Tag Archives: New York Review of Books

New York City’s Housing Emergency

Row of boarded up houses in Harlem. Photo by Frank Vandenbergh. (Getty Images)

Despite having some of the most progressive housing laws in the country, New York City is in the throes of a humanitarian emergency: a man-made and large-scale “displacement of populations” from their homes.

In an essay for The New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg breaks down four aspects of the city’s current housing crisis: homelessness, rent stabilization loopholes, Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan, and alternatives for reform. Nestled within every terrifying statistic are heartbreaking personal stories — landlords grinding down tenants financially and emotionally until they give in, families with children bought out of apartments they’ve lived in for decades after the rent “perfectly legally” doubles overnight. “I put up with these streets when you had to be half-crazy to go out to the bodega for a quart of milk after dark,” one renter says. “Why should we have to leave?”

An artist I know in South Williamsburg took flight after her landlord paid a homeless man to sleep outside her door, defecate in the hallway, invite friends in for drug-fueled parties, and taunt her as she entered and left the building. In East New York a mother tells of a landlord who, after claiming to smell gas in the hallway, gained entry to her apartment and then locked her out. In January, a couple with a three-month-old baby in Bushwick complained to the city because they had no heat. In response, the landlord threatened to alert the Administration for Children’s Services that they were living with a baby in an unheated apartment. Fearful of losing their child, they left, leaving the owner with what he wanted: a vacant unit.

Stories like these move through the city like an underground stream. I repeat them not because they are extraordinary, but because they are a fact of life for thousands of New Yorkers. For the most part they go unnoticed. The displaced slink away, crouched into their private misfortune, seeking whatever solution they can find. Many experience displacement as a personal failure; they dissolve to the fringes of the city, forced to travel two or three hours to earn a minimum wage, or out of the city altogether, to depressed regions of Long Island, New Jersey, or upstate New York. If they have roots in the Caribbean, as some residents of Central Brooklyn do, they may try to start again there. Or they may join the growing number of people who are officially homeless, dependent on the city for shelter.

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Diane Arbus: Describing the Loneliness that Shames Us

Photographer Diane Arbus poses for a rare portrait in the Automat at Sixth Avenue between 41st & 42nd Street in New York, New York, circa 1968. (Photo by Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

With the publication of two books and new gallery showings featuring photographer Diane Arbus, Hilton Als explores her work, writings, artistic motivation, and uncanny ability to capture on film the humanity of the “freaks” — the marginalized people — who were the subjects of her work. Read his piece at the New York Review of Books.

Arbus’s photographs were elegant, too—classically composed and cool—but they were on fire with what difference looked like and what it felt like as seen through the eyes of a straight Jewish girl whose power lay in her ability to be herself and not herself—different—all at once. The story she told with her camera was about shape-shifting: in order to understand difference one had to not only not dismiss it, but try to become it. “I don’t like to arrange things,” Arbus once said. “If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”

As Arbus went on, though, she became more and more interested in the drama of the self as it appeared not only to her through her lens (her magic portal) but to her subject. No visual artist of the twentieth century has described with more accuracy the enormous pride her characters, certainly in the early pictures, feel at having risked all to become themselves—selves they could not lock up, or hide, or resist being recorded despite the pain of being marginalized in their daily life.

Arbus made pictures that grew out of and described the loneliness we are all taught to be ashamed of and should try to “fix” through conventional connections—marriage, children, and so on.2 Arbus’s “I”—the eye behind her camera—was unabashed loneliness, looking to connect, if only because she understood what it felt like not to. She wanted to see the world whole, which meant seeing and accepting the fractures in those connections, too, along with all that could not be fixed. When she started taking pictures of drag queens and interracial couples, homosexuality was illegal, and miscegenation was still met with violence or derision.

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A Moleskine In Every Satchel, and a Board Game On Every Table

Photo by thebarrowboy, (CC BY 2.0).

In the New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben uses his review of David Sax’s new book, The Revenge of Analog to meditate on the enduring joy — and human necessity — of playing board games or writing things with paper and pen.

But back up far enough and many things our species does are silly. The premise of the digital world is that we can do all these silly things…faster and more easily. But why exactly would we want to? Why should efficiency be the standard measure, and not pleasure? I defy you to read Sax’s book without wanting to buy a Moleskine, put an LP record on a turntable, or play a game of Scrabble with your friends. It’s true that he mostly ignores some of the deepest questions raised by the digital age: the obsolescence of human labor against the tide of automation; the endless, uncheckable spread of surveillance. But the small rebellions he chronicles help us understand the general shape of a threat that goes beyond Karl Marx and his nineteenth-century complaints about capitalism; it’s in our digital era that all that was solid really did melt into air. Or into Wi-Fi, anyway.

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‘Continue Panicking’: Samantha Bee’s Interview with Journalist Masha Gessen

“Really it’s the nuclear holocaust I’m worried about.”

One of my essay selections for Longreads Best of 2016 was by Masha Gessen, the Russian-American journalist and author of 2016’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, whose “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” in the New York Review of Books revealed in stark terms what happens when an autocrat takes power.

Gessen’s back in a new interview with Samantha Bee that is both funny and terrifying, as she predicts what happens next — and what she fears in terms of worst-case scenarios.

Just Like Heaven? Four Stories About Nordic Countries

The bookstore where I work has a motto: “Get to know your world.” We’re a small shop, but visitors often marvel at the size of our travel section. Spend a few too many minutes near these shelves, and you’re researching flights to Iceland or the best time of year to hike the Appalachian trail (maybe that’s just me). Lately, I’ve noticed an increase in books about Nordic life—like The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, to this past week’s release, The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen. Why are we Americans so drawn to the Scandinavian Peninsula and beyond? Why do some Republicans speak of Sweden with disdain or horror, whereas left-leaning folks go starry-eyed? Does the recent influx of refugees to these countries mark the beginning of institutionalized xenophobia? Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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Sarah Helm on ISIS in Gaza

His central point, however, is incontestable. ISIS is taking root in Gaza among its disillusioned youth; he might not be able to persuade his own students “to maintain peaceful methods,” Omar Hams said. “We are dealing with individual souls. Anyone oppressed can do anything. That is why I issue a warning: to end the suffering of Palestinians, so that…we can influence our people. Otherwise there is no 100 percent guarantee of anything.”

In The New York Review of Books, Sarah Helm investigates the roots of ISIS in Gaza and how Hamas is responding.

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The Fears of Our Nation: President Obama Interviews Marilynne Robinson

The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know.

But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.

The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?

Robinson: Right.

At The New York Review of Books, President Obama interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, a conversation he requested to have after becoming a fan of her novels. As a companion to this interview, read her recent essay, “Fear,” a rumination on American history, religious history, guns, violence, war, and her deeply held Christian beliefs.

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Backlash: Richard Bernstein on the New York Times’ Nail Salons Exposé

At The New York Review of Books, former New York Times reporter—and current salon co-owner—Richard Bernstein takes the paper to task for its much-talked-about twopart 7000-word exposé on the exploitation and abuse of employees at nail salons in New York City.

He says the article—which led to a state-wide investigation and a new law instituted by Governor Andrew Cuomo—misrepresents the salon industry as a whole by focusing mainly on one undocumented and unlicensed worker. He also suggests it wasn’t as thoroughly reported as author Sarah Maslin Nir claims—although apparently he didn’t reach out to her for comment.

As a former New York Times journalist who also has been, for the last twelve years, a part owner of two day-spas in Manhattan, I read the exposé with particular interest. (A second part of the same investigation, which appeared in the Times a day later, concerned chemicals used in the salon industry that might be harmful to workers.) Our two modestly-sized establishments are operated by my wife, Zhongmei Li, and my sister-in-law, Zhongqin Li, both originally from China, and “mani-pedi” is a big part of the business. We were startled by the Times article’s Dickensian portrait of an industry in which workers “spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence,” and retire at night to “flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.” Its conclusion was not just that some salons or even many salons steal wages from their workers but that virtually all of them do. “Step into the prim confines of almost any salon and workers paid astonishingly low wages can be readily found,” the story asserts. This depiction of the business didn’t correspond with what we have experienced over the past twelve years. But far more troubling, as we discovered when we began to look into the story’s claims and check its sources, was the flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate information on which those sweeping conclusions were based….

… How to account for these evident flaws, the one-sidedness of the Times story? Recently the Times’s own Nick Kristof wrote in a column that “one of our worst traits in journalism is that when we have a narrative in our minds, we often plug in anecdotes that confirm it,” and, he might have added, consciously or not, ignore anecdotes and other information that doesn’t. The narrative chosen by the Times, what might be called the narrative of wholesale injustice, is one of the most powerful and tempting in journalism. Certainly, as Mr. Baquet put it, it had “impact.” It was read, he told an audience in mid-June, by 5 million people, which is five times the readership of the Sunday print edition, and produced an immediate government response.

Surely, Bernstein’s exposé-on-the-exposé isn’t the last word. Nir and others at the Times have taken to Twitter, and Times deputy Metro editor Michael Luo has Storified that activity and other developing aspects of the story. In a tweet, Nir suggests that Times executive editor Dean Baquet has a response in the works.

Stay tuned to find out whether it might in fact be okay to get inexpensive manicures after all…

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The 1960s Rediscovery of Antoni Gaudí

Today, Antoni Gaudí is unquestionably perceived as an architectural giant—seven of his works are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and after an unlikely decades-long campaign for sainthood the legendary architect could be beatified in 2016—but interestingly, this wasn’t always the case. Martin Filler explored the Spanish Catalan architect’s legacy in a piece for the New York Review of Books. According to  Filler, Gaudí languished in critical limbo for three decades after his 1926 death. It wasn’t until the 1960s that popular opinion began to shift:

Although the Expressionists and Surrealists had esteemed Gaudí as a fellow visionary, popular attitudes began to change dramatically in the 1960s, a decade of worldwide social and cultural ferment that made Gaudí’s work speak to a young generation alert to imaginative and expressive qualities long dismissed as pathologically bizarre, especially in architecture. Indeed, there is something almost psychedelic in his freewheeling aesthetic, characterized by distorted forms, propulsive patterns, kaleidoscopic colors, and quirky materials. The rediscovery of Art Nouveau during the 1960s carried Gaudí along with other newfound fin de siècle heroes of the burgeoning counterculture, including Aubrey Beardsley, Alphonse Mucha, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

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