City of Stories: A Conversation with Constance Rosenblum

Throughout a rich and varied career in journalism, Constance Rosenblum has prioritized individual voices in telling the collective story of New York City. Some of these voices belong to the cultural critics and essayists — like Herbert Muschamp, Phillip Lopate, or Suketu Mehta — that she nurtured while editing the Arts & Leisure section and subsequently the City section of The New York Times. Other voices belong to the residents across the five boroughs that she has profiled in their homes for the Habitats column. And still others to the diverse characters who helped to shape the history of the Grand Concourse, which she chronicled in her 2009 book Boulevard of Dreams. For Rosenblum, every apartment, block, and neighborhood she visits reveals a broader urban dynamic, such as shifting demographics, the transformation of building types, or the generational complexities of real estate. Yet, her commitment to the specificity of place and the value of an individual’s story is what distinguishes her work, a nuanced portrait of the city and its citizens. —C.S.

Urban Omnibus (UO):

How did you get your start in journalism?

Constance Rosenblum (CR):

I’ve always been interested in journalism; I worked at school papers in high school, college, even grade school. After majoring in English at college, my first job was in public relations. And I worked for free for a little local newspaper covering the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea and Clinton (literally called the Chelsea Clinton News). I loved it.

So I went to Columbia Journalism School, and I stayed for an extra year for a program in Urban Affairs Reporting, an interdepartmental program run by Penn Kimball, the esteemed journalist, and Sam Lubell, who had pioneered the use of polling in election and public opinion analysis. We took classes in urban planning; we went all over the city; we talked about demographics and race and economic mobility. I then worked for another little local newspaper called the West Side News, which led me to a job at the City Planning Commission, helping to write the New York City master plan. It wasn’t journalism but it was fascinating, and I got to know the entire city. It was during the Lindsay administration, and there was a lot of activity around SoHo zoning, loft zoning, theater zoning. What the Planning Commission was doing was exciting, positive, and optimistic. There was so much idealism that, sadly, crashed on the rocks of reality. After that, I started getting real journalism jobs. I worked at a newspaper in New Jersey and at the New York Daily News doing a lot of neighborhood reporting. I was the culture editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, and then I was hired by The New York Times in the mid-’80s and spent eight years as the Arts & Leisure editor and then ten years as the editor of the City section. After the City section closed, I became a reporter in the Times’ Real Estate section.

I wanted to offer readers lyrical, almost novelistic voices on urban issues.
UO:

When you first started working in journalism, what was the attitude towards local stories and local reporting?

CR:

When I worked at the Daily News, it was the perfect venue for local stories. Its audience was primarily middle and working class and the paper was trying to reinvent itself as less of a cops-and-robbers type of a newspaper, more of the paper of New York City, known for its investigative reporting. So I was able to do a lot of neighborhood reporting: I wrote articles about redlining, about working-class feminists in Italian Williamsburg, about the Grand Concourse, which eventually inspired a book I wrote, Boulevard of Dreams, that was published in 2009. I did a series of articles on the roots of a handful of New York families: Greek, Irish, Puerto Rican, Black, Italian. It was an opportunity to drill down into the history and neighborhoods of New York City. And then I took a detour from urban affairs reporting into cultural journalism. I became the cultural affairs editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. I found Philadelphia in the early 1980s to be fascinating, especially in terms of its architecture and the debates around historic preservation and development personified by characters like the architect and city planner Edmund Bacon. It was based on this work that I was hired by the Times, where I became the Arts & Leisure editor. Cultural reporting, for me, was like going to grad school in every discipline. I got to deal with a whole generation of architecture critics, notably Paul Goldberger and Herbert Muschamp, and that was an education in itself.

UO:

Over the years, have you observed a shift in popular interest in urban issues as opposed to interest in specific buildings?

CR:

I think the public’s concern with the texture of the city has certainly grown. As a consciousness of New York’s primacy has grown, there is perhaps less interest in this building or that building, and more on how the cityscape works and how it deals with environmental issues or social issues.

I think the role of the critic has helped to define how the subject is approached. While the Timeshas always needed to balance the responsibilities of being a local newspaper, a national newspaper, and an international newspaper, the presence of the web has made jostling between coverage that is very micro and very macro much easier.

Pieces from The New York Times’ City section were compiled and published as New York Stories (2005) and More New York Stories (2010)
AB:

How did the City section come to be?

CR:

In the early 1990s, the Times had regional sections for Westchester, Connecticut, Long Island, New Jersey. But there was no dedicated section for New York City. So “The City” began as what was called “the hole in the doughnut.” At that time, the city was still facing serious challenges in terms of crime and the quality of schools and parks. The mission of the City section was, in part, to help readers cope, running stories about how to fix up your neighborhood park, how to find a good elementary school, and so on. By the time I arrived, in 1999, New York City was a very different place.

One of the things I had done in the Arts & Leisure section was to invite literary writers to weigh in on cultural subjects. I wanted to do that in the City section as well, to offer readers lyrical, almost novelistic voices on urban issues. And I was lucky that I had a cadre of young, talented, ambitious reporters who covered the entire city and brought back reports from the field.

UO:

And how did the Habitats column come to be?

CR:

Dating back to the early ’90s, Habitats was a weekly column that profiled someone in the tri-state area in his or her home. When the City section folded, the Real Estate section gave me the opportunity to write the Habitats column. In a way, this column — about New Yorkers and how and where they live — was close to the sensibility of the City section. I focused on people who live in the five boroughs, thinking that all the columns together would create a prism-like description of the city. I thought I knew New York City well, but four years of writing that column took me to parts of the city where I had never been. Earlier this year, NYU Press published a collection of expanded versions of 40 of the columns.

930 Thieriot Ave. Bronx, NY, Photo by Photographs by Rob Bennett for The New York Times
UO:

How did you identify your subjects?

AB:

Everyone asks me that. What I did was ask everybody I knew for good suggestions. And I would say, “I’m not looking for places based on their décor, I’m just looking for people who have a good story.” I wanted as much diversity as possible: geographical, economic, ethnic, professional, family, age. So many of these places, both big and small, are hidden from public view because it’s a city of apartments. You have no idea what you’d find behind closed doors. Some things I went looking for specifically. I wanted someone living in one of the Rockaway bungalows pre-Sandy, someone on City Island; I wanted people in Staten Island, in lofts, in brownstones; I wanted someone living on the Grand Concourse.

UO:

Your interest in the Grand Concourse eventually led you to write Boulevard of Dreams. How did you first get interested in this street?

CR:

When I was at the Daily News, I was assigned to write about buildings in New York that had seen better days. I wrote about the Concourse Plaza Hotel, right up the hill from Yankee Stadium, which had been a wonderful, luxury destination in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. The Yankees hung out there; the best bar mitzvahs and weddings were held there; and all sorts of political shenanigans took place there, right across the street from the courthouse. While reporting that article, I learned a lot about the Bronx and the Grand Concourse, past and present, and I found it so fascinating that I thought the topic deserved a book. But in the early ’80s, the last thing anyone wanted to read was a book about the Bronx and the depressing times it was going through. Years passed, and I nursed the idea. When I moved back to New York and to the Times after Philadelphia, I realized I didn’t want to go to my grave without attempting this book. To me, the story of the Grand Concourse is a way of talking about the evolution of American cities over the last century, from the initial period of urban development through its heyday in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s when it was such a destination for upwardly mobile Jews, through its decline from the ’50s through the ’80s, and finally to its scrambling towards rebirth around the millennium. People are once again moving to the Grand Concourse, which wasn’t true for decades. I think of the Grand Concourse as a wonderful microcosm of this broader urban story.

The Grand Concourse in 1966 and today | Photos by Neal Boenzi/The New York Times (L) and Flickr user Ipythias (R)

I must have read everything ever written with the words “grand concourse” in it, in the archives of local newspapers as well as books. I learned about the design and construction of the roadway itself; the history of Art Deco buildings; the migrations of Jews, Irish, and later blacks and Puerto Ricans; and certainly the decline of the Bronx, the development of Co-op City and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, and the effect of Robert Moses. I also went into the history of certain individual buildings, like the Loew’s Paradise movie theater and others. But I didn’t want to write exclusively about the built environment; I wanted to tell the stories of the people who were shaped by the street, and who in turn helped to shape the street. I researched the less well-known architects who designed buildings there, like Horace Ginsbern. And I learned the stories of people who came of age on the Grand Concourse, people like Stanley Kubrick as well as scoundrels and politicians and baseball players. I tried to keep the focus on the street itself as much as possible. It’s almost like a biography of a street.

UO:

How do you think interest in the local distinctiveness of a city like New York is best served by the news? How do we keep some of the threads that you’ve been exploring in various aspects of your career alive today?

CR:

The Internet makes it much easier to do hyper-local reporting, not just in newspapers, but in scores of blogs and small publications. Wherever you are — whether you’re in the Rockaways or Morningside Heights or anywhere else — you can drill down to find the diverse voices of experts or residents. Not only is the world flat, the city is flat. I think we’re more aware of the diversity of the city and we know so much more about the environment and climate issues. People sometimes worry about the proliferation of so many different sources on urban issues. But I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. All these various outlets reach different audiences. To me, whatever is speaking to people about complex urban issues is good.

UO:

What are you doing now?

CR:

After the Habitats column, I’ve continued to report for the Real Estate section. Sometimes I write cover stories on issues and trends or some of the psychological or sociological issues involving real estate. And sometimes I write about people. The focus of the section is, of course, on real estate transactions, but an important part of understanding real estate in New York is understanding people’s stories. For example, I wrote something recently about couples who live under separate roofs, an interesting trend that helps explain what kind of lives people want in a city like New York. I did a piece on the gradual evolution of the New York brownstone, from its original form as a single-family residence, through many decades as multi-family apartments, and now its increasingly frequent return to single-family. I looked at what that means in terms of economics, in terms of the streetscape, in terms of who lives in brownstone neighborhoods. What I look for are ideas that let me tell stories about New Yorkers vis-a-vis where they live, how they move around, how they live within their spaces. I hope that I’m getting into people’s minds and psyches. I hope I’m able to talk about not only how they can afford the roof over their head, but also what they do with it and how they feel about it.

At home with Joel Hinman, his wife Kari, and their one year old son Cyrus in their loft in NoHo. (Nicole Bengiveno for The New York Times)

Constance Rosenblum writes for the Real Estate section of The New York Times. She was previously the editor of the City Section and the paper’s Arts & Leisure section. Her books include Gold Digger: The Outrageous Life and Times of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, which was named an editor’s choice by The New Yorker, and Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.

Comments

David Halle May 26, 2015

Terrific topic–really fascinating and insightful