By Mark Reiter, edited by Jim Luce
New York, N.Y. I’m a native New Yorker who’s been around long enough to remember what this city was like in the 1970’s – like, how you would see graffiti on the side of a building or a subway car, not hanging on the wall of an art gallery. Or, how the sidewalks of the Meatpacking District were packed with animal carcasses, not trendy fashion victims. Do I sound nostalgic for a rawer New York? Yes, certainly for some aspects of that era. But, I also remember the day, October 6, 1977, when the front page of The New York Times reported on President Carter’s visit to Charlotte Street in the South Bronx - the epicenter of urban blight and despair.
What was once a solid, working-class, Jewish neighborhood was now, as far as the eye could see, rubble strewn lots and burnt-out buildings. A now famous picture of Carter touring the ruins became a national symbol for what was wrong with America’s cities. And then, just a few days later, on October 12, sportscaster Howard Cosell was reporting on the World Series from Yankee Stadium. Between innings, an ABC News helicopter camera panned a few blocks from the stadium, capturing an image of what was then a nightly occurrence - a building in flames. Cosell, broadcasting to the world, remarked, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning” (or something close to that).
That did it. From that defining moment, the South Bronx and New York City would be thought of as an urban hell. The fires displaced over 600,000 residents. How could this happen? Where were these people going to live? News at 11… It took many years, but through a combination of money from the Ford Foundation, nonprofit groups, and the City of New York, the area was successfully rebuilt with almost 100 suburban-style, detached, single-family homes. The transformation is amazing.
It was not the best of times; it was, perhaps, the worst of times for New York. It was also around the same time, that I, Mark Reiter – for reasons not totally dissimilar from the editor of this article, who wondered out loud if a vow of poverty would heal the void in his soul – would move into an over 100 year old, crumbling, walk-up, tenement building. It didn’t get better.
I endured extended periods of no heat and hot water, mice and cockroach infestations, cascading leaks and raw sewage backups. Living in 2 1/2 rooms with a grand total of two windows, no cross ventilation, and no air conditioning, during the hot summer months I would take to the streets for relief. That bonded me with the physical city, transforming the streetscape, or street-wall, into, in a very real way, my living room wall. I know what street life is. It was all good. It made me strong! I came to understand the true meaning of habitat for humanity.
Having endured for far too long I was determined to do better for my fellow tenants – a mini-melting pot of New Yorkers - as well as myself. I organized a rent strike, hired a lawyer, navigated through several lawsuits, and along the way I earned a license from the City of New York as a Residential Property Manager. After scores of Housing Court appearances, I was awarded the legal right to manage the property, including, collecting the rent. (Yes, in response to the wholesale abandonment and burning of affordable housing in N.Y.C., the State of New York passed a group of laws that enabled the courts to strip a negligent landlord of the right to manage their own property, and appoint an independent managing agent. Me!) I spent two years improving the property, essentially, healing that void in my soul, and freeing myself to move on, and, literally, out.
My personal housing experiences, without a doubt, altered my consciousness, making me hyper-aware of where and how people live in urban areas. The diversity of living spaces, combined with the high level of density, engenders stories that could not be possible in a cookie-cutter house on a suburban lot.
There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and from where I sit very few of them have been told. Where there once was a void, there is now a very deeply felt passion to give voice to these stories. As a city whisperer, of sorts, I feel compelled to document and share these urban tales. Rather than write a book, I chose a form of communication that reaches the greatest numbers of people, is highly visual, and is ripe for story-telling. (Sorry internet.) TV, in particular, reality TV, or perhaps a better term to describe the sub-genre I have in mind would be documentertainment – educational, as well as very entertaining programming. Whether it’s a modern, all-glass high rise; a 6th floor walk-up tenement apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen; a classic Brooklyn brownstone; an original Soho loft; or, a cosmopolitan, twin-towered, Depression-era, Art Deco masterpiece on Central Park West - in other words, the very real places, where real people live, not some TV fantasy - they all need to be explored.
The programming I’ve conceptualized, working title, Naked City, can be described as a reality-variety show. Start with a little history, add some architecture, lots of residential interiors, some arts and cultural references, interesting residents – and their real-life stories, a guest expert or two, perhaps a public figure; stir and enjoy! Naked City breaks away from the prototypical reality genre. There are no bickering housewives, no hoarders, no addictive personalities, and no medical disasters; nor are there any humiliating competitions. Not that there’s anything wrong with that type of programming; it’s a guilty pleasure millions enjoy. It’s more that Naked City strives to be original and to entertain by enlightening, uplifting, hopefully, even inspiring viewers.
Nor is Naked City another million dollar property gawk-fest. But I’m not prejudiced; high-end properties are not automatically eliminated. Any type of living space can have an interesting slice of life story to tell, a point of interest beyond just its particular features that gives it intrinsic value, separate from its market value. The core element is the relationship between humans and their habitats, and how they can inspire, define, and transform each other. Viewers will have a ringside seat, taking them on a tour of interesting places and spaces, and, meet some interesting people along the way. They’ll experience the thrill of discovery, the joy of adventure, the allure of the unknown. Remember – documentertainment - entertaining as well as educational programming is the goal.
The burning of the South Bronx is clearly an important Naked City story, especially when told through the eyes of someone who lived it. But not every story has to carry the weight of such heavy historical and social significance. I can lighten up. Here are some other examples:
New Yorkers live in some very strange and interesting places. Naked City pays them a visit.
Tower rooms topped with domes and cupolas.For many years now I’ve had a recurring dream (literally). In the dream, I’m either searching for or have found a fully detached single-family home in Manhattan. If you’ve ever lived here you would know how much of a dream that really is. We are surrounded by and sandwiched and shoe-horned in amongst so many others. There are people on top of you, below you, to the side of you, across from you, all around you. It’s hard to imagine, with buildings sitting cheek to jowl, creating an endless, solid, canyon-like street-wall, that there are any fully detached single-family homes here. But there are, and they have fascinating stories associated with them.
Directly over the exhaust spewing, traffic clogged entrance ramp to the Queens Midtown Tunnel.
Ground floor apartments where someone’s bed is only inches away from passing pedestrians.
A Beaux-Arts police station.
A Bell Telephone research facility.
An apartment that recreates the lavish interiors of the grand French ocean liner, the SS Normandie, displaying dozens of objects from the ship, including a baby grand piano.
Whether the medium is literature, theater, music, film, fine arts or photography - it’s interesting to see how an artist’s work is influenced by his or her surroundings. Edward Hopper, the quintessential realist painter of 20th-century America, painted scores of Manhattan streetscapes, including, Sunlight on Brownstones. Inspired by the rows of brownstones on the Upper West Side, as the sun sets over the Hudson River and the cliffs of New Jersey, Hopper captured the unmistakable quality of the light. Casting deep shadows and warming the brownstone to a soft orange, Hopper paid homage to the magic of the streets.
With film, the physical city is often woven into the drama or story line. A century old act of humanitarianism left New York with a historic and architectural landmark that has been used as a modern day film setting. The former Shively Sanitary Tenements on East 77th St., sponsored by Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt in 1911, was built as low cost housing for recovering tuberculosis patients. Every room has floor to ceiling, triple sash windows, leading out to distinctive wrought iron balconies.
Flooded with light and fresh air, which at the time was the only treatment for TB, these apartments couldn’t have been more different from the typical, dark, dank, overcrowded, and airless tenements of that era. The street level entrances are open-air arcades covered by vaulted arches of intricately patterned Guastavino terra-cotta tiles (think the Oyster Bar in Grand Central). All the apartments are reached by spiral staircases from an open courtyard, with a built-in seat on each landing, so that the afflicted could rest on the way up!
This incredibly ornate Beaux-Arts landmark was used as a location for the 2005 Ewan McGregor film, titled STAY, in which he plays a psychiatrist. The architecture of the building is beautifully incorporated into a key scene in which Mr. McGregor’s character descends the dizzying spiral staircase, experiencing a different hallucination on each landing. A stunning metaphor for his own descent into mental illness.
First Apartments. When New Yorkers are asked to describe their first apartment in Gotham City, many of them tell stories that are shocking. First Apartments visits New Yorkers of some distinction in their current home and backtracks to their first. The evolution is fascinating.
Other cities will be “stripped” Naked, as well. San Francisco. Macondray Lane. One of San Francisco’s hidden jewels. On Russian Hill there’s a tiny fairy-tale lane paved with cobblestones. Sitting high above the city, with an expansive view of San Francisco Bay, almost hidden under lush plantings, this little pedestrian walkway is more of a perch than a city street. It begins with a trellis and ends with a wooden staircase. Lined with Edwardian and Victorian cottages, living on Macondray Lane is magical. We’ve been invited to tea at one of these storybook homes.
And that’s just the beginning of the multitude of concepts that I’ve developed. My goal is to develop programming that is intelligent- but not esoteric, entertaining - but not exploitative, inclusive - not exclusive. I want viewers to be educated - without them even being aware of it.
So, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it! My journey has not been in a straight-line progression. The “dots” have been all over the place. I’ve always tried to follow my heart and my mind, wherever they may lead me. My forte seems to be the ability to synthesize diverse elements from my environment, to pull from here and there, to create a new whole. I believe I have a point of view, a story, and more than one, to tell.
Mark Reiter likes to jokingly refer to himself as the quintessential New York, Jewish, gay man. Kind of like a gay Woody Allen. Having grown up as a gay boy, who was bullied every day for 10 years, he prides himself on no longer being a victim, but rather, a champion of his own self. He is most proud of his deeply-rooted sense of compassion and empathy for others. He considers those qualities to be his credentials in life. Plus, he’s smart as a whip. Well… above average anyway.
Mark has a day job working in merchandizing and management for a luxury fashion retailer, but he doesn’t define himself by his job. His goal is to transform his reality show concept(s) into a true reality. He’s accepting invitations to pitch it. Mark is ready to move to the next “dot” in his life.
If you see Mark cruising around town on his bicycle, with a camera strapped to his helmet, out there documenting his hometown, please wave and say hello. Or just e-mail him.
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