04/10/15 9:14am
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Lola RocknRolla and her band Megababe at Meow Mix bar, late nineties. Photo: Santos J. Arce

Jerre Kalbas is a lifelong New Yorker and a 97-year-old lesbian. When I tell her that there are only four remaining lesbian bars in New York, she literally drops her rice cake. “Four?” she asks. “That’s terrible. When I was growing up, there were so many.” I feel bad telling Jerre this news. I worry that my generation disappoints her. I want her to finish her rice cake.

Jerre was born in 1918, and was active during the 1940s, a time when “drinks were 10 cents” and police conducted raids on New York’s LGBT bars. I was born in 1983, and am active at a time when “Jell-o shots are $10,” and more women identify as queer than ever before. Despite this fact, there are currently only four active lesbian bars left in New York —Henrietta Hudson, The Cubbyhole, Ginger’s Bar, and Bum-Bum Bar. That leaves just two jukeboxes and eight public bathrooms for all of New York’s barhopping lesbians. Philadelphia’s last lesbian bar just died, as did DC’s, and San Francisco’s is on its way out. At just four bars, New York now has the most lesbian bars of anywhere in the country.

While New York is home to many more men’s bars than women’s, the decline has been felt by gay men as well. I estimate there are around 53 remaining queer bars total, in a city that just 30 years ago supported close to 86.  (This number comes from the Gayellow pages, which only includes published listings. The actual amount was very likely higher). That’s a 38% decline, despite a 16% city population increase. It’s even harder to pinpoint the number of women’s bars that used to exist, because some bars were run in basements, and no official statistics were kept. But anecdotal evidence is abundant, and the nationwide pattern is striking.

None of this is new news, and it’s nothing to celebrate. Imagine being the last four polar bears at the bottom of an endangered species list–it’s lonely. (more…)

04/03/15 3:31pm
"Brooklyn has 99 problems. I need to have 99 solutions," says Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Photo: Office of the Brooklyn Borough President

“Brooklyn has 99 problems. I need to have 99 solutions,” says Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Photo: Office of the Brooklyn Borough President

Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s first black borough president, has been in office for over a year now. Based upon the subjects of his press releases so far, he’s taken the largely ceremonial role of borough president much more seriously than his predecessor. When the bombastic Marty Markowitz was in office, his staff often sent memos noting that he was co-hosting events like the “Candidate Stickball Challenge” or performing various ribbon-cuttings. The statements coming out of BP Adams’ office, by comparison, are far less geared toward photo ops. Some of his ambitious proposals to date include the recent Access-Friendly NYC initiative that he unveiled to make NYC public buildings even more accessible than what the Americans with Disabilities Act requires; a series of town hall discussions he initiated to advance police-community relations in the aftermath of the Eric Garner decision and the assassination of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu; and the advancement of gun safety in New York through the adoption of pilot programs in the NYPD such as one using fingerprint recognition technology to fire guns.

While some are critical of the fact that he has taken up too many causes, Adams says he does not want to be known for just one issue. He is also working to connect Brooklynites in any way he can, from opening up Borough Hall to a wide range of groups from all over Brooklyn for events and meetings to broadening Wi-Fi coverage throughout the borough.

I sat down with the warm and welcoming Adams in a stately Borough Hall conference room in March to learn more about his plans for Brooklyn and beyond, including his interest in a future run for mayor. Below is the condensed version of our conversation–but you can listen to the entire 43-minute interview here. (more…)

08/05/14 10:00am

GraeberTHEGOODNURSE(TP)Back in the early 80s, when the 12-year-old Charles Graeber signed on to sell Tootsie Rolls door to door for the American Kidney Fund, he never could have envisioned that it would one day help him win the trust of a serial killer. But it may very well have been hearing about this simple act of altruism that led Charles Cullen, a so-called “angel of death,” to grant Graeber access after denying it to every other reporter who’d come before him. 

In 2005, Graeber, an award-winning freelance journalist who lives in Williamsburg, stumbled on a newspaper article detailing Cullen’s thwarted attempts to donate a kidney. This was the writer’s first introduction to the case of the New Jersey nurse now believed to be one of the deadliest serial killers in American history, and the man’s crimes were indeed shocking. Using IVs spiked with lethal amounts of insulin, among other drugs, Cullen preyed on what is now estimated to be as many as 400 patients. Still it wasn’t so much Cullen’s horrific past that grabbed Graeber as it was the ethical dilemma at the heart of the article. Was it morally defensible to deny a killer the power to commit a potentially life saving act, even one as monstrous as Cullen?

Graeber was troubled enough by the question to reach out to Cullen in jail. In the letter he wrote he mentioned both his stint as a volunteer for the AKF and the time he’d logged as a medical student and researcher. He assured Cullen that his primary interest was in seeing the greater good prevail, not in holding him accountable for his past. Cullen seemed to believe him. The two men struck up a conversation that lasted for years, years in which Graeber’s interest in the man became more pointed and personal, ultimately resulting in a book, The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder.

In The Good Nurse, Graeber tells the story of Charlie Cullen’s transformation from deeply troubled young man to unbridled predator in vivid, unflinching prose reminiscent of true crime classics like In Cold Blood. But the book isn’t just a portrait of a man turned monster, but also of the repeated failure of the hospitals that employed him to stop him even as evidence of his misdeeds mounted.

Last year The Good Nurse garnered critical acclaim and made a number of best-of lists, including the BBC’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and Stephen King’s “Best Books I Read This Year.” I interviewed Graeber prior to The Good Nurse’s paperback release last week. We talked about the genesis of the book, his privileged relationship with Cullen, and the particular challenges of reporting credible and compelling narrative nonfiction. (more…)

05/29/14 10:00am
Julia Fierro's debut novel, Cutting Teeth, is a vivid, wryly observed study of the hothouse of 21st century parenting.

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, is a vivid, wryly observed study of the hothouse of 21st century parenting.

You hear the phrase “long-awaited debut novel” thrown around a lot these days, which is ironic given that it’s become something of an oxymoron. More and more reliant on bankable household names to meet its meager bottom line, today’s book industry tends to be wary of the humble debut novelist. And the writers who do elicit genuine excitement are far more likely to be the precocious than the long germinating type. All of which makes Julia Fierro’s new book Cutting Teeth a rare literary beast—a first novel that’s been hotly anticipated by industry insiders for months, by an author who’s honed her craft for years. The heat surrounding Cutting Teeth can be chalked up in large part to Fierro’s subject: the trials and travails of modern parenting, an issue so relentlessly fascinating, so deliciously divisive that the book seems destined to land on sandy blankets across America this summer. But it’s safe to say that at least part of the interest surrounding the novel is due to the author herself. This may be Fierro’s first published novel, but she is no stranger to the publishing world.

If most of us struggling literary types fall squarely into either the MFA or the NYC camp these days, Fierro happily straddles both worlds. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the founder of Brooklyn’s own Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, Fierro has emerged in recent years as a doyenne of the literary scene. Her social media conversations read like a Who’s Who of Literary America and her writing school (which, full disclosure, I’ve attended) has increasingly come to function as a sort of high-end clearing house for up-and-coming writers. Some of her recent instructors include Emma Straub of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures fame, critical darling Adam Wilson, and Ayana Mathis, whose novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was an Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick.

Given Fierro’s literary stature, some may find it surprising that this is her first novel. But it becomes easier to understand when you see how much energy she devotes to nurturing the talents of those around her. At a recent reading, Fierro was introduced as “the mother of literary dragons,” but it might be more accurate to call her Brooklyn’s literary fairy godmother. To those who know her she is a nurturing force: the first person to praise the work of promising newcomers, to dole out a much needed hug or to provide a key reference to an agent or MFA program.

Fierro’s ability to draw normally reclusive (or at the very least awkward) writers out of their shells and into conversation with one another begs comparison to another literary mother hen from a different era, Gertrude Stein. But unlike Stein, Fierro seems less concerned with reinventing the form than with stretching our sympathetic imaginations. This fierce urge to connect, which animates her life and teaching, comes through on every page of Cutting Teeth.

Set in Long Island, Cutting Teeth charts the mounting tensions between six Brooklyn parents (and one long-suffering nanny) marooned together in a ramshackle beach house for the weekend with their children. Over the course of the book, Fierro seamlessly shifts between one perspective and the next until her readers are close enough to recognize themselves in each. A literary dramedy about love and family and all of the fantastically messy stuff in between, Cutting Teeth has been dubbed “a Mommy book” by some, but it is better understood as a vivid, wryly observed study of the hothouse of 21st century parenting.

I spoke to Julia Fierro in early May about the genesis of her book, the taboo against overt emotion in literary fiction and the trouble with genres.

More summer reading recs>> (more…)

03/21/14 10:00am

The author, in front of the Mitchell-Lama building she grew up in.

The author, in front of Lindsay Park, the Mitchell-Lama building where she was raised and where she lives today.

I was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1987. The day my mom took me home from the hospital, “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes was the #1 song on the Billboard charts and the Cosbys, who lived in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone, were America’s favorite family. My mom and I were headed back to her one-bedroom apartment in Lindsay Park, a Mitchell-Lama development in Williamsburg where I still live today.

Thanks to New York City’s Mitchell-Lama program, which protects moderate- and-middle income families, my mom’s housing costs have gone up minimally over the past two decades. I moved back home with her a little over a year ago, to a two-bedroom apartment in the same complex (she upgraded when my younger sister was born).

I am also on several waiting lists for my own Mitchell-Lama studio or one-bedroom, which I hope to move into before I’m 30. I personally don’t see another way to stay living in my borough as rents rise and gentrification changes local dynamics. I work as hard as the next person, but my industry, book publishing, isn’t so lucrative for the average employee. I’m a Brooklynite, just trying to live on my own in the neighborhood where I went to elementary and junior high school, rode my first bike, had my first kiss and threw my first snowball.
(more…)

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12/06/13 9:06am

The holiday party season is coming on hot and heavy now–need some conversation starters to go with that spiked eggnog? Read these 10 recent stories and you’ll be up-to-date on the latest developments in the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy, know which Brooklyn bar is taking a stand against of-age drinking (yes, you read that correctly), and what actual lesbians are saying about that one sex scene in Blue is the Warmest Color.

1. The Rat Hunters of New York

Tanner holds up a freshly-caught rat. (Photo courtesy Narratively / Jessica Bal)

Tanner holds up a freshly-caught rat. Photo: Narratively / Jessica Bal

Richard Reynolds and his rodent-sniffing band of terriers are on a mission to rid Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan of rats, one chase at a time. It’s like a British fox hunt, without the tweed and class tension.

2. Publishing and Prejudice

The authors interviewed (clockwise from left): Lydia Millet, Roxane Gay, Ayelet Waldman, Julia Fierro, Adelle Waldman

The authors interviewed (clockwise from left): Lydia Millet, Roxane Gay, Ayelet Waldman, Julia Fierro, Adelle Waldman

Is it true that the book world is no place for a woman? Brooklyn Based talked to five female writers to get their take on sexism in the publishing world.

3. The Surviving Yellow Dogs Speak

The remaining members of the Brooklyn Band Yellow Dogs talked to Gothamist about the loss of two of their members in a triple murder suicide, and their vow to continue making music.

4. Chatting with Icy and Sot

(Photo courtesy Narratively /  Adam McCauley

Photo: Narratively / Adam McCauley

Earlier this year, Narratively profiled Icy & Sot, two Iranian street artists who were roommates and tourmates of the Yellow Dogs. The younger brother, Sot, was also shot and survived the attack in Bushwick.
(more…)

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11/15/13 12:03pm
The authors interviewed (clockwise from left): Lydia Millet, Roxane Gay, Ayelet Waldman, Julia Fierro, Adelle Waldman

The authors interviewed (clockwise from left): Lydia Millet, Roxane Gay, Ayelet Waldman, Julia Fierro, Adelle Waldman

It all started with Jonathan Franzen. Specifically, the publication of Franzen’s novel Freedom, a book that so hijacked the attention of critics throughout the 2010/2011 book season that Franzen’s face was everywhere—even under a Los Angeles Times headline announcing that author Jennifer Egan had beaten him out for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Sick of watching “white male literary darlings,” like Franzen, get all the good press, authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult took to Twitter to announce that they were suffering from an acute case of “#Franzenfreud.” The term tapped into a deep well of resentment, and female writers of all persuasions soon joined them online, venting their frustration with the ongoing marginalization of women in the industry and demanding answers. In the intervening years, thanks to the power of social media, what started as an upswell of anger has begun looking more and more like a movement.

This is, of course, not the first time the literary establishment had been charged with sexism. Women have been trying, with little success, to draw attention to these issues since Virginia Woolf’s era and before. The most famous recent example is probably writer and critic Francine Prose’s seminal 1998 Harper’s essay “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” one of the most lucid and compelling case studies of literary gender bias ever written. Given that Prose was writing at the turn of the twentieth century, you might expect that her efforts met with more success than Woolf’s, but you’d be wrong. Despite the elegant logic of her arguments, Prose’ piece generated little more than ire from the editors of the day. In fact, Harper’s was so concerned about her reputation after the article’s publication that the magazine hosted a special dinner to help her placate offended editors and “salvage what remained of [her] career.”

Today, there are still plenty of people in publishing who rankle at the first mention of sexism—people who dismiss concerns like Weiner and Picoult’s as paranoia and “belly-aching.” But in the social media age, these people are no longer able to drown out the chorus of discontent. And now, unlike in earlier eras, those advocating for change have a growing storehouse of data to back up their claims. Stats charting the disparity between the contributions of men and women in major periodicals are being compiled by a variety of organizations, most famously by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, the group behind the widely lauded VIDA Count. There is reason to believe these numbers are making a real difference, with organizations, like Tin House and The Boston Review, now making verifiable efforts to level the playing field for women in response to VIDA’s findings. That said, we still have a long way to go. According to the 2012 Count, many publications are still falling woefully behind when it comes to reviewing and publishing women, including, sadly, Harper’s itself. (In 2012, the magazine had just three female book reviewers compared to 28 men, and it ran reviews of only 11 works by women as opposed to a whopping 54 by men.) Still we are on our way.

It’s worth noting that not all female authors are eager to join the online fray. After The Rumpus recently ran a diatribe by writer Suzanne Rivecca on male reviewers’ squeamish view of Mary Gaitskill’s unvarnished sexuality, Gaitskill was quick to run to the defense of male critics. “I don’t know why the three guys quoted by Rivecca got so bitched up about my writing, except that they’re critics and that means that sometimes they gotta bitch. But that’s got nothing to do with their being men,” Gaitskill wrote in her response, thereby fortifying herself against potential charges of “belly-aching.” Having reached a stable plateau in her career, her reputation cemented, Gaitskill has no horse in this race. Or perhaps Gaitskill honestly believes that gender doesn’t enter into the equation when it comes to the interpretation of literature (though this is hard to countenance). Either way, these issues are complicated. What looks to one person like discrimination can appear to another to be the natural byproduct of a fully functioning meritocracy. But the data suggests otherwise and, these days, more and more women are freely discussing what they view as the sexist tilt of the industry. Man Booker Prize Winner Eleanor Catton, for instance, went on record during her recent press junket as saying that she thinks her ideas are given short shrift by interviewers because she is a woman. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees with her.

The ecosystem of women writers is a diverse and multi-layered, home to an array of species with conflicting beliefs and needs. While many of us want to improve access and opportunities for female writers, our priorities and passion projects can vary wildly. To help dig deeper into some of these complexities, Brooklyn Based invited five female writers—novelists, essayists, and teachers, some of whom have earned major awards, others who are relatively new to the game—to give their take on sexism in publishing.

The Participants: Julia Fierro, Roxane Gay, Adelle Waldman, Lydia MilletAyelet Waldman (more…)

11/01/13 7:00am

As the temperatures plummet, it must be time to snuggle up with some #longreads. Here are 10 of our favorite in-depth stories from the past month, covering Brooklyn and beyond.

1. Shooting Spree

(Photo courtesy John Taggart / Narratively)

Photo: John Taggart/Narratively

Ever wonder what it’s like to chase an ambulance? Or a helicopter, cop car, or sunken sedan? This photo essay from NYC newspaper photographer John Taggart shows what it’s like to always be at the scene of the crime.

2. What Happened to the 3rd Ward?
Wondering why Bushwick’s creative mecca 3rd Ward shuttered so abruptly? Brooklyn the Borough takes us inside the demise of an indie empire.

3. Here’s Why This Guy Was Giving Free Haircuts on Bedford Avenue the Other Day
Another mystery solved by Bedford+Bowery. To promote their apprenticeship project, Hourships, Steven Chu and Parker McComb set up shop as Chu offered “free haircuts for art” on Bedford Avenue.

4. The Seedy Underbelly of Community Gardening

Photo: Jordan Galloway

Photo: Jordan Galloway

If you think community gardening is all about getting your koom-bah-ya-yas out, Jordan Galloway, arts and entertainment editor at Brooklyn Based, would like to differ.

5. Living with the Dead

(Photo courtesy Jessica Bal / Narratively)

Photo: Jessica Bal/Narratively

In a city where the race for real estate can often feel like a life-or-death quest, three New Yorkers reveal what it’s like to live in an apartment where the former resident met a grisly end.
(more…)

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10/04/13 9:11am

From the magical marionette artists of Park Slope to one Williamsburg writer who believes he can upend the world of women’s mags, escape from the Twitterverse for a moment and immerse yourself in one, or all 10,  of our favorite long-form reads from the past month.

1. Melissa Carroll’s Technicolor Dream

Brooklyn artist Melissa Carroll (Photo courtesy Tara Israel / Narratively)

Melissa Carroll has spent the last three years battling a rare form of cancer, which has served as artistic inspiration.  Photo: Tara Israel/Narratively

A life-changing diagnosis and three years of suffering yield an unexpected fountain of inspiration for one young Brooklyn artist. Narratively has the in-depth story on up-and-coming painter Melissa Carroll.

2. Blast from the Past

Brevoort Theater interior, 1918 (Photo: Cinema Treasures)

The Brevoort Theater interior, as it was in 1918. Photo: Cinema Treasures

Brownstoner takes a look at vintage photos of Bed-Stuy’s once-magnificent Brefoort Theater, and gives us its history.
3. Gentrification vs. Nostalgia

Over on Gothamist, Bushwick no longer feels like home for one native, and she was so moved by publisher Jake Dobkin’s take on gentrification that she wrote a stirring rebuttal.

4. Board Games are Back

Brooklyn Based took a look at the world of independently produced and developed board games, and their Kickstarter funding sweet spot. Get ready for Moby Dick, the card game.
5. Marionette Magic

Puppetworks' marionettes (Photo courtesy Emon Hassan Narratively)

These Puppetworks’ marionettes hang their strings in Park Slope.  Photo: Emon Hassan/Narratively

Narratively stepped into the world of puppetry at Park Slope’s marionette theater Puppetworks as they prepared for their revival of Aladdin.
(more…)

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09/13/13 7:58am

The artfully-designed dice and wooden whale tokens from Moby Dick. Photo: King Post.

The artfully-designed dice and wooden whale tokens are an important part of the allure of Moby Dick, the game. Photo: King Post.

When video game producer Tavit Geudelekian decided to make a card game based on his favorite novel, he started a Kickstarter campaign to finance development. He thought he could reach the project’s $25,000 funding goal, but he didn’t expect to exceed it.

‘Not only do the sort of concentric circles of nerdiness for like, super hard-core literature and card games and table-top board games seem to inhabit the same space, but there’s also been this really, really, really big resurgence in popularity for table-top games on Kickstarter.’

“All the Kickstarter notices come to my email inbox,” said the New York native as he ate an everything bagel with cream cheese at Irving Farm Coffee Roasters in lower Manhattan. “The first few hours it’s like, ‘Oh, my mom donated. Oh, my brother. These 30 friends from college. These 50 friends from high school.’ And then around the fifth hour, it was just a flood of people’s names I’ve never seen before. That’s when the unreality set in. Like, ‘This is really happening. How is this happening?’”

The game, titled Moby Dick after Herman Melville’s whaling classic, met its goal in just a few days on Kickstarter, Geudelekian said, and by its end date on May 30, the campaign had raised over $102,000. Geudelekian’s company, King Post, a venture he started with four fellow Moby Dick enthusiasts, turned to Kickstarter because it didn’t have the startup funds to go it alone, and Geudelekian knew he was connecting with a dedicated community.

“We noticed that there were thousands and thousands of people who would get on Kickstarter once a month to spend between $25 to $50 dollars on a game, and usually a table-top card game or board game,” he said. “There’s this very articulated and well-loved table-top card game and board game section.”

Moby Dick is one of the more than 250 table-top games that were successfully funded on Kickstarter over the past three months.

Lauren Bilanko, co-owner of game shop Twenty Sided Store in Williamsburg, said the outpouring of online support for new table-top games speaks to the size and commitment of the grown-up gaming community.

(more…)

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