By Alexandra Casolaro, Maryelena Voorhis and Micole Woo
Joseph Mitchell, often praised as one of the greatest American writers of the last century, preserved a New York that no longer exists. In his fifty-year stint as a writer for The New Yorker, Mitchell wrote about, documented and interacted with the people of New York City who lived on the outskirts, were eccentric and never in the limelight. Most journalists writing at the same time as Mitchell attempted to document the lives of the rich and famous such as the Rockefellers for example. However, Mitchell shied away from these characters and focused his efforts on the “real” people of the city; those that raced cockroaches, practiced voodoo and smoked marijuana in Harlem.
Through the use of modern-day blogs, I plan on countering the argument that Mitchell’s New York does not exist anymore. Today, most reporting and news tend to document celebrities and those who are rich and famous, not the everyday people that make the world go round. However, through research I have found that there are still people out there today who continue to document the real people of New York, the people that Mitchell would be talking to and writing about if he were still around today. Unfortunately, those who document these individuals are rarely recognized and far from known, as they are average individuals documenting average individuals, unlike Mitchell who was well-known through his job at The New Yorker. The blogs I found focus on the people of NYC proving that there are people documenting the real NYC and the enticing individuals that occupy it; you just have to take some time to look for them.
It is difficult to imagine that the blogs I discovered documenting the people of New York were not inspired by Mitchell himself. I imagine if Mitchell was alive today, he would be a blogger for The New Yorker, using images and social media to follow, meet and record the individuals he meets on the streets of the city. I can imagine him using blogging to express his feelings on the unique people he stumbles upon and documenting them in a similar fashion to the fairly well-known Humans of New York blog. The blog form is so inviting to average people wanting to document others because it is simple, easy and free. All you need is access to a computer and the Internet and a way of documenting individuals. Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York describes the blog as “resulting from an idea that I had to construct a photographic census of New York City. I thought it would be really cool to create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants, so I set out to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and plot their photos on a map.” Hmmm….. sounds exactly like what Mitchell focused on with his writing.
In his book Up in the Old Hotel, Mitchell collected the best of his writing for The New Yorker, and in his earlier book, My Ears Are Bent, he collected the best of his early journalistic writing, which was omitted from Up in the Old Hotel. In My Ears Are Bent, Mitchell discusses his experiences in and around New York and the specific individuals that bestowed interest upon him and influenced his writing. In “The Marijuana Smokers,” Mitchell recounts a night spent with a Negro detective making his rounds to parties where kids were smoking marijuana cigarettes. He discusses specific individuals he encounters; “In a corner there was a tall white women, beautiful and well dressed. She was talking to a Negro with a violin under his arm… In a chair with a long brown cigarette in his mouth, sat a very pale white man. Beside him, sitting on the floor, there was another white girl, young and piquant, but with a pale face…. All the others were Negroes” (Mitchell, 141).
Mitchell’s exceptional eye for detail and the specifics of individuals is what made Mitchell stand out as a writer. Just as Brandon does with the HONY blog, Mitchell did with his writing. Brandon however, uses powerful images that he captures and creates posts about each individual he documents such as old lovers, men with cats on their heads and fashionable ladies out on the town. We get an insider’s point of view when we read the blog and the reasons for documenting each individual are visible through the image alone. The people of New York are special and it is refreshing to know that people like Brandon exist; not many people are caring enough to want to spend their time on others. Brandon does and that is why he is a reason the New York Mitchell preserved is not dead.
The New York Mitchell preserved through his writing was controversial and candid for his time. To focus on subjects such as pot smokers and naked butchers meant something and showed that Mitchell cared greatly about exposing things and individuals most people would never be exposed to if it weren’t for him. For example, “Voodoo in New York, N.Y., is Mitchell’s recount of those participating in the corrupted practice of voodoo in Harlem and other African American communities. In it he speaks of a day when he “talked for hours with the man who operated an establishment, but I had to promise not to use the name of the firm or the address before the man would open up…. The man sells candles and incense to Catholic and Spiritualist churches, and he thinks his business will suffer if it is generally known that he also sells supplies to voodoo worshipers” (Mitchell, 147). Excerpts such as these from My Ears Are Bent can be likened to the blog Every Person In New York, in which its creator, Jason Polan’s main objective is to “draw every person in New York.”
Every Person in New York is a blog with a different spin to it, as its creator, artist Jason Polan, draws simple yet mesmerizing sketches of people he spots in NYC. He claims that he draws in “subway stations and museums and restaurants and on street corners” and that he “tries not to be in the way when he is drawing or be too noticeable.” This reminds me of Mitchell, as he would attempt to watch people a lot and observe their actions, looks and demeanors. This is evident in his writing and also in Jason’s blog. Mitchell and the bloggers are all doing the same thing; documenting the individuals of the greatest city in the world, but Mitchell did it through writing, Polan through drawing and Brandon with a camera. Although their methods of documenting are not radically different from artists like WeeGee, Diane Arbus and famous New Yorker Cartoonists, we gain an unique perspective through these methods of documentation and blogging because it is everyday people recording other everyday people and accessible to all.
Lastly, is The Sartorialist, started by founder/blogger/photographer Scott Schuman with “the idea of creating a two-way dialogue about the world of fashion and its relationship to daily life.” Although its focus is on fashion, I still thought this blog was a great example of capturing unique, eccentric and risk-taking New Yorkers. Not only are these subjects risky when it comes to fashion, but they exude a confidence only New Yorkers can achieve. Through his beautiful photography, Schuman captures those who walk the streets of the city dressed to the nines and who play a huge role in shaping the city as we know it today. The Sartorialist also chronicles those in other major cities, but the posts on New Yorkers are special indeed.
Mitchell I believe, would have admired people like Stanton, Polan and Schuman as they are attempting to do exactly what Mitchell did for most of his life. Not only are their attempts greatly successful, they are inspiring, unique and incomparable. I had to do some digging to discover these fabulous blogs, but once I did I was delighted to realize that there are still people around like Mitchell who care about the idiosyncratic individuals that occupy the city. These bloggers are focusing their time and efforts on others, those who make New York City the special, delightful and beautiful city it is today.
I believe that music can speak a lot for people and culture as it has the unique ability to illustrate the attitudes and views of a culture during a specific time period. I wanted to find a song that would illustrate Joseph Mitchell’s “Marijuana Smokers” from My Ears Are Bent, and, more importantly, show the prevalence of marijuana in 1930s Harlem. I found exactly what I was searching for in Cab Calloway’s 1932 funny, feel-good jazz tune, “Reefer Man.” In the song, Harlem Cotton Club’s regular performer sings about the “the reefer man” who says strange, outrageous and often comical things under the influence of marijuana cigarettes. In the song, Calloway croons, “Have you ever met funny reefer man reefer man/If he takes a sudden mania/he’ll want to give you Pennsylvania/oh you know your talking to the reefer man” (Calloway. “Reefer Man”). The lyrical content of the tune certainly refelects Mitchell’s description of marijuana’s affects on its users in his news story, “Marijuana induces hallucinations, usually pleasant, in the brain of the smoker,.” (Mitchell 137). Furthermore, the tune shows us that marijuana was certainly prevalent in the urban, on-the-fringe Harlem that Mitchell reported on in the 1930s.
Now, let’s fast forward to the present. Although marijuana has been recently legalized in both Washington and Colorado State, marijuana possession is still unlawful in New York City. In the urban communities of New York in today’s day and age, the topic of marijuana is still something that is very prevalent. This truth presents itself in a genre of music whose popularity can be likened to jazz in today’s urban community: hip-hop. In the past 10 years, Harlem locals from widely known rapper Cam’ron of Dipset to newbie A$AP Rocky to the underground scene’s Charles Hamilton, have put out songs exclusively themed around marijuana. For example, Camron’s 2003 intro track/ skit on his album Purple Haze also entitled “Purple Haze” features the rapper talking to his friend Tito about cracking open and rolling a dutch master cigar full of “purple haze,” a street name for marijuana (Cam’ron. “Purple Haze”). The content of “Purple Haze” shows that marijuana is a topic that is still prevelent in present-day Harlem after all these years.
Back in the 1930s, Brooklyn’s Coney Island was the place to be in the summer time. Mitchell wrote about this popular working-class summer destination in “Coney Island,” from My Ears Are Bent. I found an old movie from the 1930s on YouTube entitled Meet Me Down at Coney Island, which made me feel as if I had stepped into the Coney Island that Mitchell had written about! I found the portion of the video (around 1:45), displaying the beach overflowing with people, especially interesting as it captured Mitchell’s description of the crowded beach perfectly. Coney Island certainly drew the crowds during the summer back in the 1930s as both the beach and park were free sources of summer fun that everyone was able to enjoy.
In PBS’s documentary The American Experience: Coney Island, New Jersey born composer Elliot Willensky declares of today’s Coney Island: “..I don’t think what Coney Island should be in people’s minds is ‘let’s bring back what was.’ But rather, let’s consider it a frontier to do the thing of the future. Because that intersection of sand and waves… all evoke very powerful, primitive, creative urges in people, in all people. Not just artists, not just developers, but somehow all people coming together. And they continue to come together even though The Cyclone is starting to show some age and the Wonder Wheel is creaking a little more slowly.” Willensky certainly has a point. Today, Coney Island has unfortunately lost its reputation and large-scale popularity. Tri-state area theme parks such as Six Flags and Dorney Park now tower over little old Coney Island. Although the park has dipped in popularity with the arrival of new technology, the park’s character still lives on in the hearts of New Yorkers and its spirit has withstood the test of time. Old rides such as the Cyclone still stand proudly alongside the wooden boardwalk, and people still come together at the beach during the hot summer months–just check out the photo above that was taken of Coney Island on June 30, 2012!
On the Google map you can see the different locations Mitchell wrote about in his articles.
The places that Mitchell wrote about still exist today. If you look hard enough you can see that the people that live there are not forgotten after Mitchell’s passing and are still written about.
Mitchell focused articles on details about the people and surroundings that he observed, he focused on the small details as well as the big picture. In “Coney Island Boat Leaves in Fifteen Minutes” Mitchell describes the people making there way from inside the city to Coney Island. His words are fluid, we are able to experience this journey for ourselves through his words. He doesn’t just say that people take the ferry to Coney Island and then describe the beach, rides and shops. Mitchell focuses on details like how hot it is, what people are wearing, he even has a snippet of a conversation a girl is having. His attention to detail isn’t boring or tiresome, it adds to the piece making it more enthralling as we make these observations with him. His word choice helps to draw you in as well, descriptions like “Before them is one of the worlds most startling sights, a spectacle as calculated to make one breathless with amazement as Niagra Falls.” Through Mitchell’s article the readers are not just given fact and numbers they are given a whole story. It is through this that the common everyday people of New York are showcased just as vibrantly as any celebrity or international news story.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many articles about Coney Island focused on the destruction caused by the hurricane. Many articles focus on generic descriptions of how much money has been lost, homes being destroyed, and businesses falling apart. But the most interesting articles are the ones that focused on the details about the surrounding area and people affected by the wind and rain, like Mitchell would have. In Hurricane Horror Show in Coney Island Denis Hamill walks through the streets of Coney Island, where he had memories of going as a boy. He describes his surroundings and how different they are from what he remembers from before Sandy hit. He says “the hurdy-gurdy music of the arcades was replaced by the deafening cacophony of banging sledgehammers, scraping shovels and whining power tools.” Like Mitchell, Hamill doesn’t just say what the scenery looks like he describes the sounds and aromas; “the Coney Island air smelled of moldy plaster, dirty cellars, and dried seaweed instead of the hypnotic aroma of boiling corn, frying onions and the alluring Coney Island scent of sizzling Nathan’s hot dogs.” Using words like “hypnotic” and “alluring” as well as describing the sounds of the demolition crews instead of just saying they were there breathes a life into the article that Mitchell had in his articles. Hamill takes the time to describe the streets, mentioning the freak shows and “working stiffs to the housing projects’ poor.”
Like this article about Coney Island, there are other articles focusing on the people Mitchell focused on and in the same style as Mitchell. Links to these articles are in place markers amongst the locations found in Chapter VI of My Ears Are Bent on the Google Map above.
If Joseph Mitchell were alive today, we imagine he would be blogging for The New Yorker, still documenting the eccentric outsiders of New York City. Here’s a little taste of what we think he would talking about through Tumblr.
American Experience: Coney Island. Dir. Ric Burns. PBS, 2000. Film.
Brandon. Web log post. Humans of New York. N.p., June 2010. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Cam’ron. “Purple Haze.” Purple Haze. Roc-A-Fella, 2004. CD.
“Meet Me Down at Coney Island.” Prod. Fox Movietone. YouTube. YouTube, 14 Dec. 2006. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
Gregory, Kia. “Sign of Change on a Block Skipped, Until Now, by Harlem’s Rebirth.” The New York Times, 11 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
Hamill, Denis. “Hurricane horror show in Coney Island: How Sandy spooked memories of my youth, attractions are now gone with the tide” New York Daily News, 25 Nov. 2012. Web. 25, Nov. 2012.
Harlem, 1930s. Dir. Footagefile13. YouTube. YouTube, 08 Dec. 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
Michaud, Jon. “Eighty-Five from the Archive: Joseph Mitchell.” The New Yorker. N.p., 25 Mar. 2010. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Mitchell, Joseph. “The Biggest City In The World.” My Ears Are Bent. New York: Pantheon, 2001. 131-211. Print.
Otis, John. “Following Her Dream, and Hoping for the Dream Act.” The New York Times, 25 Nov. 2012. Web. 25, Nov. 2012.
People crowd at the beach of Coney Island in Brooklyn. 2012. Alernet. Reuters. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
Polan, Jason. Web log post. Every Person In New York. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Reefer Man. Perf. Cab Calloway. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Oct. 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
Schuman, Scott. Web log post. The Sartorialist. N.p., 2005. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Weed Smokers Dream 1936. Dir. Warholsoup100. Perf. Harlem Hamfats Feat. Ham Fat Ham. YouTube. YouTube, 24 Apr. 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.