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Reader’s Den

Reader's Den in August: Slaves of New York

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Slaves of New YorkSlaves of New YorkWe continue with a New York-themed Reader's Den this month—featuring Tama Janowitz's collection of intertwined stories set in Manhattan in the 1980sSlaves of New York. Artists, dealers, junkies, prostitutes, and writers are just some of the colorful characters envisioned in what could be considered a post-modernist comedy of manners. Stumbling towards equal parts fame and/or the gutter, the common threads of precarious real estate situations, often embroiled in difficult romantic relationships, keeps several of the characters 'enslaved' to their apartment situation.

Eleanor, a quirky young woman who makes equally quirky jewelry—is the insecure but endearing backbone of the book. She lives with an up-and-coming downtown artist named Stash (based loosely on the real-life graffiti artist Stash) in a state of semi-squalor. She preserves through haughty downtown loft parties, thankless jobs, and unwarranted derisive comments from Stash without negligible damage to her spirit. Other characters include Marley Montello, an artist who's great conceit is to build 'The Chapel of Jesus Christ as a Women" next to the Vatican in Rome, and his jaded dealer Ginger, who gave up her own dreams of becoming an artist to exploit the talents of others. 

Although the characters are rather egotistical and oft-deluded, this soapy, deadpan sketch of the NY Downtown art scene of the 1980s is nonetheless a colorful retelling of a time now possibly as quaint and long-departed as Edith Wharton's New York earlier in the same century. SoHo in the 1970s and 1980s fostered a strong community of artists in former warehouses-cum-lofts under the Artist-in-Residence zoning law, which REQUIRED that at least one artist (certified by the New York Department of Cultural Affairs) lived in a building in this particular neighborhood. 

Questions

  • Have you ever felt like a slave to your apartment situation?
  • New Yorkers love to slap labels on people based on the neighborhoods that live in  (Yuppies, Hipsters, etc.) Why do you think that is? Do you think it happens in other cities to the same extent? 
  • Do you think Williamsburg is the contemporary equivalent of SoHo in the 1980s? Why or why not? 

Comments

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"Slaves of New York," by Tama J

I have never read "Slaves of New York." ...only your comments about it. The subject matter is interesting, those who like the slaves in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" are for whatever reason under the thumbs of tyrannical landlords or slave drivers. I wonder also why the author would chose to include in the category of artists and writers, those who are vagabonds and never achieve anything except the deterioration of their minds and bodies (such as junkies and prostitutes). Writers and artist's endeavors may go down to posterity. However, the ramblings of junkies and prostitutes shall fade along with the cigarette smoke that those people pollute the air with! It is true that throughout the centuries many artists and writers were very poor...to name a few Rembrandt, VanGogh, Vermeer, Modigliani, and many more. Some never sold a paintings during their lives, yet centuries later their works have been immortalized. There may be writers and artists who are contemporary and extremely poor among those I believe are the slaves of New York. People who live in decrepit buildings with no amenities, whose landlords devote their lives to harassing them. Many are paying almost all of their wages to those corrupt landlords. Other slaves of New York are workers who are very much underpaid or those who frequently find themselves unemployed, because of lack of skills or worse, lack of credentials (such as illegal aliens). There are many families in New York City who are earning less than the minimum wage. There are 400,000 homeless people in New York, and that does not include the victims of hurricane Sandy and other such disasters. It is true that there are many people living in New York who are akin to slaves. Ms. Janowitz had a good idea in writing a book about them. However, it would behoove her to research who they are and how they became slaves. Also, categorizing serious artists and painters along with shiftless people who are talentless and totally lacking in ambition is not really fair. Have a wonderful summer! Geraldine Nathan

"Slaves of New York," by Tama J

I have never read "Slaves of New York." ...only your comments about it. The subject matter is interesting, those who like the slaves in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" are for whatever reason under the thumbs of tyrannical landlords or slave drivers. I wonder also why the author would chose to include in the category of artists and writers, those who are vagabonds and never achieve anything except the deterioration of their minds and bodies (such as junkies and prostitutes). Writers and artist's endeavors may go down to posterity. However, the ramblings of junkies and prostitutes shall fade along with the cigarette smoke that those people pollute the air with! It is true that throughout the centuries many artists and writers were very poor...to name a few Rembrandt, VanGogh, Vermeer, Modigliani, and many more. Some never sold a paintings during their lives, yet centuries later their works have been immortalized. There may be writers and artists who are contemporary and extremely poor among those I believe are the slaves of New York. People who live in decrepit buildings with no amenities, whose landlords devote their lives to harassing them. Many are paying almost all of their wages to those corrupt landlords. Other slaves of New York are workers who are very much underpaid or those who frequently find themselves unemployed, because of lack of skills or worse, lack of credentials (such as illegal aliens). There are many families in New York City who are earning less than the minimum wage. There are 400,000 homeless people in New York, and that does not include the victims of hurricane Sandy and other such disasters. It is true that there are many people living in New York who are akin to slaves. Ms. Janowitz had a good idea in writing a book about them. However, it would behoove her to research who they are and how they became slaves. Also, categorizing serious artists and painters along with shiftless people who are talentless and totally lacking in ambition is not really fair. Have a wonderful summer! Geraldine Nathan

Great Analysis

Geraldine - I think you make a poignant point in bringing to light those New Yorkers who are forced to live in poor conditions without respite from neglectful landlords. Thank you for your insights. More from the Reader's Den soon! --Sherri

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