We screwed up and here’s what we learned


Earlier this week we ran a personal essay titled How to retrieve a stolen package, which outlined Kenneth Rosen’s experience living in an apartment building in Bushwick. His next door neighbors struggled with issues of addiction, and the entire building vibrated with their loud fights and hallway drug deals. Things like umbrellas and packages were stolen from the hallways. Rosen eventually moved.

Many readers have written to let us know that this essay felt exploitative to them. One major issue was the subject line under which we sent it out in email form, which read: When you live in crackhead central.

Rosen did not write this subject line–I did. It was careless and glib, and failed to take into account the complexities of poverty, addiction and gentrification. As an editor I make mistakes and this was a big one. The overdose rate in New York City, and around the country, skyrocketed last year and drug addiction is not a punchline. Language matters and using terms like crackhead, junkie and meth head all further the stigma associated with addiction, and make it harder for people to get treatment. Crackhead in particular has race and class implications that I failed to fully grasp.

I’m always grateful to our readers for holding us accountable and we’ve added specific elements to our editorial policy to make sure that we’re sensitive to issues of addiction going forward, and will only use certain terms when they’re contained in quotes that we deem necessary to move the story forward.

I screwed up and I’m sure to do it again, but not in this particular way.

Nicole Davis, BB publisher, and I had a long conversation about the subject line and the essay this morning, and she wrote the following in an email:

As the second reader on this, I’m also to blame. The subject line didn’t set off alarms for me. But as soon as our readers pointed out how tone-deaf and clickbaity this appeared, it became clear. It narrows your understanding of the essay down to an offensive set of parameters before you really dive into it.

I didn’t realize there is a movement afoot to replace words like crackhead —as well as addict — with ones that don’t color our perception of people who need help with addiction. And I feel like we missed an opportunity to portray Ken’s experience in a way that was more thoughtful. I essentially failed us as safety net, but I know we’ll be more sensitive in editing personal essays going forward.

I also chatted with Rosen, who was understandably upset with me about the subject line. One other thing that I’ve learned from this is that editing personal essays written by people you know is problematic. In my conversations with Ken, and in editing his writing, I know him to be a native New Yorker who is deeply interested in finding corners of the city that are real, weird and sometimes uncomfortable. When he writes that he abandoned his apartment in Rockaway for “grit” I heard a person whom I know to be uneasy with too much comfort. I didn’t stop to think that understanding that requires context.

I read this essay and thought of friends who moved from their amazing place in Jackson Heights after trying every conceivable solution to address the domestic violence they heard overhead, including many face-to-face interactions. I thought of being stopped by cops in front of my building, asking me if I knew the rape statistics for the neighborhood. I thought of roommates I had in my 20s who I didn’t like or trust, and of how destabilizing it is to not feel at home in your home. I should have been a more sensitive editor in thinking about a general audience and thinking about the other side of this experience, the side of his neighbors.

I pressed Rosen about his responsibility as a gentrifier and he wrote:

The story is about exploring a part of the city that one could brush up against everywhere, anytime, and has nearly disappeared, save at the very least for this particular residence. It may not be the gentrification we talk about frequently, the Chase banks and Starbucks franchises on every corner in Manhattan, but we’ve lost grit and acceptance on levels that once made this city a haven for just about anyone.

I asked him if he had cast himself as an anti-hero, as the personification of our collective lack of tolerance for the downsides of urban life, of living close to other people who are often noisy when we would prefer quiet, feeling terrible about yourself and humanity when you don’t give someone a dollar, simultaneously feeling like you don’t have enough and that you have more than you should. He wrote back:

“Anti-hero” makes it seem like I consciously went into this essay thinking that I was a provocateur, when really I portrayed myself as I was, sitting in the dark of my apartment into all hours of the night wondering whether or not that moment was the right time to call the police or just let them keep breaking furniture and hitting each other. Really, I was just scared and conflicted because it wasn’t really my place to intervene. Which says more about my upbringing as a New Yorker than anything else in the essay.

I lived in Rockaway for just shy of a year, after a two-year stint in Sunnyside, before which I was bopping around Staten Island and Bed-Stuy. And every morning and every evening, on my way to and form the subway, respectively, a lady in a wheelchair would ask me for money. I felt bad that I couldn’t toss her a dollar. But my rent was exorbitant and I lived on peanut butter and banana sandwiches and cut back on the mountains of food I gave my cat.

Maybe that sounds too boo-hoo, woe is me I have to eat sammiches in a nice apartment rather than, what, filet mignon? The point is that we scorn gentrifiers, but they are not one type of person and not all of those people are the products of wealthy families or Ivy League educations who came to New York willing to pay $1,500 for a one-bedroom overlooking an airshaft to be an “artist” for a year. Many of those people were New Yorkers, born and raised here like I was, who are being shifted with the tide, from one place to another, no longer finding steady footing in a city that for so many years remained recognizable.

Clearly this is the conversation we should have had prior to publishing, not post.

Rosen also pointed me to Jeremiah Moss’ new book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul” and an excerpt from it on Longreads which I think further gets at what we talk about when we grapple with our changing city. We’ll continue doing that, now with more sensitivity and wisdom thanks to you, our readers.

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