Rethinking Reporting on the Place Where You Live
I almost forgot that I prefer not to 💩 where I eat.
|Sep 18, 2020||5|
A couple of subscribers reached out to me after I posted my last newsletter installment. They each suggested I write a more in-depth piece about the local hubbub over Barnfox, the new co-working space coming to Kingston, for a newspaper or magazine. With a mix of excitement and reservations, I considered pitching a reported essay to the Times or New York or Curbed. Then I hashed it out with a few friends who are colleagues, and thought better of it.
I have been down this road before, covering gentrification, local opposition to proposed businesses, and other community conflicts, in the area where I live. It has pretty reliably made everyone on every side of the argument (meaning my neighbors) hate me. Sometimes it’s made me hate myself.
I experienced a version of this initially with my first article for the New York Times, in March, 1995. I wrote about The House of Blues’ plans to open in a former bank they’d purchased in Manhattan’s Union Square neighborhood, two blocks north of the railroad tenement I lived in on East 13th Street.
The proposed nightclub was already having difficulty obtaining a liquor license. At least according to HOB founder Isaac Tigrett, my tiny 500-word “neighborhood report” in the City section shedding light on the community’s objections (mainly street and sidewalk congestion and late night noise, but also some pretty racist fears about hip-hop culture) was a factor in the State Liquor Authority’s ultimate decision not to grant it. This put an end to Tigrett’s (and Dan Aykroyd’s and Jim Belushi’s) plans.
Tigrett called the Times to scream at my editors about my having attended his meeting at Zeckendorf Towers for neighborhood stakeholders and residents, and taken notes while I was there. But I wasn’t only a reporter; I was also a neighborhood resident. I was there without press credentials, though. As a freelancer I never actually possessed a press pass. Would they have let me into the meeting if I’d had one, and presented it? The truth is I had attended the meeting as a resident, and while I was there, got the idea for the piece, then pitched it. I was so excited when I scored the assignment. I felt like a goddamned rock star.
I was rattled, later, when one of my editors told me about Tigrett’s call. I wasn’t sure whether I’d done anything wrong. She assured me I hadn’t. I’d duly gotten in touch with HOB after the meeting, and quoted one of its representatives in the piece, so it wasn’t like they’d been blindsided. The community board and neighborhood businesses had been outspoken about their objections outside of the meeting. I didn’t use any of the notes from the meeting in the article — I’d only used them to pitch the piece. My editor suggested Tigrett was just angry and lashing out.
I do not like it when people — especially men — are angry with me, which is obviously not the best disposition for a journalist. But I also had my own internal conflicts about the article. When it came to light that the House of Blues was not going to open in Union Square after all, I was no longer sure what I thought about the whole thing. I was uncomfortable with how much power I’d had — although I found it hard to believe my little news item was as much of lynch pin as it was being made out to be. In any case, I was no longer sure I was so proud of my New York Times debut. I didn’t feel that special anymore.
(Also, at the last minute, someone on the copy desk inserted an embarrassing error into the piece, which remains: Public Enemy did not put out Cop Killer, which is a song, not an album; Body Count did. The Times ran a retraction, but it is not appended to the article in their archive.)
I got over all this fairly quickly, though. Because the East Village is densely populated, which is conducive to anonymity, the matter didn’t have much of an impact on my life there.
It was nothing like when I moved upstate in 2005 and made the questionable choice of writing about the towns and county I lived in. My experiences with that have made me think a lot, over the years, about what it means to be a journalist reporting on your own community.
In May, 2018 I attended the Between Coasts journalism conference at Northwestern University’s Medill School in Chicago. There was much discussion about the ills of “parachute journalism” — wherein reporters affiliated with a national publication drop in to rural areas from elsewhere and start reporting without any grasp on history or complicated context.
While I agree it makes better journalistic sense to give those assignments to local reporters, I wonder: among those, who qualifies as an optimal candidate? Other than an address, what determines whether a reporter is actually a “local”? Is there an acceptable length of tenure in the area? Is it better or worse if they arrived primarily for the job of reporting on the place? Does it matter what led the reporter to live there?
For instance: I found my way upstate after hyper-gentrification in Manhattan caused me to lose my apartment. That might seem to indicate I’m a good candidate for the job of writing about the hyper-gentrification that has now crept upstate. However, I now realize I’ve played a part in drawing it here. Does that disqualify me?
I’m really not sure. Right now I have more questions than answers.
My experience in March, 1995 should have prepared me for what happened in September, 2007. I wrote an article for the Times’ Metro section about a luxury gated community and spa that had been proposed for Rosendale, the small river town where I was living at the time, and the objections to it from many in the community. The group opposing the development was mostly happy with the piece, although they felt I didn’t go far enough into their objections — partly a factor of limited column inches, partly a factor of my being a journalist rather than their publicist.
Predictably, I incurred the ire of the conglomerate that was planning the development at the site of an old resort in town, which included in its property the town’s only lakes, where many locals used to have access through inexpensive summer memberships.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that the locals who favored the new development and objected to government interference regarding private property were also unhappy with the piece. Some were mad that I’d brought attention to the opposition, and worried that the article would have a negative affect on the development’s plans. (Welp…13 years later, the development is still not open — in part because the community and socially/environmentally conscious officials have held their feet to the fire at every turn, prompting them to make significant changes to their plan, which I think is ultimately a good thing.) Others were mad at the way I’d portrayed the town — depressed, with many shuttered storefronts.
One guy called me on my home phone and threatened me. He told me he was well known in town for his temper, and warned me that sometimes he just couldn’t control it. He said, “If I were you, and I lived on Main Street, and people knew exactly where I lived on Main Street, I’d be careful what I write.” It was chilling. I’d recorded the conversation using a rickety device that attached to my receiver with a suction cup, and played it for my editor. He was speechless.
That upsetting experience didn’t stop me, though. I still felt compelled to be the foremost chronicler of my area. I see now that I didn’t necessarily have the healthiest of motivations, nor sufficient perspective on an area I was fairly new to, nor my role as a newcomer from the city. I got a rush each time I sensed there was a story and then managed to persuade my editors to let me cover it. It felt like a conquest, and stoked my ego. See that? I’m a journalist. I know a newsworthy story when I see it.
It helped validate a feeling in me that had been threatened when I left Manhattan: that I still had it, that smart, sexy New York journalist thing. As more writers moved upstate, I grew to feel territorial. This was my beat. It made me pay even closer attention, and pitch more pieces, now with a meta focus on the northward migration of city folk.
I went on to write and co-write some really dumb shit I now regret (nope, not linking) without much self-awareness, or the realization that even articles framing gentrification as a scourge tend to inspire speculators to start buying up property and driving up housing prices, which eventually leads to displacement.
…Cue the billionaires who have for the past few years been engaged with one another in a pissing match over who can amass the most commercial real estate here, each of them throwing down two and three times buildings’ appraised values, throwing off the entire market. Two years ago that resulted in my own displacement from an apartment in a building one of them partnered in buying. Fortunately my husband and I found a broken down foreclosure to buy.
…Cue the escalating housing crisis in Kingston and surrounding areas — exacerbated by Covid-19 — perpetually worsened as people from the city, who’ve been confined to tiny apartments during lockdown, buy up all the housing stock here, outbidding locals, often paying cash on houses sight-unseen. Two friends of mine have already found they could no longer afford to stay here. They’ve now left Kingston to go live with family.
In the two minutes I considered writing a longer piece on Barnfox for a bigger outlet (bigger than my little newsletter with 550 subscribers, most of them other writers who don’t live in the area), I reflected on my past experiences reporting on where I live, and how it’s yielded not the best results for the subjects, the area, or me.
I also thought about the opening lines of journalist Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, a reported book in which she interrogates the nature of journalism and journalists, and the specific relationship between convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and journalist Joe McGinnis:
I thought, too, about some of Malcolm’s revelations and self-criticisms in a new piece she just published in the New York Review of Books, in which she recalls working with a speech coach hired to help her persuade judge and jury while she was being tried for libel by another subject, a psychologist she’d written about in the New Yorker and in another of her books, In the Freud Archives. She writes:
In an afterword to a subsequent book, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), I wrote about the lawsuit, taking a very high tone. I put myself above the fray; I looked at things from a glacial distance. My aim wasn’t to persuade anyone of my innocence. It was to show off what a good writer I was. Reading the piece now, I am full of admiration for its irony and detachment—and appalled by the stupidity of the approach.
These have been front-of-mind lately, as we are discussing them in the profile/biography writing workshop I’m leading in Bay Path University’s MFA program. I’ve long been obsessed with the ethics surrounding writing about others. Lately, as I’ve been working on my own memoir-in-essays, I’ve been contemplating them even more deeply, and interrogating my motivations for writing each and every sentence of each and every piece.
Adding to my reluctance to publish an article about the new co-working space and locals’ reactions to it was an email I received from one of the Barnfox guys telling me he’d read my newsletter, and asking me if I’d meet him for coffee. We met the next day at Rough Draft Bar & Books’ outdoor seating area.
He was perfectly nice, and seemed contrite about the brash, super-exclusive way he and his partner had portrayed their co-working “clubhouse” on their website. They hadn’t put enough thought into it, he confessed. He said they might look for ways to be more inclusive — like inviting the community for free events. (They’ve since published a new post on Instagram, saying they plan to do this.) I suggested they take it a step further and offer some discount memberships or scholarships to locals.
I tried to offer some insight I’ve gained in my 15 years up here, which have been filled with clumsy mistakes. I explained, for instance, that when you say on your website that you are driven by a desire to "indulge in the bounties of all things local" but your prices are so prohibitive that none of the locals producing those things can afford memberships, it sounds like colonialist plunder. As I was saying it, I thought of my own sort of plundering in the past, as a writer up here — the times locals called me out, saying I sounded like Christopher Columbus, acting as if I’d “discovered” the place.
I realized that just as I’ve had my own learning curve as a city transplant to the Hudson Valley, so might those guys. I decided that instead of publishing an article about them, I might just add a note about all this to an essay in my book called “The Kingstonian,” in which I try to make sense of whether I “belong” here, what my role is in the cycle of gentrification, and my mixed feelings about some aspects of it — like the way I’ve been beating myself up over my affinity for the “gentrification font” and other spare Airbnb-ish design trends, even though I hate Airbnb and the way it has destroyed the rental market here, displacing many low- and middle-income renters.
(See photo up top: I’ve been reluctant to affix those “gentrification font” numbers to my house — which I regret to say I find attractive. So I’ve left them sitting in their packages on the porch for a year, exposed to the elements, accumulating dirt.)
After we had coffee, the Barnfox guy brought me up to their space to check it out. It’s very much under construction right now, but I can tell that when it’s done, it will be really beautiful. Already the space looks so much more inviting than it did four years ago, when I looked at it as a possible home for the now defunct Kingston Writers’ Studio.
I confessed that I found the space enticing, and that it made me miss co-working. “Who knows?” he said. “Maybe someday you’ll co-work here.”
“Make it something I can afford,” I replied, “and something I can feel good about being part of.”
I assured him I’d be keeping an eye on it.