Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: Tenement Talk, The New York Times Book of New York

Who can really claim to know New York? One would think that the 306 contributors to the new anthology, The New York Times Book of New York: Stories of the People, the Streets, and the Life of the City Past and Present, might be good candidates. Still, it seems unlikely that any of them would make such a claim. As Sewell Chan, bureau chief of City Room at the Times and one of the writers featured in the book, pointed out, there is a “humility that comes with covering New York,” in part because the city remains “eternally unknowable.”

At a Tenement Talk on October 20, Mr. Chan and three other of the contributors to this compilation of New York stories addressed a packed house at 108 Orchard. James Barron of the Times’ Metro Section moderated the event. In addition to Mr. Chan, he was joined by celebrated Times writers Anna Quindlen and Joseph Berger. Each offered their own experiences living and reporting in New York.

Love for the “unknowable” city was a common theme that the guest speakers shared. Ms. Quindlen recalled that all she ever wanted to be was a general assignment reporter for the Times in New York because she knew there was a “thrill, beauty, and ease” to writing about the city. “If you can’t write it here,” she quipped, “then you need to go to law school.” While working as a young reporter for the paper, Ms. Quindlen would spend her days off riding the subway and discovering unfamiliar neighborhoods, always in pursuit of the “telling details” that journalists crave and with which New York is ripe.

Mr. Berger started exploring New York at an even younger age when, at eight years old, he convinced his brother and a friend to walk with him from their homes on West 102nd Street to Chinatown and back. As an immigrant himself, Mr. Berger has always been fascinated with the polyglot and polychrome nature of the city, which he argues is even more apparent today than in years past. He shared many stories that he has reported on featuring immigrants living in New York and compared their experiences to those of the former residents of 97 Orchard Street.

“I could be a foreign correspondent in this city,” he said, explaining that it’s possible to visit Ecuador on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Russia in Brighton Beach, and Ghana on the Grand Concourse, all for the price of a Metrocard.

It was Mr. Chan’s experience with the New York Times, however, that provoked the most discussion from the audience. Recruited to launch City Room, the Times blog that reports on local issues, a few years ago, Mr. Chan talked about the rapidly changing medium of the Internet. The pace at which news is delivered has become much faster in recent years, and audience members voiced various concerns over the reliability of the information coming out of this new environment.

While the writers agreed that there are challenges, they ensured the audience that all online pieces are subject to the same measures of accuracy and integrity that the Times has employed since 1851. Mr. Chan also pointed out the benefit that blogs and other online media have in their ability to “capture a slice of New York.”

Today, the fact that the number of the newspaper's online readers greatly eclipses the number of print readers triggers different sentiments in different people. But in the end, Mr. Barron brought the discussion back to the book, reminding the audience that if there are indeed still books in 20 years, then the Times will be able to publish a similar anthology, no matter how they get the news to us in the meantime.

-- Posted by Kristin Shiller

Kristin Shiller is a member of the Tenement Museum’s Orchard Street Contemporaries. After moving to New York City a few years ago to work at an education nonprofit, Kristin got involved with the Museum as a volunteer educator, giving tours of the Confino apartment. Last fall, Kristin's interest in immigrant life was reinvigorated when she had the opportunity to do extensive research of her own family tree while helping her mother plan a family reunion. Shortly afterward, she decided to get involved with the Orchard Street Contemporaries.

The Orchard Street Contemporaries is a group of young professionals committed to advancing the mission of the Tenement Museum by connecting the immigrant history of the LES to the vibrancy of the neighborhood today through social events, networking and museum programming. The group provides a forum for exploration of our nation’s immigrant heritage and what that means for us now.

For more info, fan the OSC on Facebook or join the mailing list by emailing osc(at)tenement.org.

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