Walker tackles the cultural supremacy of New York; and Jamie Agnello returns (by popular demand) with more Uptown-prep-school-drama inspired poetry.

So it is with much adoration that I welcome you to Re/Visionist’s City Issue. [It’s a good one. Promise.]

xx

Caroline

The City Issue:

STYLE AND THE CITY: Urban Theorist Elizabeth Wilson on Fashion, Women, and Modernity BY RYAN MOORE


{Ryan Moore is an associate professor of sociology at Florida Atlantic University and the author of Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture, and Social Crisis. You can find more of his work at maxthemarxist.blogspot.com.}

For women all over the world, urban life presents a dialectic of possibilities that includes both exploitation and liberation. Cities engulf everyone in their impersonal and unforgiving structure, yet women are not only exploited as wage laborers but also find their entire person reduced to the objectified form of a commodity. As everything in the city is assumed to be available for a price, public women who merely inhabit the city streets have commonly been depicted as interchangeable with prostitutes in countless examples of art, literature, and cinema. Nevertheless, cities and the urban lifestyle have also offered an unprecedented series of opportunities for women to break from the bonds of patriarchy, achieve an independent means of existence, and discover a world of pleasures heretofore exclusive to men. For centuries, authorities concerned with social control have disparaged the disorder and deviance of urban life in feminine terms, and women’s access to public space has generally been restricted not only by the authoritarian institutions of family, state, and church but also by well-intentioned movements for urban reform.

These issues pertaining to women and urban space have been most insightfully explored in the scholarship of Elizabeth Wilson. Among the 12 books she has published, Wilson’s The Sphinx and the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women is the most instructive for those seeking to understand women’s lives in cities, from the classic modern metropolis of the nineteenth century to the global city of our times, as they been depicted in an array of novels, artworks, and films that Wilson analyzes. Above all, however, Wilson considers the role of fashion and style as means of self-expression and social status, which are especially important for women living in an urban environment. The connections between fashion, gender, and sexuality are most fully explored in Wilson’s path-breaking Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, which illuminates the dialectical relationship between fashion and modernity initially identified by the German sociologist Georg Simmel and in Walter Benjamin’s work on the Paris Arcades.

Wilson builds on the urban sociology developed in Berlin circa 1900 by Simmel, who saw fashion and adornment as methods for individuals to balance their relationships with the urban environment. Simmel maintained that in the modern metropolis, individuals are bombarded by sensations and stimuli and forced into an anonymous existence populated by strangers and fueled by the exchange of money.  These social conditions create an increased sense of individuality within the overwhelming environment of a metropolis, and fashion and adornment become the media through which urban dwellers negotiate the competing demands to express their individuality and blend into the crowd. Fashion, in short, becomes a barometer of the relationship between society and the individual, a means of maintaining the precarious balance between standing out and fitting in. As Wilson puts it,

In the city the individual constantly interacts with others who are strangers, and survives by the manipulation of self. Fashion is one adjunct to this self-presentation and manipulation. It is the imposition of this newly found self on a brutally indifferent and constantly fluctuating environment.

Wilson’s entry point for the urban experience is the flâneur, a character depicted by Walter Benjamin in his studies of Charles Baudelaire’s lyric poetry and the social milieu of Paris in the 19th Century. The flâneur is a particular kind of city dweller who walks the streets, observes the crowds, and gazes into the shop windows while maintaining an emotional distance, thus taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells of city life from a position of cool detachment. Flâneurs submerge themselves in the fast pace and fragmented landscape of city life, maintaining an affective aloofness as a condition of their immersion in an environment of constant impermanence. As she says,

The fragmentary and incomplete nature of the urban experience generates its melancholy; a sense of nostalgia, or loss for lives never known, of experiences that can only be guessed at.

The flâneur wanders the city’s labyrinth of streets, shops, subways, parks, and monuments as if in a dreamworld, becoming one with the crowd, absorbing observations and random encounters with strangers, and identifying with the marginal and downtrodden figures that inhabit urban spaces. As the city presents new sources of both pleasure and oppression, the flâneur does not shy away but instead maintains a deep ambivalence:

At the heart of Benjamin’s meditation on the flâneur is the ambivalence towards urban life . . . a sorrowful engagement with the melancholy of cities. This melancholy seems to arise partly from the enormous, unfulfilled promise of the urban spectacle, the consumption, the lure of pleasure and joy, always destined to be somehow disappointed, or else undermined by the obvious poverty and exploitation of so many who toil to bring pleasure to the few.

As Wilson and other feminists have noted, the flâneur is a male figure in its origins, one that is made possible by men’s privileged access to urban space and that utilizes a form of the male gaze in developing detached observations of city life. Some feminist writers, including Janet Wolff and Griselda Pollock, have argued that the flâneur is unredeemable for women because of its masculine roots, but Wilson has consistently maintained that the flâneur represents a potentially liberating form of subjectivity that is increasingly accessible to women in the city, despite its indisputably male origins.  Wilson presents the fascinating case of the female novelist George Sand, who disguised herself as a man in order to freely roam the streets of Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. Sand’s experience is a testament to the exclusion of women from urban space, but also an indicator of the liberating possibilities to be found in living like a flâneur—Sand marveled that “no one knew me, no one looked at me…I was an atom lost in that immense crowd” (quoted in Sphinx, p. 52).  As she infiltrated the bohemian literary circles of Paris, Sand would blaze new trails for women in the city with her scandalous behavior in maintaining multiple love affairs and indulging with alcohol and tobacco in public.

In the cities of the nineteenth century, the hierarchies of social status that had been solidly in place for centuries were suddenly disrupted by the twin processes of urbanization and industrialization. Within this social context, fashion emerged as the preeminent means of distinction in public space, whose anonymity made it imperative for individuals of various classes to use visual markers that communicated their higher standing relative to whatever class was immediately below them. However, just as urbanization fosters the ideal of a unique self, fashion also enabled the expression of a distinct individuality, beyond the groupings of status and social class to an individualized form of personality and identity.  As Wilson put it,

In the nineteenth century fashion—not uniforms alone—became one of the many, and one of the most elaborate, forms of classification that bourgeoned with the triumph of industrial culture. No longer was it enough to be recognized as a member of a class, caste or calling. Individuals participated in a process of self-dockering, and self announcement, as dress became the vehicle for the display of the unique individual personality.

For women who gained entry to urban space, dress and display served as crucial media of both status distinction and self-expression. Dress and display have been a crucial means for negotiating the frequently forbidding terrain of the city and maintaining a sense of self within its impersonal environs, as Wilson describes in one of her most eloquent passages:

In displaying herself so openly she dares the metropolis to take her on…Yet this new woman of the sidewalks achieves her total meaning only in the context of the danger all around her. This flaunting of self knowingly peacocks in the face of misery, pauperism, despair. Not cruelly or consciously exactly; yet the full zest of the performance emerges only in the context of imminent threat, the lightning flicker of aggression and the pall of despair.

In turn, cities began adapting to meet the demands of the new urban women, particularly with the emergence of enormous department stores of the nineteenth century, which further diversified the variety of goods for sale while encouraging consumption by the extension of credit. The importance of the department store as a public space for women exceeded its economic function for consumption:

In a very real way the department store assisted the freeing of middle-class women from the shackles of the home. It became a place where women could meet their women friends in safety and comfort, unchaperoned, and to which they could repair for refreshment and rest.

While fashion enabled individuals to align themselves with higher social classes and status groups, it also created new possibilities for using dress and display as signs of social opposition. Wilson documents the history of these forms of what she calls “oppositional dress,” demonstrating how a collective sense of style has developed in various historical moments among groups of people, especially the young, in an expression of their shared alienation and anomie. Here again Baudelaire stands as a key historical figure who saw great significance in the style of the dandy, the style of dress and posturing among young men linked with the Romantic movement that espoused “art for art’s sake” in defiance of the commodification of culture. In Wilson’s analysis,

The role of the dandy implied an intense preoccupation with self and self presentation; image was everything, and the dandy a man who often had no family, no calling, apparently no sexual life, no visible means of financial support. He was the very archetype of the new urban man who came from nowhere and for whom appearance was reality.

Dandyism established a new approach to using dress and style in an oppositional manner within subcultures of bohemian artists and intellectuals who converged in neighborhoods like the Left Bank of Paris or New York’s Greenwich Village. Wilson illuminates the opportunities and restrictions that confronted women who tried to participate in these oppositional cultures in her historical work Bohemia: The Glamorous Outcasts, where she concludes:

[A]lthough Bohemia made possible a freer life for at least some women, their place in it, especially as creative individuals, was contradictory and insecure.

Bohemia did present a promise of greater freedom for women insofar as it attacked conventional bourgeois morality, the patriarchal family, and the sexual repressiveness of Victorian culture.  Some women were able to establish a significant presence in bohemian circles, like in Greenwich Village during the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the anarchist Emma Goldman was regularly rabble-rousing in the streets, Mabel Dodge hosted gatherings of artists and radicals in her salon, and Margaret Sanger continually defied the law in her advocacy for birth control, abortion, and sex education (historian Christine Stansell discusses Greenwich Village’s bohemia with a particular focus on the role of women in American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century). Nonetheless, women were typically relegated to supportive or simply marginal roles within bohemia, few women were taken seriously as writers or artists, and the notions of sexual liberation in bohemia represented women from a male perspective as an eroticized, mysterious Other. Wilson reminds us,

Many bohemians took for granted the inferiority of women, and even those who paid lip-service to feminist ideals often failed to live up to them in practice.

The forms of oppositional dress multiplied over the course of the twentieth century in connection with bohemian circles of writers, artists, and musicians. One common element of many of these oppositional styles, however, is their use of the color of black, whose signifying power is traced by Wilson from its role in public mourning to its popularity with existentialist youth in the years following World War II. In turn, black’s signification of opposition developed into an aesthetic utilized by young people in cities all over the world. Wilson explains its appeal:

Black is dramatic and plays to the gallery, as the costuming of revolt must always do. It is flattering. Associated with age, on the young it takes a haunting and poignant aspect. It is a colour for the urban environment, ‘goes with’ the red-brick, granite and glass facades of the city better than the too-bright colors of mass-produced clothes… Black is the colour of bourgeois sobriety, but subverted, perverted, gone kinky.

Black provided the stylistic foundation for many of the youthful subcultures that began emerging after World War II: it was indeed the color of dramatic negation and bourgeois kink for would-be European existentialists and American beatniks who filled cafes with philosophy, poetry, jazz, and cigarette smoke.  More generally, the period during and immediately after World War II witnessed a proliferation of youthful subcultures in the US and the UK that used various combinations of fashion, music, and stylistic accessories as symbolic statements of opposition and challenge to power, which in turn provoked repressive action by authorities and moral panics about youthful deviance: most dramatically in the zoot suit riots of 1943, followed by the hysteria concerning juvenile delinquency and rock & roll during the 1950s in the US and the subcultures of teds, mods, and rockers in the UK.

During the 1960s, the significance of oppositional dress increased further as it became a crucial element of dissent in the full-blown generational revolt sparked by the counterculture and the New Left. Among the young people who had begun to oppose the American technocracy and its war machine, countercultural style rejected the conformity and repression embodied in crew cuts, bouffants, and grey flannel suits in favor of a more curvy, colorful, and unconfined look. As Wilson characterized it,

The first American hippies adopted a naturalistic, flowing style, apparently in total opposition to the mainstream styles; yet, like the pre-Raphaelite style, it turned out to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, a prefiguration of the way all dress was evolving. Hippie fashion in the late 1960s swung the pendulum against the rectilinear and the straight, for it was a walking adaptation of the fashionable art-noveau spirals.

During the 1970s, the hippie sensibility entered the mainstream in the form of going with the flow, letting one’s hair down, and being free to be you and me, but as Wilson notes above this style would prove to be “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary” in the decade when the right-wing counterrevolution went into full effect at the same time that youthful rebellion became more personal than political in nature. Punk emerged within this social context as the antithesis and archenemy of the hippie sensibility, utilizing the techniques of montage and shock effects inherited from Dada to denaturalize the taken-for-granted symbols of the dominant culture while dramatizing the decline of western civilization. In Wilson’s words,

What was important is that nothing should look natural. In this sense punk was the opposite of mainstream fashion which attempts to naturalize the strange rather than the other way about. This is the sophistication of punk, its surrealism and its modernism in the true sense: it radically questions its own terms of reference, questions what fashion is, what style is, making mincemeat of perceived notions of beauty and trashing the very idea of ‘charm’ or ‘taste’.

Wilson’s history of oppositional dress revealed an increasing range of possibilities for using fashion and style as symbolic forms of differentiation and resistance, although in recent decades oppositional dress has also been incorporated into the commercial mainstream of department store fashion.  For women living in the city, personal style continues to be a crucial means for negotiating one’s place in an inhospitable and frequently hostile environment. The streets of the city are certainly paved with risks and hazards, but they are the only path leading to freedom and liberation.

  

Photo 3 courtesy of Ahistoryofnewyork.com

Photo 4 courtesy of lequaintrelle.blogspot.com

Photo 5 courtesy of HBO.com

Photo 6 courtesy of RollingStone.com

Photo 9 courtesy vam.ac.uk

Ten Questions with Caroline Biggs

{This month features Urban Theorist/Feminist/Fashion Socio-Historian Extraordinaire Elizabeth Wilson. Author of dozens of books and countless articles, she has earned quite the international following for her groundbreaking scholarship on fashion, urbanity, and modernity—and the lifelong devotion of at least one budding academic-fashionist. <3}

Describe yourself in one word.

Energetic

 To date, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

Bringing up a daughter. 

What or whom has been your greatest source of inspiration?

My partner.

What quality in others do you find the most admirable?

Kindness. 

What quality in others do you find the most deplorable?

Spiritual Meanness

What are your three favorite texts?

Marcel Proust, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu

Walter Benjamin,  Arcades Project

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights 

If you could spend one day in history, when and where would it be?

A day during the Russian Revolution

Finish the thought: “Feminism is . . .”

The recognition that men and women are equal.  [Discussion of presumed innate or learned psychological and other differences is irrelevant to this truth].

What is something about you others would be surprised to know?

In lots of ways I am quite conservative.

 What are your words to live by?

The stiff upper lip is much underrated.

 

{Endless thanks and admiration for Elizabeth Wilson. xx}

{Photo courtesy of The Idea Store.}

HELLO TO ALL THIS by Caroline Biggs

{To honor the struggle of getting to New York, I reached out to some of the most eccentric, entertaining, and ambitious women I know in this city—all of whom came from elsewhere and all of whom, despite their many differences, came with little more than the will to take on this terrifying but rewarding metropolis.}

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In 1957, as a child of ten, I visited NYC for the first time with my parents and my brother Michael.  (I was so excited I threw up in the train station.) I still remember the Rockettes at Radio City, the huge cigarette ad with real smoke in Times Square, and the view from the top of the Statue of Liberty.

In the mid-60s, my brother Michael studied art at Pratt and I would visit him whenever I could.  As the decades passed, I wandered from my hometown of Richmond, to Washington, DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and finally back to Richmond. I had been brought up to believe that if I was a religiously disciplined person I could overcome my creative, free-spirited nature.

At age 32, lost, I bottomed out on alcohol and drugs.  After being sober 9 years, I finally mustered the courage to move to NYC.  When I first arrived, I lived for a while in a women’s residence run by the Volunteers of America. Finding my way here was not easy, but today, over 20 years later, NYC is the home I had always been searching for–it just took me a long time to find it.  During these years, more than half my family has died (including my beloved Michael with whom I first experienced NYC).  As a result, I’ve had to reach out to others to teach me the full meaning of friendship.  Though I’m sure this can be accomplished anywhere, I found the help to become a whole person here.

I wish I could tell you that I have become wildly successful in a career, but that has not been my path. I have a rich, creative (and sober!) life.  What I value most is the people NYC has brought into my life.  My people.  My home.

{Maureen, Artist, from Richmond, Virginia, 20+ years in New York City.}
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 My first reading performance in New York was in the wake of an awful haircut. A terrible memory. His [hairstylist] name was Vincenzo; he had a thick accent I couldn’t quite place, and a nice smile that lit up his face, especially when he said things like, “You are so funny, you know?” Usually I ignore such obvious consumer traps, but I let this stranger have his way with me. Obviously he had great taste.

Unfortunately, good taste meant making me look like the prince from Spaceballs. My writing career, I decided, was over.

But when I arrived to the performance and watched the other readers, I became at ease. New York writers. Many of them had hair even shorter than mine, or should have because clearly they didn’t know how to manage it.  But their hairstyles or lack thereof didn’t really matter, I decided. Their stories were really good. I gave them a pass, and myself as well.

{Nedda, Writer, from Parsippany, New Jersey, 15+ years in New York}

 ___________________

This is one instance in which I have been thankful for the oblivious naiveté of youth. The truth is: if I had known what I was in for, I’m not sure I would have made the same decision.

My first year of college at Barnard, all I seemed to hear about was the blissfully exciting time all of my fellow Berkeley High alums were having, scattered around the various universities of California. Except for those of us who, in the name of broadening horizons and getting as far away from family as possible (no, mom, the fact that I could do my laundry at home is not an incentive for me to go to Cal), decided to move to the east coast.

We were all miserable.

I had dreamed of going to school Back East ever since I was aware of higher education, heavily steeped as I was in romanticized tales of my parents’ ten-year period in Cambridge (before my time). I pictured myself at the top of a brick turret, curled up in a wingback chair with a cup of tea and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy as a snowstorm raged outside. I failed to realize that just because San Francisco and New York are both liberal, urban, ocean-adjacent cultural centers didn’t mean that my new environment would be the Bay Area with weather.

I was wholly unprepared for the degree of culture shock. I felt like there was no one in the entire school who could ever understand me and no one had told me that snow in New York stops being charming after 3 hours when you’re trying to avoid lakes of brown sludge wearing beat-up converse.

But the benefit of being 3,000 miles from home was that I couldn’t run away. Separated from the default opinions absorbed from the environment in which I grew up, I was forced to establish and redefine those values for myself. Then it was possible to find people I could connect with and discover the indefinable moments of sublime experience that only a city like New York seems to conjure.

Also, it helps to buy snow boots.

{Elisa, Graphic Designer, from Berkeley, California, 7+ years in New York}

_______________

My first attempt to move to New York was naive. After less than a month in the city, I found myself back in Kansas and living with my parents. Depressed but determined, I vowed to get whatever dismal job I could, spend nothing, and count the days until I could return to what I’d come to believe was the best place anyone might go.

While job searching, I saw an ad in the paper looking for anyone available for travel and willing to ride an ostrich. Out of curiosity, I called the number. Less than a week later, I found myself in California, working for a traveling animal show. Three times a day, my task was to jump on to the back of an ostrich and try to hold on while it tore around a race-track. I stayed on the bird only once and crashed into the dirt every other time. While painful, I thought this was only fair, as the ostrich likely wasn’t interested in the race to begin with.

A month in, I landed wrong (elbow-first) and broke my arm. I hung up my racing silks and happily retired. By that time I’d saved enough money to rent a room in Bed-Stuy [Brooklyn]. Arm in a sling with a suitcase of clothes and books, I went to Brooklyn, where I remain. It seems appropriate to have done such a strange thing in order to live in such a strange place.

{Jodi, 25, Writer, from Wichita, Kansas, 5+ years in New York}

___________________ 

In high school, I felt incredibly compelled to study in New York and explore my then recreational interest in fashion. Unbeknownst to my parents (and without a visit to neither New York nor the campus), I sent out my early decision application to NYU.

After being accepted to NYU’s Stern Business School program and courses began, I immediately picked up an internship with Marie Claire magazine’s fashion department and a part time job with a small boutique in the Meatpacking District. It was important for me to balance out the business curriculum with fashion-related outlets that motivated me to move to New York in the first place.

Come graduation, I had interned at Marie Claire, AEFFE USA and COSMOGirl! while holding onto my retail job. I also volunteered for NYU’s Fashion Business Association during school.

When I was referred by an editor to join the start-up fashion website StyleCaster in 2008, I seized the opportunity and over the next three years moved up the ladder from fashion assistant to style and market editor. Recently, I joined the BULLETT Media team as their fashion market editor contributing to both their print and online outlets.

{Janice, 25, Fashion Market Editor, from Wilmette, Illinois, 5+ years in New York}

 __________________

Although I’d been to New York City at least once a year for my entire life, I guess I’d have to say that the first time I really came to the City was when I was 17 and moving into my freshman year dorm at Barnard College.  I was torn because I had left a boy and countless friends behind in Ohio and had those feelings of despair and certain doom that only a 17-year-old can muster – that feeling that the world is completely and utterly over, when in reality, it was only just beginning.

On that first move-in day I arrived early with my aunt (a Barnard alumna herself) and painstakingly unpacked my things.  At about 3:30 in the afternoon she left and I tried to pretend that I was calm, even though I was utterly terrified and alone.  My roommate still hadn’t shown up, so on top of everything else, I was nervous to meet her.  All of a sudden this amazing ball of energy burst into the room and introduced herself as Neeti, gave me a huge hug, and said how excited she was that we were going to be roommates.  I breathed a sigh of relief until about 10 more Indian people showed up at the door, all talking to and over each other at about a mile a minute.  Neeti’s mother insisted on calling me Sarah and asked me repeatedly to take photographs of the family as they moved Neeti in (just shy of missing the deadline, which I came to learn was typical).

Then, as if by magic, Neeti’s family members disappeared and we were left alone in that little room we shared on the 4th floor of Sulzberger.  Little did we know that that day would commence the start of a friendship that is still as integral to our lives as it was that first year when we were staying up all night studying, not cleaning our room, and chasing after boys in Butler Library.  To me, New York City is nothing without the people there with you, and my experience certainly got started on the right foot. 

{Amanda, 25, Co-Editor [ReVisionist], from Westerville, Ohio, 8+ years in New York}

 ___________________ 

I got to New York with 2 suitcases, an almost dead cell-phone, and $11.  The first suitcase— “hot pink with polka-dots!!” as my roommate (and ride from La Guardia) always emphasizes when recalling our first meeting—was filled with my archives; my archives being the pieces in my wardrobe (i.e. bags, shoes, dresses, tights) that I would NEVER entrust to FedEx when shipping the rest of my closet.  The second contained a twin-sized air mattress, an air pump, a pillow, and a blanket—the items that would comprise my entire “bedroom” for my first month in the city. Technically, I had $25 to my name when I got off of the plane, but after realizing I had left my charger in Chicago mid-flight, I was forced to pay the ridiculously inflated airport-markup for a universal charger (from that budget-Sharper Image store, no less) and was left with just over ten bucks to last me the week.

I remember pulling up to my apartment in Harlem the first time.  Let me tell you–I don’t care where you come from—even with the Hudson River as your backyard, seeing Harlem the first time will scare the shit out of you. Despite having visited the city countless times before—you never really look at it how you would when you know it’s home. How on earth was I in Manhattan without a Sephora within walking distance? I hate Starbucks but I at least like knowing it’s around the corner, which at 141st and Broadway, it is not. What the f— is a bodega?

I thought living in Chicago, without a car or a central grocery store, was more than ample preparation for New York. It wasn’t. And the truth is, going on two years later, everyday is a manifestation of that first day here: me, broke, with my archives, and New York. And unlike Chicago, I was finally in the city I had always dreamed of—and part of learning the ropes in this city is discerning that almost everyone here struggles in some form or the other. The bodega on the corner, where I do all of my grocery shopping, considers me a fixture—they worry and ask around the block when I’ve been gone too long. $5 morning coffees have been replaced with Café Bustelo and a stovetop percolator that is so embedded in my morning routine—I often forget to the put the espresso in it. Sephora is reserved for trips downtown, which I take almost daily, and can afford to because I live in Harlem. [Which is still Manhattan proper, mind you—and really, all I’ve ever dreamed of.]

{Yours Truly, 28, Editor [ReVisionist], from Derby, Kansas, 1+ years in New York}

{ xx }

_________________

 

Researching New York : A Sneak Peek at This Year’s Conference

  {Director of the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College, Rona Holub, shares the abstract for her upcoming presentation at this year’s esteemed “Researching New York” conference series.} 

In Defense of a “Noble Metropolis”: The Irish and German Immigrant Response to New York State’s Attack on Home Rule in New York City, 1857

In April of 1857, the New York State Legislature passed new laws, regulations, and charter revisions that threatened the very fiber of the social and political lives of the poor and working class immigrants of New York City.  Part of this effort involved the dissolution of the city administered Municipal Police and the creation of the state run Metropolitan Police Force. Members of these two separately appointed and administered forces beat each other up at city hall in New York City on June 16, 1857.  The question of who was in charge of the city hung in the air.  On July 4, 1857, mass violence broke out in New York City followed by major civil disorder on July 5, July 12 and 13.  The July violence involved “gangs” and mostly Irish and German residents of the city.  These violent incidents were connected.  Politicians, nativists, and moral reformers in New York State had formed a coalition and set out to stem the tide of immigrant political power.

The violence that broke out, beginning with the Police Riot itself, was a reaction to the imposition of one set of values over another, over the belief that one way of life was better than another,  that one religion was better than another, that political power belonged in the hands of some people but not others.  Contemporary newspapers generally emphasized the “gang war” nature of these outbreaks.  Clearly these disturbances represented much more than gang rivalry and turf wars.  Such spontaneous civil disturbances, often represented as “merely” gang driven episodes sparked by  “criminal elements,” had political overtones.  People who felt that their freedom and ability to govern themselves was being undercut by the state rebelled.  They reacted as “true” Americans, as “freemen,” whose rights were being usurped.  They conveyed a narrative in which they asserted that they should have the same rights as other white male citizens to govern themselves.  It is not a coincidence that at least two of the riots were apparently started by members of the Dead Rabbits, a pro-Democrat, Irish gang attacking members of the Metropolitan Police Force.  The new force represented the powers that hated, derided and attempted to enforce their mores and values on the immigrant population and control the political processes of the city.  The residents of the wards where violence broke out reacted in protest against what they deemed as the usurpation of their rights.

Thus, the violence between the police forces in June and that which erupted in July are connected and represent anxieties, fears, and a wide array of interpretations of self interest among the growing multitude of people entering and living in the city.  This paper describes the events of this month-long period of violence and disruption and interrogates its meanings.  It proposes as well that how these events came about and were handled might have impacted the worst civil violence ever to occur in the city which took place six years later, that is, the Draft Riots of 1863.  Could these have been prevented or at least diminished had the meanings of the 1857 riots been understood and the events addressed differently?

{Researching New York 2011–Upheaval & Disaster, Triumph & Tragedy: Aftermath will be taking place at the University at Albany, State University of New York, November 17 and 18. For more information go to nystatehistory.org.}

Big Smelly Ol’ Apple

John Walker is a Sarah Lawrence graduate who really likes the internet a lot.

You know how when you’re in your first real (read: high school) relationship, and you celebrate one-month “anniversaries” because you think that’s what grown-ups in love do?  Well, hop aboard the Inane Train, because this weekend marks my one-month anniversary of living in New York City. (read: Bushwick)

Ah, the Big Gay Apple, a truly cosmopolitan melting pot where people of all cultural backgrounds can come together as an integrated collective of individuals.

For many of the city’s residents, accustomed to such highly valued levels of diversity found in urban life, it must be difficult to imagine living in some intolerant, backwoods town.  I did just that this summer, and let me tell you that rural Wisconsin is, like, SUPER racist.  OH, and homophobic, too!  They just don’t. get. it.  They just don’t understand what it’s like to respect the differences of others, as city dwellers do.

Can you even picture what life is like even just a couple of hours upstate?  All the white people!  All the straight people!  It’s like they’re trying to section themselves off from those not like them.  That’s one reason why I, and really all who move to New York City, have chosen not to section myself off from those unlike me.  Living in a self-constructed bubble would do nothing but fuel ignorance and hatred among people.  Thank God urbanites actively counteract such things.

The spirit of the Civil Rights Movement lives on, and the progression of positive cross-cultural interaction is astounding.  These days, it is pretty unbelievable that people of color were denied such fundamental human rights and dignities due to the race.  I mean, it’s not like they were gay or anything.  Like most progressive NYC residents, I often go entire days without seeing color.  If only the rest of the country could be like New York when it comes to race relations. (Especially the South!  So racist!)

It’s unfortunate that queer people are still discriminated against.  Hello! It’s 2011!  At least New York, in the wake of legalizing same-sex marriage statewide, offers a safe haven for we, the not exactly heterosexual.  But I know that someday, in the not too distant future, discrimination will finally come to an end.  It’s really on its last legs right now.

Until then, we’ll always have New York City, a post-racial, post-gender, post-asldjl;kadvl;knsalkkjlsdlksklsslk

/satire

Ok, I think you get the point.  Racism isn’t southern, homophobia isn’t rural, and we shouldn’t be dummies about it.

Hey, I never said I was a creative-writing student.

Real talk now: Here’s my true list of pros & cons regarding living in NY instead of rural Wisconsin.

PROS

-       I like being able to make out with guys on the regular.  New York fulfills this need.  I never said I was a role-model.

CONS

- New York actually smells really bad.  I literally dry-heaved the second I stepped out of Grand Central in September.  By removing myself from NY for the summer, I’ve lost all funk tolerance.  As someone who is used to smelling bad (also on the regular), I’m not even being dramatic.  Don’t believe me?  Go to an idyllic heaven, like rural Wisconsin, for 4 months, and then plop yourself right back into Midtown.

            {If you want to learn more about hate crime statistics in New York state, check out the NY State Division of Criminal Justice Services’ “Hate Crimes in New York State: 2010 Annual Report,” available at http://criminaljustice.state.ny.us/crimnet/pubs.htm}

On Being a Woman: and The Eyes that Never Sleep

{K. Reece is a writer with a BA from Wellesley College and an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the assistant editor at Sarah Lawrence magazine.}

Even above the overstimulation and freneticism that characterize this city, what jarred me most in my move to New York was the proximity to such astonishing wealth. These people were April Wheeler’s “golden people,” as Richard Yates describes in Revolutionary Road. “I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere,” April says, right before cheating on her husband. “People who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time.”

I imagined that I’d found them, and my proof was the alligator-skin loafers of a well-tailored woman I saw at a New Yorker festival reading, streamlined tuxedos adorning dapper men on the lit steps leading up to Lincoln Center after an opera, the towering and ornate apartment buildings on the upper east side complete with doormen, and the large, thick paper bags from Barneys and Bergdorf’s that gorgeous women hustled into the taxis of bored drivers on Fifth Avenue.

My years of subscribing to Vogue became unnecessary. All I had to do now was park myself outside the Plaza Hotel to see those glossy pages in three-dimensions, high-definition.

It only took me a few months, though, to realize that I actually don’t find such wealth attractive. The things that seemed to make this city so infamously rich were rarely that which could be bought by money, which I no longer had anyway.

And I found I loved the things in New York that I’d always loved. The forgotten brick wall behind a gas station I pass on the bus that had been painted mint green, and is now weather-beaten, peeling, a stunning combination of tiny stacks of white and gray rectangles. Trash and broken umbrellas. The old man with a grizzled white beard selling used books on the corner of 110th and Broadway that schools me in pronouncing Nabokov’s name when I ask if he has a copy of Pale Fire. A pile of sea blue glass on the shimmering pavement of the sidewalk that looks like a tiny lake, each perfect square of glass a still wave, with edges that sprawl and curve back. The things other people don’t usually look at, the moments that pass quickly—the unlovely things.

But ultimately, I’m irritated by this city because none of that exists. Everything has been looked at. Nothing escapes someone’s set of curious or appreciative or critical eyes.

I was once waiting for a friend in the 96th street station when I spotted a bright red balloon stuck in the rafters. It bobbed poetically, trying to escape but only knowing how to float up, further into its captivity. Streams of people flooded by through the station’s doors underneath it, oblivious. I wished for my camera, until I looked horizontal again, and saw a young woman aiming her own to the ceiling.

On one of my train rides, a young woman with a twisted satin headband and black leather gloves balanced a cup of coffee on her lap with the same hand that held her quilted purse. With her other hand, she held up a hardcover book with a tattered ivory cover. Her large bottom lip hung low, her mouth gently open with concentration. A redheaded girl next to her, petite with two shopping bags and no makeup, noticed me noticing the other woman. And I watched her notice everyone in the train, her green eyes restless and careful. You can tell how new someone is to the city by how wide their eyes get on the train, by how much they look, and by the amount of novelty that registers in their features.

You can be anyone here—and also, no one. A guy outside my apartment in Harlem asked for my phone number three times, not because he was being persistent, but because he didn’t remember having seen me before. The third time, I finally turned to him and pulled out my phone, typed in “Gordon” and showed his number to him.

“Don’t you remember? You gave me yours because I refused to give you mine? A long time ago.”

He smiled, and scratched his temple.

I shook my head and turned to walk away.

“Well damn, girl!” he said finally. “Call me sometime.”

When I lived in Harlem, I would walk four blocks to get on the subway.

Regardless of the weather, plenty of people—mostly men—constantly populated the sidewalk. As with most men on the streets and my block, I refused to make eye contact, feigning indifference to the way they would stand outside the shops on Broadway with their shoulders cocked at a northern angle. One group of men often stood outside a bodega on 139th, and they made it their occupation to watch women walk. Each time I passed them, I wouldn’t look down or away, but straight ahead, often missing their eyes by less than a foot of air.

The sky wasn’t available in Harlem as it is in Brooklyn, where I live now, and where buildings and apartments often don’t grow above three or four stories. And on the sidewalks, men tend to keep their eyes to themselves. People don’t move as fast in Brooklyn, it seems, and my eyes can move enough to notice flecks of oil on the wet streets, some pooled in concentric circles of magenta, electric green, and deep orange. Rough lines of red spray paint speak a language on some of the sidewalks and streets, and all the crosswalks are faded.

I can handle babies grabbing the straps of my purse. I can even handle the people who play music through their headphones at decibel levels that wound my eardrums. But it’s men’s eyes that I can’t handle. It’s men’s eyes that light a rolling fire of fury under my ribs and between my shoulder blades. Stare unflinchingly as they may, their looks and attention to the curves of my body do not render me an original beauty, not even beautiful. Their eyes make me a cheap thrill, a free thing they won’t remember using. Particularly on days when I feel unattractive, I become aware that despite my vegetarian, pacifistic affinities, I could kill if I had to.

The third of my three best friends got married this August in Montana, where we all grew up. With a sound that can only be described as a guffaw, my mom’s single, fifty-one year old brother told me when he picked me up at the airport after the wedding that at twenty-five, I’m an old maid.

The last night visit in Montana, I went on a date with a boy I’d had a crush on throughout high school. He was older than me, and even though we’d never dated, I was fairly certain he enjoyed the show I performed next to him in Economics with my bare legs, exposed in shorts and short skirts.

Two hours and three beers later, at a bar across from the restaurant we went to, the back of my knee folded over the top of his, we’d somehow moved on from our shared love of Hemingway to politics. He remembered a nickname I had at our conservative, public high school: “fem-Nazi.”

“So you don’t think you have privilege as a straight, white male?” I said, after he told me that his beliefs are shaped by the time he spent in the military, not by where he lives.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Privilege. You know, that you are afforded certain benefits, and don’t personally have to think about whether you can get married, or get a job, and so you’re not worried about them politically.”

He told me that where he lives, he’s actually a minority because of the Mexican population. But I finally got him to admit that balancing the budget was his political bottom line.

“You see people as economic agents with definable relationships to one another,” I said, speaking with the quickness and abstraction alcohol usually provides me.

But he laughed at my persistence, looked away from me, and took a drink of his beer.

“Well, Kate, you know, you’re making me feel a bit bad about myself. I guess you’re right. I just don’t care that much about social welfare.”

I smiled victoriously at him, but my heart sunk. He was much cuter than I remembered, the right level of hardworking and chivalrous. But this could go nowhere.

Even though he used the word “miraculous” to describe capitalism and expressed disregard for the sacred shades of gray that seduce my emotion and energy, I made out with him in the front seat of his dad’s work truck like we were sixteen.

At one point, I traced the large, convex curve of his bicep, tattooed with a Celtic cross, and he flexed, jokingly telling me that he worked for that muscle, and could take full credit for it.

But aren’t I right? Is it not genuine chance—an arbitrary, and perhaps fortuitous fluke—that I’m not the mother yelling at her crying kid who sprawls on the dirty floor of our quiet subway car; the same subway car that is the bedroom of a man who sleeps now, slumped against the unforgiving metal rails on the left side of the pale blue bench, all of his belongings stacked in a splitting suitcase that also slumps, against a two-wheel dolly—like the ones my father always used to move our boxes into the next biggest house we bought—in Portland, Montana, Phoenix, Cleveland.

I hate that I can’t not pay attention. I hate that I care, and that that care often reflects not authentic benevolence, but insecurity about where my edges touch those of others—what these vague and omnipresent New York audiences see when—if—their eyes travel over me.