One of the first West Siders I met as a reporter for West Side Spirit was an artist named Burned Neighbor. This was in 1995, just as the Disneyfication of Times Square was taking hold. I had been assigned a story about a group of people fighting eviction from their loft spaces in an area slated for redevelopment.
“Cool,” I thought. “He’s re-named himself in protest, symbolizing the corporate whitewashing of the area.” Only later did I discover that the man’s name was actually Bernd Naber, and that he had not changed it in protest at all.
My fondest memories of working at the Spirit involved the people I met on the West Side, a cast so diverse and eclectic that no individual could be called the most unique.
There was Doris Klein, the 79-year-old “radio poet” who published her first book after reading her verse every Saturday on WABC. Within minutes of my arrival at her Upper West Side apartment, she offered me a glass of Johnnie Walker Red—my favorite Scotch!—but I demurred. So as I took notes, she sipped and spoke about her life. We kept in touch for a long time.
When I was editor, we wrote about Susan Miller, a woman who contacted us saying that she had a rare disease and was unable to navigate the health care system to get the care she needed. As we were going to press with the story, we decided to start a “Susan Miller Fund,” to try and raise money to help. West Siders responded generously, with letters and checks, but eventually Miller disappeared from view, no better off, it seemed, than when we had met her.
There were funny moments, like when Carol Feinman, a local Greenwich Village leader, called then-Deputy Mayor Fran Reiter a “pillar of Jello” at a community meeting. I tried not to giggle when I called Reiter to get her response. (It was not a physical insult, by the way, but came out of a dispute over a city permit for the Gay Pride march.)
In the three years I spent as a reporter and editor at West Side Spirit, I certainly witnessed quintessential West Side moments, such as the closing of Shakespeare & Co.’s Upper West Side store and the clearing out of homeless people for the first phase of construction at Donald Trump’s Riverside South.
But the people were the most memorable. People like Craig Jaffe, a 16-year-old who found his own community after his family rejected him because he was gay. And Doris Rosenblum, an activist in the West Side tradition whose husband told me, after she died, that it had taken him two weeks to get a date with her when they met because she attended so many meetings.
I had to respect the efforts of Gary Lutzker, the West 53rd Street resident who fought for 12 years to get his rent reduced because the laundry room and playground at his building were closed at night. The ordeal began in 1984, and by 1996, he was deciding whether to appeal a court decision in favor of his landlord.
All in all, I learned West Siders are a plucky bunch. Once, I trudged through a dilapidated tenement near the Lincoln Tunnel where Margaret Esposito had lived for 20 years. She paid $150 for a large two-bedroom, and the super kept asking if she planned to leave.
“You can go to hell,” the 85-year-old woman told him. “I’m not moving for you or anybody else.”
Michael Rothfeld, who now works for the Los Angeles Times, was a reporter and editor of West Side Spirit from 1995 to 1997.