Who are you and what is your profession? I am a historian and award-winning filmmaker. I have a Ph.D. in American History from New York University. Currently, I am the Director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. (www.gothamcenter.org) I have made three documentary films and am working on a fourth. My award-winning film, Thunder in Guyana (2003), is about my cousin, Janet Jagan, who became President of Guyana in South America in 1997. My second film, a short documentary, titled Brooklyn among the Ruins (2005) looks at a NYC subway buff who built a life-size subway car in his bedroom. My most recent work is a short film, Sweatshop Cinderella (2010), about the immigrant writer Anzia Yezierska. I am already at work on a fourth documentary about New York City butchers, tentatively titled Meat Hooked! My distributor is Women Make Movies. (www.wmm.com) My films have screened at many festivals and have been broadcast on PBS.
My academic field is New York City history, particularly the history of the Lower East Side and I have written about diverse topics such as the Great Depression, Jewish nostalgia, housing, restaurant culture, tourism, pushcart peddling, silent films, 19th century saloons and 21st century street fairs. I was an historical consultant on Ron Howard’s, Cinderella Man. I am the co-author of Life on the Lower East Side, 1937-1950: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006)
Can you tell us a little about your background and upbringing? I was born and raised in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago. President Obama was a neighbor of my mother’s until he bought his house nearby. I have three sisters. One of them is my twin sister. My father was a psychoanalyst and my mother was a home maker and artist. My mother still lives in Hyde Park. She has lived in the same neighborhood for 70 years.
I grew up in Chicago in the 60s and 70s and went to public school during a very volatile and interesting time. Our neighborhood was always very progressive so we attended plenty of rallies and peace marches. I went to the University of Madison and then came to NYC in the 1980s. I live in Stuyvesant Town which is the ground zero of the housing bust. The complex was sold in 2006 for $5.4 billion and is now in receivership!
What inspired you to be a filmmaker? Even though I am trained as a professional historian, I’ve always been interested in reaching the widest possible audience with my work as an historian. So I’ve done work as a curator, public speaker, public programmer and popular writer. Film making arose as a natural next step for me. In 1997 when I learned that my 77 year old cousin was going to run for President of Guyana in South America, I went to Guyana with a contract to write something for the NY Times Magazine. Instead, I made a film. After that, I was hooked.
Who are your heroes? A lot of my heroes are dead writers like Charles Dickens and Joseph Mitchell but I also admire living writers like Mike Wallace (the historian, not the journalist), Tony Horwitz and Susan Orleans.
What do you feel you want to shoot on 10.10.10? On 10.10.10 I’d like to shoot my neighborhood. Even though Stuyvesant Town is not really part of the Lower East side anymore, historically the Lower East Side extended up to 23rd Street on the East Side and included present-day Stuyvesant Town. I want to shoot the neighborhood I’ve lived and worked in and written about for the past 25 years. It has changed so much but some aspects of it remain the same. For example, I will shoot in the Essex Street Market which was built in 1940 by the LaGuardia administration with federal money from the New Deal to get peddlers off the streets. That was a huge change! But some of the businesses have been in the market now for over 70 decades – like Jeffrey’s Meats. Jeffrey Ruhalter is a 4th generation master butcher and he is one of the characters in the film I am currently working on.
Why is this important to you? This is important to me because historians look at change over time but they also look at continuity. People always feel nostalgic for the way things used to be and I am guilty of this more than anyone. Interestingly, I’ve written critically about nostalgia as an academic. But life is about change and I want to show on 10.10.10 something about change and continuity in my own neighborhood.